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March 14th, 2012
It is hard to believe that before Hollywood, California, Northern New Jersey was where movies were being made. It was also where the first phonograph was invented, which allowed people to listen to recorded music for the first time in history. And where would we be without electric light? It is my appreciation for these and so many more inventions that compelled me to visit Thomas Edison National Historical Park, which consists of the famous Laboratory Complex on Main Street, and Glenmont Estate, Edison’s former residence. Both locations are less than a few minutes away from each other and located in West Orange, New Jersey.
I drove by the Laboratory Complex twice before realizing where it was; in passing it looks like a non-descript warehouse area, with several old buildings in one lot. Once I crossed the street from the parking area to join the tour for the chemistry lab, I began to appreciate the layout of the complex. The lab looks primitive to modern visitors, but it is still an inspiring place to experience firsthand. The birth of the rechargeable battery, wax paper for candies, and the first tattoo machine all started within the walls of this well-preserved building, and my tour group’s park ranger did not hesitate to mention many more inventions and memorable events that took place there.
The Laboratory Complex also includes the Black Maria, which was Thomas Edison’s (and the world’s) first film production studio. Even though the original building was demolished in 1903, this Black Maria is supposed to be a faithful reproduction. I also had a chance to visit the impressive library in the main building, which was wonderfully preserved and left me and my fellow visitors suitably awestruck.
Visitors need a car to visit Glenmont Estate, which is located in nearby Llewellyn Park, the first planned suburb in the country. The house is open to visitors on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays only, perhaps because there are private residents living in the park who prefer it that way. Edison’s red mansion is hard to miss for those driving up to it, and the interiors are even more impressive. For those who love animals, please be aware that you will see many of the wild ones stuffed and mounted on the walls and on top of cabinets; there are also some as rugs on the floors throughout the house. When I saw the snowy owl under glass in the library/guest signing room on the first floor, I was struck at how much he looks like Harry Potter’s owl Hedwig. I still managed to enjoy the tour, which is like an interactive history lesson that is both interesting and less than an hour long. No one in my tour group was bored, no matter how old or young they were.
Thomas Edison National Historical Park should definitely be visited at least once, if not more than that. It really is a nice way to spend a late morning or afternoon on a pretty day in New Jersey. I want to return to take advantage of the “Fee Free Days” during National Park Service Week, which are April 21, 22, and 25 – 29. I think more people will want to come with me then to discover Edison the person, the businessman, the inventor, and the scientist for themselves.