Visitors from all over the world travel to Edison, New Jersey to learn about its namesake, Thomas Edison. The Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park shines a light on Edison’s inventions through their museum and electrifying educational programs. Docents lead guests on a 45 minute tour through two galleries and the Edison Memorial Tower. Although the buildings from Menlo Park are no longer standing on the property, the guides aim to keep the memory of Edison alive and convey the significance of this site as the first center for research and development. The museum is situated on a 36-acre state park and contains multiple memorials, markers, and kiosks that relay the rich history of Menlo Park.
In the first gallery, guests learn about Thomas Edison’s life and legacy. Although he is often marketed as one of New Jersey’s famous residents, Edison was actually born in Milan, Ohio on February 11, 1847. As a child, he went by “Al'' or “Alva.” Even at a young age, Edison showed interest in chemistry and physics, and was a voracious reader. This point is reinforced through the museum’s period-appropriate copies of chemistry and physics books Edison read. As a teenger, Edison became a telegraph operator with Western Union. Through this lens, visitors learn about the telegraph and Morse code. Although he traveled around the country as a telegraph operator, Edison still had a passion for inventing. In 1869, he produced his first U.S. Patent, the electric vote recorder. This was just the beginning. Throughout his life, Thomas Edison would amass 1,093 US Patents.
Thomas Edison’s inventions would pave his way to Menlo Park. In 1869, he found himself in New York, tinkering with stock tickers. Guests can view a “Universal Stock Ticker” for which (along with a handful of other inventions) Edison was paid $40,000. With this income, he rented an office space on Ward Street in Newark, New Jersey. However, he craved a sizable piece of property where he could build his invention factory. In 1875, he purchased a failed housing development called “Menlo Park,” where he built a handful of buildings such as the machine shop, laboratory, office and library, Sarah Jordan Boarding House, carbon shed, iron ore separator, glass house, and an experimental electric train. This center for research and development is arguably Edison’s greatest invention. It was a way for scientists, machinists, and designers to collaborate, research, develop, and manufacture new technologies. During Edison’s time at Menlo Park, he was his most prolific because he produced over 400 patents.
Edison made a name for himself at Menlo Park when he invented the phonograph in 1877. The initial phonograph was a machine that could record sound and play it back on tin-foil. It had two needles, one to record the speaker’s voice by indenting the cylinder, and another to play the recording back. With the name Mary, I love sharing with guests that Thomas Edison’s first words on the phonograph were “Mary had a little lamb.” Edison was the first man in history to record his voice, and play it back. He instantly became an international celebrity and earned the nickname the Wizard of Menlo Park. Docents play several phonographs that are over one-hundred years old for guests.
Even though Edison called the phonograph his “baby,” he wanted to tinker with other inventions. Many people claim that Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, but that is technically not true. He perfects incandescent light. Describing his experimenting with the lightbulb, Edison famously said, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Edison’s goal was to produce a lightbulb that could be purchased by the average consumer and could stay lit for thousands of hours. In October 1879, he found a solution. Edison’s lightbulb used a carbonized filament with a vacuum pump and was able to light for over a dozen hours. He held a massive demonstration on New Year's Eve at Menlo Park in 1879. Thousands of people came to witness the first street in the world be lit by incandescent light. After Edison was awarded the patent, he discovered that carbonized bamboo was more affordable and could light for thousands of hours, making the lightbulb a commercial success.
The second gallery is devoted to discussing these two inventions, the phonograph and the lightbulb. Guests can see artifacts from archaeological digs performed throughout the site. Other notable displays include a lightbulb that was hand blown on the property, a lathe used in the machine shop, and an electric pen which illustrates other inventions Edison worked on during his time.
None of the buildings from Menlo Park remain. Edison abandons the property after his first wife, Mary passes away. He will later remarry Mina Miller and settle in West Orange, New Jersey where he opens a new factory that is run today by the National Park Service. When he left Menlo Park, the site became abandoned. Local residents salvage materials from the property and squatters move in. Henry Ford started assembling his monumental museum in Dearborn, Michigan in the late 1920s. Ford makes an arrangement with Edison where he was able to take what he could find from Menlo Park and ship it back out to Greenfield Village. Today, the recreation of the laboratory contains some original pieces (including the Glass House and the Sarah Jordan Boardinghouse) but mainly reconstructions built atop New Jersey soil. Some of the original foundations are still visible on the property, and kiosks scattered throughout the site mark where the buildings would have stood.
Although the buildings are no longer standing on the property, the Thomas Edison Center has a rich commemorative history. The Edison Memorial Tower is listed in the National and New Jersey Register of Historic Places. It is over 100 ft tall, and is located as close as possible to where Edison’s office was inside the laboratory. The art-deco tower pays tribute to Edison’s inventions with phonograph speakers on the base, and the world’s largest lightbulb at the top. Inside, visitors can view the Eternal Light, a lightbulb that never goes out in honor of Edison. A fitting tribute to Edison, the man who brought mankind out of darkness, and into the light.
Website: Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park
Address: 37 Christie Street Edison, New Jersey 08820
Admission: $7 - Adults, $5 - Children (Ages 5-17), Senior Citizens, and Active Military. Children under 5 are free.
The museum includes a 45 minute guided tour of the galleries and Edison Memorial Tower, which is listed in the National and New Jersey Register of Historic Places. Tours run every half hour with the last tour at 3PM.
You can visit the museum by train or car. Street parking is free.
Hours: Thursday-Saturday, 10AM-4PM.
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Mary Manfredi is a graduate from Villanova University's Master's in Public History program. She worked at the Thomas Edison Center as a Curator and Museum Educator. Her research interests revolve around American material and visual culture. She also runs, "Mary's Musings," a space where she shares her thoughts about museums, art, and history.