Edison’s Menlo Park Lab
This is one in a series of reports about interpretive sites related to Thomas Edison, the inventor and industrialist whose work established the basis for much of the industrialization of the world that followed, and continues today. While much about how he did things is debated, the manner in which the sites related to his life are preserved instructs us about how his legacy continues to influence the story of the creation of the modern world.
AT A HILLTOP IN NEW Jersey, within sight of New York City, is the site where the Great Inventor established his first major laboratory, the famous Menlo Park. He selected this site because it was far enough from New York to work undisturbed, but close enough that its capital and investors could come on the day train. Menlo Park was the name of an undeveloped housing development, part of the Raritan Township that would later have its name changed to Edison. In 1875, with financial help from his father, Edison bought the single model home (which was all of Menlo Park that had been constructed) and 34 acres of empty farmland around it, on which he built a few other structures, including the 100-foot long, 25-foot wide wooden lab building, where most of the work of his “invention factory” would take place over the next eight years.
While so much about Edison is hyped, due largely to his own mastery of showmanship and legend making, the significance of what transpired on this site is hard to overstate. In the few years that this place served as the main lab for Edison’s enterprises, from 1876-1884, he, along with just a couple dozen employees, developed new technologies related to electromagnetics and sound, including the dynamic microphone mouthpiece for telephones, new wire and voice transmission technologies, and the phonograph, the first instrument to capture and play back sound.
It was here too that he developed the first constant voltage generators, and what would become the standard systems for distributing electricity, such as underground wires, junction boxes, fuses, switches, and outlets (though it was, of course, all in DC current). And it was on this site in 1879, that he used an electrically charged carbonized cotton thread filament in a vacuum bulb to produce electric light for a sustained duration (it glowed for 40 hours), in a manner that would soon be perfected and mass-produced, spurring the electrification and illumination of the planet.
The phonograph was the most immediately famous and popular invention to come out of Menlo Park, and it led to Edison being referred to as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” People came on a special train from New York City to gaze at the lab, hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous inventor walking between buildings. It was here that J.P. Morgan and other financial backers and industrialists consulted with Edison about their partnerships to change the world. And it was here that the most famous actress of the day, Sarah Bernhardt, visited him, later referring to him as the ”Napoleon of Invention.” As one of the interpretive plaques on site asserts today, “he was perhaps the nation’s first superstar.”
In 1886, much of Menlo Park lab’s contents and function was moved to the new, larger facility in Orange, New Jersey, which became the main invention and production center for Edison until his death in 1931. The lab complex there churned out ideas and prototypes, and was surrounded by factory buildings that mass produced them into products, such as phonographs and movie cameras, employing ten thousand people by 1920. The lab is now a historic site preserved by the National Park Service, and is undergoing a two-year, $12 million rehabilitation.
As the Orange lab thrived and expanded, the old Menlo Park lab buildings fell into disuse, disrepair, and eventually disappearance. The main lab building was used as a dance hall, then a chicken farm, and mostly collapsed in 1913. The two story office and library structure Edison built burned down in 1919. The brick machine shop slowly was taken apart by scavengers for its bricks. Its physical dissolution however, marked its shift in importance, from a material production site, to a historic, cultural site.
In 1929, its significance was acknowledged by Henry Ford, a friend of Edison, who was moving historic structures from several places in the United States, to his American history park at Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan. With the buildings at Menlo Park already gone, burned down, or looted to nonexistence, just a few bricks and planks were all that could be taken to Dearborn. Ford instead built reconstructions of the lab, the machine shop, and the office and library, all of which are still visible at Greenfield Village. (In addition, the small glass shop at Menlo Park, which had been removed by General Electric years before, was relocated to Dearborn, as was the old boarding house, which was located near the lab, where lab workers and visitors stayed).
As part of the recognition of the significance of Menlo Park, and to promote its reconstruction at Greenfield Village, a simultaneous ceremony, held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of electric light, was staged at Menlo Park and Dearborn. A metal tower built on the old lab site was topped by a giant light bulb, called the ”Eternal Light,” that was supposed to burn forever. It was symbolically lit, remotely, by Thomas Edison himself, from a ceremoniously –but otherwise un– connected switch in Dearborn.
Eight years later, the tower was destroyed in a storm. A new, more permanent tower was finished in 1938, a 131 feet tall Art Deco spire, made of Portland cement (which was one of Edison’s patents). This new tower was a gift to the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation, from William Slocum Barstow, the Foundation’s president. The Eternal Light atop the new tower was a 13-foot diameter replica of the incandescent lamp, made of three tons of amber tinted Pyrex, two inches thick, and consuming 9500 watts of electricity, which was donated by the local electrical utility. A gate house was constructed near the base of the tower, where an admission charge to the site was levied.
The Eternal Light, which some historic newspaper accounts say stays on continuously, running on battery power during occasional power outages, has, in fact been off most of the time since the dedication of the new tower. The bulbs have burned out and been replaced many times. The current non-emitting light source is four burned out automobile headlights.
Today, the only structure left from what is called the “first organized research lab in the world,” is a buried underground vault, now empty, which Edison built under his office, to keep his most important papers safe from harm. The site is surrounded by a typical New Jersey residential neighborhood. Much of the site is wooded, and a new walking trail, the “Thomas Alva Edison Information Trail,” makes a loop through the woods, with the occasional modest interpretive plaque. There is a small museum building, occupying the old gatehouse, with two cramped rooms, full of images and devices related to his inventions. Outside, the cement tower, with its burned out Eternal Light, is crumbling. ♦