Saturday, January 4, 2014

Keep a light on: Edison, Harrison and the lost light bulb factory

While Thomas Edison most often is associated with the towns of Menlo Park and West Orange, the prolific inventor experimented in many places around Northern New Jersey. And just as I think I have a good handle on his research projects and where he built facilities, another surprise pops up. One of them is hidden in a 1.4 square mile community on the banks of the Passaic River.

Once known as the Beehive of Industry, the Hudson County town of Harrison was long a manufacturing center, home to corporations that capitalized on the proximity to a major railroad line, Port Newark and eventually Newark International Airport. Its narrow streets were conduits for more than 90,000 factory workers who lent their labor to turning out everything from elevators to beer. My own parents were among them for a time, working as technicians at RCA's sprawling vacuum tube division.

Many years ago, my dad mentioned that on his way to work he'd once seen evidence of one of Harrison's past industrial residents, the Edison Lamp Company. Workers were digging a trench near the street and had come upon discarded bulbs and scraps of glass tubing that, in Dad's opinion, could only have come from the Edison plant.

Indeed, he'd stumbled upon Edison's Harrison location, the largely unknown "second generation" light bulb factory. The first commercially available bulbs had been made in Menlo Park, in the electric pen factory just steps away from where the incandescent technology had been perfected in December 1879. That space, however, proved insufficient to satisfy the impending demand for lighting.

Logic dictated that as the Edison company established electric generation and distribution systems in more cities, the market for light bulbs would grow exponentially. Thus, Edison and his team established a manufacturing plant and testing lab at the corner of Harrison's Bergen and South Fifth Streets in 1882, hiring about 150 employees. The testing lab was also relocated to Harrison, further distancing the operation from the company's Menlo Park roots. Even though the bulb had been successfully duplicated on a large scale, the Edison team continued to refine and perfect both the product and the manufacturing process. Could they make a longer-lasting filament? Was it possible to increase profits by making the bulbs more efficiently? And what about the lamps the bulbs would burn within? All of these issues, and more, were addressed at the Harrison lab.

Made in Harrison: an 1884 Edison light bulb
The Edison Lamp Company merged with several other Edison companies in 1892 to become Edison General Electric Company. Within 20 years more than 4000 people were working at the Harrison plant, turning out hundreds of thousands of light bulbs a year. By that time, however, the business was no longer Edison's concern.  A disagreement with his investors had led to his departure from that company, resulting in the General Electric we're familiar with today.

The Harrison location kept turning out bulbs until 1929, when its operations were moved to other GE locations. A year later, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) purchased the property for its radio tube division. Like Edison, RCA both manufactured product at the site and conducted research and development there, ultimately growing its presence to 26 buildings covering 9.5 acres.

Little indication of either RCA or Edison Lamp Company exists today, victim to economics and technological advances. Manufacturing in Harrison declined after peaking in the 1940s, and the advent of solid state components spelled the end of RCA's vacuum radio tube division in 1976. The corner of Bergen and Fifth is now taken up by a shopping center, and if any light bulbs are being sold there, they're likely compact fluorescents rather than incandescent.

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