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Behind the scenes with 'The Wizard of Menlo Park'

Road Trip 2010: CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman visited Thomas Edison National Historic Park and got a close-up look at the great inventor's labs, manufacturing facilities and his house.

The world's first phonograph, which Thomas Edison invented in 1877, is now on display at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park in West Orange, N.J. CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman visited the labs of the 'Wizard of Menlo Park' Tuesday as part of Road Trip 2010. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

WEST ORANGE, N.J.--I have come to the mountaintop of invention.

Today, this is the Thomas Edison National Historic Park, but for decades, it was the laboratory complex where the great innovator and the many people he employed did their work. For a geek, it doesn't get much better than this.

As part of Road Trip 2010, I'm paying a visit to a complex that, when it was fully operational, comprised dozens of buildings and employed hundreds of people. And I have to say that, while I'm no Edison scholar, this was definitely one of the stops I was most looking forward to.

At its peak, the complex was 10 times the size of the research and development labs in Menlo Park, N.J., where Edison had first become famous by inventing the phonograph and electric-powered incandescent light bulb. But when Edison married his second wife, Mina Miller, he offered her a choice of a townhouse in New York City or a house in the country. She chose the country.

That meant West Orange, a New Jersey town within sight of the Big Apple, would be home to this huge set of R&D and manufacturing facilities. Today, long after the death of both Edison and his wife, the property is run by the National Park Service, which last fall completed a six-year renovation that has opened up a vast new collection of artifacts to the general public.

All told, the Park Service oversees an archive that includes more than 5 million documents; 400,000 items including prototypes and commercially produced models of Edison's inventions, lab furnishings, and equipment; as well as personal effects from the Edisons' home; 48,000 sound recordings; and much, much more. It also maintains the Edisons' home--known as Glenmont--in tony Llewellyn Park nearby.

Though Edison invented the phonograph and the light bulb in Menlo Park, that doesn't mean there was a lack of world-changing innovation coming out of the labs in West Orange. Quite the contrary.

It was here that the "Wizard of Menlo Park" first developed the kinetograph and the kinetoscope, the first motion-picture camera and viewing system, and where he set up the world's first movie studio.

Edison set up shop here in 1887, and his intention was both to work on new inventions and to manufacture them as well. His goal? To create a sort of one-stop shop for innovation that didn't require farming out any of the work. Why bother, the thinking seems to have been, when it could all be placed under one roof? Well, if not one single roof, then at least on one set of grounds.

The main part of the complex--"the Inventing Buildings"--consisted of a physics lab, a chemistry lab, a woodworking building, a metallurgical lab, and a set of research labs, machine shops, music recording facilities, a photography studio, and a drafting studio. At its peak, the complex had nearly 200 people doing research and development, and the adjacent factories employed 10,000 more. Edison and his companies churned out inventions and the resulting products here for 44 years.

In the heavy machine shop, Edison employees could craft just about any machinery they needed, such as these, which were used to punch holes in the first phonographic records. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Touring the complex today, visitors will usually start in Building 5. Here was Edison's office, which also doubled as the complex's main library, as well as the place to show distinguished visitors his collection of "trophies," or prized possessions.

Among those showpieces is the first Academy Award, which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences gave Edison in 1929 for his lifetime of work on behalf of the film industry. Signed by luminaries like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, the award didn't come with a statue, but must have meant just as much as an Oscar does today.

In keeping with the idea of not having to go anywhere else at any point in the production process, Building 5 included a full-on stockroom, complete with just about any tool or piece of equipment anyone might need. Again, the concept was that someone could use the building's library to research their design ideas, and then go to the stockroom to get the tools they'd need to build.

Another important piece of this process was the pair of machine shops in the building. Downstairs is the heavy machine shop, filled with major lathes and presses and designed to craft big and, yes, heavy machinery and the like, including some of the machines that would be necessary to work on new inventions. Because Edison didn't want anyone to have to leave to do their work, his people often just built the equipment they needed for their production process, such as the device they built to put holes in phonograph records. The shop was also used for the production of some prototype or production products.

Upstairs was the smaller precision machine shop, which had smaller lathes and presses and was used for more delicate work. Between the two shops, it was said, Edison's people could craft anything "from a locomotive to a lady's watch."

On the third floor was the complex's music room, and here there is a collection of what has to be one of the most interesting phonograph horns around. It was also where many recordings were made, often with Edison's direct involvement. It's said that the inventor would listen to everything, and insisted on giving his approval for any recording that came out with his name on it.

Six years
Until last October, the Park Service had been hard at work renovating the complex in order to bring it up to date and make it ready for a public eager to learn more about Edison. Now, it's open again and includes a much wider selection of artifacts than ever before. In one gallery, visitors can see the world's first phonograph--which imprinted sound waves on tinfoil, as well as the first that recorded sound waves on a wax cylinder.

Though many of the facilities the Park Service allows the public to see feature a mix of original artifacts and reconstructions or representations, some are almost wholly original. One of those is the chemistry lab in Building 2. Though some of the chemicals were taken out over the years on the order of local hazardous materials authorities, the lab still contains much of its authentic working equipment and chemicals. It looks like a dream lab: old bottles with liquids and powders everywhere; old test tubes, beakers, and scales. And many glass cases full of old jars and bottles.

An old scale in the chemistry lab at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park, in West Orange, N.J. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The lab was used for many different experiments, including some of Edison's first work on the electric storage battery. Over 10 years, scientists conducted 50,000 experiments on the battery before finally coming up with a commercial-ready product.

Outside is a replica of the "Black Mariah," the first movie studio. Called that because it resembles a black police paddy wagon--which were known as "Black Mariah," the small, odd building is designed to rotate, and has a ceiling that opens, both features intended to allow those working inside to always have the best direct sunlight with which to work. By turning the building to follow the sun, they could ensure that they'd always have good light for shooting.

After finishing up the tour at the R&D complex, some visitors will drive the short distance to the Glenmont estate. Set on 13 acres of lush green land, the 1880 house--which Edison bought in 1886 for $125,000--has 29 rooms, and also features a greenhouse, a large garage, a barn, and huge lawns.

Edison lived in the house until he died in 1931, while his wife Mina stayed there until her own death in 1947. While both were initially buried in a local cemetery, the Edison family eventually decided to inter the two on the Glenmont property and did so in the 1960s.

Because he didn't like to golf, Edison would have many business meetings at the house, and over the years, visitors included people like the Wright Brothers and the King of Siam.

The 29-room house that Edison bought for his 20-year-old bride, Mina Miller, in 1886. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

He also used the garage to store his world-class collection of electric cars. While such vehicles are considered a novelty today, in Edison's time, they were already well used. Between him and his wife, they had three electrics, and the garage even featured its own charging station.

It also had a "turntable" that was used to get each of the vehicles stored there into its own parking space. The interior of the garage was somewhat tight, so the cars would be driven onto the turntable, which would then be rotated to allow the car to be moved into the proper place.

For anyone interested in invention or innovation, this is a place steeped in the best that the world saw for decades, and it's easy to still feel that energy in the air, both at the house and the R&D complex. Though today, the complex is in the middle of an otherwise mundane neighborhood--it is adjacent to a drug store--this is one historic park that lives up to its name.

For the next few weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.