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Tower Celebrating Thomas Edison Re-opens After $3.9 Million Renovation

Edison Memorial Tower Celebrates Life and Inventions of Thomas Alva Edison
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Since 1954, the Township to the north of New Brunswick has been named for its most famous resident, Thomas Edison. Charlie Kratovil

EDISON, NJ—On October 24, a 77-year-old monument to the Township's most famous resident was re-dedicated after the completion of a multi-million dollar revitalization project, to much applause.

Located at 37 Christie Street in Edison, the light atop the tower was lit as part of a ceremony at  7 pm, but the festivities began at noon, with a ribbon-cutting scheduled for 12:30 pm. The lighting was accompanied by a countdown and the throwing of a ceremonial switch in front of the tower. 

The Edison Memorial Tower was first dedicated in honor and memory of Thomas Alva Edison in February 1938, a little more than six years after Edison passed away in 1931.  It was added to the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1979.

Thomas Edison was a man of numerous accomplishments, such as the invention of the phonograph (an early type of record player) and the refinement of the incandescent light bulb.

For his accomplishments, he was dubbed "The Wizard of Menlo Park" in his day, and in 1954, the Township changed its name from Raritan to Edison.

The iconic tower is featured as the logo for the Township, along with the slogan "Let There Be Light." It appears on countless documents, buildings, and municipal vehicles in what has since grown into the fifth-largest municipality in the state.

The tower celebrates the inventions that Edison engineered, particularly his improvements of the incandescent light bulb.

This great pillar, a state park which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was the subject of a $3.9 million restoration that took place over a few years.

The tower had cost $134,200 to build, the equivalent of about $2.3 million in today's money.

In recent years, the government has funded a major restoration project.  More than $3.5 million in funding came from the state, in the form of State Corporate Business Tax and Capital Funds, and Middlesex County chipped in with a $375,000 grant.

This revival included, most notably, the restoration of the enormous light bulb, made of Pyrex glass, at the top of the tower, as well as the inclusion of energy-efficient lighting in the tower.

Also, mosaic panels were replaced or restored, the tower was cleaned, its joints were all sealed, and its drains were all fixed up or replaced. The restorers also built an access system inside the tower and restored the structure's terrace and Room of Eternal Light.

The bronze door was fixed up, the tower's aggregate concrete--dazzling with ceramic and quartz--was cleaned up and restored, the monumental loudspeaker system was replaced, the bronze door at the entrance and plaza around the tower were made to look fresh, and the markers around the tower base were also restored.

The restoration was performed by Mills +Schnoering Architects, LLC, of Princeton and Hilt Construction of Hillsborough.

The tower originally had an audio system that could allegedly be heard for two miles.  This announcer system occupied two of the tower's four levels, the Amplifier Room Level and the Loudspeaker Room Level. Both levels contained devices for amplifying sound. 

The other two levels are the ground-floor Eternal Light Level, which has the Eternal Light Room and a chamber for utilities, and the Intermediate Level, 67 feet high, between the Amplifier Room and Loudspeaker Room levels.

There is also an Access Room just below the great bulb.

The October 24 celebration will include science and technology demonstrations, exhibiting the inventions of Edison located inside a museum on the grounds, which was also recently renovated.  A Thomas Edison impersonator is also expected to be in attendance.

One public official said the revitalization of the tower was "part of the [Gov. Chris] Christie Administration's continuing efforts to protect New Jersey's natural and historic resources."

According to NJ Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, "The relighting of the Edison Memorial Tower reminds us all that New Jersey is the birthplace of some of the most important inventions in history, and we are delighted that this long-awaited restoration work is complete."

Thomas Lankey, the Mayor of Edison, gave a big thank-you to the State, his township, the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and various supporters for bringing the project to fruition.

Lankey also noted, "Once listed among New Jersey's 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites, the Edison Memorial Tower has been returned to its Art Deco brilliance. It is a proud moment to science, innovation, creativity, ingenuity and history."

The Thomas Edison Center's chairman, Leonard Sendelsky, said his organization was "very proud that the symbol of our town [Edison] has been restored to its original brilliance". 

The tower is in Edison State Park, run by a partnership between the Edison Memorial Tower Corporation, Edison Township, and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The Thomas Edison Center consists of the historic assets in that park, including the Tower and other monuments, a Thomas Edison museum, and the foundations of some of Edison's laboratories.

The tower's relighting is a stepping stone to fulfilling larger dreams for the Edison Center: it will kick off a fundraising campaign for a larger museum and education center.

The idea is for a museum that will hold new programs and events.  The Thomas Edison Center can be found online at menloparkmuseum.org.

Edison took out 1,093 patents in his name, and helped develop electric lighting, movies, recorded sound, electric infrastructure, stock tickers, and research laboratories.

Edison was a Midwest native, having been born in Ohio and grown up in Michigan.

He may have had attention deficit disorder.  Edison's teacher for three months had given up on him, calling him "addled", and so his education was primarily home-schooling.

Edison became deaf as a boy, and attributed his deafness to having been hit on or pulled by his ear, by a train conductor.

In the original version of the story, Edison had a chemical lab while working on the rails, using a boxcar for the purpose, and the lab caught fire. This wasn't exactly legal, and so Edison, his experiments, and his belongings were thrown off the train, with his ears being yanked or boxed in the process.

In later versions, a conductor picked him up by the ears while helping him onto a moving train.

Edison's hearing loss may have actually been the result of scarlet fever and middle-ear infections.

Edison had been hired, at twelve years of age, as a newsboy and candy huckster, by the Grand Trunk Western Railroad in Michigan.

When a train Edison was aboard had a layover at Mount Clemens, Michigan, a three-year-old boy wandered onto the tracks, and Edison saw a train dashing down the tracks towards the toddler. He rushed in and saved the toddler from getting run over, and the three-year-old's dad, a station agent, heard about this incident.

The station agent, J.U. Mackenzie, taught Edison about railroad telegraphy and operations, contributing to Edison's interest in telegraphy. Edison later employed Mackenzie in his Menlo Park lab.

Edison conducted chemical experiments aboard his trains during his breaks, and it was one of those experiments that was the cause of him allegedly getting thrown off a train.

Edison won a monopoly of newspaper sales on the Grand Trunk Western, and he even published a newspaper himself, the "Grand Trunk Herald."

Remember that station agent? Well, he gave Edison training as a telegraph operator, allowing the young scientist to get a job working a telegraph on the railroad.

Edison moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he worked the night shift for Western Union, operating the Associated Press newswire.

Once again, Edison's chemical experiments got him in trouble.  He spilled sulfuric acid on the floor while working on a lead-acid battery, the acid went through the floor, and dripped down onto the desk of his boss. Edison was fired the next day.

Young Thomas Edison made his way to New Jersey, perhaps by way of Boston, and took up residence in the basement of a like-minded felllow named Franklin Leonard Pope, who lived in Elizabeth.

Edison invented an electrical vote recorder in 1868, which nobody wanted to buy.  Paper ballots seemed good enough at the time.

In 1869, Edison crafted an improved stock ticker, opened a workshop in Newark, and hired a bunch of "muckers" to help him manufacture the tickers.  Edison also conducted research on how to improve telegraphy.

In 1876, he moved to Menlo Park, with his shop being the former headquarters of the Menlo Park Land Company.

Menlo Park is a neighborhood a bit to the south of Metropark, which has an unrelated name.  Today, the Menlo Park neighborhood is perhaps best known for the shoppingmall of the same name.

Originally, Menlo Park was a failed real estate development, by what are now the Lincoln Highway and the Northeast Corridor.  At the time, those two thoroughfares were likely known as the Middlesex and Essex Turnpike and the New Jersey Rail Road.

At this location, Edison would establish the world's first organized research and development laboratory, perfect incandescent light bulbs, invent the phonograph, and create an entire system for producing and distributing electric current.

The site of the Menlo Park laboratory is now the Edison State Park, bordered on one side of Frederic Street and by the intersection of Christie Street and Tower Road.

Most of the buildings in Edison's compound had been demolished or had collapsed by the 1920s, leaving Henry Ford to collect the remaining structures, move them to Dearborn, Michigan, and reconstruct the destroyed buildings at the new site.

Ford, who had Edison's permission to do this, was a friend of Edison's.

In 1877, Edison crafted a talking machine, which he called a "phonograph". He wrapped tinfoil around a cylinder, which he turned with a crank, chanting, "Mary had a little lamb," a recording that Edison played back.

Edison later called this invention "my baby," saying "I expect it to grow up and be a big feller and support me in my old age."

The product met those expectations.

The next year, Edison and his muckers set about improving electric lighting. While some progress had been made in lighting places with electricity - arc lamps were already well-known - making electric light affordable and commonly used was another story.

Edison and company, in inventing a more practical light bulb, realized that they also needed to invent the infrastructure to support it.

This infrastructure, which Edison and the muckers called the "electric light system," included dynamos (generators), switches, fuses, and wiring.

The climax of those accomplishments occurred in 1879, when Edison and his muckers built a light bulb that stayed lit for more than 13 hours.

The next year, using a carbonized bamboo filament, the company came up with a 1,200 hour light bulb.  By comparison, today's compact flurorescent bulbs often last 8,000 hours, and light emitting diodes (LED's) are rated for 25,000 hours.

There are even said to be "cold cathode fluorescent lamps" with a life-span of 50,000 hours.

But, prior to Edison, light bulbs 0ften didn't last very long, or were very expensive.

Humphrey Davy of England had been the first known person to generate light by passing electricity through metal, in 1802, and a Scotsman named James Bowman Lindsay created a light in 1835 that allowed him to "read a book at a distance of one and a half feet."

Warren de la Rue, also in the British Isles, crafted a light bulb by coiling a platinum filament, inserting it into a glass tube, and sealing it in a vacuum.

While platinum has a high melting temperature, it is also very expensive, and so a "de la Rue light bulb" would have only been a luxury item. 

Alexander Lodygin, of Russia and later the USA, created a light bulb with two carbon rods in it.  The bulb was filled with nitrogen, and when one rod burned out, the current would switch to the backup rod.  This invention was in 1872; the Russian patent was in 1874. 

Joseph Swan, of Britain, experimented with light bulbs in the 1850's and 1860's, but his bulbs burnt out quickly and provided inadequate lighting. He couldn't create enough vacuum to empty out his light tubes.

After better pumps became available, Swan built a carbon-rod bulb that wasn't commercially practical, in 1878.  It drew too much current, and still didn't last very long.

After some tinkering, Swan used cotton to produce "parchmentised [carbon] thread" for a filament, started a company, and set about providing electric light to England, beginning with various people's houses in 1878 and with the Savoy Theatre in London, in 1881.

And so we come back to Thomas Edison, who became the first to light up something bigger than a house with commercially provided incandescent light when his company's bulbs were installed on the "SS Columbia" in 1880.

This vessel, which belonged to the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, was the first ship to use a dynamo.

The first lighting system was a bit cumbersome - if a passenger wanted to turn off his or her lights, he or she needed to call a steward, who would unlock a box outside of the cabin concerned and turn the light off.

The ship had her lights installed in New York, when she sailed around Cape Horn. All of the lights lasted at least 415 hours and 45 minutes.

Edison founded the Edison Illuminating Company in 1882, building the New York area's first power plant on Pearl Street in Manhattan. It generated 110 volt direct current, powering the places of 59 Manhattan customers.

Edison's company had built a steam-powered electric generating plant, earlier in the year, at Holborn Viaduct in London, across the ocean.

A rival to Edison, George Westinghouse, used alternating current, which could be run through transformers to produce high voltages, sent over relatively cheap wires, and sent through transformers again so that household current would be available. Edison used direct current, which was at a disadvantage.

Edison, therefore, waged a losing propaganda campaign in an effort to convince the public that alternating current was dangerous. This campaign involved the electrocution of animals; it also led to the invention of electric chairs for ending the lives of prisoners sentenced to death.

Edison went on to develop electrical infrastructure, movies, and other technological improvements. 

Nowadays, much criticism of Edison surrounds the supposed rivalry between him and Nikola Tesla. This came about because of the "War of the Currents."  It was not just Westinghouse and Edison that were involved, but Tesla as well.

Tesla, like Westinghouse, favored alternating current.

Edison hired Tesla in 1882, but the two came into conflict early on.

Edison favored methodical experimentation; Tesla, who had more formal education, preferred to hypothesize theories and then test them. Tesla, a germaphobe, found Edison to be dirty and unhygenic.

Tesla bet Edison that he could improve the efficiencies of the electric dynamos that Edison built.

According to Tesla, Edison had offered $50,000 if Tesla improved those dynamos, leading to long and grueling work on Tesla's part. Edison was making a joke, it seems: "When you become a full-fledged American," Edison allegedly said, "you will appreciate an American joke."

Edison did offer Tesla a $10 per week raise, however.

In a huff, Tesla resigned his position, preferring to take odd jobs around New York City. He started the Tesla Electric Light Company and he later sold his patents to Westinghouse.

In recent times, Tesla fans, including the writer/cartoonist of The Oatmeal, have been praising Tesla and panning Edison, sometimes to the point of being historically inaccurate.  Of course, when Forbes magazine pointed that out, The Oatmeal countered with a rebuttal.

However, that debate is not settled, and will perhaps never be settled.  Those two geniuses helped to bring electricity, audio, and better lighting to the world, and who's to say who is better or not?