Nighttime Lighting Rehearsal at Henry Ford Museum, Preparing for Light's Golden Jubilee, October 18, 1929. THF96024
Invitation to Light's Golden Jubilee Celebration and Edison Institute Dedication, Dearborn, Michigan, 1929. THF9173
"Light's Golden Jubilee" Reception Badge, 1929. THF294662
On October 21, 1929, Henry Ford hosted an elaborate celebration in Dearborn, Mich., in honor of his friend Thomas A. Edison. Known as Light’s Golden Jubilee, the date marked the 50th anniversary of Edison’s invention of the electric light. Ford also planned his event as a dedication of his own lasting tribute to Thomas Edison and to American innovation, the Edison Institute of Technology (now known as Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation) and Greenfield Village. Here, Henry Ford had moved the Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory where the inventor made his discovery so many years before.
The RSVPs for Light's Golden Jubilee began pouring in to Ford Motor Company by early October 1929. Prominent businessmen like John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and J.P. Morgan, scientist Marie Curie, inventor Orville Wright, and humorist Will Rogers were among those who enthusiastically accepted Ford’s invitation to be part of the landmark event.
At 10 am that morning, President Herbert Hoover, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison arrived at Smiths Creek depot at Greenfield Village in a railroad car pulled by an 1858 steam-powered locomotive, reminiscent of Edison’s youth when he sold newspapers on Michigan’s Grand Trunk railroad line. Edison, Ford, and Hoover and their wives were met by invited guests that numbered more than 500. The crowd roared their approval and congratulations as Edison stepped from the train to begin the day’s festivities.
Ford, Hoover and Edison arrive at the Smiths Creek, Michigan depot where a young Edison had been thrown off the train 67 years earlier when he accidentally started a fire in a baggage car. The station was one of several Edison-related buildings that Henry Ford moved to Greenfield Village. THF294682
This painting of the Light’s Golden Jubilee banquet was begun in 1938 at the request of Henry Ford. Completed by artist Irving Bacon seven years later, the 17 x 7-foot painting hangs in the museum. THF119552
Edison and Jehl recreate the successful lighting of the first electric light in the restored Menlo Park Laboratory in Greenfield Village. President Hoover and Henry Ford look on. THF 118508
After the guests had been properly greeted and the throngs of media had gotten their quotes and photographs, Henry Ford gave Hoover a personal tour of the massive Ford Motor Company Rouge industrial complex, five miles away. Eighty-two-year-old Edison retired to Ford’s nearby Fair Lane estate to rest while the hundreds of guests gathered at the Clinton Inn (now known as Eagle Tavern) to enjoy lunch followed by afternoon horse-and-carriage tours of Greenfield Village.
The morning of the celebration brought forth rain. Twenty-eight historic buildings had been assembled in Greenfield Village from around the United States. The muddy grounds made sightseeing around the outdoor museum challenging, but they didn’t dampen enthusiasm. To combat the rain and mud, Ford supplied enclosed horse-drawn carriages to transport guests on tours of Greenfield Village. THF124662
That evening, guests gathered at the museum—the front galleries of which had been hurriedly completed just in time for the celebration. Fine crystal chandeliers, fitted with candles, cast a soft glow about the rooms. NBC Radio broadcaster Graham McNamee set the mood for the evening in a coast-to-coast live broadcast:
"Imagine the checkered effect of black and white evening dress, the brilliant splashes of color provided by the uniforms of military attaches and the great stylists of Paris and Fifth Avenue ...I have attended many celebrations, but I cannot recall even attempting to describe one staged in a more perfect setting."
After a sumptuous banquet, Edison, Ford, and Hoover went to the reconstructed Menlo Lab in Greenfield Village to re-create the lighting of the first electric lamp. There, Edison and Francis Jehl, his former assistant, both went to work—much like they had half a century earlier, preparing to forever change the world. As they worked, McNamee narrated to a hushed world: "Mr. Edison has two wires in his hand; now he is reaching up to the old lamp; now he is making the connection.… It lights! Light's Golden Jubilee has come to a triumphant climax."
As the connection was made in the Menlo Lab, the museum building was bathed in light and the museum’s replica of the Liberty Bell pealed for the first time. Overhead a plane flew by with the word “Edison” and the dates “79” and “29” illuminated under the wings. Car horns sounded, lights flashed on and off, and the world bathed itself in an electric light tribute to Edison.
Worldwide publicity of the Light’s Golden Jubilee event encouraged Americans from coast to coast—and people around the world—to participate in the celebration. People huddled around their radios, plunged into near darkness, using only candles or gas lamps for light, waiting for Edison's successful re-creation as a cue to turn on their lights as part of the celebration. Small towns and large cities put on elaborate light displays.
After the reenactment, Ford, Hoover, Edison and Jehl returned to the museum to hear accolades from President Hoover, a radio address by Albert Einstein broadcast from Germany, and Edison’s heartfelt remarks. Henry Ford, not wishing to steal the spotlight from his friend, did not speak or allow photographs at the evening ceremony.
This event was just the beginning—Ford’s tribute to Edison and to American innovation and inventiveness was a lasting one. The artifacts and buildings Ford gathered for his indoor and outdoor museums, now known collectively as The Henry Ford, have told stories of American innovation, ingenuity, and resourcefulness for 90 years. They will continue to inspire countless generations to come.
Terry Hoover is a Former Archivist at The Henry Ford.