A Visit to where Edison did not invent the light bulb.
I am a helpless technology junkie who has also developed an interest in history. Thomas Edison, with more than 1,000 patents—known best for his invention of the electric light bulb—was certainly on the cusp of 20th Century technology. So ignoring the weather reports for possible storms, I entered the West Orange address in my GPS, gathered my note pad and camera and left where I was staying in Cherry Hill.
An hour and a half later—despite the New Jersey traffic—I was parked across the street from what could have been any turn-of-the-century (1800 to 1900) three-story red brick factory.
The Entrance to the Thomas Edison NHP
Admission to the site is $7.00, unless you possess one of the National Park passes. I picked up the National Park Service brochure and the first thing I learned was that the electric light bulb had been invented in Menlo Park, New Jersey before he moved to this West Orange Facility.
The three-story main laboratory where Edison developed, among many other things, the phonograph
I opted for the audio tour device ($5.00) that works much like a telephone. At stations along the route, I entered a number posted at the station and listened to a description of the scene before me. For example, one of the first items as you enter the main laboratory building is the time clock where Edison and each of his employees “punched in” every day for work. The audio tour narrator explained that Edison’s personal time card often recorded more than 100 hours per week. Edison was a true workaholic.
Edison’s office in the main laboratory was designed to impress potential customers and business partners.
Next on the tour was Edison’s office and library. Furnished for entertaining and impressing guests, the area is decorated with statues, fine furniture, and ornately carved and decorated shelves and furnishings. The center of the office is open to the above floor from which the library book stacks and reading areas are visible. There is even a small bed tucked away in a corner, presumably where Edison slept when he did not go home at night—something that happened frequently.
Following the instructions on the audio tour, I next entered the first-floor machine shop where skilled craftsmen used a variety of machines to form larger parts to go into generators, motors, and large equipment (such as the electric trolley Edison developed). Each machine was driven by a pulley-and-belt system powered by large electric motors, also designed and built in Edison’s facilities. In some instances, Edison’s people had to design and build their own manufacturing equipment.
The first-floor machine shop includes all manner of machinery for fabricating everything Edison needed. All machines were driven by belts powered by a single electric motor.
Standing at one end of the machine shop that extends perhaps the length of two basketball courts, one could imagine the intermittent pounding of stamping machines, the whine of high-speed drills and cutting machines, and the voices of workers yelling over the constant din in the shop. Incidentally, there was no Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) in the late 1800s, nor were there any protective guards on heavy manufacturing machinery. Injuries were attributed to the carelessness of the worker with little sympathy.
At the far end of the first floor I took a flight of stairs to the second floor machine shop. Similar to the first floor in layout, these smaller machines were used to craft smaller parts typical of those needed for phonographs and film projectors.
Edison’s chemistry laboratory on the third floor of the main building.
This building also included phonograph and photographic laboratories. From a third floor window of the laboratory, I could see how the West Orange site had grown. Edison added buildings for metallurgy, chemistry, wood working and even a movie studio. It was here that Edison worked on methods to separate iron from iron ore, continued development of his phonograph, and eventually developed a motion picture camera he called the kinetoscope. Edison also had a small chemistry lab where he would retreat to in pursuit of another of his many interests.
The main laboratory building also included a room dedicated to music. It was here that Edison demonstrated his evolving phonographs. Eventually, Edison’s National Phonograph Co. would sell both phonographs and recorded music of performers under contract to Edison.
Edison created records that could only be played on his phonographs. The recording company eventually went out of business—not because of his unique phonographs but because his company had a reputation for choosing lower quality recording acts.
I find irony in the fact that from early childhood, Edison was deaf in one ear and hearing impaired in the other, yet he focused so much of his attention on sound recording.
One of the more interesting facilities built at this location is the “Black Maria” motion picture studio. The entire studio, which had an opening roof for natural lighting, turned on a central pivot point so that the building could be rotated to capture the best sunlight throughout the day.
Called “Black Maria,” Edison’s filming studio pivoted on tracks to capture the best light at any time of day.
Many of Edison’s ideas and inventions were not successful. For example, he established the Edison Portland Cement Company and proposed building homes totally from poured concrete. He worked on this for many years, but the process proved to be too costly. Several of Edison’s concrete buildings remain, including the two-story garage at Glenmont.
Glenmont Estate in Llewellyn Park
At the Park office I also signed up for a tour of Glenmont, Edison’s home for the last 44 years of his life. Located less than a mile from the laboratories, Glenmont estate is located in the gated upscale Llewellyn Park, which is still an active residential community. Parking is adjacent to Edison’s greenhouse that also includes a small souvenir shop and gardens.
Edison and his wife Mina lived a Glenmont, within walking distance of the laboratory, for nearly 45 years. There is a small, simple cemetery behind the house where Edison and Mina are buried.
In 1884, Edison’s first wife, Mary Stillwell, died. Months later, Edison, not quite 40, met 20 year-old, Mina Miller. During their courtship, Edison taught Mina Morse code (one of his first jobs had been as a telegraph operator), and it is reported that he used Morse code to propose marriage, and she said—in code—“Dah-di-dah-dah dit di-di-dit” or “y-e-s.”
Glenmont estate was built in 1880 by a New York office clerk who had embezzled funds from his employer to build the $300,000 mansion. After the clerk was caught and prosecuted for the embezzlement, Edison was able to purchase the 13.5 acre estate for just $125,000. Edison and Mina were married in 1886 and he presented the 29-room Glenmont estate to her as a wedding gift.
Our tour—there were nearly a dozen people on the first tour of the day—began at the grand front entrance to the mansion. Our guide explained that as Edison was building his laboratories in West Orange, Mina was busy running the Queen Anne style mansion. With a staff of 10 servants, Mina was essentially the executive of the house. She was also very active in the local society. She organized many dinners for presidents, governors, industrial magnates, actors and performers. Their guests included Orville Wright, Helen Keller, Henry Ford, and even the King of Siam. Guests were often treated to movies or the latest music; all played on his most recent inventions.
Our guide also related that of all the accolades that can be attributed to Edison, he was not a family man. Mina took her “home executive” role seriously and raised his three children from his first marriage—not an easy task—as well as their own three children. Not only was Edison not a family man, he actively avoided almost all involvement in his children’s lives. It is reported that he received a letter from the dean of the college regarding the excessive spending and poor academic performance of his son from his first marriage. Edison promptly responded that any correspondence and issues relating to his son should be directed to Mrs. Edison.
Edison died in 1931. Mina remarried and lived at Glenmont until her death in 1947. Originally interred at nearby Rosedale Cemetery, later, in 1963, the family had Thomas and Mina reburied in a simple plot behind the mansion where they had spent 44 years together.
Today, Glenmont estate is a museum, having undergone many renovations including the addition of central air conditioning and heat to help preserve the antiques displayed within the house.
Author’s Note: With more than 1,000 patents; two wives; six children; several homes and laboratories; many business ventures; several bankruptcies; and a circle of friends and associates that included the rich, famous and powerful, it is impossible to capture the full measure of Thomas Edison’s life in anything less than multiple volumes of text. Still, to get a truly first-hand insight into the genius and personality of this driven man, the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, N.J., is a good place to start.
For more information:
Edison National Historical Site: http://www.nps.gov/edis/index.htm