Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mucking Around Edison’s Lab

Mucking Around Edison’s Lab
Written by NJ Historian

Thomas A. Edison personified the age of invention, America’s new frontier in the late 1800s. Though he was best known for the phonograph and incandescent lamp, perhaps Edison’s greatest invention was a new way to invent: the industrial research and development laboratory. Today, his largest lab complex is preserved in West Orange as a National Historical Park. At West Orange, Edison perfected his phonograph, developed motion pictures, a nickel-iron-alkaline storage battery, and many other devices and technologies. Edison earned 1,093 U.S. patents in his lifetime, most for innovations that came out of the West Orange lab.

Edison's West Orange Lab Complex
The West Orange laboratory complex was ten times the size of the Menlo Park lab in present-day Edison. The lab complex was built between 1887 and 1888. The complex looked like a small college campus. The three-story main building held a research library, machine shops for building models, space for experiments and various research projects, and Edison’s office. On the grounds were separate buildings for chemistry, physics, and metallurgy. The main building held a store room which contains objects and materials from all over the world, including tools and parts, plus turtle shells, elephant hide, and other oddities. Edison collected everything imaginable to reduce wait time on projects and to ensure that his employees had everything they needed to experiment with. Edison’s employees would “muck” through all these artifacts, thus they became known as “muckers.” Edison spent most of his time in the lab, often working overnight and taking quick naps in his library on a cot installed by his wife Mina. He was also known to sleep on work benches.

The storeroom.
At one time the complex and surrounding buildings were filled with 10,000 employees from around the world. Edison had his researchers work in teams - as opposed to the lonely scientist we may imagine - and his concept of taking an invention from idea to distribution in one place was unique for the time. The first floor of the main building held the heavy machine shop, which drove the massive machinery of Edison’s inventions. Upstairs, the Precision Machine Shop, Drafting Room, Photography Studio and Music Studio demonstrate the breadth and depth of Edison's operation. It was in the music room that the some of the world’s greatest singers and musicians gathered to record their sound for Edison.

Edison's private office.
In 1892, Edison built the Black Maria, the world’s first motion picture studio. Mounted on a turntable and with an opening near the roof, the entire building could be turned to take full advantage of the daylight for filming. His staff filmed everything from ballet to boxing.

The Black Maria - movie studio
Later in Edison’s career, he tried new things; a technique for poured concrete buildings, a fluoroscope to view x-ray images, methods for manufacturing large quantities of chemicals, huge machines for extracting iron from ore and for manufacturing cement. His final research was for a domestic source for rubber. Edison tried using goldenrod for that purpose and it can still be seen in the chemical laboratory today.

Chemicals in Chemical Laboratory
Edison died in 1931 and shortly thereafter the labs closed. The site reopened in 1948 as a museum. Edison National Historic Site was established in 1962; in 2009 it became Thomas Edison National Historical Park and the main building underwent a $13 million restoration including new exhibits. The sheer size of the site’s archival material is impressive: 400,000 artifacts, 5 million documents, 48,000 sound recordings, 10,000 rare books, 3,000 lab notebooks, and 60,000 photographs.

Additional photos of my trip to Edison's West Orange Lab on Pinterest

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I thought Menlo Park was his only lab....very interesting article.

My favorite part of Edison's West Orange location is his library!

Nice article...and nice site!


Hey History Girl! I was born and raised in Orange, NJ, and am very familiar with this place. I'm in Allentown, PA, as I write this but I still visit my home from time to time and can't wait to bring my Fiancee down to see Edison's historic palace! Ha, amazing site and very cool articles. Thanks.

Tommy ( /

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