Thomas A. Edison personified the age of invention, America's new frontier in the late 1800s. Though he was best known for the phonograph and incandescent lamp, perhaps Edison's greatest invention was a new way to invent: the industrial research and development laboratory. Today his largest lab complex is preserved at Thomas Edison National Historical Park. With his teams of scientists and technicians, he perfected his phonograph and developed motion pictures, a nickel-iron-alkaline storage battery, and many other devices and technologies. Edison earned 1,093 U.S. patents in his lifetime, most for inventions that came from here.
Ten times the size of the Menlo Park lab where Edison achieved early fame, the West Orange complex looked like a small college campus. A three-story building held a research library, machine shops for building models, space for experiments and various research projects, and Edison's office. Across from the main building were separate labs for chemistry, physics, and metallurgy. Though Edison was the guiding force behind every project, a spirit of camaraderie prevailed among the 100 or so employees. Small teams worked independently on aspects of projects while Edison made the rounds daily to fine-tune, offering inspired "guesses" that usually turned out to be right. He spent most of his time at the labs, often working overnight and indulging in quick naps in his library.
Edison the inventor was also a shrewd entrepreneur who established dozens of companies during his career. "I always invented to obtain money to go on inventing," he said. The business side of his operation centered on the phonograph. His factories in West Orange produced a variety of cylinder and disc phonographs and recordings, plus a business phonograph for office dictation. He introduced motion pictures, and manufactured cameras, projectors, and films. In the Black Maria, the world's first movie studio, his staff filmed everything from ballet to boxing. The phonograph and film businesses capitalized on consumer demand for new forms of entertainment.
Well into old age Edison was trying new things: a technique for poured concrete buildings, a fluoroscope to view x-ray images, methods for manufacturing large quantities of chemicals, huge machines for extracting iron from ore and for manufacturing cement. His final search was for a domestic source of rubber. Thomas Edison died in 1931. The West Orange labs soon closed, but reopened as a museum in 1948. Edison National Historic Site was established in 1962; in 2009 it became Thomas Edison National Historical Park. The park is a memorial to the man and a place where you can discover the roots of American inspiration and innovation.
An Inventive Career
In the 1920s, the Edicraft division of Thomas A. Edison, Inc. began making coffeemakers, waffle irons, sandwich grills, and toasters. These "electric servants"a popular term for kitchen appliancesfit in with notions of modern American domestic life. Sales of the pricey gadgets dropped during the Great Depression. Edicraft ceased production in 1934.
The Edisons at Glenmont
In 1886 Thomas Edison married Mina Miller, the 20-year-old daughter of a wealthy Midwestern manufacturer. According to family lore, Edison gave his fiancée the choice of a townhouse in New York City or a home in the country. They soon settled on the Glenmont estate in Llewellyn Park, a fashionable neighborhood that advertised "Country Homes for City People."
The 29-room red brick and wood mansion was built in 1880 by an office clerk who spared no expense (including funds embezzled from his firm). The architect was Henry Hudson Holly, who also designed Edison's nearby lab complex. The exterior of the house exhibits the hallmarks of the American Queen Anne style, which Holly introduced to the nation: asymmetrical façade, high-pitched gables, rooftop balcony, wrap-around porch, and unified color. Interior elements include stained-glass windows, chandeliers, wainscoting, and hand-painted ceilings. Expansive grounds, a greenhouse and potting shed, barn and stables, and poured-concrete garage complete the estate.
Glenmont was very much Mina's domain; in fact Thomas sold the property to her in 1891 to avoid possible seizure by creditors. Mina referred to herself as a "Home Executive" and took those duties very seriously. She managed money, oversaw the servants, and raised the couple's three children, Madeleine, Charles, and Theodore and Edison's three children from his first marriage, Marion, Thomas Jr., and William.
Because Edison spent most of his time at the labs, Mina represented him in the community and by hosting social events at Glenmont. Guests included Orville Wright, Helen Keller, the King of Siam, and Edison's friend Henry Ford. Products of Edison's labs and factoriesphonographs, kinetoscopes, and of course electric lightswere displayed throughout the rooms, as were Edison's many honorary gifts and awards.
After Thomas died in 1931, Mina married again and lived at Glenmont until her death in 1947. Mina and Thomas are buried side by side in a simple plot behind their home.
Museum and Archival Collections
Planning Your Visit
Begin your visit at the Laboratory Complex Visitor Center, which offers orientation information. Call ahead or check the park website for hours and days of operation and special events. Reservations are required for groups. The Laboratory Complex tour is self-guiding. You can see the 1877 tinfoil phonograph, the kinetoscope, and many more original inventions. The Edison Home at Glenmont offers a guided tour; the estate grounds are self-guiding.
From New Jersey Turnpike: Exit 15W to I-280. From Garden State Parkway: Exit 145 to I-280. From I-280 westbound: Exit 10. Turn right on Northfield Ave. Left on Main St. Go about 0.75 mile to parking on left and Laboratory Complex on right. From I-280 eastbound: Exit 9. Turn left at end of ramp. At second light, left on Main St. Go about 0.5 mile to parking.
N. J. Transit: take bus #21; www.njtransit.com.
Source: NPS Brochure (2008)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
A History of Edison's West Orange Laboratory, 1887-1931 (A.J. Millard with W.B. Carlson, October 28, 1987)
Beehives of Invention: Edison and His Laboratories (HTML edition) National Park Service History Series (George E. Davidson, 1973)
Cultural Landscape Report: Glenmont Draft (Leah Brodbeck Burt, August 18, 1987)
Discography of American Historical Recordings (University of California-Santa Barbara)
Edison's Electric Light: Biography of an Invention (Robert Friedel and Paul B. Israel, 1983)
Ethnographic Overview and Assessment, Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, New Jersey (Louis Berger & Associates, Inc., June 18, 1997)
Historic Furnishings Report: Edison Laboratory, Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, New Jersey (Volume 1: Historical Data and Furnishing Plan) (Andre Millard, Duncan Hay and Mary Grassick, 1995)
Historic Furnishings Report: Edison Laboratory, Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, New Jersey (Volume 2: Illustrations and Appendixes) (Andre Millard, Duncan Hay and Mary Grassick, 1995)
Historic Furnishings Study: Building 3, Pattern Shop (Susan A. Kopczyaski, October 23, 1975)
Historic Structures Report, Administrative, Historical, and Architectural Data: Building No. 13, Black Maria, Laboratory Unit (Melvin J. Weig, Norman R. Speiden and Norman M. Souder, December 1, 1966)
Historic Structures Report, Administrative, Historical, and Architectural Data: Building No. 16, Frame Barn, Edison National Historic Site Part I (Melvin J. Weig, Benjamin Levy, Arthur Spiegler and Norman Souder, June 2, 1965)
Historic Structures Report, Administrative, Historical, and Architectural Data: Building No. 7A, Wood Storage Building, Edison National Historic Site Part I (Melvin J. Weig, Benjamin Levy and Gordie Whittington, July 28, 1964)
Historic Structures Report, Architectural Data Section: Barn at Glenmont, Edison National Historic Site Part I (Norman M. Souder, May 1965)
Historic Structures Report, Architectural Data Section: Garage, Edison National Historic Site Part I (Norman M. Souder, August 1964)
Historic Structures Report: Gardener's Cottage & Potting Shed, Bldg. #1, Greenhouse, Bldg. #14, Edison National Historic Site Part I (Melvin J. Weig, Benjamin Levy, Arthur Spiegler and Norman M. Souder, August-October 1964)
Historic Structures Report: The Den Ceiling, Edison Home, Building No. 10 Part II (Portion) (Melvin J. Weig and Norman M. Souder, January-March 1966)
Historic Structures Report: The Hose House at "Glenmont", Bldg. # 18, Edison National Historic Site Part I (Melvin J. Weig, Benjamin Levy, Arthur Spiegler and Norman M. Souder, August-November 1964)
Historic Structure Report: The House at Glenmont: Home of Thomas Edison, Edison National Historic Site, Vol. I (Barbara A. Yocum, written 1995, published 1998)
Historic Structure Report: The House at Glenmont: Home of Thomas Edison, Edison National Historic Site, Vol. II (Barbara A. Yocum, written 1995, published 1998)
Junior Ranger Book, Thomas Edison National Historical Park (Date Unknown)
Long-Range Interpretive Plan, Thomas Edison National Historical Park (September 2009)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Forms
Edison National Historic Site (The Laboratory, Glenmont) (Anne Booth, January 1978)
Llewellyn Park Historic District (Robert P. Guter, Jane B. Davies and Donald C. Richardson, July 16, 1984)
Report Outline for Historical Study, Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, New Jersey (Andre J. Millard and W. Bernard Carlson, December 31, 1984)
The "Black Maria" Site Study, Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, New Jersey (George J. Svejda, March 24, 1969)
Thomas A. Edison Papers (Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 07-Mar-2022