Project illuminates prolific career of Thomas Edison

Staff Writer

 Thomas Edison is seated with the tinfoil phonograph at the Matthew Brady Studio in Washington, D.C., in 1878.  PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE EDISON PAPERS Thomas Edison is seated with the tinfoil phonograph at the Matthew Brady Studio in Washington, D.C., in 1878. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE EDISON PAPERS Beyond the status Thomas Edison holds in his namesake town, interest in the life and prolific career of Edison and his myriad inventions burns brightly throughout the world.

Perhaps no one knows this — or the details of Edison’s achievements — better than the group of scholars whose work of more than 30 years has yielded the first seven volumes of “The Thomas Edison Papers.”

“It’s an important scholarly research project, because [of] Edison’s significance to the development of the modern world in general, and trying to understand how that process took place,” said Daniel Weeks, assistant editor for the project and an assistant research professor at Rutgers University Department of History. “And it’s a very complicated history, I would say. I think understanding that process helps us understand where we’ve gotten.”

 Thomas Edison Thomas Edison The process of producing “The Thomas Edison Papers” is no small thing, either. Starting in 1978, a team set about culling through about 5 million pages of documents from the inventor’s West Orange lab and elsewhere, seeking out the most significant nuggets of information that would make their way into the hefty volumes.

“When the project began, the archive, to a large extent, was unorganized,” Paul Israel, director and general editor of the “Edison Papers” project, said. Even today, collections of documents are being processed for the first time, he said.

Known as the world’s leading expert on Thomas Edison, Israel has been on the project’s team since 1980, when he came from California to conduct research for a biography on the inventor. Since then, he earned a doctorate in history, and was named director of the “Edison Papers” project in 2002.

He put his wealth of Edisonian knowledge to work by penning the award-winning “Edison: A Life of Invention,” published by John Wiley & Sons in 1998, along with two previous tomes on Edison.

The hulking amount of information at the researchers’ fingertips led them to map out the volumes sequentially, each depicting a time period in Edison’s life.

For example, Volume 8, which the team is currently finishing, covers 1885-1887.

“In that time period, there are about 11,000 documents we’re dealing with,” Israel said.

If the number of documents involved in the project seems staggering, one only need look at Edison’s abundant body of work to understand why. “His vision encompassed what the 20th century would call innovation — invention, research, development and commercialization,” the project’s website states. “In the process, he helped to create a new institution for invention — the industrial research laboratory, which might be considered Edison’s greatest invention.”

Before the famed light bulb, the first of Edison’s 1,093 patents was for his electrographic vote recorder.

In subsequent years, he developed the phonograph, the first moving-picture camera and electric pen, improved stock-ticker technology, and developed a system of automatic telegraphy. His quadruplex was able to send four messages over a single wire, and he later developed a telephone transmitter.

“That’s been, I think, a really important contribution,” Israel said of Edison’s work in telegraphy, also noting that “motion pictures is a huge subject.” Edison didn’t rest on his laurels after developing the light bulb. Instead, he improved on the technology and created the first commercial power system, which was put in place in New York City.

Later inventions included a system for refining low-grade iron ore, an alkaline storage battery and improved cement-manufacturing technology, among others.

“The storage battery has been a subject of interest,” Israel said. “Because 100 years later, we’re still trying to solve some issues dealing with that [technology for electric cars].”

Edison’s laboratories — where his legendary inspiration and perspiration took place — housed many of the documents from which the “Edison Papers” are assembled. His first labs were machine shops at his telegraph works in Newark. The inventor opened his famed Menlo Park lab in 1876, and later had temporary labs in New York and Harrison before building the West Orange lab at the end of 1887.

According to Weeks, most of the original documents are in West Orange at the Thomas A. Edison Historical Park, where his lab still stands.

So extensive is the information left behind by Edison that the printed volumes refer readers to additional documents in an online digital edition. Edited by Tom Jeffrey, the online edition consists of 195,000 documents, with others being added as the project grows.

While the “Edison Papers” were initially undertaken to be a resource for scholarly communities, including libraries at universities overseas, their reach has expanded even further, Israel said.

“The advent of the digital edition has actually created interest among other people,” he said. Genealogical researchers, for example, make use of the more than 25,000- name database that is part of the online version. “That’s another interesting use of the papers that we hadn’t anticipated.”

Also made possible by the “Edison Papers” was the interpretation of the West Orange lab and the reopening in 2010 of the Menlo Park lab, with new exhibits that grew out of the papers, he said.

The volumes don’t just focus on Edison’s professional accomplishments.

“What we tried to do is provide some documents that give insight into Edison’s personal life, his family life,” Israel said.

Volume 7 sheds light on his first wife, Mary Stilwell Edison, who died of a morphine overdose while being treated for uterine pain, Israel said. Volume 8 will provide a look into his second marriage, courtesy of Edison’s own notes, along with the weekly letters written between his wife Mina Miller and her family.

Although plans are in place for the next seven volumes, funding for them is another story.

“Our costs are going up, and the amount of funding we get from agencies is going down,” Israel said. The project is funded primarily through grants from the New Jersey Historical Commission, National Historical Publications & Records Commission and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Israel hopes to be able to maintain his team of seven staffers and a handful of undergraduate assistants. The team is seeking to raise at least $75,000 this year through private and corporate donors.

All those who donate will be recognized in the group’s online newsletter. Donors of $100 or more will be further recognized on the acknowledgment page of the forthcoming volume of the Edison Papers, published by Johns Hopkins Press. In addition, donors of $1,000 or more will receive a hardcover copy of Volume 8, signed by Israel. Donors of $10,000 or more will be granted a private tour of Edison’s West Orange lab, hosted by Israel.

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