Year of Innovation Series-The Invention Factory

Year of Innovation - Invention Factory

The Invention Factory

  1. Thomas A. Edison and Menlo Park
  2. The Move to Menlo
  3. Building the Lab
  4. The Edison Home in Menlo Park
  5. Supporting the Laboratory
  6. Expanding the Laboratory
  7. Operating the Laboratory
  8. Working at Menlo Park

Thomas A. Edison and Menlo Park

Edison didn’t just invent at Menlo Park – he had been inventing for years before and went on to invent for years after he left.  But while living there, he invented the phonograph and incandescent light – two modern miracles earning him the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park.”   The lab at Menlo Park was a collaborative atmosphere, allowing Edison to develop a systemized research for industrial applications.  This working environment led to what is now the modern day Research & Development lab!  

The Move to Menlo

Prior to Edison's association with Menlo Park, it was a small, relatively unknown country hamlet on the Pennsylvania Railroad line from New York to Philadelphia.  In the years before the move, Edison's laboratory and shops were in rented buildings in Newark. We don’t know why Edison moved out of the city but he said "the cause of this move was trouble I had about rent." However, in April 1878, he told a reporter from the Philadelphia Times "I couldn't get peace and quiet in Newark and was run down by visitors." In late 1875, looking for land on which he could build a laboratory to his own specifications, Edison’s father was looking around the New Jersey countryside for real estate.  Samuel Edison discovered Menlo Park, which had been part of a failed residential development and in December 1875 Edison moved to Menlo Park, twelve miles south of Newark.

Building the Lab

Edison's newly built laboratory at Menlo Park cost of $2,500  (about $50,000 in today's money). The white, two-story laboratory building was completed on 25 March 1876, and Edison moved in a few days later.  The ground floor housed a machine shop with precision tools and a scientific and chemical laboratory were built on the second-floor. It was a "state-of-the-art" industrial laboratory for 1876, unparalleled in the United States.  In a letter to Western Union President William Orton, Edison described his laboratory as "25 x 100 & 2 stories filled with every kind of apparatus for scientific research. . . . with machinery & apparatus [that] have cost about $40,000."  In this new laboratory, Edison promised to produce "a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so." This new model of invention influenced subsequent research and development laboratories in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Edison opened his laboratory in April 1876 and his staff consisted of experimenters Charles Batchelor and James Adams and three machinists, "two of whom have been in my employ for five years and have much experience." G. M. Shaw’s "Sketch of Thomas Alva Edison", appeared in Scientific Monthly And described it as follows:
On the ground floor, as you enter, is a little front-office, from which a small library is partitioned off.  Next is a large square room with glass cases filled with models of his inventions.  In the rear of this is the machine shop, completely equipped, and run with a ten-horse-power engine.  The upper story occupies the length and breadth of the building, 100 x 25 feet, is lighted by windows on every side, and is occupied as a laboratory.  The walls are covered with shelves full of bottles containing all sorts of chemicals.  Scattered through the rooms are tables covered with electrical instruments . . . microscopes, spectroscopes, etc.  In the centre of the room is a rack full of galvanic batteries.

Menlo Park Lab Menlo Park shop Menlo Park upstairs
Menlo Park Laboratory, c.1878 Menlo Park shop, 1st floor c.1878 Menlo Park upstairs lab, c. 1878

The Edison Home in Menlo Park

When Edison moved to Menlo Park, he was married to Mary Stillwell and had two children, his daughter Marion and his infant son, Thomas Jr.  Edison wanted to live near his new laboratory with his family and they moved into a three-story frame house that had previously been the office of the Menlo Park Land Co. a mere two blocks from his new workplace. Although a newspaper reporter described the house as "without a trace of ostentation," the Edison home was insured as a substantial nineteenth-century bourgeois house, decorated inside with bronzes, curios, a collection of books, and a "Piano-forte."   In addition to the immediate family, the household included Mary's sister Alice, and three servants.  In October 1878, a third child, William Leslie, was born to the Edisons.

Edison was very happy in his new home.  As he told a Philadelphia Times reporter,"I like it first-rate out here in the green country and can study, work and think."  Edison’s chief assistant Charles Batchelor also considered Menlo Park to be "a beautiful country place where . . . we all feel considerable benefit from the change."  Nevertheless, to calm his wife, he kept "one big Newfoundland dog and two smaller ones and a seven shooter under my pillow nights."  Mary Edison also found the isolation of Menlo Park menacing, especially as her husband continued to work nights, and daughter Marion remembered that that her mother also "slept with a revolver under her pillow" because her father frequently did not come home "until early morning or not at all."

Mary and William Marion Ediosn Thomas Edison, Jr.
Mary Edison holding second son William
Marion Edison
Thomas Edison, Jr.


Supporting the Laboratory

A year after building his laboratory, Edison needed more money to keep it operating. Because most of his experimental work was on improving telegraph and telephone technology for Western Union, he wrote to company president William Orton to ask for help. He explained that "the cost of running my machine shop including coal kerosene & labor is about 15 per day or 100 per week; at present I have no source of income which will warrant continuing my machine shop and I shall be compelled to close it unless I am able to provide funds for continuing the same and keep my skilled workmen." After describing the "unusual facilities which I have for perfecting any kind of Telegraphic invention," Edison promised that he would give Western Union "every invention that I can make during that time which is applicable to commercial telegraphy."

Western Union agreed to pay for all patent expenses and to give him additional royalties for any successful inventions including the telephone. Edison’s first successful invention for Western Union was the carbon-button transmitter. But it was the tinfoil phonograph that made Edison’s reputation as the Wizard of Menlo Park! Because Western Union did not want the phonograph invention, a group of investors connected to the Bell Telephone Company helped form the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company to promote the new invention and gave Edison $10,000 to improve the exciting new technology.

But before he could develop a commercial phonograph, Edison turned to a new challenge—electric lighting. After announcing in the press in September 1878 that he had solved the problem of the electric light, a group of Western Union investors decided to form the Edison Electric Light Company. Over the next two and a half years they provided Edison with $130,000 for his experiments (about $2.3 million in today's currency).

Expanding the Laboratory

Funding from Western Union and then from Edison Speaking Phonograph allowed Edison to increase his staff from the original small group to 25 men by the spring of 1878. The new employees included four experimenters, a couple of general laboratory assistants, six machinists, a patternmaker, a general handyman, a watchman, a bookkeeper and a private secretary. Over the next two years as Edison turned to research on electric lighting, Menlo Park became a true research and development laboratory. Between the fall of 1878 and the fall of 1879, Edison added several experimenters and chemists, including two with German PhDs; a lamp-blower; a steam engineer; a draftsman; a couple of general laboratory workers and an office boy. Francis Upton, who had received the first Master of Science degree from Princeton and then gone on to do postgraduate work with Herman von Helmholtz in Berlin, was hired by Edison. With the shift from research to development of the electric light system in 1880, the staff of experimenters and machinists expanded even more, reaching between 50 and 60 men at its peak. A few experimenters were hired because of their formal training as engineers, but most were ambitious young men attracted by the excitement surrounding Edison and his laboratory and they learned on the job.

Edison Electric also paid for new buildings at the laboratory. Edison built a new large brick machine shop and turned the old shop space in the main lab building into additional experimental space. He also built a two-story brick office and library. He stocked the library with about 500 books and journals using money he received from the sale of his telephone patents in Britain. He also had to build some smaller wooden buildings, including a carpenter shed, a blacksmith shop, and a carbon shed where kerosene lamps were kept constantly burning so that the carbon soot could be collected from the glass chimneys for experimenting. After he began working on vacuum technology for his lamp, a small wooden house and workspace was built for the glassblower. In late 1878, Edison added a boarding house for some of his workers. It was run by Sarah Jordan, Mary Edison's step-sister.

Edison’s extensive laboratory facilities and large staff gave him a great advantage over other inventors. Edison could rapidly construct, test and alter experimental devices, significantly increasing the rate at which he could develop new inventions. Using teams of researchers, he could work on different parts of a system or even different inventions at the same time. It was this advantage that enabled Edison to invent an entire system of electric light and power and not just a light bulb.

Machine Shop drawing Menlo Park Machine Shop staff Menlo Park staff
Menlo Park Machine Shop sketch

Menlo Park Machine Shop staff

Menlo Park Staff, c. 1879

Operating the Laboratory

In the early years at Menlo Park, Edison was involved in all the ongoing research and projects.  As Edison recalled in one testimony (p. 39) "Suggestions generally came from me.  If any change was to be made, my assistants would speak to me about it, and if I thought best the change was made."  Edison’s methods were described by the New York Herald of January 17, 1879:

Edison himself flits about, first to one bench, then to another, examining here, instructing there; at one place drawing out new fancied designs, at another earnestly watching the progress of some experiment.  Sometimes he hastily leaves the busy throng of workmen and for an hour or more is seen by no one.  Where he is the general body of assistants do not know or ask, but his few principal men are aware that in a quiet corner upstairs in the old workshop, with a single light to dispel the darkness around, sits the inventor, with pencils and paper, drawing, figuring, pondering.  In these moments he is rarely disturbed.  If any important question of construction arises on which his advice is necessary the workmen wait.  Sometimes they wait for hours in idleness, but at the laboratory such idleness is considered far more profitable than any interference with the inventor while he is in the throes of invention.

Francis Upton wrote his father about Edison's central role in the lab: "One thing is quite noticeable here that the work is only a few days behind Mr. Edison, for when he was sick the shop was shut evenings as the work was wanting to keep the men busy."

Once the workforce grew to around sixty employees, Edison could no longer afford the time or expense of keeping his staff idle while they waited for his directions.  He learned to subdivide the work, assigning each detail of the system to a particular staff member or a team of researchers and machinists.  Although Edison provided initial guidance and suggestions on how to approach each problem, the experimenters were often allowed, and indeed encouraged, to find their own way to a solution. He later testified (p. 50) :  "I generally instructed them on the general idea of what I wanted carried out, and when I came across an assistant who was in any way ingenious, I sometimes refused to help him out in his experiments, telling him to see if he could not work it out himself, so as to encourage him."

Wilson Howell was assigned the task of devising an insulation for the underground cables, and his was atypical experience at Edison’s Menlo Park. "Mr. Edison sent me to his library and instructed me to read up on the subject of insulation, offering me the services of Dr. [Otto] Moses to translate any French or German authorities which I wished to consult.  After two weeks search, I came out of the library with a list of materials which we might try.  I was given carte blanche to order these materials. . . . and, within ten days, I had Dr. Moses' laboratory entirely taken up with small kettles in which I boiled up a variety of insulating compounds. . . . Of course there were many failures, the partial successes pointing the direction for better trials." As they gained experience and Edison's trust in their abilities, men like Howell were given greater responsibilities and wages.

Edison required his staff to keep careful records of each experiment.  In Edison’s Newark shops Edison recalled, "drawings were made on all sorts of scraps of paper and thrown in a drawer," but after establishing his laboratory at Menlo Park he "commenced the practice of placing note books all over my laboratory, with order to my assistants to draw out and sign every experiment."  As he subdivided the work in 1880, certain books were assigned to a particular project or test series.  As the scale and scope of the work expanded, Edison also found it useful to have a member of his office staff (which now numbered six) keep a daily record of work in the laboratory so he could easily follow the progress of each project.  Edison required his bookkeepers to maintain careful records of the labor, material, and other experimental costs incurred by each project.  Each employee was required to fill out a timesheet showing how many hours he had worked on each project so Edison could charge these costs to the Edison Electric Light Company, Western Union, or other financial backers.

Working at Menlo Park

Edison made Menlo Park a fun place to work. Practical jokes, tests of strength, such as a competition over who could produce the highest voltage with a hand-cranked generator, late night meals and beer, playing the laboratory pipe organ (which Edison had been given for his phonograph experiments), and telling jokes and singing silly or bawdy songs all provided relief from the pressures of work.  They relieved the tedium of long nights spent testing lamps by betting on how long they would last before burning out.  Edison would also take his staff fishing in nearby Raritan Bay or by letting them use the experimental electric railway (built in 1880) as transportation to a nearby fishing hole.  And workers who lived nearby were free to come and go at the laboratory as long as the work was done.

The young men who came to Menlo Park also found it an exciting place to work.  Edison led by example, dressing and acting as one of the boys, but working harder than all of them.  The normal sixty-hour work week typically stretched to eighty hours.  As Charles Clarke recalled:

Laboratory life with Edison was a strenuous but joyous life for all, physically, mentally and emotionally.  We worked long night hours during the week, frequently to the limit of human endurance; and then we had time off from Saturday to late Sunday afternoon for rest and recreation. . . . Here breathed a little community of kindred spirits, all in young manhood, enthusiastic about their work, expectant of great results; moreover often loudly emphatic in joke and vigorous in action.

Machinist and experimenter John Ott, who remained with Edison throughout his career, told one biographer of the inventor, "Edison made your work interesting.  He made me feel that I was making something with him.  I wasn’t just a workman.  And then in those days, we all hoped to get rich with him." However, he also recalled, "My children grew up without knowing their father.  When I did get home at night, which was seldom, they were in bed."

Francis Upton wrote to his father in March 1879 “I find my work very pleasant here and not much different from the time when I was a student. The strangest thing to me is the $12 that I get each Saturday, for my labor does not seem like work but like study and I enjoy it.  The electric light I think will come in time and then be a success . . . and then my place will be secure. . . . My pay I know is very small in dollars but the chance to get knowledge is beyond measure.”

Edison ultimately gave Upton a 5% interest in his electric lighting inventions and put him in charge of the lamp factory.  Charles Clarke became chief engineer of Edison Electric.  Most of the other men at Menlo Park were also given places in the Edison lighting enterprises.