Thomas A. Edison Papers

Edison and Innovation Series - From Menlo Park to West Orange

Year of Innovation - Education of an Inventor

From Menlo Park to West Orange

  1. The Return to New York
  2. The lab at Bergmann's
  3. The Death of Mary Edison
  4. Grieving and recovery
  5. Fort Myers Winter Estate and Laboratory
  6. A New Home: Glenmont
  7. The Lamp Factory Laboratory
  8. A World-Class Laboratory
  9. Staffing
  10. A New Beginning

The Return to New York

Thomas A. Edison's name will always be associated with Menlo Park, N.J., where he first achieved worldwide fame as the inventor of the phonograph and the incandescent electric light. In his own time, he was called "the Wizard of Menlo Park," and he is still universally known by that moniker. Nevertheless, the time Edison spent at Menlo Park was relatively short. He opened his famous "invention factory" there in 1876, and within six years, he had all but deserted it.

Edison took a major step away from Menlo in 1881, when he oversaw the planning and construction of his first commercial power station, on Pearl St. in New York City. He was on hand nearly every day and, in the course, of the year, he moved his family to Manhattan to be closer to his work there. The Pearl St. station demonstrated the efficacy of his electrical system for lighting whole city districts, and one consequence of that success was the prospect of a greatly enlarged market for incandescent lamps. With an eye to future demand, Edison moved his lamp factory from its cramped quarters at Menlo Park to a much larger facility in Harrison, N.J., just across the river from New York, in the spring of 1882. With his four manufacturing shops for electric lighting now clustered in and around New York, it made sense for Edison to have a laboratory there, where he could easily consult with his lieutenants and quickly address problems. He made a formal break with Menlo Park in September 1882 when he gave up the pretense of working there and rented space for a laboratory in lower Manhattan. do."

The lab at Bergmann's

Edison moved his personal laboratory to the top floor of the electrical equipment manufacturer Bergmann & Co.'s building at the corner of Seventeenth St. and Avenue B. At this time, he was a partner in the Bergmann firm. The research facility at Bergmann's would be Edison's principal laboratory for the next four years.

During its first year of operation, Edison focused the work of his new laboratory on experiments related to his electric light and power system, especially extending the life of incandescent lamps. The large expense of the Pearl St. station also led Edison to devote the early months of 1883 to determining how best to drive down the costs of his electric lighting system in order to promote its use in towns and cities across the United States as well as in Europe and South America. The result was the development of the Village system for smaller cities and towns.

Having created a more commercially viable system for this market, Edison found himself taking on the role of entrepreneur to promote and build stations in the industrial Northeast, leaving little time for him to personally experiment in the laboratory. In July 1883, he declared that he would be"a business man for a year," and thereafter spent most of his time attending to business matters at his office at 65 Fifth Ave. or on the road supervising the construction of electrical plants. Much of the experimental work at Bergmann's was left in the hands of his trusted associate John Ott.

In the summer of 1884, as Edison wound down his personal involvement in the central station business, he returned to his New York laboratory, where his research led him in a number of directions outside of electric lighting, including experiments to plate decorative cloth and wicker with gold and other metals, improvements in storage batteries, and a concerted effort to develop what today would be considered fuel-cell technology.


The Death of Mary Edison

Moving his principal laboratory from Menlo Park was in itself a major transition for Edison, but it was just the first step in a series of changes that would ultimately bring him to West Orange, N.J. The years from 1884 to 1887 proved to be one of the most important transitional periods in his life. Perhaps the key event in all of these changes was the death of his first wife in August 1884.

Edison and his family had moved to Gramercy Park in 1882 in part to satisfy Mary, who seemed to prefer city life over the relative isolation of Menlo Park. Edison's wife had suffered from periodic bouts of ill-health, perhaps related to anxiety or depression. At Menlo Park, her anxiety was also exacerbated by sleeplessness brought on by the nightly rumbling of cars on the railroad track that passed close by the Edison house.

Within a year of the family taking up residence at Gramercy Park, Mary fell ill again. This time it was serious enough for the doctor to order her to give up housekeeping. Perhaps with this in mind, Edison sublet the house and moved his family temporarily to the Clarendon Hotel. Mary eventually recovered, but in 1884, after the family had returned to Menlo Park for the summer, she fell ill once again and unexpectedly died. Although some newspapers and a few later biographers attributed her death to "congestion of the brain" (perhaps based on a statement from one of Edison's clerks), The New York World suggested that Mary had died of a morphine overdose, the drug having been prescribed to treat her "obstinate neuralgia" and "gastritis" and to ease the pain from the "uterine troubles" that had persisted over many years. "From the careless word dropped by the friend of the family it was more than intimated," the World reported, "that an overdose of morphine swallowed in a moment of frenzy caused by pain greater than she could bear brought on her untimely death."

Grieving and recovery

Edison's daughter Marion later recalled that Mary's death left him "shaking with grief, weeping and sobbing so he could hardly tell me that mother had died in the night." Afterward, for several months, Edison kept Marion by his side. She traveled with him wherever he went and even joined him from time to time in the laboratory.

Among their travels was a trip to Philadelphia to see the International Electrical Exhibition, where Edison renewed his relationship with his old friend Ezra Gilliland, whom he first had met when they were both telegraph operators in the 1860s. In 1883, Gilliland had been hired by American Bell Telephone Co. to establish a research facility known as the Mechanical Department. That year the company also constructed the first practical long-distance telephone line between Boston and New York, which led to the formation of the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. (AT&T), a Bell subsidiary, dedicated to the development of long-distance service throughout the United States. Edison sensed an opportunity and made an arrangement with American Bell to work in partnership with Gilliland on improving long-distance telephone technology. In fall 1884 and winter 1885, he conducted a number of experiments to improve transmitters for long-distance service at his New York lab and at Gilliland's Mechanical Department in Boston.

During this period, Edison worked with Gilliland on a system for transmitting messages to moving trains, and he also independently developed a new system of telegraphy, which he called the Phonoplex, "to take any way wire through or local or Railroad with 2 or 20 offices and make two absolutely independent wires of them telegraphically." [Reminiscences] This system, which used both telephone receivers and traditional Morse instruments, allowed intermediate stations along a main line to pick up telegraph signals on the phone receivers without affecting the telegraph receivers on the main line. The new system was particularly useful to railroads, and more than twenty railroad companies eventually adopted it.

By the fall of 1885, Gilliland would leave Bell to join Edison at his laboratory in New York. But before that, he and his wife Lillian also played matchmaker for the thirty-eight-year-old Edison. In early 1885, the three of them, accompanied by Marion, traveled to New Orleans to attend an international exhibition and then on to Florida for vacation. As Marion recollected, it was during this trip that Edison "came to the conclusion that he wanted a home, a wife and a mother for his three children and asked Mrs. Gilliland, who lived in Boston, to introduce him to some suitable girls." Mrs. Gilliland complied with this request and introduced Edison to several eligible young women during his visits to Boston.

Among those to whom she introduced Edison was Mina Miller of Ohio, who was then at school in Boston. [Photo of Mina] She was the 19-year-old daughter of Lewis Miller, the inventor of the Buckeye Reaper and a principal of Aultman, Miller & Co., a manufacturer of agricultural equipment. After spending a few days with Mina as a guest of the Gillilands at their summer cottage in Winthrop, Mass., in late June and early July, Edison was smitten. "Saw a lady who looked like Mina," he wrote in a diary he kept during part of July, "got to thinking about Mina and came near being run over by a street car—If Mina interferes much more will have to take out an accident policy."

After this brief acquaintance with Mina in June and July, Edison decided to pursue her hand in marriage in what amounted to a whirlwind courtship. In August, he traveled to Chautauqua, New York, to meet Mina and her family at the Chautauqua Institute, a summer educational center her father had co-founded. [Photo of Miller cottage] Edison, who was traveling with his daughter Marion and the Gillilands, soon convinced the Millers to allow Mina to join his party for a trip to Alexandria Bay on the St. Lawrence, to Montreal, and then to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. During the trip, Edison taught Mina Morse code so that he could communicate with her privately. "We could use pet names without the least embarrassment, although there were three other people in the carriage," he later revealed. It was while the party was in the White Mountains that Edison asked Mina to marry him, tapping out his proposal in her palm in Morse. Mina accepted, signaling back "Yes."

Once back in New York, Edison, observing the custom of the time, wrote to Lewis Miller to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage. Edison explained that his initial "friendship" with Mina had become "admiration as I began to appreciate her gentleness and grace of manner, and her beauty and strength of mind. That admiration," he continued, "has on my part ripened into love." Lewis Miller responded by inviting Edison to his home—Oak Place—in Akron, Ohio. Ultimately, he gave his consent, and Edison and Mina were married at the Miller home on 24 February 1886.

Fort Myers Winter Estate and Laboratory

Edison had made a practice of spending at least part of the winter each year in Florida. He had made two such trips with Mary and one, in 1885, with Marion and the Gillilands. So perhaps it was only a matter of course that his honeymoon trip—from late February to April 1886—would have the Sunshine State as its ultimate destination. Edison had generally confined his Florida excursions to the East Coast, but in 1885, he and Ezra Gilliland had traveled by train from Jacksonville to Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast. They were seeking a suitable place to build winter getaway homes, and the less inhabited West Coast of Florida seemed like a possibility. At Cedar Key, the two men hired a schooner and coasted south to Tampa and ultimately to the fishing camp and cattle port of Punta assa. From here, they traveled up the Caloosahatchee River some twelve miles to Fort Myers, an up-and-coming suburban town, which, though isolated enough to be a true getaway, still offered the amenities of a hotel, a local newspaper, and a small business district. It was here that Edison and Gilliland decided to build their winter estates. "We had everything in our favor," Edison noted later, "a wonderful climate, beautiful surroundings, plenty of fish and game."

Edison purchased a thirteen-acre tract along the Caloosahatchee, and once he and Gilliland returned to New York, they commenced developing this parcel from afar. They planned to build two residences—one for the Edisons and one for the Gillilands—as well as a small laboratory. The lumber for these frame buildings was precut in Maine and shipped by schooner, but only one of them—a residence—was close to being habitable by the time the newlyweds arrived in Fort Myers on March 17. The Edisons stayed three nights at the local Keystone Hotel before moving into their Florida residence along with Marion and the Gillilands. The house still had no running water, sewerage, or electricity. Although his laboratory was still unfinished, Edison managed to occupy a good deal of his "honeymoon vacation" thinking about future research. He filled a number of notebooks with ideas ranging from the practical—such as proposed experiments on new lamp filaments—to the theoretical—speculations on the structure of matter and the nature of energy. Edison seems to have taken pains to involve his new bride in his research at this time. Mina signed his notebook entries as a witness, and she and Edison even performed one experiment together, electrically shocking an oyster to see if this would paralyze the muscle and open the shell. By the time Edison's party left on 26 April, both residences were habitable, and the laboratory was ready for operation.

A New Home: Glenmont

Even before he and Mina were married, Edison had purchased a new home to which he could bring his new bride. He had given Mina the choice of a townhouse on Riverside Drive in Manhattan or a house in the countryside. Mina chose the latter because neither she nor Edison greatly relished living in the city. In early 1886, a large estate in Llewellyn Park, N.J., came on the market. It included eleven acres and a twenty-nine-room Queen Anne-style mansion, which had been built in the early 1880s by department store executive Henry C. Pedder. Glenmont, which Edison would extensively renovate over the next two years, would be his home until he died in 1931.

Because Edison continued to spend so much time at his laboratory and attending to business elsewhere, Glenmont was in many respects Mina's domain. She came to see herself as a "home executive," overseeing the remodeling and redecoration of Glenmont, supervising the staff, and organizing social events. Among the many guests who visited Glenmont while the Edisons were in residence were Orville Wright, Helen Keller, the Edisons' close friend Henry Ford, and even the King of Siam.

The Lamp Factory Laboratory

In conjunction with his marriage and taking up permanent residence at Glenmont, Edison, in the summer of 1886, moved his primary laboratory from Bergmann's in New York City to the Edison Lamp Factory in Harrison. In June, he had been splitting his time between Bergmann's and the Lamp Factory, but by July, as more of his attention began to focus on experiments to improve the efficiency of the incandescent lamp, he was spending nearly every day at the lab in Harrison. As it turned out, though, the move to the Lamp Factory was only a temporary expedient. Read more on the lamp factory.

A World-Class Laboratory

When he had married Mary Stilwell at the end of 1871, Thomas Edison was already a successful inventor and businessman. By the time he married Mina Miller and purchased Glenmont, he was a world-renowned inventor whose extensive business interests had made him one of the late-nineteenth century's titans of industry. Although he never attained the kind of wealth that John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie achieved, by 1886 Edison was certainly among the well-to-do. His second marriage and his new home, as well as his winter estate in Florida, all helped to express his new social position. But his ambition was also to maintain his status as the world's foremost inventor. For Edison, this would require a new industrial laboratory, which he meant to make the finest private lab in the world. "I will have the best equipped & largest Laboratory extant," Edison wrote in August 1887, "and the facilities incomparably superior to any other for rapid and cheap development of an invention.".

Edison's competitive nature, in part, may have prompted him to build a new laboratory. His rival, the electrical inventor Edward Weston, had recently opened a new private laboratory in Newark, N.J. Weston's lab—a wood-frame building with a brick addition—included a physical laboratory, an electrical laboratory, a machine shop, a chemical laboratory, a library, and an office. [Photo of Weston lab interior] The journal Engineering had called Weston's lab "probably the most complete in the world," which naturally did not sit well with Edison, who considered Weston a "pirate" who had stolen his inventions.

Edison's initial design, as early as 1886, called for a three-story building with a courtyard, a tower, and a fashionable mansard roof. This was later revised by the architect Hudson Holly to a more utilitarian, but still imposing, red-brick factory-style building. The main laboratory building would include a large library (which would also serve as Edison's office), experiment rooms, and a stockroom. A heavy machine shop would be located on the main floor with a precision machine shop on the floor above. Edison believed that the new lab, which was far more advanced than what he had enjoyed at Menlo Park, would allow him to "build anything from a lady's watch to a Locomotive."Menlo Park shop

During the summer of 1887, Edison expanded the design further, adding four one-story brick outbuildings, each of which measured 25 x 100 feet. These would house the physical laboratory, which came to be known as the galvanometer room, the chemical laboratory, a combined chemical stockroom and pattern-making shop, and finally, a metallurgical laboratory, which would allow him to carry out research related to ore milling. The addition of these facilities meant that Edison's new lab would far outpace anything that was available to Weston or any other inventor for that matter.

As his laboratory began to take shape on fourteen acres he had purchased in West Orange, N.J., Edison drew up "a list of schemes" for experimental work to be carried out in the new facilities. These included his usual experimental interests for improving the electric light, ore separation, and the telegraph. But there were also a few less predictable avenues of research, such as leather tanning, artificial silk, and a magnothermic motor.

Menlo Park shop Menlo Park Lab
Machine Shop Pattern Shop
Menlo Park Lab Menlo Park upstairs Menlo Park upstairs
Chemical Laboratory Dynamo Room Library


As his new laboratory began to rise on its foundations, Edison turned his attention to staffing it. His initial plan was to shift four of his primary researchers from the Lamp Factory lab to West Orange, including William K. L. Dickson, who would later become famous in conjunction with the development of motion pictures. Edison also intended to hire six young experimental assistants, at least two of whom would have college scientific training. In addition, he required a chemist, a mathematician, an optical engineer, and a translator with a scientific background who knew English, French, German, and Italian. He also decided to bring long-time associates Fred Ott and A. K. Keller to West Orange to oversee the machine shops. John Ott would assume the role of head draftsman, supervising three subordinates. Edison also wanted a toolmaker, a telegraph instrument maker, a pattern maker, a mechanic who understood lapidary work, a glassblower, a photographer, a blacksmith, and a foreman.

The laboratory opened in December 1887, and by the next month, some seventy-five men were on the payroll, though this number may have included some construction workers who were still finishing the buildings. By February, eighty men were employed at the lab. The scale of the new facility dwarfed that of Weston's lab and of Menlo Park, each of which opened with just a handful of experimenters and machinists.

A New Beginning

By the end of 1887, Thomas A. Edison seems to have successfully made a fresh beginning in many of the most important areas of his life. He had a new wife, a new home, and a new laboratory, the last of which would allow him to confront the research challenges of the emerging modern industrial world. He had also successfully expressed his recently achieved status as a major figure in American business and industry. His new laboratory in West Orange, now preserved as a National Historic Park, would be the center of his inventive and business life for the next forty-four years. It also provided a model for the research laboratories that became common in American industry by 1920.