Thomas Edison's labs, up close and personal (photos)
On Road Trip 2010, CNET's Daniel Terdiman stopped in on West Orange, N.J., where the great inventor worked and lived.
WEST ORANGE, N.J.--If you ask just about anyone who the best inventor in history is, you'd almost certainly get far more votes for Thomas Edison than anyone else. The man who is probably best known for inventing the light bulb also invented the phonograph, the moving picture, the alkaline storage battery, cement houses, and many others. And he made a mint with his ingenuity.
Already well-known and wealthy, he and his young bride moved here in 1887 from the famous Menlo Park, N.J., research and development labs where he'd invented the light bulb, and he quickly set about building a series of development and manufacturing buildings, as well as a spacious and lovely estate nearby.
On Road Trip 2010, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman visited Thomas Edison National Historic Park here and got a behind-the-scenes tour of the labs and development offices that Edison and his team worked in every day for many years. These days, the National Park Service owns and operates the buildings, and after a six-year renovation, it recently fully re-opened them to the public with a series of new exhibits and archives on display.
Here, we see a group of different sized phonograph horns, in a storage room off the music room inside the lab buildings.
This is the world's first phonograph, which Edison created in 1877. One of the great things about the National Historic Park's access to both Edison's physical archives and his documents--it maintains control of more than 400,000 items and more than 5 million documents--is that they have both the original plans for the first phonograph, and the device itself. However, the document isn't on display.
According to the National Park Service, the first recorded sound to be played back was "Mary Had a Little Lamb," which he recorded on this phonograph. Unlike later machines, which used wax, it recorded sound waves as indentations on tinfoil sheets.
At the entryway to Building 5, the main building in the West Orange complex of R&D and manufacturing buildings, this time clock recorded the comings and goings of thousands of employees, including Edison himself. It's said that Edison would work between 80 and 100 hours a week.
Because Hollywood knew it owed a great deal to Edison for having invented the moving picture, he was awarded this Academy Award, the first, for his lifetime of work in the industry. The document was signed by all the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, including Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and many others.
While Building 5 maintained plenty of places for inventors to conceive of their new ideas, it also had the tools on hand that they needed to manifest those ideas.
This is in the stockroom, where all those tools were held. Because Edison thought outside the box, the stockroom maintained unusual tools and materials that he thought might come in handy at some point. They included this, which was elephant hide, as well as deer antlers, rabbit hair, horns, shells, and hooves.
The idea was that no one should have to leave the complex to make their new innovations. That meant stocking all the tools and equipment they'd need to make their inventions. This is a rack of drill bits used in the manufacture of those ideas.
A wide-angle view of the heavy machine shop where Edison's employees could make just about anything, including the machines they'd need to make their inventions. Edison wanted his people to be able to create everything they'd need, including the machinery, without leaving.
While much of Edison's company's major machine work was done in the heavy machine shop, he also maintained a precision machine shop one floor above. Here, there were smaller lathes and smaller presses, and his employees worked on more delicate items.
Between the two machine shops, Edison felt his company could build anything from a "locomotive to a lady's watch."
In 1887, after working on incandescent lighting for a few years, Edison went back to phonographs, and using innovations that came from Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Lab, he was able to, for the first time, produce a phonograph that inscribed sound waves on a wax cylinder instead of a record made from tinfoil. This is that first wax cylinder phonograph.
Edison's earliest movies were in fact talkies--that is, they had sound. Showing one of those movies and producing the audio required these two devices, the projector on the left, and the phonograph on the right. They would be quite far apart, with the phonograph behind the movie screen, and the idea was that the audio would synchronize with the movie. But it didn't work that well.
This is a replica of the "Black Mariah," which was an early Edison movie studio. Known by that name because it resembled a black police paddy wagon--which was called a Black Mariah--it was a moving building that could be rotated to catch the best sun. The roof opened up to let in the sun, and the stage could be put in place so that they had good light all day.
Edison also maintained a fully-equipped chemistry lab, seen here. In it, his chemists could work on anything they needed. The lab has been maintained in nearly its original condition, including many bottles of old chemicals.
For the giant research and development and manufacturing complex, the company maintained its own fire department, and the National Historic Park has now got some of the department's old gear on display.
Not far away from the labs and offices is Glenmont, the huge estate that Edison bought for his new bride, Mina Miller. This is the main, 29-room, house. Edison purchased the property for $125,000 in 1886.
Although both Thomas and Mina Edison were originally buried in a nearby cemetery, the Edison family eventually decided to inter them at home, and in the 1960s, they did so. Both of their graves are behind the main house.
Though the Glenmont estate, and its garage were very spacious, the interior of the garage was tight, and in order to get the several cars into their correct position, they would be driven on to this turntable, which could be rotated so that the car in question could be properly placed.