Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Edison at Greenfield

One of the star attractions of Greenfield is Menlo Park workshop. It was Edison's, after all. As I told Lilly as we entered the grounds of the re-created lab, with fitting exaggeration, "You know who Edison was. He invented everything."

There's a small complex of Menlo Park buildings at Greenfield: a machine shop, an office, a glass-blowing facility -- because all the light bulbs had to be individually blown at first -- and the two-story lab, a Machine Age marvel stocked with the tools Edison and his men used to fashion devices of wood, wire, glass, and metal.

In 1876 Edison moved his operations from Newark to Menlo Park. The probable reason? The price of real estate. According to Edison - A Life of Invention by Paul Israel (1998), "Most likely, Edison simply wanted to build the kind of laboratory that he had begun working toward ever since his return from England and he found Newark too costly. In December 1875 he had sent his father to investigate possible sites, and at the end of the month he purchased two tracts of land and a house in Menlo Park.

"A mere whistlestop located twelve miles south of Newark on the railroad line to Philadelphia, Menlo Park had been part of a failed real estate development and Edison was able to purchase this property for $5,200. As the new year opened, he set his father to work erecting the new laboratory, which cost over $2,500 and was completed by March 25. A few days later, Edison moved into the new laboratory where he would not only produce some of his most famous inventions, but also create a new model for invention that became the cornerstone of modern industrial research."

The Menlo Park lab had been long since abandoned for better industrial digs by the 1920s, when Ford decided to re-create it in Michigan. Over 40 years might have passed, but a lot of Edison's men were still around to help with their memories of the lab and with donated artifacts (except for Tesla, probably). Edison himself was still around, in fact. Photos and blueprints were consulted too.

Some of the original building was transferred from New Jersey; other parts had to be built anew. Oddly, all the topsoil from the Menlo Park site was also removed and placed under the re-created buildings at Greenfield. Hard to say how many toxins came with the soil, since the notion of brownfield remediation was still decades in the future.

Be that as it may, on the first floor of the lab a Greenfield employee demonstrated an Edison phonograph. Not the very first one, on which the inventor famously played back "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in late 1877, but the next model, of which only a handful survive, and only one is on public display. The one he was displaying.

He then advised us to go upstairs, which we would have done anyway. Waiting for us were long wooden tables, wooden chairs, glass- and brasswork everywhere, Edison electric conduits and light bulbs, and rows and rows and rows of chemicals and other substances in bottles arrayed on shelves on both walls. At the far end of the lab was an organ.

An organ? I asked the Greenfield employee waiting to talk to us on the second floor. "Edison worked his men pretty hard," he said. "The organ was for relaxation toward the end of long days, so they wouldn't completely burn out." (To use an anachronistic term, I suspect.)

He also told us that Edison told Ford that the re-creation was almost exactly correct, except for one thing. Namely, that it isn't cluttered enough. The impulse of open-air museums everywhere, I think, is to deny essential human clutter.

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