This is the site of the Glenmont estate, which Thomas Alva Edison purchased in 1886 and which served as his home until his death in 1931. In 1887, Edison began construction of a laboratory on land adjacent to the estate; the laboratory served as his “Invention Factory” for forty-four years and produced more than half of his 1,093 U.S. patents. The estate and the laboratory were declared a National Historic Site in 1954; it was closed on June 6, 1999, to make improvements to some historic spaces and to install new exhibits and temperature and humidity controls, with a scheduled reopening in the spring of 2001.
Edison National Historic Site Visitor Center
Main Street at Lakeside Avenue
West Orange, NJ 07052
ph.: (973) 736-0550
fax: (973) 736-8496
Web site: www.nps.gov/edis/
In 1886, the year that Thomas Alva Edison purchased the Glenmont estate, his final home and the site of his largest laboratory, he was already well established as the preeminent inventor in the United States. He had made his mark originally for his work in the telegraph industry, and then “electrified” the world by solving the problem of the incandescent light bulb and creating a system for bringing electrical resources to the office and home. In his biography of Edison, Robert Conot observed that
Edison was a lusty, crusty, hard-driving, opportunistic, and occasionally ruthless Midwesterner, whose Bunyanesque ambition for wealth was repeatedly subverted by his passion for invention. He was complex and contradictory, an ingenious electrician, chemist, and promoter, but a bumbling engineer and businessman. The stories of his inventions emerge out of the laboratory records as sagas of audacity, perspicacity, and luck bearing only a general resemblance to the legendary accounts of the past.
After Edison’s first big break, the 1871 invention of the universal stock printer, which allowed remote brokers’ offices to keep in close contact with the central transmitters of the financial exchanges, he had enough money to open his own inventor’s shop in Newark, New Jersey. These Newark years saw his attentions focused on the telegraph and a string of patents for receiving and sending messages faster and more clearly. Most of these patents revolved around the automatic repeating telegraph and the quadraplex telegraph. The patents also took him in and out of various partnerships for manufacturing and using the machines he created.
One such company was the Gold and Stock Company, a subsidiary of Western Union. To work the transmitters for its network, the Gold and Stock Company trained young girls, one of whom was sixteen-year-old Mary Stilwell. Edison courted her and they were married on Christmas Day, 1871. The next day he was back at work, the first of many examples of his obsession with invention. Mary and Thomas Edison had three children–Marion, Thomas Jr., and William. Over the years of her marriage, Mary’s behavior became erratic and her health deteriorated until she died in August, 1884. It was discovered that she had a brain tumor.
Though rich and famous, Edison was not prepared to care for his children alone. In 1885, he met Mina Miller while at the World Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. Mina’s father, Lewis Miller, was the inventor of the first efficient grass mower and made a fortune manufacturing it and other implements. A fervent Methodist, Miller helped found the Sunday school movement and was active in the Chautauqua continuing education movement. As Conot described it, “When Edison was obsessed with an idea, he could not rest until he followed it to success–and he was now obsessed with Mina.” Edison courted Mina across the eastern half of the United States until he won over both her and her family. They were married in February, 1886, and spent part of their honeymoon in Fort Myers, Florida, because Edison was building a laboratory there.
When Edison was looking for a home for his new bride, a New York real estate firm offered him the Glenmont estate in Llewellyn Park, a private, aristocratic community in West Orange, New Jersey. Llewellyn Park was one of the new suburban communities that developed once rail transportation allowed the wealthy to live in the country and commute to their city offices. Realizing this potential, Llewellyn S. Haskell acquired three hundred acres along the eastern slopes of the Orange Mountains and laid out more than one hundred private estates on this land, contouring the roads around the hills and setting aside open fields and woodlands as parks.
Glenmont was one of the largest estates in Llewellyn Park and today is one of its oldest homes still standing. Architect Henry Hudson Holly designed the Glenmont grounds and house in 1880 for Henry C. Pedder, a New York businessman. The Queen Anne-style mansion was made from brick and timber. In 1886, Glenmont was on the market because Pedder had been caught embezzling. The money he had poured into the estate had been skimmed from the funds of Constable’s, a fashionable New York City department store. Before Pedder was caught, he had spent more than $300,000 on paneled and bronzed walls, elaborate stained-glass windows, and uncommon furnishings, including $40,000 worth of greenhouses, a $15,000 stable, and a toilet that one ascended to as a throne. The list of furnishings ran thirty-five pages. The house was on the market for only $235,000, and Edison was a man who knew a bargain and one who could do things in grand fashion. It was also a chance to ensconce his wife in a house on the order of her parents’ home. He raised $150,000 from his assets and acquired an $85,000 mortgage for the remainder.
Thomas and Mina Edison moved into Glenmont in the spring of 1886. Three children–Madeleine, Charles, and Theodore–were born at Glenmont over the next twelve years. Edison used Glenmont as a country home for retreat and relaxation, hosting friends and dignitaries, including Charles Lindbergh, Helen Keller, John Pershing, George Eastman, Herbert Hoover, Woodrow Wilson, and Henry Ford.
An artificial pond in front of the house was used as an ice-skating rink during the winter by the Edisons. Edison built the garage in 1907 using poured concrete in a precast iron mold, a technique he explored as a method for use in low-cost housing construction. The garage had a gas pump, a battery charger, and a turntable that facilitated parking. A chauffeur lived on the second floor. Glenmont’s grounds also contained a family swimming pool, a kitchen garden, a greenhouse and potting shed, a barn that housed a small flock of chickens and several milking cows, and a gardener’s cottage (another structure made of poured cement). There were also fruit trees and flower beds. All this was maintained by a full-time staff.
There was an implicit understanding between Mina and Thomas Edison that he was master of his laboratory and Mina was to run the household. The inventor’s workweek was a full six days, so he was never really at Glenmont except for Saturday night and all day Sunday. Usually, he spent his time in an upstairs sitting room where he and Mina had desks. This became what today would be called a family room. The children would be around constantly, playing as Edison read. Occasionally, he would participate in the children’s games, but he would always change the rules to his advantage. Conot writes that “he was, indeed, treated like an absolute monarch. Mina had an ironclad rule that whatever Edison wanted, Edison got.” According to Ronald W. Clark in Edison: The Man Who Made the Future, Edison’s lifelong credo was work first, family second. His children had fond memories of their time with him at the estate. His daughter Madeleine later wrote,
My father was the man who drew pictures for me of beautiful if slightly angular ladies, which I did my best to copy; who thought a spectacular thunderstorm or a brilliant rainbow sufficient excuse to wake us from our first sleep and bundle us out of our cribs to see it; he was the man who telephoned Mother almost every evening from the “Lab” to “send down lunch for seven–we’ll be working all night”; the man who played Parchesi with us strictly according to his own rules–now there was an invention for you!–and who had remarkably efficient attacks of indigestion whenever there was a party. The remarkable part was that they always occurred before, and not after, the festivities.
In fact, Edison was constantly working himself in and out of fortunes and debts. His parents had lived hand to mouth at times, and he himself had knocked about as an itinerant telegrapher through his teens and early twenties. Now that his inventions had established his fame and fortune, he attempted to ensure his family’s security by paying off the mortgage on Glenmont, transferring it along with $200,000 in bonds into Mina’s name.
Erected in 1887, the nearby laboratory complex, with its teams of workers, became the prototype for the modern industrial research laboratory. Edison envisioned the laboratory during his convalescence from pneumonia and pleurisy in the winter and spring of 1886-1887. During his long convalescence, Edison developed the idea of placing his laboratory close to home. The design he had in mind indeed seemed the extravagant dream of someone in delirium. It would be, in the words of Robert Conot, “an inventor’s dream, a laboratory of grand design, such as the world had never seen before. It would be so complete as to contain everything required for any experiment in chemistry, electricity, or physics.” Edison immediately set some of his assistants to work on purchasing property near the foot of the hill on which Glenmont was located. He contracted Henry Hudson Holly, Glenmont’s architect, to design the buildings. Construction costs were first estimated at $38,000, but before completion Edison’s investment had reached $150,000.
The foundations were laid in the spring of 1887 but the construction of the site never went smoothly. Demanding perfection, Edison was never completely satisfied. Slowly the site took shape and the main building was operational by the end of the year. Still, Edison continued tinkering with the site and was reluctant to invite the newspapers and magazines for a public showing. He soon added ancillary structures around the main building. In addition to the forty thousand square feet of the lab, Edison had added four buildings, each one hundred by twenty-five feet, for metallurgy, chemistry, woodworking, and galvanometer testing. This last building was constructed without iron so that no magnetic action could throw off the instruments. However, streetcars started running by the place within two years, interfering with the instruments.
Edison stocked the laboratory with every conceivable supply. According to Conot,
He bought $6,300 worth of chemicals and a supply of every metal in existence, including the entire stock of the American Nickel Works. He ordered hog bristles, porcupine quills, tanned walrus hide, skins of every known animal, a pound of peacock tails, five pounds of hops, fifty pounds of rice, every kind of grain, a dozen bulls’ horns, a dozen walrus tusks, twenty-five pounds of marlin.
He reused materials from his previous plants, which required one chemist to spend his hours identifying the contents of hundreds of bottles without labels.
Edison hired an equally unusual array of workers for his laboratory. He tended to hire young, inexperienced men or learned immigrants, both groups willing to work for his relatively low wages.
Once products were developed and perfected at Edison’s “Invention Factory,” they were placed into mass production at the factory buildings that surrounded the research laboratories. This extensive factory complex employed thousands of people, reaching a peak of about ten thousand in 1919-1920. The West Orange laboratory was the most productive of Edison’s workplaces in terms of the quantity of patents and products developed. More than half of his 1,093 patents were submitted from West Orange. Although his most famous work was initiated at Menlo Park, New Jersey–the incandescent light bulb and the attendant materials for electric power distribution–Edison was still amazing the world with the myriad devices he brought to the consumer markets.
The products Edison developed at West Orange included a disc phonograph, improved cylinder phonographs, a dictating machine, the nickel-iron-alkaline storage battery, the motion picture camera and projector, a talking motion pictures system, the kinetophone, the fluoroscope, ore-milling machinery, improved electrical generators, and a line of household appliances. The Black Maria, the world’s first building constructed expressly as a motion picture studio, was part of the laboratory complex from 1893 until 1903. Today visitors to the site can walk through a replica of the studio.
The laboratory complex stayed in operation past Edison’s death in 1931. It was a model for the modern private research and development laboratories, such as those run by Bell and Westinghouse. Perhaps this was Edison’s greatest invention–a site for spirited and prolonged general research, in which each new product is used as a stepping stone toward the next discovery.
Today the National Park Service preserves the laboratory and Glenmont estate with much of the apparatus, furnishings, and memorabilia intact from the days when Edison had to be cajoled from his beloved laboratory to dinner with Mina. Glenmont’s twenty-three rooms are furnished as they were when Edison and his wife lived there. A video theater features Edison’s 1903 motion picture The Great Train Robbery. Thomas and Mina Edison, who were first buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Orange, New Jersey, are interred in a gravesite at the rear of the house. In 1962 their children arranged for their remains to be brought back to Glenmont.
Clark, Ronald W. Edison: The Man Who Made the Future. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977. Quite useful in its presentation. Conot, Robert. A Streak of Luck. New York: Seaview Books, 1979. Contains a wealth of detail, its research coming from more than a million and a half documents stored at the West Orange laboratory. Conot’s presentation is somewhat convoluted: Its chapters focus on particular periods but jump back and forth to specific years. Israel, Paul. Edison: A Life of Invention. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000. A more recent biography of Edison.