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Thomas Edison's Laboratory: A New Jersey Family Day Trip!

Updated on November 5, 2014

Thomas Edison in New Jersey: Explore the World's First Industrial Research Laboratory!

The Thomas Edison laboratory in New Jersey is a great family day trip. Edison was the inventor of the first practical electric bulb, the motion picture camera and the phonograph, but some say his greatest achievement was the creation of the industrial research and development laboratory. He built a complex of laboratories and workshops in West Orange, New Jersey, aimed at inventing and making new things. In his heyday Edison had 150 people working in those labs with 10,000 employees in surrounding factories pumping out his inventions. The laboratory has now been turned into the Thomas Edison National Historical Park and it's a great day out. My family and I toured the park just a few weeks ago, and here is some highlights of our visit.

Thomas Edison National Park Stockroom
Thomas Edison National Park Stockroom

Edison's Office and the Stockroom

10,000 Books, a Bed and a Tortoise Shell!

We started our self-guided tour of the laboratory complex in Edison's library/office, a three-story room with more than 10,000 books and magazines containing all the scientific and engineering knowledge of the time. The office also had information on patents to make sure he wasn't duplicating someone else's efforts. The office, trimmed with stained southern yellow pine, looks more like a library than a real office.

In the room is Edison's desk, left exactly as it was on his last day of work in 1931. We noticed that one of the slots on his desk is labeled ''New Ideas.'' Even at 84 he was still trying to invent!

Tucked in one corner was a small bed that was put there at the urging of his wife. The park ranger tells me Edison was known to simply stretch out on a table to nap when he was tired, and he rarely ever used the bed!

Next is the well-supplied stockroom. Edison wanted his workers to have access to almost everything they could possibly need while trying to invent, and the room had everything from needles and toothpicks to sledgehammers, elephant hides and a rhinoceros horn! Note in the photo I took that a tortoise shell is hanging on the cabinet!

Thomas Edison National Park Machine Shop
Thomas Edison National Park Machine Shop

Machine Shops and a Beheading!

Watch Some Early Edison Movies!

The next room is the heavy machine shop, where workers would produce prototypes of the new inventions being created. About halfway down the room are three machines that made early phonograph records. Continuing up the stairs we see the precision shop, where the more-experienced employees worked on pieces that needed to be more carefully made. On this floor the motion picture camera was invented.

The shops were dangerous, and the audio guide tells us that under the labor law of the time if a worker was maimed or killed there was no compensation! The law only required that the company return the worker's tools to his family!

About midway down the room there's a screen showing some of Edison's earliest films, from the 1890s. ''The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots'' from 1895 recreates a beheading realistically enough that I imagine early filmgoers probably gasped when they saw it!

Thomas Edison National Park Recording Studio
Thomas Edison National Park Recording Studio

Edison's Private Lab and the Recording Studio!

When Irish Eyes are Smiling!

We next find Room 12, which was Edison's own private lab and favorite room to experiment in. There's a great photo of him mixing some liquids in test tubes with chemical powders staining both knees of his suit pants!

Upstairs on the third floor we reach the music room, which was one of the world's first recording studios. Singers and musicians would travel here from New York to record using giant horns to focus the music onto cylinders. A park ranger gives us a demonstration of an early phonograph recording of ``When Irish Eyes are Smiling'' and explains that Edison didn't do so well in the music business once discs replaced cylinders for two reasons. First, his machines used diamond needles so they were more expensive than rival's, and second, Edison tended to only record what he liked rather than what was popular!

In the photo are some of the horns that were used to make the recordings.

Thomas Edison Doll
Thomas Edison Doll

The Phonograph and the Talking Doll

Thomas Edison's Successes and Failures

After the recording studio is a long display of the numerous phonographs that Edison developed, from an early recording telegraph from 1877 to one from 1927. I have read that Edison said the phonograph was his favorite invention, and a park ranger said that was because it worked on the first try. Just to be clear -- the phonograph wasn't invented in this lab. Edison had perfected it when he was working in Menlo Park, New Jersey, to the south of West Orange.

The third floor then gives way to exhibits of the many products and inventions that are associated with Edison, from early General Electric Christmas lights to Portland Cement to storage batteries and on and on. Plan to spend some time in this area, because it really is neat to see the breadth of things he worked on.

One thing to seek out is an early talking doll that he tried to market in 1899 (see photo). About 3,000 of the dolls were made but they were simply too fragile to be successful. The sound quality is pretty bad too. You can push a button and hear a recording of what the doll said, and the tone of the voice sounds pretty creepy. Edison himself later said, ``The voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear.''

"Grand science, chemistry. I like it best of all the sciences''

Thomas Edison Lab
Thomas Edison Lab

Thomas Edison's Chemistry Lab

Edison's Search for Domestic Rubber

Across from the main building is the chemistry laboratory, which is only open for guided tours. The park ranger said it was considered the world's finest when it opened in 1887, and chemists from around the globe lobbied to work there.

Inside there are rows of test tubes and chemicals lined up exactly as they were when the complex closed after Edison's death in 1931, and it was here that Edison was striving to complete one last great invention before his death.

Henry Ford, the automaker, and Harvey Firestone, the tiremaker, sponsored Edison's search for a domestic source of rubber after World War I. Edison worked on trying to create a domestic rubber from goldenrod, and in the lab there are several examples of what he developed. The park ranger said the Edison rubber wasn't durable enough, though it was used in seat cushions and some other products. The development of synthetic rubber and Edison's death ended the goldenrod experiments.

In the rear of the chemistry lab are scales that the park ranger said are so sensitive they can measure the weight of ink in a signature on a piece of paper. She said some scientists have said the Edison scales are more sensitive than many modern ones.

The tour only takes 15-20 minutes but is well worthwhile.

Thomas Edison Movie Studio Black Maria
Thomas Edison Movie Studio Black Maria

The First Movie Studio and Great Train Robbery

Also, Preparing for Nazi Attacks!

Also on site is a replica of Edison's 1893 movie studio, which is considered the world's first. Dubbed the ``Black Maria,'' the studio was built on wheels with a roof that opened. This enabled the movie-makers to turn the building to capture the sun all day long!

Edison moved his movie production to New York City in 1901 and the studio was demolished in 1903. The building that you see in the photo is actually a 1954 replica.

You can also stand on a large cement vault that stored many of Edison's most important papers and items during World War II, when there was concern that Nazi saboteurs might damage the site.

Inside the entrance building is a film about Edison, and if you don't know much about him it'll give you a good overview of his life. In between showings Edison's 1903 film ``The Great Train Robbery'' is shown. It's a true classic!

There are a few other rooms in the main building to look at, and your ticket to the park also includes a tour of Edison's house Glenmont just down the road from the laboratory. I saw it suggested that three hours was enough for a visit, though I'm not so sure about that. I know we were there almost four, counting the house tour, and felt like we could have stayed longer. We'll just have to make another visit!

(The photo here is of the ``Black Maria,'' taken from on top of the cement vault.)

Thomas Edison's House Glenmont!

Right Down The Street From the Laboratory!

Thomas Edison lived in a mansion only a few minutes' drive from his laboratory complex, and today the house is part of the historical park. One admission gets you into both places. You buy your tickets at the laboratory visitor center and get a timed ticket for the house tour. It is very easy to see both places in one day, and well worth while. I wrote a separate lens about the house tour, so please visit it here:

Thomas Edison House Glenmont: A New Jersey Family Day Trip!
Thomas Edison, one of America's greatest inventors, lived for more than four decades in a 29-room mansion called Glenmont in the exclusive Llewellyn Park.

For More Information See the Official Website

I haven't included everything there is to say about a visit to the park, so please visit the Park Service's site below for more information, including operating hours, fees and daily activities. Thanks!

Planning to Visit the Thomas Edison National Historical Park?

Thomas Edison Room 12
Thomas Edison Room 12

I wrote this lens after a visit to Edison's laboratory. Have you ever visited the national park, or do you plan to? If yes, what did you think? If no, why not?

Have You Ever Been to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park?

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