Recognized internationally as the birthplace of modern sound
recording and electric lighting technologies, Thomas Edison’s prototypical research and development laboratory was a seedbed for innovations that changed the world.
Menlo Park Laboratory, Original Site, Edison, New Jersey, 1876-1883 (1876/1883)Original Source: Digital Collections
In spring of 1876, Thomas Edison and a handful of collaborators moved from Newark to Menlo Park, New Jersey. Edison’s team of about a dozen workers based their scientific investigations in an inexpensively constructed but well-stocked laboratory building that also served as office, library, and machine shop.
Menlo Park Compound at Its Original Site, Menlo Park, New Jersey, 1880 (1880) by Henry Ford (Organization). Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections
As the scale of Edison's investigations grew so did the complex. By 1880, nearly 80 men worked in several specialized buildings at Menlo Park.
Built in late 1878, as Edison expanded his work on electric lighting, the Menlo Park library provided office space for accounting, bookkeeping, and patent applications and housed a well-stocked technical library.
A well-equipped machine shop enabled Edison and his associates to rapidly prototype iterations of experimental devices, and to facilitate their manufacture.
In the carpentry shop, skilled woodworkers built models and created patterns for making metal castings - a great example of the importance of traditional craft to Edison's experimental investigations.
The glassblowing shop was fundamental to Edison's incandescent lighting experiments. Menlo Park’s glassblowers created bulbs, of course, but also associated apparatus such as vacuum pumps.
Menlo Park Carbon Shed (1869/1889) by Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield VillageOriginal Source: http://collections.thehenryford.org/Collection.aspx?objectKey=84803
A small wooden shed housed kerosene lamps, kept lit and set to produce carbon soot. The carbon was collected and compressed into tablets for telephone transmitters and used for various other experiments.
A Multiplicity of Talents
The “Wizard of Menlo Park” didn’t work alone. Edison was the famous name behind the operation, but he succeeded in part because he recruited talented assistants. Edison coalesced a diverse group of employees to help him realize his ideas - and come up with new ones. These men were among the dozens who followed Edison to Menlo Park.
Englishman Charles Batchelor worked for Thomas Edison in Newark, New Jersey, before moving with him to Menlo Park in 1876. Edison’s principal experimental assistant, Batchelor was a close and effective collaborator on many important projects.
Edison recognized a need to balance his theoretical skills with certain practical talents. Francis Upton, an American mathematician and physicist, conducted scientific research and performed advanced calculations to convert innovative ideas into workable inventions. Upton continued working with Edison long after his time at Menlo Park.
Swiss-born machinist John Kruesi brought highly-refined skills to Edison’s team. Kruesi -- who had constructed much of Edison’s experimental apparatus at Newark -- was appointed foreman of the machine shop at Menlo Park.
An Invention Factory
With ambitious goals, tight deadlines, and plenty of resources for experimentation, Menlo Park was truly an “invention factory.” Edison and his team developed, patented, produced, and sold countless innovations here, including some that shaped today’s telecommunications, sound recording, and electrical industries.
One of Edison’s earliest investigations at Menlo Park addressed the weak transmitter in Alexander Graham Bell's telephone system. Edison’s improved carbon transmitter produced a stronger electrical signal, making the telephone commercially practical. His design remained in use until digital telephones emerged in the 1980s.
At the Menlo Park laboratory, Edison created a machine that -- for the very first time -- could record and reproduce sound. Introduced in 1877, the tinfoil phonograph amazed people and earned Edison the nickname “Wizard of Menlo Park.” This new technology formed the basis of the sound recording industry.
Power and Light
Edison famously developed the first successful incandescent lamps at Menlo Park. He also created (and later patented) a complete system for generating and transmitting electricity to power them. Present-day systems can be seen as an outgrowth of Edison's concept.
Leaving Menlo Park
One of Edison’s greatest accomplishments at Menlo Park was deciding to leave it behind.
Plaque at the Site of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company's 1882 Pearl Street Station, New York CityOriginal Source: Digital Collections
As his team worked to perfect the incandescent light bulb and electric distribution system at Menlo Park, Edison turned his attention to New York City. In 1882, he installed the first commercial power station on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan -- a carefully-chosen location that served Wall Street and several major newspapers.
Menlo Park Laboratory, Original Site, Edison, New Jersey, 1912-1913 (1912/1913)Original Source: Digital Collections
After 5 years of fast-paced research and development, Edison moved his operations from Menlo Park, and the laboratory complex fell into disuse. Vacant buildings eventually collapsed, and the local community salvaged building material from the rubble.
A Second Act
In the late 1920s, Henry Ford -- a friend and admirer of Thomas Edison -- sent crews to mine the Menlo Park laboratory site for what little original material remained. Building scraps, laboratory “relics,” and loads of New Jersey soil were shipped to Dearborn, Michigan, to be incorporated into Ford’s detailed recreation of the Menlo Park complex in Greenfield Village.
Henry Ford consulted reminiscences from Menlo Park employees throughout the project, and hired Francis Jehl -- one of Edison’s former laboratory assistants -- to ensure the exactness of his installation.
Henry Ford’s Menlo Park has enthralled countless visitors, and it continues to affirm Ford’s faith in the power of places that could, as he put it, “teach more than books can teach.”
Menlo Park Laboratory (1929) by Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village and Cutler, Edward James, 1882-1961Original Source: http://collections.thehenryford.org/Collection.aspx?objectKey=179489
R&D: The Menlo Park Legacy
Built simply and inexpensively, but well-stocked with a vast array of research and experimental material, tools, and equipment, Menlo Park is recognized as the first research and development laboratory. In this fast-paced, commercially-driven environment, Thomas Edison’s team had the resources to make discoveries and turn them into viable products.
The prototypical R&D set-up at Edison’s Menlo Park -- nimble, multi-disciplinary, and versatile -- continues to inspire innovators of all kinds.
From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.
Find more inspiration at the Menlo Park complex at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.