Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

First known portrait of Thomas Alva Edison, circa 1851

February 15, 2012 Archive Insight

Since Thomas Edison’s birthday happened to be this past Saturday (February 11), it made me think of this first known portrait of him.

Even after 35 years of working with the museum’s photograph collections, this 3 x 2-3/4 inch daguerreotype still gives me goose bumps when I look at it. Made at the dawn of photographic technology, it serves as a powerful reminder of the unique connection between Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

Because of Henry Ford's friendship with Edison, many objects, photographs and manuscripts became part of the museum's collections, including Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory.

Menlo Park employees, 1880-1881, in front of the laboratory. (From the collections of The Henry Ford)

This daguerreotype was a gift to us from Edison’s widow, Mina, probably in the 1930s. The depth of Henry Ford’s admiration for Thomas Edison was so great that he named his museum and village "Edison Institute" in honor of the inventor.  The dedication ceremony occurred on October 21, 1929, to coincide with Light's Golden Jubilee, the 50th anniversary of Edison's invention of the electric incandescent light bulb.

Menlo Park Laboratory inside Greenfield Village. (Photo by Michelle Andonian, Michelle Andonian Photography)

I find it fascinating to view this photographic image of the famous inventor when he was just a child. Daguerreotypes, invented in 1839, became very popular in theUnited Statesfrom the 1840s through the mid 1850s. The process took about 20 seconds, and Edison, shown at age 4, had to sit completely still! His seriousness and look of concentration go beyond the need for stillness. It seems to me that he is thinking about how and why the camera is working as much as obeying the adult admonition not to move.

Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Photographs and Prints, is continually fascinated with the museum’s over one million historical graphics.

antique photographs, antique photos, Edison, vintage photographs, vintage photos

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