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Thomas Edison's Invention Factory


Where Gumbo Was #523

Most American schoolchildren learn about Thomas Edison as 'the great inventor' with endless inventions to his name: electric light, stock ticker, phonograph, mimeograph and stencil, movie cameras and more.


But many of those were not truly invented by Edison; many existed in some form previously and were improved by him and his employees. The electric light bulb is a good example. Light bulbs using a filament were demonstrated as early as 1835, but lasted only minutes.


At Edison's lab in West Orange, New Jersey, researchers tested thousands of filament materials, improved a method for removing air from the bulb, and developed the screw-in base we know today. And then took the next step of working out how to deliver electricity from a central station to users' homes and businesses.


All of which is by way of saying that what Edison the man invented was not most of the things to which he held patents, but the concept of industrial research and development. What he created at West Orange, a short way off from New York, was an 'invention factory,' where hired lab workers, machinists, chemists and other scientists worked with advanced equipment to imagine and create new products that would be patented by Edison and sold by his company.


In the main lab building, where 150 people worked on inventing what several thousand workers made in surrounding factories, Edison had his desk, above, and an impressive library, mostly scientific and technical, where he occasionally slept when he was 'too busy at work' to head for his nearby home, Glenmont.

Congratulations to George G and Jonathan L, who recognized Edison's desk and came up with the correct solution to this week's puzzle.


Edison was not, by most accounts, happiest at his desk; he spent large amounts of his time in the various shops and departments of the lab, either participating in the work or following it closely. One indication of that is in the story of Clarence Dally, an Edison engineer who died of radiation poisoning after long use of himself, and Edison, as test subjects. Edison spent much less time on it, and didn't suffer serious effects. Note the reference in the news article to ''two pretty good object-lessons."


Edison had other health-related concerns as well; he was on the anti-smoking bandwagon quite early, as seen in this notice posted on the timeclock.


Edison and his company were early pioneers in making movies, with clips available even today in many museums and collections. The model below is a miniature of another invention from the West Orange lab, the 'Black Maria' that rotated a room, with its roof open to the sun, so filming could keep the same light even as the sun shifted in its daily cycle.


The lab also developed ancillary equipment for the early movie industry. At left is Edison's own film splicer.


While most of the laboratory's rooms are clearly factory-related, one seems an oasis of gentility, and that is the Music Room, furnished as a parlor not as a place for afternoon tea, but as a place where master recordings were made for early phonograph records, first on cylinders and later on disks. It was also a place to listen to the recordings before manufacture. At first, recording was not so accurate as to require a soundproof studio!


Speaking of phonographs, here's a curiosity—what may be the first talking doll, created in the 1890s, combining a posable French doll with a phonograph that played nursery rhymes in a child's voice.


Another aspect of the Edison lab's work was its meticulous recording of everything that was tried or made, its problems whether successful or not. The wealth of detail in the files not only provided information needed for the thousands of patent applications filed, but also as a resource for re-use in other projects.


Visitors are invited to put on a lab coat and stand between this pair for a photo. Nikola Tesla and Edison. When Tesla first arrived in the U.S. in 1884, he went to work for Edison, but it took only a short while for them to be in conflict and Tesla left, starting his own company and developing the alternating current system we use today, rather than the direct current system used by Edison's first electric utilities.


As you leave the site, there is—of course!—a gift shop, but a small one. Near the center of the picture you'll see small busts of Edison for sale. That's not a new idea either; see the following picture for a selection of busts of Edison that were for sale in his lifetime.


The Edison laboratory building and its outbuildings are part of the National Park Service's Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey, along with his home, Glenmont, a couple of miles away.

The Park is open daily from mid-March through December 31.


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