Thomas Edison National Historical Park | MAIN LABORATORY BUILDING MUSEUM

Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

GENERAL INFORMATION

The Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park houses the largest collection of Thomas Edison related items in the world. It is also the third largest museum in the United States National Park system. However, while there are a lot of items on display, there is not all that much to read. An entire exhibit could be a grocery store-size room full of machines with only a couple of information panels describing what the room was used for. How long you spend in the room depends on how long you want to gawk at machines, but most people get enough as they walk from one end of the room to the other. Thus, despite its size, you can do a thorough tour of the museum in a couple of hours.

Tours of the museum are self-guided, and the key to getting the most out of a visit is to rent an audio tour device at the Laboratory Complex Visitor Center. At the time of this writing, these are available for $5 (debit or credit only, no cash). Be sure to ask for headphones if you don’t have any of your own. You can still hear the information without them, but you must hold the device to your ear. In addition to English, the tour is in German, Spanish, and Japanese. There is also a family version that appeals to kids.

Throughout the complex—not just the Main Laboratory—you will find information panels with a number and headphone graphic on them. Punch a number into your device to hear a short lecture on what you are looking at. Without this device all you get is the limited information on the panel. You’ll learn all sorts of neat facts about Edison and his inventions.

The information on the audio tour is organized into three different categories, each with its own series of numbers. Commentaries with a number in the 200s just give general information about an exhibit, room, or building, similar to what you get on the information panels themselves. The 300s talk about specific items in the room. For example, you’ll learn the meaning of the painted hands on the factory time clock and that Edison had a bed in his office at the laboratory that was set up by his wife. None of this information is given on the information panels. The 400s discuss more personal details of Edison’s life, but are often a repeat of the 300s. Of course, the more commentaries you listen to the more time you’ll spend in the museum. I recommend listening to at least the 200s and 300s commentaries, which takes about two hours for just the museum. The audio tour covers the other buildings in the park as well, adding an extra hour to the tour.

Exhibit the with an audio commentary (see front rail) inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Exhibit the with an audio commentary (see front rail) inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

The following is a virtual tour of the factory:

FIRST FLOOR

Library

Edison’s library and office inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Edison’s library and office inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

The first room that you enter on a tour of the Main Laboratory is the library, which also served as Edison’s office. Despite the fact that you are essentially in a factory building, you’d swear you were visiting a very ritzy mansion.

Interior of the library inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Interior of the library inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Of particular interest is Edison’s desk, the bed that he often slept in instead of going home, and a Super Kinetoscope from 1914. This was one of the early movie projectors.

Edison’s bed inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Edison’s bed inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Edison’s desk inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Edison’s desk inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Super Kinetoscope from 1914

Super Kinetoscope from 1914

Stock Room

Stock Room inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Stock Room inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

The Stock Room is closed to visitors, but you can look through the gate and see some of the materials Edison kept on hand. This was his version of a Home Depot, with even elephant hides and rhinoceros horns in stock. There were no synthetic materials at the time, so everything had to be made from natural products.

Animal shells kept in the Main Laboratory Building's stock room for use in experiments, Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Animal shells kept in the Main Laboratory Building’s stock room for use in experiments, Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Heavy Machine Shop

Heavy Machine Shop inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Heavy Machine Shop inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

The Heavy Machine Shop houses tools such as lathes, drill presses, and others that were used to make parts for new inventions and machines. They were not used to mass produce parts for finished products—this was done in the manufacturing facilities that surrounded the Laboratory Complex. They did, however, make the machines that made the finished products at the factories, as well as replacement parts for machines that broke.

Most of the machine tools were installed in 1887-1888. The following video shows how the grinding machine operates. Both it and the radial drill press are still in working order. Now days you’re lucky to get a few years out of a tool.

Radial Drill Press installed in 1888 inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Radial Drill Press installed in 1888 inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Most of your time in the Heavy Machine Shop will be spent reading the various information panels or listening to the audio commentary. You’ll be on your way to the second floor in about 10 minutes. For those in wheelchairs, there is an elevator…but you can’t use Mr. Edison’s.

Edison’s personal elevator at the Main Laboratory Building, Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Edison’s personal elevator at the Main Laboratory Building, Thomas Edison National Historical Park

SECOND FLOOR

Precision Machine Shop

Precision Machine Shop inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Precision Machine Shop inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Most of the second floor consists of the Precision Machine Shop. These are tools that made much smaller parts than could be produced in the Heavy Machine Shop. As with the Heavy Machine Shop, no product production took place here.

The most notable inventions made on this floor were the Kinetograph and the Kinetoscope. The Kinetograph was Edison’s first movie camera, and the Kinetoscope was a self-contained motion picture viewing cabinet. Patrons could press their eyes to a viewing scope and watch a short film. Edison preferred the personal movie viewer over projection viewing because nobody could see his films without paying.

Kinetoscope on display inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Kinetoscope on display inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Most of the work on the motion picture equipment was done by William Dickson, Edison’s official photographer. He also directed and starred in many of the first films produced by the Edison company. In his spare time, Dickson worked on a projection system, which he thought was the future, not the personal Kinetoscope. In fact, he eventually began collaborating with competitors because of Edison’s refusal to embrace projection viewing. When Edison found out in 1895, Dickson was fired. However, he was well set up with other investors and would even go on to develop a system to sync sound to moving pictures.

Early Kinetograph and film splicing equipment

Early Kinetograph and film splicing equipment

You can watch six short films made by the Edison Company between 1891 and 1895 on a small video screen in the Precision Machine Shop.

Six earlier films by the Edison company show in the Precision Machine Shop at the Main Laboratory Building, Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Six earlier films by the Edison company show in the Precision Machine Shop at the Main Laboratory Building, Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Drafting Room

Diagrams for inventions were drawn in the drafting room.

Drafting Room inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Drafting Room inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Room 12

Room 12 was Edison’s personal laboratory. He spent more time here than in his office on the first floor.

Edison’s personal lab, Room 12 of the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Edison’s personal lab, Room 12 of the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

THIRD FLOOR

Music Room

The third floor of the Main Laboratory Building is most likely to be a visitor’s favorite. Instead of shop tools and machines you will find actual inventions, including many of Edison’s phonographs that are on display in the Music Room. In the early days of sound recording, the sonic quality was not that good, so sound-proof rooms didn’t make that much of a difference. As a result, many live musical performances were recorded in the Music Room even though machines were rumbling away just a floor below.

Music Room inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Music Room inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Edison was essentially the first record company executive and producer in that he actually chose the artists and music to be recorded. His philosophy was that good music sells and that the performer’s personality was not important. Other record companies realized that a personality sells the records, and Edison’s Diamond Records was surpassed by others in later years. Edison was a genius at marketing his initial products, but time after time he refused to adapt as the technology changed, often sending him from the top of the financial pyramid to the bottom.

A park Ranger gives a lecture a few times a day in the Music Room. If you can catch one, fine, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t. Like all Ranger talks and tours at Thomas Edison National Historical Park, times can vary each day depending on how many Rangers are scheduled to work. The only ways to get the schedule is to either call (973-736-0550) or stop by the Laboratory Complex Visitor Center. The schedule is not posted on the National Park Service’s website.

Sound recording and playback machine on display in the Music Room of the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Sound recording and playback machine on display in the Music Room of the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Phonograph Gallery

Edison cylinder-based phonograph

Edison cylinder-based phonograph

Just past the Music Room is one of the more traditional museum exhibits—a collection of early Edison phonographs.

Visitors at the Phonograph Gallery inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Visitors at the Phonograph Gallery inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Edison came up with the first recording device in 1877 when he was still operating out of Menlo Park, New Jersey. Edison called his machine the phonograph. It recorded sound onto a tinfoil coated cylinder. However, he ended up dropping further work on it in order to concentrate on developing a commercially viable light bulb. He didn’t get back into the race to perfect the recording and playback machine until Alexander Graham Bell came up with his own cylinder-based recording device in the early 1880s. Edison originally marketed his phonographs as dictation devices for businessmen. When this idea flopped, he began using them for entertainment, particularly the recording of music.

The early tin cylinders gave way to wax cylinders and then to celluloid cylinders, which were much more durable. These were later replaced by discs made of shellac, the first of the traditional record albums.

Earliest known Edison wax cylinder phonograph

Earliest known Edison wax cylinder phonograph

Emile Berliner invented the disc system in 1888, which he called the gramophone. His patents were eventually purchased by Eldridge Johnson, who started the Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1906 he introduced the first commercial disc-playing device, the Victor Victrola. Edison, convinced that cylinders produced a better sound, stuck with his product until he could no longer compete. He switched to a disc system in 1912 and was out of the phonograph business altogether by 1929.

Disc phonograph from the early 1920s

Disc phonograph from the early 1920s

Photography Laboratory

The Photography Laboratory is a section of the Main Laboratory where still photographs were developed. Edison had a distinct photo department, with his head photographer being William Dickson. Because of his talent in photography, Dickson would go on to become one of the principal members of Edison’s moving picture department.

Part of the photography department inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Part of the photography department inside the Main Laboratory Building at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

There are also some miscellaneous inventions and products on display, such as a talking doll, dictaphones (Ediphone, as Edison’s was called), and Edison’s home Kinetoscope, which was marketed to homes, schools, and churches.

Edison Home Kinetoscope

Edison Home Kinetoscope

You may notice that the light bulb is missing from the museum. (Though Edison did not invent the light bulb, he did come up with the first long-lasting commercial bulb.) The reason for its absence at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park is because most of that work was done at his Menlo Park facility. The phonograph and motion pictures were the main products developed at West Orange.

The alkaline battery was also a big part of West Orange, but there is very little mention of it because, I assume, who wants to look at batteries? Edison actually made more money from his batteries than any other invention he came up with. The factory building that still stands on the other side of Lakeside Avenue from the park was the battery factory. It was recently turned into apartments and retail space. All other buildings of the West Orange manufacturing facility were torn down in the 1970s.

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Last updated on December 11, 2022
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