Ford and Edison had been close friends for years and on that October night in 1929 they were joined by 258 others – including Marie Curie and Orville Wright – all of whom gathered to celebrate Edison’s lifetime of scientific achievements.
The celebrations took place in Thomas Edison’s laboratory, which had been painstakingly relocated, piece by piece, from its original premises in Menlo Park, New Jersey and reconstructed in Dearborn, Michigan. During relocation, no expense was spared and no detail was overlooked. Ford went so far as to move the very New Jersey soil on which the laboratory was built. He even salvaged a nearby rubbish pile, from which he was able to piece together a pestle and mortar that Edison had long-considered lost.
When asked how he felt about his reconstructed laboratory, Edison reportedly commented that Ford had got things about 98% correct. Ever the perfectionist, this rankled Ford. He asked Edison what he’d got wrong. Edison replied that, in the original lab, the floor was much dustier.
The crux of the evening was a ceremonial relighting of Edison’s original lightbulb. The gathering and dedication was broadcast on radio and listeners were encouraged to turn off their electric lights until the switch was flipped on Edison’s original. As well as a powerful symbolic gesture, this move was presumably also intended to demonstrate just how much Edison had changed the world – without electric lights, all participating households would have been plunged into darkness.
The Edison Institute was originally intended to be a private site for educational purposes. “I am collecting the history of people as written into things their hands made and used,” said Ford. “When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition.”
The Institute was eventually opened up to the public and the complex popularly became known as The Henry Ford Museum. It’s now possible to visit Ford’s reconstruction of Edison’s laboratory, where you can appreciate not just that historic October night, but also Edison’s various achievements in the fields of chemistry, physics, and engineering.
Ford went to great lengths to preserve as much of the fateful night as he could. The chair in which Edison sat was later nailed to the floor precisely where he had left it. It’s thus occupied exactly the same position since 1929. In the 1990s, when the floors of the laboratory were renovated, the contractors simply worked around the chair.
Ford also insisted that nobody touched Edison’s desk and that the aforementioned pestle and mortar should stay precisely where Edison had left it on that evening. What’s more, the lightbulb you see near Edison’s chair is exactly the lightbulb that was ceremonially illuminated all those years ago.
Beyond the chair, the desk, the lightbulb and the chemistry equipment, there are numerous other interesting artefacts preserved in Edison’s laboratory. There’s a fully working phonograph which you can use to make your own primitive sound recordings – provided you shout loud enough.
There’s also Edison’s automatic pen – an unwieldly device that created numerous tiny holes in sheets of paper. Through rolling ink over these perforations, it was possible to instantly create copies of documents. Though the invention never really caught on, it was later embraced and adapted by the tattoo industry. The process by which Edison thought to copy documents is the same process by which we now permanently ink our skin.
Edison’s team of scientists would work long hours in this laboratory. A parlor organ was later installed on the first floor, with which the team could unwind after particularly gruelling experiments. Edison’s scientists were completely devoted to their work, to the extent that they all lived within a stone’s throw of the laboratory in a boarding house, which is also preserved at the Henry Ford Museum.
Visit the The Henry Ford Museum website for more information.