For avid crossword puzzle fans, the clue “Thomas _ Edison” is a familiar one. In addition to filling in the name “Alva.” another almost reflexive association with the man who held 1,093 patents (more than anyone in the world, to date) is “Menlo Park.” You would be well-advised to add another location to this instinct: West Orange, New Jersey.
Which is not to say that the “The Wizard of Menlo Park” isn’t recognized in that town. “The Menlo Park Museum deals basically with the period of time that Edison worked there from 1876 to the 1880s,” explained Thomas Edison National Historical Park archivist Leonard DeGraaf. “We’re not connected in any official way, but we consider ourselves partners in informing the public about Edison.” The Menlo Park Museum is currently being refurbished and plans to reopen this fall. In the meantime, Edison fans can choose among the West Orange facility; another in Fort Myers, Florida; and Edison’s birthplace museum in Ohio. In addition, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan boasts a reconstructed Edison laboratory in honor of Ford’s good friend.
In West Orange, the Thomas Edison National Historic Park is the site of the laboratory building where Edison and his loyal troop of chemists, engineers, mathematicians, and, generally, highly original thinkers, did their work in the latter part of the 19th, and first quarter of the 20th centuries. Over 400,000 artifacts (the largest body of Edison-related material in existence) testify to his almost superhuman industriousness. The presence of Glenmont, a 29-room red brick and wood house that Edison built for his second wife, Mina Miller, is another incentive to make the trip to West Orange.
Under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, uniformed park rangers insure that your visit will be informative, though the sheer magnitude of Edison’s accomplishments by themselves would probably inspire awe in even the most jaded cynics. Think about it: Edison is credited with inventing the first phonograph, developing a practical, incandescent light bulb, getting the motion picture industry off the ground, fine-tuning telegraphy, photography, and the telephone—and that’s just the start.
Largely home-schooled and partially deaf, Edison’s ascent was so fast that by the age of 24 his muckers, as his employees were called, referred to him respectfully as “the Old Man.” Horrified by “the evil of stupidity,” Edison had, at any given time, as many as 40 projects under development. What little sleep he managed (the reports vary from two-and-a-half to four hours a night) he often got sleeping on the floor of a workroom. While he was interested in hiring the most imaginative, rather than the best workers, Edison’s attention to detail, precision, and planning turned what he described as “a century of possibilities” into one remarkable success after another. On the other hand, a tour guide is quick to point out that Edison “didn’t mind failures. He said that he needed to know what doesn’t work in order to know what does.” A well-stocked library is evidence of his belief in the importance of conducting technical research, and the overflowing cubby-holes in his desk (including one for “new things”) speaks of an idea-filled life.
Rangers report that the music room—which is filled with pianos and variations of the phonographs he worked on over the years—was Edison’s favorite. Visitors are allowed to handle and wonder at both the surprising heft of his early vinyl records, and the fact that someone so hard of hearing was so successful in recording sound. Edison knew that a good singer didn’t necessarily guarantee a good recording, because of the phonograph’s exaggeration of the tremolo present in almost every voice. Undeterred by his deafness, he used it to advantage, saying that when employees were called into his office, the need for them to shout into his ear in the presence of other people insured that they wouldn’t tell a lie.
Visitors also see and learn about the building’s stock room, which was equipped, according to the tour guide, with “everything one can think of, from a packet of needles or a toothpick, to a sledge hammer or sewing machine.” The presence of fire hoses and buckets of sand are reminders of the perils of trying out new things.
“Mr. Edison really liked having a creative atmosphere,” says one guide. “He didn’t love the business side that much; he liked solving problems.” He was happy, though, with his money-making batteries that helped to fund new projects. Edison’s last days were spent trying to manufacture rubber from goldenrod trees, a response to the shortages the country experienced during World War I. Working for the Federal government, he “invested a lot in it, knowing there would be no financial return.”
Think about it: Edison is credited with inventing the first phonograph, developing a practical, incandescent light bulb, getting the motion picture industry off the ground, fine-tuning telegraphy, photography, and the telephone—and that’s just the start. Born in 1847, Edison died in 1931 and an early time clock—invented by Edison, of course—is set to the last time he passed through the laboratory’s doors, which was when he was carried out after lying in state there.
There’s lots for kids to see and do at Thomas Edison National Park, and groups of students and adults are welcome. The facility’s website, www.nps.gov/edis, provides details about visiting, along with a treasure trove of incidental “did you knows” on every page. Did you know, for example, that “West Orange was the birthplace of motion pictures?” In 1893, Edison “built the first building for the recording of motion pictures. It was dubbed The Black Maria. It got its name because it was large and black and looked like the police wagons of the day, which were called black marias.” Visiting the real thing, though, one also learns (and sees) that The Black Maria is set on tracks, so that it could revolve during the day in order to maximize the use of sunlight.
The gift shop in the Visitor Center stocks books, lunch boxes, water bottles, postcards and the usual memorabilia. The take-away from a visit to this extraordinary man’s workplace and home, though, can’t be commodified.
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