Everything is Illuminated

Edison National Historic Site details the life of an American innovator.

By Mike Thomas

Thomas Edison—“The Wizard of Menlo Park,” New Jersey—was already immensely wealthy and globally renowned when, in February 1886, he relocated his family and his industry to a sprawling plot in a swanky nook of West Orange. By then his tin foil phonograph was, quite literally, the talk of the town, and his practical incandescent bulbs were shedding new light on an electrified nation. And he was settling into his second marriage, two years after the death of his first wife, Mary. In short, life was good—and this upgrade from his comparatively modest digs in Menlo Park was proof.

As a wedding gift to his second spouse, Mina Miller, Edison had purchased a 13.5-acre estate called Glenmont in the upscale community of Llewellyn Park, where he lived in grand style, and where he eventually died and was buried alongside Mina. The site included a 29-room Victorian mansion that frequently entertained big-name guests, a barn full of livestock, a skating pond, and a greenhouse bursting with orchids, palms, and roses.

Edison was thrilled to get the place for a steal, quite possibly as a result of someone else’s stealing (the former owner, Henry C. Pedder, had been accused of embezzlement). “When I entered this I was paralyzed,” he’d later say. “To think that it was possible to buy a place like this, which a man with taste for art and a talent for decoration had put years of enthusiastic study and effort into—too enthusiastic, in fact—the idea fairly turned my head and I snapped it up. It is a great deal too nice for me, but it isn’t half nice enough for my little wife here.”

Run for roughly a half-century by the Park Service, Glenmont has long been part of the Edison National Historic Site. After closing in 2003 for extensive work on the structure’s heating, cooling, and fire-protection systems, the site re-opened in 2006.

Guided by thousands of photographs and reams of saved receipts, restorers were able to replicate select areas down to the smallest details. From furniture and china in the home to exotic automobiles in the roomy garage to several types of greenhouse plants—some of which are descendants of the originals and available for purchase—many elements are just as they were during Edison’s era.

Less than a mile after Edison moved into the neighborhood, where he toiled for up to 100 hours a week. Once surrounded by factory buildings where the proprietor’s inspired but not always functional notions morphed from design to reality, it’s closed for renovation until sometime next year. Soon enough, however, the public will get an enlightening eyeful of rarely seen treasures—most notably in the main laboratory, where an additional 20,000 square feet of exhibit space on floors two and three will showcase a photography studio and another machine shop. There was a recording studio on the premises, too, where musicians and entertainers of the day, such as the first African-American recording star George W. Johnson, came to lay down tracks or record spoken-word musings on wax cylinders. Although he never became famous for his filmmaking, Edison developed early motion picture technology here as well.

According to the site’s assistant superintendent, Theresa Jung, this latest restoration will allow visitors to witness “the whole process of what Edison did here.” From the idea and research stages through design and commercial manufacture, Edison’s latter day invention epicenter will shine like never before. Jung says the expansion may also help dispel the persistent myth of Edison as loner, for he was anything but.

“It was purposely designed for, as he called it, ‘rapid and cheap invention,’” Jung says of the all-inclusive West Orange complex, where thousands of employees once sustained Edison’s empire. “He had all of the physical resources that he needed—the machine shops, the reference materials, the laboratory space. And he had the human resources. He wasn’t the solitary inventor that a lot of people think of. it was the whole idea of team-based research that enabled him to accomplish everything he did here.”

Like Edison’s home, his chemistry lab—one of four smaller buildings outside the main lab—is frozen in time. Meticulously recreated to appear as it did at the height of Edison’s reign, the interior houses workbenches filled with experiments in progress and tables lined with beakers, test tubes, and experimental electric car batteries. There even are signs of the inventor himself at work. Edison’s lab coat, for instance, is draped on a hanger, as if he has simply gone out for lunch.

Beyond its role as a tourist-trod museum filled with intriguing artifacts, the Edison site is a testament to the innovative and extraordinarily far-reaching vision of a true American pioneer.

“It’s hard to imagine a couple minutes of your day going by without something that comes from an Edison invention,” Jung says. “You turn on the lights, you listen to music, you turn on the television, you watch a movie. All of those things started with Edison’s inventions. in a way, he changed our world. He changed everything that we do.”

Mike Thomas, a staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, has written for Esquire, Salon.com, and Smithsonian.

This article appears in the Fall 2008 issue.

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