Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Menlo Park Laboratory

Thomas Edison was Henry Ford's life-long hero and, as adults, were very close friends. And when Mr. Ford formed the idea for his magnificent museum he knew he wanted to pay tribute to this greatest of all inventors. What better way to do this than to restore the "factory" where so many of his greatest inventions took place?

In March of 1928, Ford began the restoration process. He wanted to reconstruct the Menlo Park complex where Edison and his skilled helpers worked at inventing "the future" from the years 1876 to 1886, and he wanted to do it in every minute detail.
To give a quick bit of history of the lay out of this laboratory, the first floor was used for mainly testing the products as well as measuring and processing. A small cubby was also used for Edison's original office.
It was on the 2nd floor that the real excitement took place, for it was here that Edison's workers had separate work stations for specific projects, oftentimes working throughout the night on experiments.
Edison had a pipe organ installed for entertainment during their few breaks. The men - Edison included - would take turns picking out a tune on the organ while everyone else sang.

It was unfortunate that the original site was nearly completely dismantled not too many years after Edison's move to West Orange, New Jersey in 1887 by neighboring farmers. In fact, it was only a year after Edison had removed himself cows began to wander amongst the buildings of the complex, and a chicken farmer even allowed his flock to make the laboratory their home! Soon after many local residents began using the quickly dilapidating building's boards to repair their own deteriorating barns and hen houses. A severe storm blew what was left of the building over in 1913.
Luckily, with Mr. Edison's help, many of the original boards were found, including some that were in storage, while others were regained through purchase of the sheds and other farm buildings mentioned above.
Edison himself supervised the reconstruction.
Ford was also able to locate or find exact replicas, through the aid of photographs and the memories of those who worked there, of the furniture, tools, and other artifacts that once played an important role inside the lab.

Excavators dug through the original ground and not only found thousands of pieces of Edison's trash and other original "relics" from the lab that had been thrown out (which were gathered and shipped to Dearborn), but they could also see how the original buildings were positioned.
Once they were aligned in Greenfield Village in the same directional orientation as they were in New Jersey (including carloads of New Jersey clay from the original grounds!), the buildings became the focal point on what would be called "the greatest and most significant single preservation effort in America."

The organ in the above photo was there because Edison believed that entertainment was necessary to break up the day.

Once restored, Mr. Ford asked the great inventor what he thought of the reconstruction to which Mr. Edison replied that it was 99% correct. Wondering about that 1% that wasn't right, Ford questioned Edison what was not correct.
"It was never this clean!" Mr. Edison told him.

On the rainy night of the grand opening of Greenfield Village - October 21, 1929 - Edison, who was deeply honored and moved by the tribute given to him that evening, reenacted the lighting of the first incandescent light, which originally took place 50 years ago on that date in, pretty much, this very same building. Henry Ford and President Hoover were right there in the room with him while this event was nationally broadcast on radio. After the glorious moment took place, Ford ordered his men to have the chair upon which Edison sat for the reenactment to be nailed to the floor as is.

It remains there to this day. (see picture above)

There are certain times throughout the year that one can speak into a replica Edison phonograph and hear the playback, much as Edison did back in 1877.

The Edison Phonograph
Although the laboratory is not 100% original, it was close enough to perfect for Edison and his former helpers. Many of the items - bottles and such - upon the shelves are the very same that Edison had in the laboratory in the early 1880's. The idea that it was in this building (in all reality, it really was this building when you think about it) that Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light, the phonograph, the stock ticker, a forerunner of the telephone, and over 400 other items, is enough to send chills down one's back upon entering the complex.
For more information on Edison at Greenfield Village, please click the links below:


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