In 1870 a little-known telegraph inventor named Thomas Edison opened his first manufacturing shop in Newark, New Jersey. Edison settled in the state’s largest and most industrialized city because of its wealth of skilled machinists, many of whom had come to Newark as part of a large influx of German immigrants to the state in the post-Civil War era. Newark was also close to New York City where the telegraph companies that financed Edison’s inventive work were located.
The skilled workmen and tools at his Newark telegraph shop represented a state of the art invention facility that enabled Edison to rapidly construct, test, and alter experimental devices, significantly increasing the rate at which he could develop new inventions. As he encountered complex electrical and chemical problems in developing his telegraph inventions, Edison also began to establish an electrical and chemical laboratory at his Newark telegraph works. By the end of 1875, Edison decided to further expand his laboratoryfacilities by building his now famous laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey.
Edison initially conceived of Menlo Park as research laboratory for producing new inventions. Within five years he had transformed it into the world’s first research and development laboratory. This transformation happened during Edison’s efforts to create the first electric light and power system. In order to invent electric lighting Edison turned to teams of researchers who could work simultaneously on all aspects of the system. These teams now included college-educated experimenters with training in physics, chemistry, and engineering as well as the machinists and self-taught electricians of the Newark shops. Once the basic research concluded, Edison transformed his laboratory from research to development in order to build a prototype of his system. As the development phase came to an end, Edison and his staff moved to commercialize the new technology. They established new factories, including the first-ever lamp factories at Menlo Park and Harrison, New Jersey, and installed the first electric light stations. As a result, Edison’s own vision of invention came to encompass what the twentieth century would call innovation—invention, research, development, and commercialization.
Edison’s success at Menlo Park made his laboratory a model for others in the electrical industry and it also provided the model for the even larger laboratory he built in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1887. Having developed a process of innovation at Menlo Park, Edison applied it at West Orange to a wide variety of technologies—most notably sound recording, motion pictures, mining, cement manufacturing, and storage batteries. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the West Orange Laboratory would be surrounded by the factories and company offices Edison established to manufacture and market his inventions.
Edison’s New Jersey laboratories not only helped to lay the groundwork for modern industrial research, but his success at moving inventions from the laboratory to the market provided a model process of innovation that is still used today.
Paul Israel is the director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University. He is the author of several books, including Edison: A Life of Invention (Wiley 1998) and with Robert Friedel, Edison’s Electric Light: The Art of Invention (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).