In the mid-1970s leaders in various organizations in New Jersey and elsewhere initiated plans for the celebration in 1979 of the centennial of Thomas A. Edison's development of his incandescent lamp. Among them, people in two New Jersey institutions took a special initiative. John T. Cunningham, chairman of the New Jersey Historical Commission, and Arthur Reed Abel, archivist at the Edison National Historic Site, expressed their long-standing concerns regarding scholarly attention to Thomas Edison and to his papers located at the Edison National Historic Site (ENHS) in West Orange, New Jersey. Cunningham observed that the 75th anniversary celebration in 1954 had engendered considerable momentary public attention, but it had done little to exploit the rich archival resources at the ENHS or to provide any enduring contribution to understanding or publicizing Edison's achievements. Abel also expressed concern regarding the inaccessibility to researchers of the voluminous collection of Edison's laboratory notebooks, patents, correspondence, and other documents at the ENHS. As a consequence of their concerns, an inter-institutional committee was formed that included Bernard Bush, Paul A. Stellhorn, Richard Waldron, and Ronald Grele from the New Jersey Historical Commission and William Binnewies, Lynn Wightman, Elizabeth Albro, and Arthur Reed Abel from the National Park Service's Edison National Historic Site. Soon Brooke Hindle and Bernard Finn of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of History and Technology joined the committee.

This group sought to identify an appropriate course of action for dealing with Edison's papers. With financial support from the Edison Electric Institute, they engaged James Brittain, a distinguished historian of electrical technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, to examine the materials located at the ENHS and elsewhere and to make a report to the committee. In the fall of 1977, Brittain recommended establishment of an Edison Papers project with the goal of publishing a selective book edition with accompanying supplementary microform. Moreover, he recommended that the committee identify a major academic home for the project. The committee then invited presentations from interested academic institutions. Following deliberations with representatives of several schools and a personal presentation by Edward Bloustein, president of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, the committee invited Rutgers to join the other three institutions in establishing and cosponsoring the Thomas A. Edison Papers project and to assume scholarly and administrative responsibility for it. Participating in the initiative from Rutgers were Richard P. McCormick, former dean of Rutgers College; James Kirby Martin, vice president for academic affairs; and Tilden Edelstein, chairman of the Department of History.

During the spring of 1978 Rutgers made a nationwide search for a person to join the faculty of the history department and to serve as editor-in-chief of the project. In July Reese Jenkins, a historian of technology and science at Case Western Reserve University, came to Rutgers University in this capacity and began the planning for the project. On November 3, 1978, representatives of the four cosponsors met at the National Museum of History and Technology and formally signed the sponsors agreement. The representatives included: Paul Pearson, acting president of Rutgers; Ira Hutchinson, deputy director of the National Park Service; Bernard Bush, executive director of the New Jersey Historical Commission; and Otto Mayr, acting director of the National Museum of History and Technology of the Smithsonian Institution.

During the next several months, the editor-in-chief consulted with the editors of several major projects, including Edward C. Carter II and Darwin H. Stapleton of the Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe; Nathan Reingold, Arthur R Molella, Marc Rothenberg, and Kathleen Waldenfels of the Papers of Joseph Henry; Arthur Link and David Hirst of the Woodrow Wilson Papers; Carl Prince of the William Livingston Papers; Richard Showman of the Nathanael Greene Papers; and Louis Galambos of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Papers. The staff of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, including Frank Burke, Roger Bruns, Richard Sheldon, George Vogt, and Mary Guinta provided helpful counsel and, through their sponsorship of historical editing institutes and other training programs for editors, provided critical insights and information. A number of other scholars also were most helpful and supportive during this early period, including Brooke Hindle, James Brittain, Thomas P. Hughes, Bernard Finn, Ray Smock, John Simon, Richard P. McCormick, John Cunningham, Melvin Kranzberg, and Robert Schofield.

Following nationwide searches for historical editors and researchers, three key people joined the staff of the Edison Papers during the summer and fall of 1979: Leonard Reich as associate director and senior assistant editor; Thomas Jeffrey as microfilm editor; and Susan Schultz as assistant editor. Editorial offices were established at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and at the Edison National Historic Site. The staff began to develop plans for addressing the project's three principal goals: publication of a selective microfilm edition for the use of serious researchers, publication of an even more selective book edition for a broad range of scholars and others interested in Edison, and preparation of publications and audiovisual materials to increase public understanding of Edison and his work.

During the next several years, the staff of the Edison Papers grew. As knowledge and control of the documents increased, some editorial plans were modified. When the project began, about 1½ million pages of documents were known to exist, most of which were located at the ENHS archive in West Orange. After Susan Schultz and other staff members systematically explored the archive at the ENHS and developed detailed inventories of documents, the number of known pages of documents approached 3½ million (more recent estimates have placed the number at 5 million pages). In addition to the documents there are thousands of photographs and artifacts. As the staff members became better acquainted with the documentary material, they became increasingly active in reorganizing the files that were to be microfilmed. Thomas Jeffrey supervised this work in consultation with the archivist at the ENHS. Paul Israel provided considerable leadership in implementing the reorganization.

Early in the project's life the senior editors carefully studied the possible use of computers in historical editing, drawing substantially on the pioneering experiences of the Henry Papers with computerized document control and of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission with word processing and associated computerized composition. Leonard Reich began designing a multifaceted program for the use of computers at the Edison Papers, while many people provided counsel: notably Nathan Reingold, P. Thomas Carroll, David Chesnutt, Charles Cullen, and Steven Schwab. At Rutgers University Richard Stillman provided initial assistance in the selection and installation of computer equipment, and Melvin Pleasant and Leonard Dreifus played key roles in the design of the programs for the control of documents and for the printing of the microfilm index. Nan L. Hahn and Jocelyn Penny Small also assisted with counsel based on their experience with computers in humanistic projects at Rutgers University.

The original goal of the project was to organize and publish a select edition of the estimated 5 million pages of Thomas Alva Edison's technical, business, and personal papers in two forms: a six-part microfilm publication and a book edition of fifteen to twenty volumes. To date we have published 288 reels of microfilm, comprising more than 134,000 documents and covering Edison's life from 1847 to 1919, along with a six-reel edition of film and equipment catalogs from the earliest years of motion pictures. In 2000, we launched the Edison Papers digital image edition, which now includes about 153,600 documents, including nearly 138,000 from the five-part microfilm edition and more than 15,500 documents from over 100 other archives and private collections. The book edition has published nine volumes covering the period 1847-1889, which is now also available as open-access content on Project Muse, the digital platform of Johns Hopkins University Press.