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edison's childhood inventions and patents
the menlo park lab edison chronology
the lab comes to greenfield village for more information

edison's childhood

Thomas Edison was born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio He grew up in Port Huron, Michigan. There are many stories about what Edison was like as a child. They all show that from an early age, Edison was curious about the world around him and always tried to teach himself through reading and experiments.

As a boy, Edison worked as a gatekeeper at his father's observatory for tourists, and worked on a railway selling newspapers and candy to passengers.

In 1869, when Edison was twenty-two years old, he patented his first invention and advertised that he "would hereafter devote his full time to bringing out his inventions."

During the eighty-four years of his life, Edison patented 1,093 inventions!


Edison as a boy, 1851
Photo of Daguerreotype in Case. Photo: P.188.3016.B


the menlo park laboratory

During his most inventive years, Edison conducted experiments at his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory. He did not work alone. A team of talented workers assisted him all hours of the day and night. These men had the skills to make Edison's ideas and sketches into real devices of wood, wire, glass, and metal.

Edison's workers came from all over the world. The group included: Charles Batchelor, Edison's chief mechanical assistant from England; Ludwig Boehm, a German glassblower; John Kruesi, a Swiss clockmaker; Francis Upton, a mathematician, as well as carpenters, machinists, and general laboratory helpers.

The laboratory at Menlo Park was an "invention factory" and a business. Bookkeepers and secretaries kept track of the money needed to run the business.

Samuel Mott was a draftsman who made official drawings to be sent to the United States Patent Office in Washington, D.C., or to patent offices in foreign countries. Patents, or exclusive rights to make the inventions created at Menlo Park, were an important part of Edison's activities. They proved that the inventions were Edison's and no one else's.

Grosvenor Lowery was Edison's lawyer. His job was to raise money for Edison's laboratory so that he had the equipment he needed to continue his experiments. Lowery often promoted Edison's ideas before they had become real.

On December 31, 1879, Thomas Edison demonstrated his most famous invention: the first practical incandescent electric lamp. He was not, however, the first inventor to experiment with electric light. When Edison began testing possibilities for incandescent lamps, the arc light was already becoming popular for lighting streets, department stores, and other large areas.

Incandescent lamps make light by using electricity to heat a thin strip of material (called filament) so hot that it glows. Many inventors tried to perfect incandescent lamps to "sub-divide" electric light or make it smaller and weaker. These 1878 lamps are examples of less successful versions of the incandescent lamp patented by other inventors before Edison completed his practical lamp in 1879.

One of the most important features of Edison's lamp and electrical system was the simple, modern socket familiar to us today.

Edison tried to find a material that would become incandescent and not melt when heated by electricity. For a long time he tried platinum, but finally he made his filaments by carbonizing a kind of cardboard called Bristol board.

In earlier lamps, too much oxygen caused the filaments to burn. Edison acquired the best vacuum pumps so he could empty his bulbs of as much air as possible. Because of this, his carbon filaments did not burn.

Edison's men used vacuum pumps to evacuate electric lamps. Edison also developed an entire system to make electricity and distribute it to many places at the same time. Edison's system included dynamos, switches, electric meters, fuses, distribution lines, and regulators.

Edison spent the next few years working on an electrical system that would be successful commercially. This meant he had to be certain that he could make a central power station and that his electricity would be cheap enough for people to afford.

Soon Edison demonstrated that his system could become a commercial success. Harper's Weekly published this drawing of men laying tubes for electrical wires to Edison's system in June 1882. That year the Pearl Street generating station began to supply electricity to streets and buildings in a small area of New York City.


An arc light produces light by using on electric spark to generate heat between two carbon electrodes causing them to vaporize and burn. Arc lamps were very bright - too bright for lighting small areas such as rooms in houses.


Patent Drawing of Edison's Electric Lamp, January 27, 1880. Photo: P.B.16790

the lab comes to greenfield village

Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory complex and the inventions he made there are over 100 years old. When Edison built the laboratory in 1876, it was the first industrial research laboratory in the United States. Four years later, in 1880, Menlo Park looked virtually abandoned.

By 1886, Edison and his entire team had abandoned the Menlo Park site. In the 1920s, Henry Ford wanted to move the old "invention factory" to his museum in Dearborn, Michigan. When Ford and Edison went to New Jersey to recover the buildings they found that most of them had been removed or had collapsed. Ford had his staff reconstruct the Menlo Park buildings from photographs and a few surviving original materials.


print version

Menlo Park, New Jersey, ca. 1880. Photo: P.B.4182

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The Henry Ford is an AAM (American Association of Museums) accredited museum. The museum complex is an independent, non-profit, educational institution not affiliated with the Ford Motor Company or the Ford Foundation.