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Edison's Hive of Invention Tries to Regain Its Energy

On the 150th anniversary of the inventor's birth, his famous New Jersey labs get a facelift

Unlike a museum filled with, say, Egyptian artifacts from an ancient tomb, the laboratories and library at Edison National Historic Site exude intimacy.

Here can be found some progenitors of today's taken-for-granted daily tools - ancestors of the TV, VCR, telephone answering machine, and CD player. Walk past one of the earliest talking dolls or one of the first mass-produced toasters and you're likely to find yourself muttering time and time again: "I didn't know he did that."

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It's easy to get the feeling here that Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the light bulb, may have done more for domestic convenience than any other American man or woman, president or poet.

Yet the era of tighter federal dollars has not been kind to the preservation of Edison National Historic Site, which in 1992 was named one of America's 11 most endangered historic sites by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Maryanne Gerbauckas, who took over as the site's superintendent that year, remembered it as "just sort of dying, and literally crumbling."

The road to recovery

Now, five years after that wake-up call, this town has begun a year-long celebration of Edison's 150th birthday. And while it's too soon to declare Edison's labs completely out of danger, there are promising signs that the site is on the road to recovery.

Scaffolding crawls up the sides of crumbling brick buildings. The inside is getting fire alarms. Decades-old wiring is being replaced. Millions of Edison's handwritten papers, once stored beneath leaky roofs, are being catalogued and preserved. And prototype inventions, as well as century-old films and sound recordings, which were also stored pell-mell in drafty, unheated attics, are being saved from decay.

"We realized, because of all the bad wiring, how close we actually were to a fire," Ms. Gerbauckas says.

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The good news for visitors is that, with a recent influx of federal dollars and private donations, more of the 110-year-old site will soon be opened to the public.

The National Park Service, which took over the site from Edison's family in 1956, began a restoration project in 1992. With $2 million from Congress each year and an increasing flow of private donations - from the Charles Edison Fund and the Thomas Alva Edison Preservation Foundation - the park service is hoping to lure back the visitors it has steadily lost. Annual attendance has dropped from 75,000 in 1992 to 54,000 last year.

More help may be on the way. This month, federal legislation was introduced to sell commemorative coins to raise money for Edison National Historic Site and several other Edison sites around the country, including the inventor's Ohio birthplace (see story below).

But Gerbauckas says there's still a long way to go in preserving and uncluttering the legacy of America's greatest inventor.

Edison established his "Edison Works" headquarters here in 1887. He earned more than half his 1,093 patents at his research and manufacturing complex, the first of its kind in the world. With a work force that grew to 10,000, he developed prototypes of his inventions and then mass-produced them in factories built behind the laboratories.

Those factories were destroyed in the 1970s. Among the dozen buildings that remain are Edison's cluttered, three-story library, metal and woodworking shops, a chemistry lab, and a reproduction of the world's first movie studio, a circular building called Black Maria that rotates on rollers to follow the sun's light.

But most of the site and its 400,000 artifacts - the largest museum collection in the National Park Service - are off limits. Financial constraints have kept much of that collection in storage and hidden from public view.

Neil Baldwin, the author of "Edison: Inventing the Century" who spent many hours researching his biography here, says he was dismayed both at the vastness of the archives that are kept from public view and by the "very bad condition" of those archives.

"The problem with the Edison site is, it's sort of the poor stepchild of the National Park Service," Mr. Baldwin says. "It's a very, very seriously underutilized resource."

New exhibits

Now that the likelihood of fire and building collapse has been reduced, the park service intends to make better use of its resource. In the coming years, it plans to move the thousands of archived items out of storage, and then to open up the storage spaces for new displays and temporary exhibits of Edison's tools and inventions.

The first new exhibit, expected to open in the next two or three years, will be a small machine shop with fully operating belt-driven machines. Retired machinists will be hired to run the machines during public tours.

Still, the $2 million from Congress is a "shortsighted" pittance compared to the $26 million Gerbauckas estimates it would cost to fully restore the site.

"There's just not a whole lot of money that goes into the preservation of our cultural resources," adds Anne Hitchcock, chief curator for the National Park Service.

Shortsighted indeed, says Nancy Miller Arnn, Edison's niece. As a little girl, Ms. Arnn would visit Edison Works to have lunch with her father, John Miller, who was one of Edison's partners. Arnn, who grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Colorado Springs, bemoans the level at which Edison National Historic Site is "under appreciated."

"It's sort of taken for granted," she says. "But to realize what the place is, and what came out of it - it's inspirational, to some people. To see such things first-hand, instead of learning about them in a book, really makes a bigger impression on young people."


* Much of the appeal is the display of things left exactly as they were the day Edison passed away in 1931. Employee timecards frame the original time clock, with Edison's handwritten note banning smoking. And the worn wooden floors and stairs creak as if speaking to you.

Where: the corner of Main Street and Lakeside Avenue, West Orange, N.J.

Hours: visitor center is open daily (except major holidays), 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; guided 60-minute tours from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; special tours available for groups.

What you'll see: a visitor's center, with displays of Edison's inventions; the library, where Edison's chaotic roll-top desk, papers and all, is sheathed in Plexiglas; the machine shop; his chemistry lab, where Edison's lab coat hangs on a hook and thousands of bottles of chemicals crowd the shelves; the Black Maria, a replica of the first movie studio.

Don't overlook: Edison's Victorian mansion, Glenmont, on a 15-acre estate in nearby Llewellyn Park, is open to the public. Edison and his wife, Mina, are buried there.

Admission: $2 for adults (includes labs and Glenmont); free for children under 17.

Information: (201) 736-0550

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