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Thomas Edison's Workshop Re-Opens to Public

Thursday, October 08, 2009

EDISON ARCHIVAL RECORDING: By a reason of experiments with the telephone I knew the power of a diagraph could take up sound vibrations. And when experimenting with automatic celestry I felt sure I could record and reproduce the human voice.

HOST: And that's exactly what Thomas Edison did. Starting tomorrow you can visit the place where it all began. It's where for the first time ever sound was recorded and played back, where the first practical motion picture camera was invented, where the light bulb was perfected.

The site where all this took place and where many other innovations were launched is opening it's doors to the public after a 6-year, $13 million renovation.

I took the short trip from Manhattan to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey where I met my guide Karen Sloat-Olsen.

SLOAT-OLSEN: When people think of Edison’s laboratory, they think of one room, but this is 20-some buildings in Edison’s time. Everything from metallurgy to physics to chemistry to Building 5 which housed two machine shops. It housed muckers space or experimental space. A research library.

REPORTER: So, before we get started with the tour, remind me: Why was Thomas Edison such an amazing man?

SLOAT-OLSEN: I think he’s amazing for one, just the breadth of what he does here. I mean he’s born in 1847 and lives until 1931. He changes the world that we live in. When you think about today, can you spend an hour without being touched by Edison. All the electrical work that he does. The light bulb, the electrical system, which is really where he earns the money from. Phonographs, music, motion pictures, he works on the fluoroscope.

REPORTER: He was an inventor, he was scientist, he was also a businessman… He didn’t invent the light bulb. A lot of people think he invented the light bulb. He didn’t invent it, he…pefected it. He was able to make it commercially viable. But then he also developed a system to generate electricity and then distribute the electricity so people can have light bulbs.

SLOAT-OLSEN: And that’s actually where his money comes from, is the electrical system, not the light bulb itself, although obviously that’s still going to give him some money.

REPORTER: Con Edison.

SLOAT-OLSEN: Consolidated Edison, exactly. I think that’s why he has such an impact. It’s not just one field.

REPORTER: So what are we looking at here?

SLOAT-OLSEN: This is the very first phonograph. The first phonograph is a little different from when people think of a flat record or sometimes they even think about the cylinder. But it was used with tin foil. You would have to wrap the tin foil around the cylinder and there would be a horn. And you would literally put your face in the horn and scream as loud as you could, at least I have when we’ve tried to test a replica of it. And what happens, the needle actually vibrates and puts little marks in the tin foil, a little like dots and dashes, if you will. You have to bring the needle back to the first dot, crank it again and what comes out of the horn is your voice. Edison was shocked that it worked the very first time.

REPORTER: And what was the first recording he made with this phonograph?

SLOAT-OLSEN: Well, he had little kids at the time, so the first recording was Mary Had a Little Lamb…….

EDISON ARCHIVAL RECORDING: The first words I spoke in the original phonograph: a little piece of practical poetry. Mary had a little lamb. Its fleece was white as snow. And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.

REPORTER: What are some of the great things on display now that you're able to open up so much more of the space? What are some of the new things that someone who came and visited 10 or 20 years ago, they'll be able to see something new now?

SLOAT-OLSEN: I think one of the big things is you get to go through and explore it on your own. You don’t have to follow the ranger and spend five minutes in this room, two minutes in that room. But you’ll also get to see the 2nd and 3rd floors of Building 5, which have never been open to the public, which means the precision machine shop, the private office where Edison spent a lot of his time, the drafting room. The music room on the 3rd floor. And then a huge exhibit floor on our phonographs. And then, kind of one of my favorites is the storage on the 3rd floor – literally walking through as somebody put it, walking though Edison’s attic, was what it was like.

REPORTER: Alright, well thank you very much.

SLOAT-OLSEN: Thank you, I had a good time!

[Music: "Saxema," performed and composed by Rudy Wiedoeft; Recorded on Edison Diamond Disc, 1922]

REPORTER: I think it’s kind of cool that there’s this kind of place right outside of the city...

SLOAT-OLSEN: Yeah, people don’t know it’s here, even the locals. And here is this grand national historical park right in their own backyard.

REPORTER: Karen Sloat-Olsen of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange. It's reopening tomorrow after a big renovation. And there'll be opening festivities and free admission tomorrow through Monday. Visitors can also check out Edison's home, a 29-room Victorian mansion just up the road.

For a slide show and more recordings visit our news blog.

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