December 9, 1914: Edison Sees His Vast Plant Burn

On December 9, 1914 a spectacular fire destroyed over half the buildings in Thomas Edison’s West Orange Laboratory after an explosion in the film inspection building. Damages reached seven million dollars, with only two million covered by insurance, according to The New York Times article.  Two hundred fifty workers were in the buildings at 5:20P.M. when the blaze erupted.  Edison and his wife rushed to the scene and stayed until midnight when firefighters were finally able to contain the blaze, saving the important Experimental Laboratory and Storage Battery buildings. 

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Edison vowed, “Although I am over 67 years old, I‘ll start all over again tomorrow.”   

Indeed he did!

Cleanup work at the devastated site began the next day when all 7,000 employees  reported for duty. Reconstruction plans quickly followed. 

What struck me as amazing was  a footnote to the story that within two days, Edison had also finalized design of a portable searchlight whose three million candlepower beam would be visible for miles. In the midst of the catastrophe, Edison had noticed how the firefighters were hampered by the loss of power and light.  He puzzled over the problem and came up  with the battery driven light source idea and design. At age 67, Edison’s pace of work and inventions had slowed, but they could hardly be described as declining years. Within six months, Edison was demonstrating his latest invention in a nearby park,  attracting curious onlookers who wondered where the bright light was coming from!  The old adage that “every cloud has a silver lining” certainly applies here.

The newer West Orange Edison laboratory had replaced the initial site at Menlo Park , where Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 and the incandescent light bulb and electric system in 1878.   Edison, nicknamed the Wizard of Menlo Park, lived to age 84. The prolific inventor with 1093 patents, born in Milan Ohio, was homeschooled by his mother. He was deaf  from  age 12. In addition to the light bulb and the phonograph, he is most famous for the motion picture camera and improvements to the telephone and telegraph.

His home in West Orange, named Glenmont, is run by the National Park Service and is open to the public.  The West Orange Edison Works Laboratory is currently under renovation.  The Park Service has not yet posted a reopening date. Pictures from Edison Historic Site 

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Published in: on December 8, 2008 at 10:33 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] also my earlier posting on the 1914 fire at the labs. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)THOMAS ALVA […]


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