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Menlo Park Laboratory interior, second floor THF3817

Menlo Park Laboratory in Greenfield Village THF49162


March 2012

Curators Explore Museum Icons: Third in a Series

Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory

As curators, we devote much of our time and energy to studying objects—who made them and why, when and where they were made, and how they represent certain ideas, events, and people. When we decided to choose and write about 12 iconic objects from our collection for this year’s Pic of the Month feature, we had to consider what makes an object truly iconic. In the end, we came up with three criteria that we felt needed to be present in every one of our choices: national significance, uniqueness to our institution, and resonance to museum visitors.

Using these three criteria, we explore what is iconic about Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory.



MORE:  Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory


Menlo Park in Greenfield Village

“The best way that I know to keep the influence of a man alive is to perpetuate the scenes amidst which he lived and did his most important work."

                           Edison as I Know Him, Henry Ford
                           in collaboration with Samuel Crowther

Edison’s Menlo Park needs little by way of introduction: it is recognized internationally as the birthplace of modern sound recording and electric lighting technologies, and its prototypical research and development set-up—nimble, multi-disciplinary, versatile—continues to inspire innovators of all kinds. Plus, physically it is a seductive presence—a picket-fenced enclosure surrounding an odd assortment of structures, with an Aladdin’s cave of experimental apparatus at its heart.

Menlo Park was hardly a secret prior to Henry Ford’s recreation of it: a reporter had called Edison “The Wizard of Menlo Park“ back in 1878 when the output of the lab was becoming increasingly known to the public. Early biographers acknowledged Menlo’s importance: Dyer and Martin’s 1910 Edison, His Life and Inventions had a chapter titled "Memories of Menlo Park" in which they indicate that it was a place "around which tradition is already weaving its fancies." The 1904 publication Edisonia—published to coincide with an exhibit of historical materials at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis—included a chapter titled "Edison at Menlo Park." However, as befits a publication subtitled "A Brief History of the Edison Electric Lighting System," it focused primarily on the inventions that emerged from the laboratory; like Dyer and Martin it included insightful material on Edison’s staff.

Edisonia offers a clue to forces that allowed Ford to present Menlo Park as a physical entity. Firstly a number of Menlo personnel had a hand in writing its various chapters; and secondly it offers evidence of how they and others were collecting and preserving artifacts from Edison’s early years. Essentially the preservation of memories and materials was already underway; Ford took the bold move of providing a context for them—and not just any context but the closest thing to their original one.

We have throughout this work run down every detail with Mr. Edison and his associates and I believe that the reproduction is exact. It must be exact, for if this is to be a recreation of the old scenes then there can be no compromise with accuracy, I want the imaginations of those who see history thus concretely presented to start with the thing itself and not to be wasted trying to supply missing parts of the scene.

                           Edison as I Know Him, Henry Ford
                           in collaboration with Samuel Crowther

Perhaps one way of looking at Menlo Park—especially if we’re talking of icons—is as portraiture. And like any great portrait, Ford’s Menlo Park was both exacting yet somehow fluid. It was oriented in a similar manner to the original structures in New Jersey and incorporated as much original material as could be found in the late 1920s (given the gradual frittering away of the site). Much was made of the New Jersey soil transported to Dearborn and spread over the building’s new site. But Ford also gave it two pasts at the same time: the lab was equipped with its own library and small machine shop as it had been from 1876 to 1878 when it was the sole building on the site; sitting adjacent to it were the library/office and machine shop buildings representing the later expanded installation.

Henry Ford’s Menlo Park was central to the institution’s opening Light’s Golden Jubilee ceremony, and over the following eight decades the buildings and their contents have enthralled countless visitors. The installation continues to affirm Ford’s faith in the power of places that could, as he put it, “teach more than books can teach.“

And if the exhibition teaches only a few boys and girls something of the spirit which made this country, then the labor will not have been in vain. The American spirit of endeavor as represented by Thomas Alva Edison is the real wealth of the nation.

                           Edison as I Know Him, Henry Ford
                           in collaboration with Samuel Crowther
-- Marc Greuther, Chief Curator


Copyright © 2012 The Henry Ford
The Henry Ford is an AAM accredited institution. The complex is an independent, non-profit, educational
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