Invention Factory

Working at Menlo Park

betting

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.

MPERR

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.Ott

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.