Location: West Orange, New Jersey
Webpage: National Park
General Description: When Thomas Edison married his second wife, Mina, in 1884 and bought her Glenmont estate in West Orange he decided to build a new laboratory less than a mile from his home to be the “best equipped and largest laboratory extant and the facilities superior to any other for rapid and cheap development of an invention.” Continuing and expanding on his research at Menlo Park, the laboratory at West Orange continued to grow and produce commercial inventions for the next 40 years. The main laboratory was a three story complex that included a power plant, machine shops, stock rooms, experimental rooms and a large library. The site also included four smaller one story structures that housed the chemistry lab, physics lab, metallurgy lab, and pattern shop. The original steam power plant was eventually changed to a turbine electric plant to power the laboratory. Over the years factories were built surrounding the laboratory to manufacture the inventions eventually covering over 20 acres and employing over 10,000 people during World War I. The laboratory was large enough to provide space for 10 to 20 projects at once. After successfully launching the electric age with his light bulb and the Edison General Electric Company out of the Menlo Park lab, which continued this work, his first project for the new lab was to improve on his phonograph. By the 1890s his factories were producing phonographs for both home and office use. His inventions included everything needed to make recordings, produce copies of the recording, and to play them. Evidence of this can be seen in the sound laboratory in the complex. Thus he created the recording industry. While working on the phonograph he envisioned a system to record images as well and demonstrated his first motion picture in 1891 and began commercial production of movies two years later giving rise to the movie industry. His biggest failure was the massive investments into improving the mining of iron ore, which never yielded any practical results. However, his efforts led to a great deal of waste sand that improved cement production leading to the profitable Edison Portland Cement Company. Other major accomplishments included the development of a powerful alkaline battery, initially to power electric cars and trucks, but ultimately useful for lighting railway cars, maritime buoys, and mine lamps; meters to measure electrical current; and the production of rubber from other plants than rubber trees. In total, Edison had 1093 US patents in his amazing 60 year career as an American inventor and entrepreneur.
1) The Visitor Center is housed in the offices just inside the guardhouse that all employees had to pass through to enter the laboratory. Along with a small souvenir shop and bathrooms, the visitor center includes a small theater that shows a number of short films. Visitors can watch a film about Edison, his life and work at the laboratory or the original silent film “The Great Train Robbery” produced in 1903.
2) We were fortunate to be able to take a short tour of the Chemistry Lab with explanations from a Park Ranger. The lab is set up ready for the conduction of chemical experiments for the time period. The profusion of color coded pipes running overhead all through the lab makes an interesting scene.
3) While the insufficient staff to have all the outbuilding open, you can look through the doors and windows to view the metallurgy lab and pattern shop. Unfortunately, you could not see into the physics lab, which seems to be used for storage anyway.
4) Upon entering the main laboratory building you first see the time clocks used by the employees as the entered and exited the lab. To the right of the main entrance is the library and offices for the laboratory. This two story library is something to behold. It supposedly contained all the published scientific work available at the time along with desks, tables, and even a bed for Edison to take naps on.
5) On the first floor are two main rooms. The first is the storage room which is full of movable shelves containing every conceivable part or apparatus they might need in the lab. There are so many different pieces in the little bit of the storage area you can see that is blows the mind. Edison was adamant about having anything available for the researchers from all over the world. Truly amazing!
6) The rest of the first floor is for heavy metal working with all kinds of lathes, drills, and presses around the room. They are all connected with belts to the power plant. There is even a heavy duty crane on a track down the center of the room to move the heavier objects and machines.
7) The second floor is split between an area for the construction of models and fine metal work, Edison’s personal lab, and conference rooms.
8) The third floor held a very large storage area for all the models and designs. They have quite a selection on display that span all kinds of technologies from batteries, toys, electric meters, recording devices, and many more. Even then you can see that it is a very small percentage of what they have in storage.
9) At one end of the third floor is the recording studio where they conducted all their experiments in sound recordings. It is filled with musical instruments, pianos, and tubes of even size and length to capture the sound. There are also pictures on the walls of all the artists that participated in the research.
10) Outside is a reconstruction of the Edison Black Maria, his movie production studio. As the name implies, it is totally black with an angled top that could be opened to control the amount of light let into the studio. The entire box is set on a circular track so it could be turned to orient on the sun throughout the day. It is quite an apparatus, but most of been very hot in the summer.
11) Across the street is the only remaining factory that was supplied by the laboratory. It is a huge concrete structure!
12) Finally, I would recommend taking the tour of Edison’s estate, Glenmont. You have to get free tickets for the tour at the Visitor Center at the laboratory, but it is well worth the visit. Situated in Llewellyn Park, the first planned residential community in the US, Glenmont was built by Henry Pedder, a confidential secretary for the prestigious Arnold Constable Company in New York. Pedder spared no expense in either the construction or furnishing of his lavish estate with originally 23 rooms and 2.5 bathrooms. Unfortunately, he embezzled the funds to build it and when discovered in 1884, he had to either give the estate to the company or go to jail. So Edison got a great deal on the house and property for $125,000 as a wedding gift to his new wife, Mina and his three children from his previous marriage. This part of the story is important because the house came fully furnished, most of which they never changed. Thus you see a number of features, like animal skin rugs and mounted heads, that just don’t seem to fit my picture of Thomas Edison. Of course, Edison made a number of improvements such as electricity run by underground wire from the laboratory and bathrooms for all the bedrooms upstairs. The home and grounds are both lavish and comfortable at the same time. I would also recommend taking a look at the garage which has a turntable in the floor so Edison could pack the garage with vehicles.