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Thomas Alva Edison
In Menlo Park, NJ
Neil Baldwin received his Ph.D. from SUNY/Buffalo. He is the author of critically acclaimed biographies of William Carlos Williams, Man Ray and Thomas Alva Edison. He lives in Upper Montclair, New Jersey with his wife and two children.
Neil Baldwin's 1995 biography of Thomas Alva Edison, Edison - Inventing the Century (copyright 1995, published by Hyperion, New York City), provides us with some insight about life in Menlo Park in the late 1870's and early 1880's:
At Menlo Park----a farming village twelve miles south of Newark and twenty-five miles out of New York City, strategically located on the Pennsylvania Railroad line between the Manhattan metropolis and Philadelphia----a dwelling and two tracts of land were purchased for $5,200 from a Mr. George Goodyear. It was a secluded rural site, yet with convenient access to industrial necessities. The cleared property on a hillside backed right up against virgin forest, and fronted acres of pastures and streams bounded by white rail fences meandering past ponds bordered by willows.
Alighting at the Menlo Park combination train station-telegraph office-post office on Lincoln Highway, parallel to the railroad line, you crossed the tracks past the conveniently situated Lighthouse Tavern, where you could moisten your throat parched from the dusty journey and indulge in a quick game of billiards, and then had to proceed about two hundred feet uphill on a boardwalk to reach the Edison home, a three-story white clapboard house with a windmill in back of it. Another hundred yards trudge farther along unpaved Christie Street, at the very peak of the hill, was the laboratory building, constructed under the general supervision of Samuel Edison between January and March 1876, with sturdy hemlock planks purchased from the estimable firm of Hoover, Harris & Company of Philipsburg, Pennsylvania. This two-story frame structure, one hundred feet by thirty feet, graced with a commodious, arched porch and an out-building, most likely a carpentry shop, originally served as office, laboratory, and machine shop.
In the early days at Menlo Park, the second floor of the laboratory building was the focal point for the six-day, ten-hours-a-day work week. On the broad balcony looking southward over the cow pastures, Edison conducted his megaphone experiments.
In the communal scheme of Menlo Park, under Thomas Edison's all- seeing, all-knowing eye, it made sense that Kruesi and Batchelor and their families would share a house a stone's throw from him, across Christie Street. Requiring his tightly knit work force likewise to be in close proximity, Edison imported another distant relative, the recently widowed Sarah Jordan, at the time living in Newark with her daughter, Ida, offering the women the oppontunity to establish a boarding house on Christie Street midway between the Edison home and the laboratory. Here, single men and occasional transients were accommodated in the six upstairs bedrooms of the twelve-room duplex house. As traffic in and out of the compound intensified, Mrs. Jordan hung out a Lunch Room shingle, charging thirty cents a meal to all comers, and set her establishment up to cater to the local men who did not go home to the village for their repast, as well as to serve visiting dignitaries and journalists--when the public spotlight inevitably found its target.
As the Phonograph bewitched the popular imagination the hordes descended upon Menlo Park. Newspaper reporters and miscellaneous dignitaries by the carload crossed the Rahway River and swampy meadows on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and, up its south branch to the Raritan Valley, a few miles from Perth Amboy in Middlesex County, signaled for the diminutive station stop- rumor was they were going to rename it Edisonville. Occasionally, one might make a courtesy call at the Victorian homestead, a light-colored frame house with dark-red trim, wide and shallow with cross-gables on the roof and a porch shadowed by a distinctive latticework pattern.
The retiring Mrs. Edison did not always come downstairs. Self-conscious and shy by nature, incessantly lonely for her husband who was never there for dinner--or any other meal for that matter--Mary Edison, pregnant with her third child, had no choice but to keep close to home. Little Tom, Jr., was often sick and needed constant care. He was no playmate for his big sister, the vivacious, quick-minded Marion. Long blond hair streaming, dressed in lilac silk, she was a familiar figure around Menlo Park, skipping merrily along the boardwalk leading up to the laboratory, always on the lookout for the black snakes she feared, carrying Father's lunch to him in a basket--sandwiches, tea, and a huge piece of pie. After morning tutoring sessions with her governess, Marion loved to make quick visits to the laboratory, that exotic playland. If she rested her elbows on Papa's knee and gazed up into his open face with just the right plaintive expression, he might set down his clay pipe, dig deep into his pocket, and come out with a dime for her to buy candy. Marion avoided the strange, bearded men who labored by Edison's side and called her "Dot,' and looked as if they were hiding behind masks. Visitors were told by the Negro housekeeper to proceed to the laboratory.
It was "Professor" Thomas Edison, "the Wizard," "the New Jersey Columbus," "the Napoleon of Invention" the throngs were coming to see at firsthand in his hilltop hideaway, "Monte Cristo's cave." In a private moment of Thoreauvian inspiration, Edison protested to a friend that "the reporters who come down here have already unstrung my nerves [so much] that I think of taking to the woods." However, the public Edison possessed more than a touch of the P. T. Barnum to offset whatever reluctance he may have felt deep within--most of his visitors were there by invitation.
Adding to the Oz-like drama was the topography of the countryside, a low rise in the first hill after the station preventing the visitor from noticing the architecture of the laboratory from the train depot. The farmhouse-tabernacle-schoolhouse-frame tenement-experimental atelier (one wag likened it to a "country shoe factory") was festooned with telegraph wires and lightning rods, with two brick chimneys rising from one side. It came slowly into view only after you had passed the Edison home. Mounted on a piazza in front of the laboratory porch was a powerful telescope through which, on a clear day, you could actually see the cables of the great East River bridge under construction, "rising to the naked eye like a swarthy giant on the misty horizon." At the back of the building, next to a pond stocked with bullheads to indulge Edison's penchant for fishing, a twisted apple tree stood, enhancing the rural air, surrounded by old barrels, rickety machinery, and heaps of discarded junk.
On the height of the bluff, in the country peace, crickets and tree-toads chirped, bees hummed, breezes blew, buttercups wavered. You drew nearer to the white building and noticed peeling paint as you mounted the sagging stairs to the balcony-shaded verandah, with a sensation more akin to entering a meeting house or town hall rather than a laboratory.
By early spring , Edison had used a Gramme generator to power no less than eighteen lamps alight in a series, each equal in intensity to sixteen candles, but without the bothersome heat caused by gas. He was already fantasizing (although he had no idea what it would cost) about "lighting up" the town of Metuchen, about two miles distant, running the current over poles set along the country lanes so that "all kinds and classes of people may have an opportunity to judge of it .... It is more important to me," declared the Whitmanesque Edison, "that the servant in the kitchen should express her mind on the lamp, with regard simply to its lighting power, than that her mistress should wonder over it as a novelty without comparing it properly to gas."
Events moved rapidly as Edison first set out to assuage the fears of his impatient financial supporters, who had been hovering in the wings for a long time, held back from deserting him only through the good graces and diplomatic assurances of Grosvenor Lowrey. Francis Upton's home and the main laboratory were selected for a post-Christmas  exclusive demonstration. Forty lamps were kept alive from six until after ten in the evening for members of the board of the Edison Electric Light Company. Upton was feeling flush again, even though as the latest breakthrough took hold he still believed privately that Edison's "valuations are on his hopes more than on his realities." His reservations had not deterred him from buying a brand-new piano which was installed in the house he had acquired on the corner of Frederick and Monmouth streets in Menlo Park, surrounded by a neat picket fence, just behind Batchelor's place; and he and his proud bride then went over to New York to hire their first maidservant. The crowning glory was the installation of six bulbs in "Culture's" very own parlor.
Loops of charred bristol board encased in globes skillfully fashioned by Edison's virtuoso German glassblower (and occasional zither strummer) Ludwig Boehm glowed for many hours over the holiday season at Menlo Park as a new, larger generator, dubbed a "Faradic Machine" in honor of Edison's paragon, was installed in the machine shop. The old Wallace machines had long since been discarded because their iron cores became over-heated and wasted energy. In their place was a monstrosity nicknamed "Long-Legged" (later modestly changed to "Long-Waisted") Mary Ann, because each of its twin field magnets towered almost five feet high and weighed more than five hundred pounds.
Crowds of sightseers began to invade the compound in the waning days of December. Even extra trains put on the line could not keep up with the flow. The little depot was filled with the curious, and the narrow boardwalk leading up to the laboratory past Mrs. Jordan's establishment was almost impassable at times. Valuable laboratory equipment was broken in the crush, requests of "do not touch" ignored. Lamps had been mounted on wooden poles outdoors, and their eerie orange light threw quivering, firefly shadows over the snow-dusted ground.
Most evenings, over the telephone line rigged up between the laboratory and Edison's home down the hill, mother Mary would call, her hungry brood whining in the background, and ask Griffin or Batchelor----since Edison never came on the phone himself--to curtail her husband's sermonizing and hustle him off to dinner. Edison would typically relay the response back to her that he would be along imminently, then forget about it for the second and third times until Mary gave up and went ahead as usual without him.
The mood in the laboratory that winter was light and festive. Over midnight supper of smoked herring on hard crackers washed down with cold water, the men gathered around the organ even went so far as to improvise an irreverent tribute to their boss, sung to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan's "I am the captain of the Pinafore" from H.M.S. Pinafore.
Once upon a time an arcadian haven, Menlo Park now became an electric showplace. Against the black, brushstroke profiles of bare trees, slightly tilted white pine timber lampposts spaced fifty feet apart and crowned by helmet-shaped glass bulbs marched aglow across white out-lying fields.
...This was a challenge primarily of scale, and Edison had rightly begun the task by adding more and more lights to the Menlo Park network--he wanted six hundred "set and ready," which meant in turn that a smoother system for mass-producing the bulbs had to be in place--pushing them to burn for longer and longer hours, since operating efficiency pointed the way to economic success. To the southeast of the laboratory complex, across the railroad tracks, the old electric pen factory would be refurbished by the summer , to serve in its new identity as the headquarters of the Edison Electric Lamp Company.
The second theme playing below the bulb project was the concept of an electric railroad. Old maps of Menlo Park reveal an experimental track running along Middlesex Avenue perpendicular to Christie Street, next to the dynamo-laden machine shop. Here, again, Edison was not the first to propose the idea --Werner von Siemens had demonstrated his model at the Berlin Industrial Exhibition the year before--but he was the first in America. The train-boy from Milan was never happier than when at the wheel (more like a lever) of his toylike twenty-five-horsepower locomotive, pulling a swaying, open carload like a surrey with the fringe on top loaded with colleagues and reporters at speeds up to forty miles per hour along a three-quarters-of-a-mile track through the open meadow. Improved traction was key. In tests on a section of the railroad with a gradient of one foot in every hundred feet, the engine showed no signs of strain. Eventually the goal was to run a shuttle service between Perth Amboy and Rahway, wherever a horse could draw a wagon, and then, who could say?
At Menlo Park, weeds grew waist-high. Doors hung open by a bare hinge and banged shut, pummeled by the wind. Windows were punched out or broken in all the sheds and buildings. Wooden boardwalks buckled. Rusted machine parts were strewn about, their discarded carcasses in brown grass, remnants of a prouder time. Despite the entreaties of his attorney--arguing that old dynamos and electric railway motors were invaluable as archival evidence in ongoing patent contests--Edison stubbornly neglected to maintain the old place while in the same breath he strenuously refused to sell the property, for reasons nostalgic and only half-known to himself.
The Edison Pioneers saw to it that their revered mentor's legacy would be preserved for the future. Founded in 1918 with Francis R. ("Culture") Upton as first president, this association saw its mission to bring together "for social and intellectual intercourse" the Menlo Park gang, the fellows who worked with Edison in the days prior to and including 1885, before the move to West Orange, and "to pay tribute to [his] transcendent genius and achievements and to acknowledge the affection and esteem" in which they held him. Edison's secretary and biographer, William H. Meadowcroft, served as historian of the Pioneers, and such noted alumni as Lewis Latimer, Frank A. Wardlaw, John W. Lieb, William J. Hammer, and Samuel Insull held various positions on the executive committee. In 1913 the original Menlo Park lab, that evocative combination of country meeting house and overstocked warehouse, long since abandoned and collapsing, was destroyed by a storm. Four years later, Edison's historic home on Lincoln Highway was leveled by fire. The Pioneers set up a natural boulder on the site with a bronze plaque as a tribute to Mr. Edison. They convened every year on the Old Man's birthday for a black-tie banquet, champagne, cigars, and old-fashioned speechifying, while their esteemed leader, "Wondersmith of the World," made a point of granting his annual group interview with the press, seated at a desk, answering questions handed to him on scraps of paper when his hearing loss became almost complete, while the newsreel cameras whirred.
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Last updated by Jim Halpin on 6/20/99.