Monday 11 February 2013

The Miracles of Menlo Park

Thomas Alva Edison lit America's homes with his incandescent lamp, brought music to the natives of Tibet with his phonograph and paved the way for Hollywood with his moving pictures.

Born on this day in 1847 in Milan, Ohio, Thomas Edison was a bright boy who never quite fit in at school.  Although he was full of ideas, he soon realized that:  "Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration."  And perspire he did as he laboured inside his wooden laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey.  He would often try an experiment dozens of times before he got the desired result, if ever.

Image courtesy 

On one particular night in 1879, as the wind blew threw the cracks of the lab walls, Thomas hunched over his workbench as he worked on an experiment that he had been developping for a year and a half.  He had an incandescent lamp with a filament of carbonized sewing that he was trying to light.  His nervous, skinny assistant frantically jotted down his observations as his mentor worked.

Drawing of Thomas Edison inventing incandescent light courtesy

While electric light had already been invented, no one had perfected a practical invention to be used in the home.  In nearby New York City, people ate the famous Broadway's midnight supper under crystal chandeliers and gas globes.  In London, England, the lamplighter walked along the cobblestone streets and lit the gas lamps each night.

A flicker of light appeared.  The assistant scratched in his notepad.  It continued.  And for 13 and a half hours, Thomas watched that flame burn.  His invention had worked!

Image courtesy 

As his obituary writer observed, however, "Edison did more than invent the lamp at Menlo Park."  There were other miracles in the wooden laboratory.  For centuries, wealthier Americans entertained themselves by playing a harmonium or piano sitting in the parlour.  Their country cousins would pluck their fiddles to make music.  In 1877, Mr. Edison invented the phonograph to entertain America.  At first a luxury, the phonograph later became a commonplace item in people's homes.  As his obituary writer explains, Edison brought "the great arias of opera to the tenements".

Image courtesy 

Menlo Park was also the site of the first use of a moving picture camera.  Edison first used the camera in 1887 but it was not perfected until 1890.  Not too excited about this particular invention, the inventor thought his camera would only be used in penny arcades.  However, in the coming decades, the "penny arcade yielded to the cathedrals of the screen" and Hollywood was born.

Image of Thomas Edison examining kinetoscope courtesy 

The incandescent light, the phonograph, and the moving picture camera:  these are just three of the hundreds of miracles of Menlo Park.


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