Friday, March 11, 2011

The Wizard hidden in plain sight: Thomas Edison’s West Orange labs

Okay, this one is hidden in plain sight: new things to be seen at Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange. A brief disclaimer here: Edison is one of my personal heroes, and I volunteer time at the labs a few times a month.  That’s why I brought Ivan there for a look-see, even though there’s not a birding component to the destination.

If you grew up in New Jersey, you probably took a school trip to see Edison’s library, storeroom and machine shop, and then maybe his chemistry lab. Now, all three floors of Edison’s main laboratory building are accessible to visitors for the first time in the park’s history, thanks to a six-year restoration project that was completed in October 2009.

Edison called the multi-building complex his invention factory, and it’s the successor to his Menlo Park lab, where he perfected the lightbulb. Opened in 1887, it was the world’s first state-of-the art corporate research and development laboratory, and operated till his death in 1931. The concept was simple: rather than working alone, the boss would come up with an idea and then assemble a team of experimenters to work on it, providing the tools and materials needed for the job. About half of Edison’s 1093 inventions came out of the West Orange lab, showing just what you could do with smart people and the right resources.

While the first floor offers the grand library and a storeroom that held a dizzying array of raw materials, the second and third floors give you a whole new perspective on the man and the business of inventing. Check out the sparse Room 12, Edison’s private thinking area and chemistry lab. Across the hall there’s a drafting room where workers drew plans of the machines that would mass produce inventions for market. Upstairs, the photography studio and darkroom show another part of Edison’s genius: he was one of the first to recognize the importance of images in marketing and advertising, even going as far as trademarking his signature and portrait.

If you’re a music fan, you can’t miss the highlight of the third floor: the world’s first recording studio. Edison’s favorite invention (and the one that worked on the first try!) was the phonograph, and a chronological exhibit shows its development over time. You’ll probably be surprised by the lack of acoustical material in the studio, but the equipment was so basic at the time that it didn’t really make a difference. Park Rangers and volunteers demonstrate the technology twice a day, showing kids how their great-grandparents listened to music way before the advent of the iPod.

We didn’t make the trip on the day I brought Ivan, but visitors can also get tickets to visit Edison’s home, Glenmont, just a mile or so away. The grand Queen Anne mansion is open only by guided tour, and if you time your visit well, your guide might actually be me! More on that to come.

(Incidentally, if you're on Twitter, you can follow the park at ThomasEdisonNHP .  Besides posts on breaking events, they're posting daily Tweets echoing activities in Edison's life in 1911.  And one of my fellow volunteers works closely with the curators and keeps a fascinating blog on Edison artifacts and marginalia. Talk about Hidden New Jersey!)

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