Friday, January 10, 2014

The Wizard's roots, better than ever: the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park

With multiple stories already written on Thomas Edison and features on his lab and home in West Orange, it's remarkable that we haven't yet made a proper visit to the town that proudly bears his name. Specifically, I'm talking about the site where he built his first invention factory, the community that led to his famed sobriquet: the Wizard of Menlo Park.

Thomas Edison, Menlo Park New Jersey, Hidden New JerseyThe Thomas Edison Center, also known as the Menlo Park Museum, sits modestly on a side street off Route 27, honoring a man whose inventions changed the world. Long-time readers might recall that we've gone there a few times before, notably to find the site of the first electric railroad and get lost in the adjacent woods and trail in what's officially Thomas Edison State Park. The two most notable historic aspects of the park, the museum and the memorial tower, were closed for renovation during those earlier visits.

The great news is that while the tower is still mired in the restoration process, the small museum is open again, and better than ever. Housed in what was originally built to be the tower's visitors center, the pre-renovation museum was cramped with enough artifacts to qualify it for the world record for most history per square foot. While it gave a good representation of his work at Menlo Park, there were so many display cases that it was difficult for a tour of more than a handful of people at one time to visit comfortably.

Now, visitors are welcomed with an overview of Edison's work, not just in Menlo Park, but throughout his career. A timeline in the entry area indicates the start of his career as an itinerant telegraph operator and follows him to the East Coast, to Newark, Menlo Park, New York and West Orange. Additional panels illustrate the brief history of Menlo Park as a failed residential development that Edison saw as an ideal setting to build his invention factory. And a corridor into the main display area is lined with copies of a small selection of the 400 patents he was granted for new technologies developed on site.

Thomas Edison, Menlo Park, NJ 350, light bulb, Hidden New JerseyWhile half of his 1093 patents were derived from work done at the West Orange labs, Edison is best remembered for two Menlo Park inventions: the phonograph and the perfected incandescent light bulb. The newly-curated exhibit gives ample attention to both but also highlights other lesser-known yet still very recognizable innovations. A rusted rail and spike represent the electric railroad he built on the property, while a motorized pen, printers' roller and tube of mimeograph ink introduce the electric duplicating system he invented in Newark and patented in Menlo Park. Another part of the room includes the carbon button microphone Edison developed in 1877 as an improvement to the telephone Alexander Graham Bell had patented a year earlier. Various equipment represent the machine shop where workers made parts that would be assembled into inventions.

The best part of a visit to Menlo Park hasn't changed much: the storytelling ability of the Thomas Edison Center's volunteer museum guides. A visitor could definitely learn a lot just by studying the interpretive text around the exhibit, but the volunteers give life to Edison's persistence and belief in the process of invention.

Once you've heard the stories and seen the artifacts, you're hungry to explore the places where Edison walked, thought and toiled. Regrettably, very little remains to represent his physical presence on the site, as the lab and other structures were taken down in 1929 and reconstructed at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village in Michigan. If you go to the edge of the Menlo Park property and look carefully atop the rise at the corner of Christie Street and Tower Road, you'll find the sunken foundation of the building that housed the inventor's office, plus another, smaller building. A gnarled, barely-recognizable portion of the doorstep remains, giving visitors the chance to step, literally, where Edison did.

The 129-foot high Memorial Tower stands over the actual site where Edison lit the first long-lasting (14 hours) incandescent bulb. A gift from early associates who dubbed themselves the Edison Pioneers, it was constructed of 13 different mosaic mixes of Edison Portland cement, from dark at the base to light at the top, and topped with a 13 foot, 8 inch high Pyrex light bulb. The ongoing restoration includes repair work on the exterior cement and the installation of 21st century lighting and sound systems that Edison surely would have approved of. It's expected to open sometime this summer.

The Thomas Edison Center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, making it the perfect starting point for an Edison exploration day. It's close enough to the Parkway that you could easily spend an hour or two there and then zip up to Thomas Edison National Historical Park to learn more about his later years.

1 comment:

  1. To view a recently discovered ambrotype portrait of 17 year old Thomas Edison, see


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