Thomas Edison set up research and manufacturing facilities in several different locations, but Menlo Park is the only place where a tradition of commemoration has become established. For almost 90 years, Edison’s colleagues and admirers from across America and around the world have singled out Menlo Park as the place to build monuments and pay respects to his memory. Two memorial tablets and two towers have been erected since 1925, the second of which is the iconic Thomas Alva Edison Memorial Tower, built in 1937. Topped by an enormous light bulb, the Art Deco Tower has quite literally been a beacon for the community for decades, and every year on the Sunday afternoon before Edison’s birthday, on February 11, members of Menlo Park’s volunteer fire department lay a wreath at its base.
The following excerpt is taken from the introduction of Watson and Henry Associates’ 1994 Condition Assessment Survey Report for Thomas A. Edison Memorial Tower. The present, permanent Thomas A. Edison Memorial Tower was designed in 1937 by Gabriel Francois Massena and Alfred F. duPont of Wilmington, Delaware. Other notable commissions of the firm of Massena and duPont include the Sunken Garden and Carillon Tower at Nemours, Delaware; the United States Post Office, Wilmington, Delaware; the United States Federal Building, Wilmington, Delaware; and the City Hospital, Wilmington, Delaware. Massena and duPont chose the Art Deco style for the Tower shaft, which tapers upward to the monumental replica of Edison’s first practical incandescent bulb. The effect is to focus attention upward to the light at the top, as well as enhance the sense of height and monumentality. A brochure, published in 1938, the year of completion and dedication of the Tower, contains the following description:
In designing and selecting materials to be used in the construction of the Tower, great care was taken to use masses and lines which should be as effective in sunlight as at night in the rays of the floodlights. The effect retains the monumental bulb as the main feature of the Tower. A group of eight buttresses rising from the ground to the bulb emphasizes its dominant importance and catch the beams from the floodlights concealed at the top of the dark columns.
The choice of aggregate on the concrete facings—glittering quartz and ceramic—was specially treated so that the many faceted particles are intensified at night. The Tower also represents the most successful treatment of reinforced concrete as finished material, a material in which Mr. Edison was deeply interested. The precast reinforced concrete facing units, which are two inches thick, were erected in successive stages and fastened to the interior wooden frames with steel anchors. Concrete then was poured between the facing units and the frames, producing perfect anchorage and a completely monolithic construction of the entire Tower. At the top sixteen anchor bolds are imbedded in the concrete, to which is attached the steel framework for the glass bulb. This bulb is the first circular casting work ever produced in the glass industry.1
The use of architectural precast panels was a relatively new concept in 1937. The panels were created by the Earley Studio of Rosslyn, Virginia. John Joseph Earley, second owner of the studio, was a pioneer in the field of exposed aggregate precast concrete. In fact, he coined the term “architectural concrete” to describe the exposed aggregate surface. Earley’s work set the basis by which modern standards for precast concrete are written. One of his most significant achievements was the development of step-grading (commonly referred to as gap-grading today), which provides uniformity, maximum density of coarse aggregate and color control in exposed aggregate courses. He was awarded a patent for this concept in 1921. In addition to precast concrete, J. J. Earley also developed a method of concrete mosaic decoration which could be applied to structure in the field by plastering with a step-graded mix and exposing the aggregate before the plaster had hardened. Other notable projects under J. J. Earley’s tenure for which the Earley Studio contributed architectural concrete include the Fountain of Time, Chicago, Illinois, 1922; the permanent replica of the Athenian Parthenon at Nashville, Tennessee, exterior, 1922–1925; new campus for the Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, 1924–1926; the Temple of Light, the Baha’i House of Worship at Williamette, Illinois, exterior, 1932–1942.2 The Tower, which rises 117′ 8″ above the Terrace, is topped by a 13′ 8″ high monumental Bulb of Pyrex glass segments. The Terrace is set about 3′ 6″ above site grade, given a total height of 134′ 10″ above site grade. The Tower interior contains four levels:
- Eternal Light Level, at Terrace grade, approximately 12′ 2″ high, containing the Eternal Light Room and a utility room
- Amplifier Room Level, 9′ 4″ high, containing electrical equipment for the sound system, including speakers
- Intermediate Level, extending 67′ high
- Loudspeaker Room Level, at the loudspeaker grilles, 16′ 11″ high containing speakers
- Access Room, a 9′ 9″ high compartment below the Bulb
Construction of the Tower continued from May 17, 1937, through February 10, 1938,3 and it was dedicated on February 11, 1938. The Tower was presented as a gift of William Slocum Barstow to the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation Incorporated on behalf of the Edison Pioneers.4 The Edison Memorial Tower was constructed at a total cost of $134,200.02, excluding the electric organ and loudspeakers.5 The largest single expense was the mosaic concrete panels. The Edison Memorial Tower was listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1979. The site possesses historical and cultural significance for the events that took place there; the Tower itself possesses architectural significance for its stylistic expression, construction techniques, and use of architectural concrete. The Tower possess cultural significance as a monument, not as a government-sponsored monument to a battle or political hero, but as a privately financed monument to a man of science. The Edison Memorial Tower is symbol of the greatness that the public saw, and continues to see, in Thomas Alva Edison and his scientific contributions.
The Menlo Park Laboratory Tablet and Memorial
This monument, a gift from the State of New Jersey to honor Thomas Alva Edison, was formally dedicated on May 16, 1925, by John Leib, vice president of the New York Edison Company. Among the guests attending the ceremony were Thomas Edison, Mina Edison (the inventor’s second wife), Governor George S. Silzer, Dr John G. Hibben (president of Princeton University), Edwin W. Rice (chairman of the board, General Electric), and Samuel Insull (president of Commonwealth Edison Company of Chicago). Boy Scouts led the procession to the Tablet, followed by Mr Lieb, the Edisons, Governor Silzer, Mr Insull, Dr Hibben, and Mr Rice. Before the assembled dignitaries and guests, Mrs Edison unveiled the great granite stone bearing a bronze plaque. She then recited her own brief, heartfelt dedication to her husband and those who worked for him at Menlo Park. The program ended with a tour of the Menlo Park Laboratory site, which had been largely reclaimed by nature. By then, the remarkably productive laboratory was already a field with only a few foundations visible above the soil. Although the buildings were gone, it is reported that Thomas Edison enjoyed the tour, saying that his greatest triumphs were in Menlo Park. The monument stands at the corner of Christie Street and Route 27 (Lincoln Highway), near the Metropark railroad station.
Edison Township Named in Edison’s Honor
The following excerpt is taken from Westfield Architects & Preservation Consultants’ 2007 Preservation Master Plan, Edison Memorial Tower, Museum, & Site. [Ca. 1900], Raritan Township still remained largely a rural community of incoherent neighborhoods that did not share any common identity as part of Raritan Township. By this time, one of the neighborhoods, Menlo Park, had become world-renowned as the birthplace of recorded sound and the perfection of the incandescent light bulb, among several other inventions, thanks to Thomas Alva Edison who had set up his laboratory and operations in Menlo Park in 1876. In the twentieth century, Raritan Township was home to a large group of Edison’s ex-associates and well-wishers who formed “The Edison Pioneers”. One of them was Joanna Wira, who organized the “Women for Edison” group and who was also an active member of several other local organizations. In 1954, she started a movement to change the name of the township to Edison Township. During the same time, another group of residents began campaigning to change the name to Nixon in honor of Lewis Nixon, who had founded Nixon Nitration Works in the township and the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth that built ships for the U.S. Navy.6 The vote on November 2, 1954 was close but the name change to Edison Township was selected by a small majority. Over the next few years, the existing train station was renamed Edison, the Edison post office was established, and all of the fire companies of the various neighborhoods were consolidated into the Edison Fire Company.
Note 1: Chester Merrill Withington. “The Edison Tower: Menlo Park, New Jersey” (Brochure c. 1938): 2. back
Note 2: Frederick W. Cron. The Man Who Made Concrete Beautiful: A Biography of John Joseph Earley. (Centennial Publications. Ft. Collins, Colorado, May 1977): 15. back
Note 3: Massena & duPont, Architects. Untitled (post-construction synopsis of the Edison Memorial Tower project). back
Note 4: Withington, Brochure: 16. back
Note 5: Massena & duPont, Architects. Untitled (post-construction synopsis of the Edison Memorial Tower project). back
Note 6: The Center for Community Renewal, p.4. back