Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Laser Beams Over Menlo Park

December 22, 2014 Think THF

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This year, many transformative things have been set into motion at The Henry Ford. One of the most rewarding projects has been all of the hard work that has culminated with the first season of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, an educational television show produced by Litton Entertainment. Perhaps you’ve been watching the episodes on CBS, Saturday mornings? If not, you can view them here.

When we entered into a partnership with Litton, we also took the opportunity to turn our gaze inwards, to research the history of our own involvement with broadcast media. A dive into the archives of the Edison Institute revealed some gems—photographic collections that captured the visual history of media events on our campus spanning 60 years. Previous blogs detail how in 1955, Marion Corwell began hosting Window to the Past, our first live television show. That same year, NBC filmed an all-day live event using the then-new medium of color broadcasting; episodes of The Howdy Doody Show were captured that day. Other discoveries revealed Gladys Knight and the Pips on the Phil Donahue Show in 1973.

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A third event was revealed through a stack of very strange, and very psychedelic photographs discovered by our Curator of Photographs and Prints, Cynthia Read Miller. The setting was obvious—the building in the photographs was clearly Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory. But the images were taken afterhours in Greenfield Village, at night, with enthralled guests sitting cross-legged on the lawn.

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Above their heads, clouds of fog caught dancing prismatic rainbows and the rays of laser bursts. Projected swirls of color were bent into tunnels, the silhouette of someone who looked like Thomas Edison tipping his hat at the center.

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We pooled our research efforts and soon discovered that the images were documentation of a May evening in 1989. ABC/Kane Productions had been onsite, filming a television special called World of Discovery - Inventors: Out of their Minds. The episode was part of a celebration for the 110th anniversary of the invention of the incandescent lamp; the Menlo Park laboratory was used as a connecting point to show how Edison’s spirit was alive in modern inventors.

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The fantastical laser light show was created by special effects technicians from ABC, who had brought along portable laser projection machines. The audience on the lawn were extras invited from the ranks of the Eagle Tavern Club and the President’s Society.

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Stepping out onto the upper porch of Menlo Park, an actor playing Thomas Edison (Hoel Bowditch, an actual inventor) marvels to the audience below about modern inventions. He shares his excitement about things like space travel—and the use of the word “awesome.” He directs words of encouragement towards the young audience members: “All you dreamers and doers … work hard together! And don’t be afraid to fail! It’s what you do after you fail that counts.”

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As “Edison” retreats, a blast of laser light floods out from behind Menlo Park laboratory, and across the village lawn and guests. Edison’s signature and portrait appear in red laser light in the sky, and he walks away, down seemingly infinite blue tunnel of light. You just can’t make these things up.

Kristen Gallerneaux is the Curator of Communication and Information Technology. With special thanks to Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Photographs and Prints,  and Andy Stupperich, Associate Curator, Collections Digitization Specialist.

The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation

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