Saturday 3 August 2013

Light's Golden Jubilee

"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." (Graham McNamee, NBC broadcaster)

Five hundred guests converged on the Edison Institute (later the Henry Ford Museum) in Dearborn, Michigan on October 21, 1929.  They wore suits and ties, evening gowns and hats, as they stepped out of their Model T's and Model A's.  Surveying the scene, they got their first glimpse of the magnificent museum, a brick building with a giant tower, patterned after Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Famous names peppered the guest list: scientist Marie Curie, Kodak's George Eastman, millionaire John D. Rockefeller, humorist Will Rogers, flying pioneer Orville Wright, millionaire J.P. Morgan, inventor extraordinaire Thomas Edison and President Herbert Hoover.  Their host?  Henry Ford, owner of the Ford Motor Company and longtime fan of Edison's.  Their purpose?  The 50th anniversary of the invention of electric light.

The festivities began with the arrival of President Hoover and Thomas Edison at the Smith's Creek Train Station in Greenfield Village, Henry Ford's newly opened pioneer village adjacent to his museum.  Smith's Creek, bought by Ford and moved to the Village, was the train station where a young Edison used to sell newspapers to train passengers.  A throng of media snapped photographs of the new arrivals.

The guests of honour were then whisked away.  Ford gave Hoover and Edison a personal tour of his Rouge River Plant.  Then the elderly Edison headed to Ford's Fairlane mansion for a nap.

President Hoover and Henry Ford returned to Greenfield Village where they lunched with hungry guests at the Clinton Inn, another building bought and restored by Henry Ford.  Women then climbed into carriages, careful not to catch their long gowns, followed by their husbands, and sat back for a ride through the Village, a tribute to both agricultural and industrial America.  

Guests then headed to the museum for dinner in the front gallery, adorned with crystal chandeliers.  They feasted on fine fare and then sat back to digest their food.

In darkness, President Hoover, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and his assistant Francis Jehl crossed Greenfield Village, to the restored Menlo Park Laboratory from New Jersey, to recreate the invention of incandescent light.  Edison sat in a chair and performed his magic.  Commentator Graham McNamee described the scene:  "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!"

Immediately Henry Ford's museum was bathed in light.  The replica Liberty Bell in the belfry peeled.  Guests craned their necks as a plane flew overhead trailed by the word EDISON and the dates 79 and 29.  And Americans hunched over cathedral like radios in their dark living rooms, listening to the whole production. When Edison lit the wires, it was their signal to turn on their lights.  Whole towns even held elaborate light displays.

The guests of honour returned to the museum where Thomas Edison delivered a speech (Henry Ford declined to speak, not wanting to steal his mentor's thunder).  Edison received congratulations from President Hoover, Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, via news feed from Germany.  

With full tummies and stimulated minds, guests bid their host goodnight and returned to their vehicles.  The ceremony had been a fitting tribute to a great innovator by another great innovator.  While the lights in the tower of the museum went out, the tribute to American inventors would continue for decades to come as new generations of guests went through its doors.  

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