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Thomas Edison: Inventor AND Chemist

September 18, 2014 Archive Insight

Thomas Edison Perfecting His Wax Cylnder Phonograph, 1888 (Object ID: P.B.34600).

All eyes have been on Menlo Park in Greenfield Village recently, both here at The Henry Ford and across the nation. Menlo Park kicks off the first episode of our new television series, “The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation” on September 27 as Mo Rocca tours the building to learn more about Thomas Edison and the work he researched in that very space. This weekend members of the American Chemical Society (ACS) will be joining staff from The Henry Ford to bestow a special honor upon the building: National Historic Chemical Landmark.

thomasedison-chemistStarting this spring Edison’s laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey, and Fort Myers, Florida, have been presented with this designation as his work with chemistry has been brought to attention of many. When we think of an Edison invention, we quickly think of light bulbs and phonographs. But Edison’s research overlapped into the world of chemistry on a regular basis. While Edison might not have considered himself a chemist, modern-day chemists definitely and happily consider him one.

It’s not surprising that ACS found him worthy of a nomination. If you ask ACS’ Keith Lindblom, Edison changed how scientific research was carried out.

“When you see his labs, with their shelves full of glassware and chemicals, you see how much chemistry was around him,” Keith said. “We love Edison and America’s history of invention. This designation is a great way to dive into the science behind his work. It’s a great opportunity.”

Where does chemistry come into Edison’s work? Too many places to list here, that’s for sure. The short list includes the research he did looking for an alternate source of rubber, creating filaments for light bulbs and even developing wax cylinders and polymers for phonograph materials, to name just a few.

Menlo Park Laboratory (Object ID: 29.3048.1).

Richard Wallace, a professor of chemistry at Armstrong State University in Georgia, led the charge to nominate Edison’s laboratories for landmark recognition. Historically, research labs changed with the times and the researchers’ needs as they left old work sites for newer, larger facilities with technology that better reflected the work of the time. Richard was surprised to find that Edison’s Botanical Research Laboratory in Fort Myers, the West Orange Laboratory in New Jersey and Menlo Park here in Greenfield Village were all perfectly preserved; a visit to any site would show you just exactly what Edison was thinking of during that given time and body of research.

“It’s rare to find laboratories that are so well preserved,” Richard said. “So often new technology and new buildings come along and the chemical artifacts get lost along the way.”

It was a visit to Edison’s lab in Fort Myers that opened Richard’s eyes to Edison as a chemist.

“His understanding of chemistry not only expanded his own research but the research of other scientists,” he said.

Richard’s original nomination was to designate just the Fort Myers lab, but once ACS colleagues began looking at Edison’s body of work, it made sense to put all three buildings together for one joint honor as a way to look at his whole contribution to chemistry.

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In his classroom, Richard uses Edison and his laboratories as a way to reinforce the history of scientific research to his students today. Look closely at a device like the iPhone, and you can easily identify technologies like the light bulb, recorded sound, and rechargeable batteries that can be traced back to Edison’s inventions.

“What we consider today to be the model for the modern research laboratory can be attributed to Edison,” he said. “As a society we live in a world surrounded by his accomplishments.”

ACS is the world’s largest scientific society and first established the National Historic Chemical Landmark program in 1992. To be considered for the honor a subject must be at least 25 years old, evidence a seminal scientific achievement, and provide clear benefits to society. ACS members nominate potential landmarks along the way. The award is part of a public outreach program for ACS as a way to show the public that chemistry is around each and everyone of us every day in so many different ways.

You can join the celebration Saturday, September 20, at Menlo Lab in Greenfield Village. From 9:30-11:30 am the Detroit chapter of ACS will be doing hands-on activities, as part of its Kids & Chemistry program, across from Menlo Park. The actual designation ceremony will take place in front of the building from 11-11:30 am. Wrapping up the morning’s activities and celebrations will be a chemical magic show at noon, presented by the University of Detroit Mercy Chemistry Club. The activities are free with paid admission to Greenfield Village or membership.

Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford.

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