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Paul Israel, Director and General Editor, The Thomas Edison Papers
The skilled machinists of Edison's telegraph shop. Courtesy of Edison National Historic Site.

Thomas Edison began his career as an inventor in the late 1860s while working as a telegraph operator, and by the early 1870s he had achieved a reputation as one of the industry's leading "electromechanicians." This term captured both the mechanical character of 19th-century electrical technology like stock tickers and the role that machine shops and skilled machinists played in the inventive process. Rather than an enterprise of lone individuals, 19th-century invention involved communities of skilled operatives, machinists, superintendents, and manufacturers who drew on practical experience to design, build, and refine new technology.

Edison's own lab reflected this. During his 1873 trip to England to demonstrate one of his telegraph inventions, Edison encountered a sophisticated British electrical community that designed and used fine test instruments to make precise measurements when conducting electrical experiments and tests. With an appreciation of how much he did not yet know about electrical and chemical phenomena involved in telegraphy, he developed a new experimental approach. Within six months of his return home he established a fully equipped electrical and chemical laboratory in a corner of his Newark telegraph works, boasting that it contained "every conceivable variety of Electrical Apparatus, and any quantity of Chemicals for experimentation."

In this new laboratory, Edison began to focus his experiments on electrical and electrochemical phenomena rather than on the electromechanical designs that had made his early reputation. In this respect he was following the lead of British telegraph engineers. However, Edison's primary concern remained the production of new technology rather than the standardized engineering practices and insights into the nature of electricity that were the focus of British researchers.

The machine shop on the first floor of the Menlo Park laboratory. Courtesy of Edison National Historic Site.

By the spring of 1875, Edison decided to make his expanding laboratory entirely independent of the manufacturing shop and turned full-time to invention. With the skilled workmen and tools from his Newark telegraph shops adapted solely to inventive work, Edison could rapidly construct, test, and alter experimental devices, significantly increasing the rate at which he could develop new inventions. At the end of the year he further expanded his laboratory facilities by building his now famous laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

Menlo Park did not mark a sharp break with the shop tradition of invention. Instead it represented Edison's continuing efforts to amplify rather than replace that tradition. The machine shop remained crucial for his inventive work. It was for this reason that he asked Western Union president William Orton to pay the running expenses of his machine shop or "I shall be compelled to close same unless I am able to provide funds for continuing the same and keep my skilled workmen the loss of which would seriously cripple me." But the laboratory, which was "filled with every kind of apparatus for scientific research," also looked forward to a new model of research and provided Edison with "unusual facilities" for "perfecting" inventions. When Edison opened his laboratory in March 1876 it was probably the best-equipped private laboratory in the United States. It was certainly the only one devoted entirely to invention. Over the next five years, as Edison turned from telecommunications to electric light and power, he would transform this invention factory into a true research and development laboratory.
      
Between the fall of 1878 and the fall of 1879, as he turned his laboratory to solving the problem of incandescent electric lighting, Edison added additional staff, including several experimenters. Most notable was Francis Upton, who had received the first master of science degree from Princeton University and then did post-graduate work with Hermann von Helmholtz. He also hired several chemists (including two with German Ph.D.s) and a German glassblower who had worked for a scientific instrument maker. After a year of research, Edison and his staff succeeded in developing a basic lamp and generator.

With the shift from research to development of the electric light system in 1880, the staff of experimenters, machinists, and office workers expanded even more, reaching more than fifty at its peak. Although a few experimenters, like Charles Clarke and Julius Hornig, were hired because of their formal training as engineers, most were ambitious young men attracted by the aura surrounding Edison and his laboratory and who learned on the job. With teams of researchers who could work simultaneously on all elements of the electric lighting system, Edison was able to rapidly leapfrog past his competitors and to develop not just a laboratory prototype of a lamp or generator but a complete commercial system of electric lighting.

Edison's great success at the Menlo Park laboratory made it a model for others. Alexander Graham Bell was influenced by what he called Edison's "celebrated laboratory at Menlo Park" when he set up his own Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C., in 1881. Other electrical inventors, such as Edward Weston, were also inspired by Edison as they set up laboratories of their own. The Bell Telephone Company likewise drew on the example of Edison's laboratory when it established an experimental shop in 1883. The influence of the laboratory even extended to the scientific community as American and European scientists visited and found the laboratory better equipped than their own.

The West Orange laboratory, around 1892, "the best equipped & largest Laboratory extant." Courtesy of Edison National Historic Site.

Menlo Park also provided the model for the even larger laboratory that Edison built in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1887, which he planned to be "the best equipped & largest Laboratory extant, and the facilities incomparably superior to any other for rapid & cheap development of an invention, & working it up into commercial shape." Having developed a process of research and development at Menlo Park, Edison applied it at West Orange to a wide variety of technological innovations, realizing his ambition "to build up a great Industrial Works in the Orange Valley."

The manufacturing and experimental machine shops of the 19th century, therefore, served as a prototype of the research laboratory. This kind of shop invention went well beyond the simple method of cut-and-try experimentation. Nineteenth-century inventors not only kept abreast of scientific and technical research that might contribute to their work, but frequently undertook experiments designed to give them more general knowledge that might prove crucial to their success.

From Prototype, March 2010

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