He was charismatic. He was brilliant. He had famous rivalries and electrocuted an elephant to death. He created jobs, factories, and some of the most important inventions known to man. He was the Wizard of Menlo Park, and his name was Thomas Alva Edison. The coolest thing about Thomas Edison wasn’t that he invented the lightbulb – it’s that his entire career began in Newark, New Jersey.
More Than Just A Light Bulb
You probably already know that Edison was the inventor of the lightbulb, and that he was the main person who advocated for the use of DC (Direct Current) for lighting systems. What you may not know is how many different inventions he had created during his stay in New Jersey.
The first invention that got peoples’ attention was the phonograph – the world’s first sound playback device. Using the money that he received from the phonograph and the sale of a quadruplex telegraph, he created the first research laboratory in West Orange. Soon after the invention of the phonograph, he moved his operations to a larger lab in Menlo Park.
Even in his earlier days, Edison was known for teaming up with some of the greatest scientists that had ever lived so that he could complete his projects. He’s been known to work with Nikola Tesla, John Sprague, and William Joseph Hammer on various inventions – many of which became major hits in markets around the world.
The Menlo Park Lab
Edison’s Menlo Park research lab was the stuff of legends, and a veritable candyland for anyone who has ever wanted to create. It was a laboratory that regularly recruited the best of the best to work on projects that would have been the stuff of science fiction and imagination for anyone else of the time. It was a laboratory that was regularly stocked with almost any material known to man – including over 8,000 chemicals, animal hair, silk, and metals galore.
It was there in Menlo Park that the lightbulb, DC current, the carbon microphone that was standard in all phones, as well as the fluoroscope were all invented. In the mid-1880’s, Edison also invented the world’s first financially viable way to generate heat and electricity for homes throughout the area. Party due to the lightbulb and the methods in which he was able to help people power their home, Menlo Park’s laboratory quickly became synonymous with state of the art inventions that were quick to revolutionize the way life was lived.
The Menlo Park lab became one of the world’s most famous locations for those who wanted to invent. It didn’t take too long for the lab to also expand to a full two city blocks in size. Because of his natural inventive character, and because he seemed to be able to “magically” make things work, Thomas Edison quickly became known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.”
Many people often forget that he was not just an inventor, but an exceptionally shrewd businessman. Edison was the head of a number of major companies – many of which are still extant today. You might have heard of General Electric, which was known back in the day as Edison General Electric. He also was the founder of the Edison Illuminating Company, which was credited with helping many homes and businesses get light. Oddly, it was Edison’s cutthroat business practiced that earned him the hatred of several rivals – including Westinghouse and Tesla.
The vast majority of Edison’s rivalries, if not all, were sparked by his drive to maximize profits at his company. His most famous rivalry was solely based on making sure that his Direct Current electricity overtook Westinghouse’s Alternating Current as the number one mode of electric power in the US in the 1880’s. It was a competition and heated rivalry that was so vicious, so outspoken, that it became known as the Battle of the Currents.
Though people generally approved of Westinghouse’s cheaper Alternating Current (AC), Edison was not about to let the opportunity to market and install DC transformers in neighborhoods across the country. Edison was the first to provoke the war, and he did it in one of the most brutal, shocking ways imaginable.
The way he began the war was very straightforward – he started a campaign advising people to avoid using Westinghouse’s current citing its dangers. Edison famously spread disinformation about accidentally killings via AC, had multiple scientists preside over electrocutions of animals, and even electrocuted a circus elephant by the name of Topsy in order to prove that Alternating Current was far more deadly than Direct Current.
It may not have been Edison’s best move to pick a fight with Westinghouse. Edison had already refused to pay world-famous electrician Nikola Tesla for his work on a previous project. It should not have come as any surprise to Edison that Tesla would eventually team up with his AC rival Westinghouse to complete a number of patents. Between Tesla and Westinghouse, Edison had every reason to worry about the success of DC current.
Though Edison definitely did an excellent job excorciating Westinghouse’s invention and current, AC generally won out – primarily due to the investments put forth by General Electric after it was bought out by a different company. Though there are still parts of the world that choose DC current, most homes and businesses are now powered by Westinghouse’s choice current.
Edison And New Jersey Now
Edison definitely left a huge mark on New Jersey history. In fact, you might have noticed that Menlo Park is no longer even called Menlo Park anymore. It’s been renamed to Edison, with only the local mall really keeping its original name.
The town also has a fully functional museum dedicated to Edison’s achievements – the Thomas Edison Center, also known as the Menlo Park Museum. The museum holds a model of the Menlo Park laboratory, various inventions created by the Wizard himself, as well as access to a state park that was also dedicated in his name.
If you want to take a look at the place where Thomas Edison called home, you can also check out the Thomas Edison National Historic Park. The beautiful red house which sits on the property is actually his old home, and the laboratory that he built in West Orange still remains intact on the park property. This museum comes with guided audio tours, amazing exhibits and a chance to watch some of the movies that Edison created.
For future scholars who look up to the father of modern lighting, there’s also a Thomas Edison College located in the state. Rutgers New Brunswick has also been known to hold Edison-themed discussions and gatherings from time to time as well.
In 2008, Edison was also inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. In other words, the guy is still pretty big in New Jersey – even if he passed away over 50 years ago. So, if you want to check out anything Edison-related, New Jersey’s the best place to be.
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