From Menlo Park to West Orange - Visit Innovation Series

Edison Birthday

Congratulations to all our editors - Volume 8 is at the printer! We look forward to seeing a hardcopy late next summer. Be sure to add your name to our mailing list for the announcement. If you haven't seen it, check out our series, Edison and the Rise of Innovation. This month we have added From Menlo Park to West Orange, which details transitions in his personal life as well as his research space. In January, American Experience: Edison, was released on PBS; it features Edison Paper editors Paul Israel, Bob Rosenberg and Lisa Gittleman. And lastly, let's give a big birthday wish to Thomas Edison.

The Edison Papers

Thomas Edison enjoyed a remarkably creative and exceptionally well-documented life. The five million pages estimated to be in his collected papers not only show the inventor and entrepreneur at work, they provide a window into life in the United States. This trove details how Edison and his household fit into the ordinary world they shared with countless other aspiring citizens, while his inventive record details how he became an icon of American inventiveness. The Thomas Edison Papers is dedicated to making these records accessible and intelligible to the public and students at all levels. Private donations and grants from public agencies make it possible for the project's historians to carry out this work and train the next generation of students. This year three new undergraduate students are helping us transcribe documents and scan in our most recent document collection. Many thanks to Ray Cratch, Linzi Ryan, Patrick Lonegran, James Deloughery, Randy Sparks, and welcome to Andrea Alvarez, Jennyfer Javier and Jade Gleason. Will you please consider making a contribution? Your generous contributions in the past have helped support their work! Your donation is tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. Please consider making a donation today!

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Edison, Mina and Charles Edgar 1922


The name of Thomas Edison has been closely associated with Rutgers University since the university won a competition to host the Edison Papers. Edison himself had a personal relationship with the university, having spent a good deal of his career in close proximity to its New Brunswick campus.  He received two honorary degrees from Rutgers, donated electrical apparatus to the school, and stirred up a bit of controversy among students and faculty with the intelligence tests he instituted for employees in 1920. Edison also hired Rutgers graduates, including his experimenters John Marshall, Edward Payne, and Charles Deschler. Read more...


The winter of 2014-15 has been a snowy one across the Northeastern United States, and the joyous refrains heard at the first snowfall–"Ah, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow"–have turned to "Enough already!" But though a perfect Matterhorn of dirty snow the plows left still looms just outside of the Edison Papers' windows, this winter has not been even close to the snowiest on record in the New York area. And neither was 1886, when Edison jotted down some ideas for a snow removal machine. But there had been one terrific blizzard in January of that year which may have prompted him to imagine a different way of getting rid of the white stuff from city streets.

While not as famous nor as paralyzing as the Great Blizzard of 1888, the blizzard of '86 was still formidable. It thickly blanketed New York City and environs in twelve inches of snow. For the city's Department of Street Cleaning, snow removal was labor-intensive. In the first day after the blizzard, the department carted off 6,000 loads of snow. But in spite of this effort, much of the city was still buried. A private firm, the New-York Snow Melting Co. also pitched in, but its attempt to quickly melt the snow and have it run off into the gutters proved less than successful.

The New York Times meanwhile wondered about the economic costs of such a storm. As an editorial writer noted, "Even the enormous expense of carting snow bodily from the principal thoroughfares of the city and dumping it into the rivers would probably be a true economy if the enormous expense entailed by the presence of the snow until nature takes it out of the way could be accurately ascertained and assessed."Werner 1884

These considerations, along with a second storm in early February, may have prompted Edison on February 6th to jot down a brief note and provide a drawing for a snow removal machine in his experimental notebook: St Cleaning— Machine for gathering snow & Compressing it to ice & dropping definite blocks in gutter as horses advance apparatus Blox ice being used for Radiated cold in Summer.

The design does seem a bit fanciful, but Edison and his assistant Charles Batchelor apparently made some progress toward building this machine. As Edison later recalled in his autobiographical notes: One time when they had a snow blockage in New York I started to build a machine with Batchelor—a big truck with a steam engine and compressor on it. We would run along the street, gather all the snow up in front of us, pass it into the compressor, and deliver little blocks of ice behind us in the gutter taking one tenth the room of the snow, and not inconveniencing anybody. We could thus take care of a snow storm by diminishing the bulk of material to be hauled. The preliminary experiment we made was dropped because we went into other things. The machine would go as fast as a horse could walk.


In December, 2014, Mark Twain's classic novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was 125 years old. Since its original publication, it has been reissued innumerable times and has been adapted for film, radio, television, and even into a Rodgers-and-Hart Broadway musical. Twain wrote the novel over a three-year period in the late 1880s, just at the time Thomas Edison was preparing his new wax-cylinder phonograph for commercial production. News accounts of the new machine gave Twain the idea that it might prove a useful tool for finishing his book, and he accordingly made inquiries. His attempts to secure a phonograph at this time, however, were unavailing. But had he been able the obtain one, it would have been the first time such a recording device had been used to dictate a significant portion of a novel or any other book for that matter.


Twain's first experience with the new phonograph occurred at the end of May 1888. On the 21st of that month, he sent an urgent telegram to Edison. "Can you appoint an hour for tomorrow when I may run over & see the phonograph." Twain, who lived in Hartford, Conn., was in New York City for a short visit, and was anxious to try out Edison's newly designed machine. He sent the telegram from the Murray Hill Hotel at Park Avenue and East Fortieth Street to Edison's New York office at 40 Wall Street. But it took three days to reach the inventor, who was then in Orange, New Jersey, where his new home and laboratory were located. "Will be glad to see you this afternoon or any time to-morrow convenient to yourself," Edison wired back. "I'm here all the time." But by that time, Twain had returned to Hartford.

Although Twain had not seen Edison, he did manage to see the phonograph. "I had only part of a day at my disposal," he wrote Edison from Hartford, "but I shall try again, soon, & shall hope to find you on deck & still open to invasion. However, I accomplished part of my mission, anyway: I spent an hour & a half with the phonograph in Dey street, with vast satisfaction." Dey Street was the address of the Edison Phonograph Co. of New York. Click to read the full article.

Edison's laboratories at Menlo Park, where he completed his most famous inventions, and in West Orange, which is now a national historic park, are well-known. But these are not Edison's only laboratories. Edison established his first laboratory at his workshop in Newark, N.J., in 1873, and he is known to have briefly established a laboratory on the top floor of a building occupied by the manufacturing firm Bergmann & Co. at Avenue B and 17th Street in Manhattan after closing the Menlo Park lab in September 1882. He also built a small laboratory in conjunction with his summer home in Fort Myers, Fla., in the spring of 1886. All of these facilities are well-documented, but much less is known about the laboratory he used at his lamp factory in Harrison, N.J., just prior to opening his more famous lab in West Orange.

In spring 1881, Edison was looking for an enlarged space for his lamp manufacturing operations, which at the time were located at Menlo Park. In late April, he visited the complex of the Peters Manufacturing Co. in Harrison, then sometimes called East Newark. From contemporary reports, the site consisted of three four-story buildings constructed in 1877, which had been used for the purpose of producing oilcloth. The buildings would give Edison about ten times the floor space of his Menlo Park facility. On the Peters site were also a number of outbuildings and the remains of a fourth factory building, which had burned. Aside from the extra space, there was another good reason to move to Harrison. Edison and Lamp Co. manager Francis Upton saw the cost advantage of moving production close to Newark with its large pool of cheaper labor.

On May 9, Edison agreed to purchase this property for $52,250. Under the terms, the Edison interests would pay $5,000 in cash up front with the remainder in notes in installments. The final payment of $30,000 was to be made within two years. Money for the down payment was raised from among the partners in the Edison Lamp Co.

It apparently took a full year to ready the new plant for production. But on April 1, 1882, the Lamp Co. ceased production at Menlo Park and began moving operations to Harrison. The new plant could produce 1,200 lamps per day right away and eventually would be able to reach 40,000 lamps per day. The new site immediately accomodated an increased work force of 150, up from a little more than 100 at the Menlo Park factory. By the end of May, the new plant was up and running.

Edison made the transition from his laboratory at Bergmann's to the lab at Harrison in early July 1886. With his assistant John Ott, Edison conducted experiments at the new facility to extend the life of incandescent lamps. By August, his wife, Mina, had joined him in the lab to take notes, and at the end of the month, his friend and associate Ezra Gilliland, who had been suffering through a bout of illness, came to work with him as well. Some of the experiments Edison and Gilliland conducted together concerned improving the carbon transmitter, testing new ideas for a wireless railway telegraph, redesigning the village electrical plant system Edison had devised, and improving the phonograph, which Gilliland would be charged with manufacturing and marketing. Edison also turned his attention at this time to developing a uniform filament for his lamps. In order to pursue this experimental work, he spent a good part of July, almost all of August and September, and part of October 1886 in the laboratory at the lamp factory in Harrison.

In 1889, the Edison Lamp Works in Harrison became part of the Edison General Electric Co. and in 1892, in the merger between Edison General Electric and the Thomson-Houston Co., it became part of General Electric. With each of these steps, it became further removed from Edison's personal involvement. The facilities in Harrison also grew. In the years between 1882 and 1895, the Edison Lamp Co. further developed the site of the old Peters manufactory, adding at least one major building and perhaps acquiring additional space through the purchase of adjoining properties.

From the beginning, the Lamp Works was a large industrial complex closely connected to Thomas Edison. For this reason, the editors of the Thomas A. Edison Papers have been keenly interested to know what became of these historic buildings in Harrison. This question became all the more important over the last few years as the editors have worked on the recently published seventh volume of the Thomas A. Edison Papers and worked on the forthcoming one, which together cover the years 1882 to 1887. These are the very years Edison acquired the Peters property, established his lamp works and laboratory there, and conducted important research on the site.

"We compared everything we knew about the Edison factory's location, including photos, with historical maps and Google views of the area." says Louis Carlat, managing editor of the book edition. "We concluded that the building was gone." The former Peters property, between Bergen and Sussex Sts., where the Lamp Works and the Edison lab had been located, now seemed to be a strip mall, and where the main buildings had been, there was now a parking lot.

But in mid-September 2013, Edison Papers Business Manager Rachel Weissenburger received an interesting phone call from real estate developer Tom Berkenkamp. "He said he was redeveloping a property in Harrison, New Jersey, and believed it was the Edison Lamp Works," Weissenburger recalls. Berkenkamp's call certainly piqued the interest of the historians at the Edison Papers. The editors immediately scheduled a trip up to Harrison to check out the property in person.

Berkenkamp's realty company acquired the former RCA Corporation property, encompassing a city block in Harrison between Bergen and Sussex sts., in February 2012. It consists of three main buildings, which Berkenkamp intends to transform into upscale rental units. "The oldest building" says Berkenkamp, "seemed to date from 1902. There were some papers from the RCA Company when they were getting ready to sell the building in 1974 that indicated that."

But upon first-hand inspection, it seemed to Edison Papers Director Paul Israel and the other editors, that the oldest building, known as Building C—of brick and wood construction—was erected earlier than 1902. In terms of its layout and construction, it was very similar to the lab Edison built in West Orange in 1887. This opened the possibility that the oldest building from the RCA site, which had previously been part of the General Electric plant, was the old Lamp Works from 1882, where Edison had set up his laboratory for a brief period in the late 1880s.

But further inspection of an early drawing of the Edison Lamp Works in the 1880s and of a later photo of the site that appears in Francis Jehl's Menlo Park Reminiscences, when compared with maps and site plans from 1907, reveal that the building standing today at 420 South Fifth St. was not part of the original Peters Manufacturing site but stands on property that was just across Fifth St. from the Edison Lamp Works of the 1880s.

"What we do think," says Israel, "is that the construction of this building dates to the 1880s or to the 1890s at the latest." What is not known is precisely when and for what purpose the building was constructed and when it was incorporated into the complex that included the original Edison Lamp Works. So far, no records have come to light earlier than those in Berkenkamp's possession, which came from RCA in the 1970s, so that the building remains a bit of a mystery.

The word "Hello" and variations of it, have been around for a while. It was a common greeting in the early 1800's and was found in print in 1833, credited to Davy Crocket in "The Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett, of West Tennessee." When Alexander Graham Bell was first experimenting with the telephone, he used “Ahoy!” as a greeting. However, Edison had a different idea. In August 1877, he wrote Thomas B.A. David:

“Friend David,
I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! Can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What do you think?
– Edison."

(Edison later noted that “bells are a nuisance” which may have been the reason he was disinterested in having a bell on the phone.)

The word quickly caught on and telephone operators moved from using “What is wanted?” when picking up a ringing phone to “Hello?” Telephone operators became known as “hello girls” and Mark Twain referred to "hello girls" in his novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Wondering how “Hello” came to be on name badges? In September 1880, the first National Convention of Telephone Companies met and the organizations president addressed the audience: “The shortest speech that I could make to you and that would express a great deal to you, probably would be the one that is on all your badges -- 'Hello'!" The delegates burst into applause. The Hello! name tag went on to become a national institution. Today, we answer the phone "Hello!"

I am at work on an invention which will enable a man in Wall-street not only to telephone to a friend near Central Park, say, but to actually see that friend while speaking to him.  …Of course, it is ridiculous to talk about seeing between New York and Paris; the rotundity of the earth, if nothing else, would render that impossible.

-Mr. Edison and the Electric Millennium
Levant Herald,
Constantinople, Sept 1, 1889.

From Brooklyn to Florida, from Germany to England, Edison was a global figure as we have highlighted in this newsletter. Here at the Edison Papers, we receive emails, inquiries and phone calls from Italy and Japan and even Iran! Edison transcends place and his universal presence lends us deep perspectives. Feel free to contact us!