By Thomas Edison National Historical Park, National Park Service
Thomas Edison Laboratory Complex
Every time we play recorded music, go to the movies, or turn on a light, we enjoy the benefits of Thomas Edison's genius and hard work. Edison lived to see great industries arise from his inventions: electric light and power, sound recording, and motion pictures.
Thomas Alva Edison, born on February 11, 1847 in Ohio, was an American inventor and businessman whose inventions and improvements included the electric light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and alkaline storage batteries.
Edison held more than 1,000 patents for his inventions. Edison learned telegraphy at an early age. By the time he was sixteen, Edison was proficient enough to work as a telegrapher full time.
He worked in many telegraph offices ending up in Boston where he patented his first invention, an electric vote recorder. He then moved to New York and eventually Newark, NJ. In 1876 he opened his laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ.
It is here that he developed the first phonograph, improved the light bulb and developed an electrical distribution system. Edison’s first wife passed away and he married Mina Miller in 1886. They moved to West Orange, NJ where he built his largest laboratory in 1887.
West Orange Complex
It was here in this West Orange, New Jersey, complex that Edison systematically developed his ideas for alkaline storage batteries, recorded music, and motion pictures, and transformed them into marketable products.
Once perfected, these prototypes were sent to the vast factory complex Edison began building in 1888 adjacent to the laboratory. Here they were produced in commercial quantities and then sold throughout the world.
The products developed at the research laboratory during the late 19th and early 20th centuries dramatically changed the way Americans lived and worked.
The fusion of business and technology achieved at the West Orange complex provided a model for modern corporate and governmental research and development laboratories.
The new laboratory complex consisting of five buildings opened in November 1887. A three story main laboratory building contained a power plant, machine shops, stock rooms, experimental rooms and a large library.
Four smaller one story buildings built perpendicular to the main building contained a physics lab, chemistry lab, metallurgy lab, pattern shop, and chemical storage.
The large size of the laboratory not only allowed Edison to work on any sort of project, but also allowed him to work on as many as ten or twenty projects at once.
Facilities were added to the laboratory or modified to meet Edison's changing needs as he continued to work in this complex until his death in 1931.
Over the years, factories to manufacture Edison inventions were built around the laboratory. The entire laboratory and factory complex eventually covered more than twenty acres and employed 10,000 people at its peak during World War One (1914-1918).
Although the courtyard looks empty now, it was bustling with activity during Edison’s time. Employees parked their bicycles as they came to work or met and discussed experiments with other researchers.
Many experiments happened in the courtyard such as tests for durability of Edison records or packaging materials. Thomas Edison himself held special events in the courtyard such as the gathering of contestants for the 1929 Edison Scholarship Contest.
That perspiration, or work, by him and his “muckers” (the name Edison called his staff) took place all over the Laboratory Complex both inside and outside of the buildings.
Inside West Orange Labs
When he began to build his new laboratory complex, Edison's goal was to have on hand everything needed to quickly and cheaply perfect inventions and ready them for mass production.
All the necessary tools, machines, materials, and skilled personnel would be housed within the complex. To assist him in his invention work, Edison employed a large and diverse staff of more than 200 machinists, scientists, craftsmen, and laborers at peak production.
With such extensive facilities and his large staff, Edison was able to turn out new products on an unprecedented scale and with unprecedented speed.
From the West Orange complex came improved phonographs, a perfected alkaline storage battery, the movie camera, and the fluoroscope (a diagnostic tool widely used before X-rays were perfected).
Experimental versus Manufacturing
This machine shop was not used for manufacturing. It was used to make prototypes and to make machines that made the final product, such as machinery used to produce iron ore, cement, movies, music, and batteries.
Additional machine shops in the surrounding buildings were used to make the final products for movies, music, and batteries.
Long experience as an inventor had taught Edison that money was made not from selling patent rights or from royalties, but from the direct sale of the products to the public.
In 1888 Edison began building factories next to his laboratory complex to manufacture the finished products based on his inventions. These factories produced all the necessary parts for Edison inventions.
In turn, most of the machinery used in the factory to manufacture the inventions was designed and machined in the laboratory complex. The finished products were distributed and sold around the country and abroad.
Profits from the sale of these Edison products were used to fund further research, to improve existing Edison inventions, and to allow Edison and his research staff to develop new ideas for inventions.
The proximity of the factories to the laboratory complex helped speed up the invention process by making it possible to quickly put new inventions or improvements on the market. Technological innovation could move forward at an unprecedented rate.
Heavy Machine Shop versus Precision Machine Shop
This is the Heavy Machine Shop. On the second floor above this is another machine shop, the Precision Machine Shop. Large pieces of metal were shaped in the Heavy Machine Shop. The crane overhead is capable of holding six (6) tons.
Smaller prototype parts and pieces were made in the Precision Machine Shop. Thomas Edison said he could make everything from a ladies watch to a locomotive at his laboratory because of these two machine shops.
Parts of the upper levels of the laboratory complex exhibit Thomas Edison’s inventions. Edison was a man of broad and wide-ranging interests.
During his lifetime, he developed inventions for consumers, businesses, and industries in fields ranging from sound reproduction to iron ore mining. Edison never limited his curiosity or his work.
The one restriction he put upon his work was that a project had to have a practical commercial application. Edison said, "I always invented to obtain money to go on inventing". That meant his inventions had to have a market, so that the profits could fund new inventions.
In 1877, at his first laboratory called Menlo Park, Edison was the original inventor of the phonograph, a precursor of the record player, which first used tinfoil cylinders to record and reproduce sound.
After opening this new laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, Edison began to work on the phonograph again. By the 1890s, Edison began to manufacture phonographs for both home, and business use.
Edison developed everything needed to have a phonograph work, including records to play, equipment to record the records, and equipment to manufacture the records and the machines.
In the process of making the phonograph practical, Edison created the recording industry. The development and improvement of the phonograph was an ongoing project, continuing almost until Edison's death.
The Electric Light
Edison’s greatest challenge was the development of a practical incandescent, electric light. The idea of electric lighting was not new, and a number of people had worked on, and even developed forms of electric lighting.
But up to that time, nothing had been developed that was remotely practical for home use.
Edison's eventual achievement was inventing not just an incandescent electric light, but also an electric lighting system that contained all the elements necessary to make the incandescent light practical, safe, and economical.
After one and a half years of work, success was achieved when an incandescent lamp with a filament of carbonized sewing thread burned for thirteen and a half hours.
Edison spent the next several years creating the electric industry. In September 1882, the first commercial power station, located on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, went into operation providing light and power to customers in a one square mile area; the electric age had begun.
While working on the phonograph, Edison began working on a device that, "does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear", this was to become motion pictures.
Edison first demonstrated motion pictures in 1891, and began commercial production of "movies" two years later in a peculiar looking structure, built on the laboratory grounds, known as the Black Maria.
Like the electric light and phonograph before it, Edison developed a complete system, developing everything needed to both film and show motion pictures.
Within the main laboratory building is Thomas Edison’s library which is three stories tall and contains over 10,000 books.
In this room are many examples of his inventions, awards, and gifts presented to him during his lifetime. This room was meant to impress the many guests, dignitaries, investors, and politicians that visited Edison.
Thomas Edison’s desk
Thomas Edison used this room as his office. Inside the desk are the papers, pens, cigars, and other items Edison used while working at the laboratory. Upon Edison’s death in 1931, his roll-top desk was closed and locked. It wasn’t opened again until 1947 at a ceremony marking Edison’s 100th birthday.
Edison used pigeonholes in the desk to organize his notes and papers. Looking closely, you can see one section titled “New Things”.
Included in the furnishings of the library, is the cot used by Edison for his famous catnaps. Edison sometimes worked for 24 or more hours straight.
When he was close to a solution for a problem involved in one of his inventions, he might stay at the laboratory for several days at a time, catching only short naps when he could. Even when things were going smoothly, he slept only a few hours at night to restore his energy.
Edison as Icon
By his death in 1931, Thomas Edison was the most famous person in the world. His name and face was used to brand and advertise all of his products. Presidents and foreign dignitaries visited him and sought his advice (president’s photos hang on one column).
Artists recognized his worldwide impact on everyday life by making sculptures: “The Genius of Electricity” (white marble figure sitting on a gas lamp and holding a light bulb high) and “Orpheus Discarding His Lyre” in favor of a phonograph disc (bronze statue of man holding a record disc with lyre by his feet).
Edison received an honorary certificate from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contributions to the movie industry (hangs left of Orpheus statue).
The Glenmont Estate, House of Thomas and Mina Edison
Thomas Edison, his wife Mina and their three children, lived at the Glenmont estate, located about one mile from the Edison laboratories. Thomas Edison purchased this grand estate for his new bride, Mina Miller Edison, in 1886 as a wedding gift.
It is here that the Edisons spent their private time away from the world’s spotlight on America’s greatest inventor. They entertained friends, family, dignitaries, and politicians at the estate.Thomas Edison lived at Glenmont until his death in 1931.
Mina Miller Edison referred to herself as a “Home Executive”. She considered the role of operating the household to be a full-time job...
...which included such tasks as hiring and firing servants, completing the staff payroll, budgeting household accounts, educating her children, and planning menus.
Glenmont was built by architect Henry Hudson Holly as a Queen Anne style home in the year 1880. Holly is considered to be the father of the American Queen-Anne style movement of architecture and Glenmont is a rare example of his work.
The house contained all the fundamentals of today’s modern home; hot and cold running water, indoor bathrooms with flush toilets, and central heating.
Architect Henry Hudson Holly combined different types of architecture to create a brand new style called the American Queen-Anne style, most popular in the United States during the late 1800s.
These Queen-Anne style houses are known for their balconies with spindle railings, roofs with v-shaped gables, and tall chimneys with striping called polychrome.
The Servants at Glenmont
Glenmont is so large is because it is really two houses in one. Part of the house is decorated with fancy furniture and paintings in rooms where entertaining took place but the other part, where the servants lived and worked, is very plain.
Servants ran the household but they were expected to be invisible, even having a separate staircase so they would not be seen by guests.