Thomas Edison and Menlo Park
The following excerpts are taken from Westfield Architects & Preservation Consultants’ 2007 Preservation Master Plan, Edison Memorial Tower, Museum, & Site.
Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in the town of Milan, Ohio.1 His parents, Sam and Nancy Edison, were of Canadian origin and had six children prior to Thomas, only three of whom survived. Edison’s family moved to Port Huron, Michigan in 1854. Throughout his childhood, Thomas Edison was full of curiosity about how things worked and always asked a lot of questions. He didn’t do very well in a traditional school setting, and often got punished for annoying the teacher with too many questions. As a result, after the age of twelve, he was home-schooled by his mother. His interest in science was first sparked when his mother bought him his first scientific book, The School of Natural Philosophy. He thoroughly studied the book and performed all the experiments described in it at home. He soon set up his own laboratory in his room and began performing original experiments. After a few disasters, he was asked by his parents to move his laboratory to the basement. The explosions from the basement constantly shook the house, often upsetting his father. To fund his experiments, Edison took a job as a newsboy on the new Grand Trunk Railway service that had recently begun operating between Port Huron and Detroit, selling candy and refreshments.2 He made good use of his free time in Detroit by reading at the public library. He had set up a laboratory in the baggage car of the train where he performed experiments during his free time. An accidental fire on the train caused by one of his experiments led to his firing.
Edison was so interested in the working of the telegraph, which had been in use for about forty years, that he built one of his own in his home. At the age of sixteen he became a telegraph operator at the telegraph office in Port Huron.3 Like most of his other ventures, this job also ended when Edison almost blew up the office while experimenting with the equipment. After that he traveled around the country for five years, mostly working as a telegraph operator at different offices. Although he was moderately deaf as a teenager, he was able to do his job as a telegraph operator because the sharp clicks of the telegraph machine were clearer to him than other ambient sounds. Finally, after being demoted and quitting his job at the Western Union Telegraph office in Boston for a prank he played on his bosses in December of 1868, he decided to quit working as a telegraph operator and decided to devote himself to his inventions.
Edison stayed in Boston for a while and used his salesmanship skills to convince investors to finance his inventions. In 1869, he patented the Electrical Vote Recorder. Another one of his earliest successful inventions was an improvisation of the “stock ticker” which received up-to-date stock price information from the stock exchange and displayed it at various locations. But after a few failures, he lost the faith of his investors. Broke, Edison moved to New York where he befriended a top telegraph engineer, Franklin L. Pope, who worked for Dr. S. S. Laws, the inventor of the earlier version of the stock ticker and who now owned New York Gold Indicator Company.4 Pope gave Edison some space to board at the company’s Wall Street headquarters. Within a few days, the master ticker tape machine had a major breakdown throwing the entire office and many New York businesses in turmoil. Since Edison was always around the office, he offered to fix the machine. When he did so within two hours, he was offered a job the following day as Pope’s assistant.5 After working for Dr. Laws, Edison set up his own engineering business and was soon hired by Western Union to be in charge of all of their equipment.6 Within a short span of time, his boss at Western Union offered to buy out all his new inventions and improvements to the equipment for a lump sum price of $40,000.7
An awestruck Edison took the money and invested it in an empty factory building in Newark where he set up his first workshop. Two of Edison’s earliest and most important assistants were John Kreusi, a Swiss-trained clockmaker and machine shop foreman, and Charles Batchelor, Edison’s chief mechanical assistant from England.8 Edison immersed himself in his work with new inventions, but at the same time, his factory continued to produce constantly improved stock tickers and telegraphic equipment. All of Edison’s employees willingly worked long hours because they respected and trusted Edison’s commitment to science. In 1871, Edison, then twenty-four, fell in love with sixteen-year-old Mary Stilwell, who was one of his employees at the time. He married her on Christmas day that same year. Their first child was Marion Estelle, born on February 18, 1873, who Edison affectionately called “Dot”. They had two other children after Marion, Thomas Alva Jr. born January 10, 1876, called “Dash,” and William Leslie born October 26, 1878. By 1876, Edison decided to move away from the city and into a larger space where he could expand his operations to include a large scale inventions workshop.
During the same time, Alexander Graham Bell invented the first version of the telephone which created waves throughout the scientific and engineering communities. Western Union commissioned Edison to improve upon the primitive telephone to put it into practical use.9
Menlo Park was one of the six neighborhoods that formed Raritan Township. It was a very sparsely populated rural area and the site of a failed residential development in the early 1870s. Edison purchased two parcels of land measuring approximately 34 acres from the family of William Carman who was one of his employees at Newark, in late 1875. The office of the real estate development company, Menlo Park Land Company, at the corner of Lincoln Highway and Christie Street, became Edison’s home. Edison’s father built the main laboratory building on the block south of Christie Street between Middlesex and Woodbridge (now Tower) Avenues. Edison also built other ancillary buildings including the glass house, a carpenters’ shop, a carbon shed, and a blacksmith shop. By the Spring of 1876, Edison moved his operations to Menlo Park. Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory was the world’s first such research and development facility. While Edison was working on perfecting the telephone, he started experimenting with the idea of being able to record the sound of the human voice.
In November 1877, one of Edison’s first major inventions at Menlo Park was the phonograph, which was a basic machine that allowed a person to speak into a diaphragm that was attached to a pin that made indentations on a paper wrapped around wood. The first words Edison successfully recorded on the phonograph were “Mary had a Little Lamb”. By 1878, this invention was known all around the world and Edison soon earned the title of “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” Menlo Park was suddenly known worldwide and started attracting visitors to see demonstrations of the phonograph. For his expanding inventions factory, Edison commissioned the engineering firm of Babcock & Wilcox from New York City to build a machine shop behind the laboratory building in 1878.10 In that same year, Edison also constructed an office and library for himself at the corner of Christie Street and Woodbridge (Tower) Avenue. In this same year, Edison coined the name “Invention Factory” for the Menlo Park site.11
Edison did not linger over the success of his phonograph. He quickly moved on to other inventions. His next big breakthrough came when he invented a bamboo filament to create a successful incandescent lightbulb. Other people had been working on the making of light bulbs in the past, but none of the earlier bulbs was ever able to work for more than a few minutes. Finally, on October 21, 1879, Edison’s light bulb burned for a continuous thirteen and a half hours. The following bulbs lasted for 40 hours and Edison and his team worked hard to light the laboratory and his home with several of the new light bulbs for Christmas. On New Year’s Eve of the same year, Christie Street became the world’s first street to be lit by incandescent light bulbs with the help of a power system designed by Edison. By the summer of 1880, Edison had perfected the incandescent bulb enough to be able to produce and sell it in large quantities. He remodeled the wooden building on the east side of the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks and Lincoln Highway to serve as a Lamp Factory.12 Edison also laid down an experimental underground system and put up several lampposts in Menlo Park and successfully tested the first underground electrical system in November 1880.13 The first two homes to be lit by Edison’s incandescent lights were the home of Francis Upton (a mathematician who worked for Edison) located at Frederick Street at the corner of Woodbridge Avenue, and Sarah Jordan’s boarding house. Sarah Jordan was the widow of one of Edison’s associates from Newark, who Edison brought to Menlo Park to setup the boarding house for his single employees. This was also a place where the entire team gathered for social events during their free time.
Edison established the Edison Electric Light Company and began working on using electricity for other purposes. He built an experimental train running on electricity at Menlo Park that started from the west side of the Machine Shop at the corner Christie Street and Middlesex Avenue and ran about three blocks north to a copper mine called “Mine Gully”. When Edison had discovered copper ore deposits in the area he sank a shaft for his very own copper mine.14 But very soon, the mining effort seemed uneconomical and inefficient and the mine was abandoned. The electric powered railway became a success in 1881. In the meantime, Edison continued to improve his earlier inventions and took them to the next level. In the summer of 1882 he began setting up a large generator plant at Pearl Street in downtown New York City. He fitted all the office buildings and homes on Pearl Street with about four hundred of his incandescent bulbs. On September 4, 1882, hundreds of people gathered on Pearl Street to witness a never before seen spectacle; at 3 p.m. the generator was turned on and the street was lit with electricity. This was a huge success for Edison in proving his theory of a central generator station supplying power in bulk. After this, Edison became rich and famous. People thronged to Menlo Park to see his inventions first hand. The first floor of the laboratory constantly entertained business men and investors who came to invest in Edison’s projects. Thomas Edison created some the world’s most important and some of his greatest inventions at Menlo Park. While headquartered there, he applied for about 400 patents on inventions big and small.
Post-Menlo Park Years
[By the early 1880s] Edison felt the need to be closer to where the business was in New York City, and his operations were quickly outgrowing the existing facilities at Menlo Park. The family moved into a house at 25 Gramercy Park in New York City but spent their summers in the Menlo Park home.15 On August 9, 1884 Edison’s wife, Mary, died of typhoid fever.16 Edison was devastated. In the summer of 1885, he met Mina Miller, a music student in Boston at a dinner party at a mutual friend’s residence. After months traveling between Boston and New York, Edison married Mina Miller in her hometown of Akron, Ohio on February 24, 1886.17 Together they had three children, Madeline, born May 31, 1888; Charles, born August 3, 1890; and Theodore, born July 10, 1898. In 1886, Edison started building a new facility in West Orange, New Jersey. In 1887, his laboratory moved out of Menlo Park and into the new, much larger laboratory in West Orange. This is where Edison spent the remaining forty-four years of his life, continuing to improve his earlier inventions and creating new inventions such as the motion picture camera. He died on October 18, 1931 at the age of 84.
After Edison left Menlo Park, the property was completely abandoned. Most of the buildings were occupied by squatters. The laboratory building was used as a theater, a dance hall, and a barn. Edison’s office and library building as well as his home were used as private residences. The carbon shed was used as a chicken shed. The buildings and site were in poor condition. In 1904, The General Electric Outing Club organized a dinner in honor of Edison at the site. This was the first time Edison had returned to the property since he moved to West Orange. He emotionally toured the property, visiting every building. The last remaining official record of the buildings is a series of photographs taken by J. Lloyd Grimstead and Charles B. Carman in 1911.
The buildings continued to deteriorate until they began to completely fall apart one by one. Edison’s home was destroyed in fire in 1914, and his office and library building met with the same fate in 1919. The laboratory, machine shop and other buildings were slowly scavenged for building materials.
Edison returned to Menlo Park on May 16, 1925 to unveil a memorial tablet (see Commemorative History) donated by the State of New Jersey to honor him and his work at Menlo Park. This memorial tablet still stands at the edge of site of Edison’s home adjoining Lincoln Highway. In 1928-29, Henry Ford, who was a close friend of Edison, decided to construct a replica of the Menlo Park complex at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. He moved the only two surviving buildings, the Glass House and Sarah Jordan’s Boarding House, to Greenfield Village. 18 (The Glass House had been previously moved to Parsippany by General Electric, the company that succeeded Edison’s original Edison Electric Light Company.19 Henry Ford also hired Charles Carman to locate all surviving material that belonged to the original laboratory to be used in the reconstruction. A model of the laboratory building constructed of material from the laboratory is now located in the museum building.
A steel framed tower was built as a memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Edison’s perfection of the light bulb. The tower was built at the location of the laboratory with a large replica of the Edison’s original light bulb at the very top, lit for the first time on October 21, 1929. A frosted bulb called the “Eternal Light” was installed at the base of the tower. After Edison’s death in 1931, his family donated the property to the State of New Jersey to be converted into a state park. Meanwhile, plans for building a new, permanent tower were developed. The original design for the new tower was the creation of architects John A. Peterkin and Col. Hugh A. Kelly. This was to be an elaborate Art Deco structure featuring a circular museum building, 180 feet in diameter, with four colonnaded entrances leading into a central circular space with Edison’s statue in the center surrounded by murals depicting events at Menlo Park along the circular walls. This museum building would form the base for a 175 feet high Art Deco Tower topped with a large replica of the incandescent bulb. Due to a lack of funds during the Depression, this design was never realized. Eventually, a new design in the Art Deco style for the tower, modest by comparison, was prepared by Massena & duPont, Architects.
The construction of the new tower had begun while the old tower was still in place. The old tower was then destroyed by lightning in August 1937. Remarkably, the “Eternal Light” survived the disaster and continued to stay lit even after the tower had collapsed around it.20 The bulb was then allowed to remain in place while the new tower was built. The new tower was the gift of William Slocum Barstow, the president of the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation Inc., on behalf of the Edison Pioneers.21 The new tower was a 131 feet 4 inches high concrete structure built entirely with Edison Portland Cement. It featured aggregate- finish, precast concrete panels on the exterior and was topped with a replica of the incandescent bulb, 19 feet 2 inches in diameter. The bulb was cast by Corning Glass Works from a sketch of the first commercial light bulb.22 The tower was dedicated on February 11, 1938.
Since 1933, the property has been owned by the State of New Jersey. Several plans over the years to expand and beautify the property have fallen through, mostly due to lack of funding. When the Edison Memorial Tower Corporation, a non-profit organization, became involved with the property in 1999, the tower was in a neglected state and the gatehouse was almost completely abandoned. Since then, the group has assisted the Township in its efforts to rejuvenate the property by bringing back the memory of Edison and his work.
Note 1: Anna Sproule, Thomas A. Edison, The World’s Greatest Inventor, Blackbirch Press Inc., Woodbridge, Connecticut, 2000, p. 11. back
Note 2: Ibid, pp. 14-15. back
Note 3: Ibid, p. 21. back
Note 4: Sproule, p. 25. back
Note 5: Ibid, p. 26. back
Note 6: Ibid. back
Note 7: Ibid. back
Note 8: Stacy Spies, Images of America Edison, Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2001, pp. 14 & 20. back
Note 9: Sproule, p. 28. back
Note 10: Spies, p. 13. back
Note 11: Ian Burrow determined that the term “Invention Factory” is first mentioned in an interview with Edison in the Philadelphia Weekly Times on April 29, 1878 (Israel 1998 chapter 8, footnote 2 on page 486). back
Note 12: The Edison Pioneers (compilers), The Story of Menlo Park, p. 14. back
Note 13: Ibid, p. 20. back
Note 14: Ibid, p. 21. back
Note 15: Kathleen L. McGuirk, Introduction — The Diary of Thomas A. Edison, The Chatham Press, Inc., Old Greenwich, Connecticut, 1931, p. 8. back
Note 16: McGuirk, p. 9. back
Note 17: The New York Times, Mr. Edison’s Wedding, February 25, 1886. back
Note 18: Spies, p. 21. back
Note 19: Ibid. back
Note 20: State of New Jersey Department of Conservation and Economic Development, Edison State Park, Bureau of Parks, p. 1. back
Note 21: Ibid. back
Note 22: Ibid, p. 2. back