Case Study: Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory
By and large, it is not until the nineteenth century that we have access to historical records of lab denizens and directors documenting or describing lab space.
According to MIT’s Norbert Wiener, Edison’s greatest invention was that of the industrial research laboratory. In this section, we draw on the astonishing amount of archival, historical and critical material on and about Thomas Edison and his various laboratories, especially the Menlo Park laboratory, launched in 1876. Menlo Park was an “invention factory” that was the largest private laboratory in the U.S. in the 1870s and which simultaneously built on and departed in significant respects from the long tangle of kitchens, apothecaries, theaters, and chemistry labs from which it emerged. While Menlo Park drew on elements from earlier research spaces such as workshops and libraries, its dedication to the “rapid and cheap development” of a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so was deeply modern.29
After being fired from Western Union in 1867 and subsequently working independently on patenting inventions, Edison opened a shop (which he did not yet refer to as a laboratory) in 1870 in Newark, New Jersey. There he invented the gold and stock ticker; numerous types of telegraph systems; an electric pen; and more. This first “shop” was a series of rooms on the top floor of a padlock factory a block off of Main Street, in what is now the City of Orange, New Jersey. Once Edison started looking for a larger, alternative location for what he would eventually call a laboratory, he found that Menlo Park was, by contrast, secluded and spacious; it granted him the opportunity to build not just a lab, but an entire surrounding community dedicated to invention. According to Michael J. Gall, when Edison chose Menlo Park as a location for his lab, it consisted of only a few homes and dirt roads. It was relatively inexpensive and convenient for him to simply purchase seven adjacent property lots (all of which set the stage for buildings that could signal grandeur because the lots were on a hill-crest overlooking the surrounding rural area) for $5,200 from Menlo Park Homestead Association Trustee George Goodyear.30
Edison used six of these lots for the laboratory complex and one lot for his personal home. According to Edison’s long-time laboratory assistant Francis Jehl:
Menlo Park was at that time nothing more than a spot on the map. Situated several miles below Rahway on the Pennsylvania Railroad, its principal attraction was a quiet atmosphere of peace . . . He bought the site on December 29, 1875, and then purchased another tract nearby, 150 x 300 feet, for his residence . . . The long gray laboratory had to serve as both office and shop for Edison, as well as experimental headquarters. Power was furnished by an upright steam engine in the rear room on the ground floor. The place was lighted by illuminating gas. . . . by a machine which stood in a shed back of the main building . . . A plank walk bordered its edge from the laboratory a distance of 850 feet to the Edison home.31
In this description, there is already a family resemblance to the Plan of St. Gall and later Benedictine abbeys in terms of the importance of sources of power and/or heat; of a series of work spaces that are flexible and configurable enough to accommodate multiple purposes; and the adjacency of a nearby domestic sphere. These historical precedents also come into view once we start looking at photographs of the lab complex as a whole. In one photograph, presumably from around 1876, the main rectangular structure that Jehl calls the “long gray laboratory” has white clapboard siding, abundant natural light because of the twenty or so windows on all faces of the building, and is surrounded by a picket fence such that the lab resembles both a church and a schoolhouse.32 It’s also worth noting that in an image in Jehl’s Menlo Park Reminiscences, the boundaries between inside and outside the lab have not yet been clearly constructed. The image includes a bear chained to a tree near the front entrance of the lab—a fact that would be more strange if it weren’t for the fact that demarcations of what lies inside and outside a lab can also be mapped onto attempts to demarcate where (supposedly wild, uncontrollable) nature ends and (supposedly controlled) culture begin. In another photograph from roughly the same period, we can see the bear and tree have been removed and that a large machine shop, office building, and carpenters’ and glassblowing sheds had been added around the original main building.33 Surrounding Edison’s house and the main Menlo Park complex were a handful of houses where his employees lived. The entire town was, “in short, Edisonia, and nothing else.”34
While we are considering the external structure of “Edisonia,” it’s worth invoking one of Christopher Alexander’s patterns dedicated to the “Building Complex.” Edison’s decision to build a complex rather than a monolithic structure both stretches backward to the Benedictine monasteries and forward to the designs of later labs. In Alexander’s words, “when human organizations are housed in enormous, undifferentiated buildings, people stop identifying with the staff who work there as personalities and think only of the institution as an impersonal monolith, staffed by personnel.”35 By contrast, a complex allows for the manifestation of “the actual social facts of the situation. At low densities, a building complex may take the form of a collection of small buildings connected by arcades, paths, bridges, shared gardens, and walls.”36 The success of this design lies in its power to persuade lab denizens to wholly identify with the lab and passionately work long hours. Accounts from workers describe how working in the lab was a “strenuous but joyous life for all, physically, mentally and emotionally. We worked long night hours—frequently to the limit of human endurance.”37 Similar statements appear in lab discourse to this day, notably around “the crunch” of working in a new media start-up.
In André Millard’s elaboration on the atmosphere in the lab, there is also a clear implication not only that Edison designed a lab complex to encourage complete worker identification, but also that this identification specifically supports male bonding in a way that very much anticipates the spaces of contemporary tech/startup culture, like MIT’s Media Lab, which feature pool tables, lounge chairs and couches for exactly the same reasons: “Experimenting at the first invention factory at Menlo Park was punctuated by gaming, practical jokes, and rowdy singsongs at the large organ that filled one end of the building . . . Far from being sedate, intellectual environments with library quiet, Edison’s laboratories were noisy, crowded places that often seemed on the verge of uproar.”38
While Millard is right to point out the influence of “machine shop culture” in the Menlo Park laboratory and the flexibility to produce a wide range of tools and parts that a shop offered, there is a much longer, deeper history of spaces which served the same purpose in terms of flexibility and porous boundaries. The latter comes more clearly into view when studying the layout of the first floor of the lab building. To begin with, the main entrance is on the side of the rectangular complex facing the street, so the lab is at least partly open to and part of the larger outside world. As Alexander’s description of the pattern for “Main Entrance” indicates, the position of the front door controls the “movement to and from the building, and all the other decisions about layout flow from this decision.” Everyone using this primary access point had to immediately pass Edison’s office on the right of the entranceway, establishing Edison as the most important aspect of the lab. To access the rest of the complex, the visitor had to continue through several open rooms divided by function before they could access the machine shop at the back.39 The first long room contains on one side a hydraulic press, several cabinets containing models of instruments and early inventions, and then shelves of batteries and a table for a galvanometer. On the opposite side of the long room and beyond Edison’s office were stairs to the important second floor of the lab, more cabinets, an “analytical nook” (as it’s labeled in the floor plan that appears in Francis Jehl’s Menlo Park Reminiscences), table and sink.40 This large front room flows into the machine shop at the back, which brings in more conventional aspects of lab spaces such as a chimney, furnace, fume chamber, sink, benches, tables and abundant machinery along the floor and ceiling for experimentation.
Just as lab discourse at the Menlo Park complex encouraged worker identification with their place of employment as an incentive to labor for long hours, the spatial configuration of the main laboratory building reinforces that ethos, as it is both open and closed, fluid and segmented according to the type of work. Alexander makes sense of the power of this particular spatial configuration for encouraging utmost efficiency via a pattern for “Self-Governing Workshops and Offices,” which is not so much self-governing as a kind of local fiefdom or seigneury:
A man enjoys his work when he understands the whole and when he is responsible for the quality of the whole. He can only understand the whole and be responsible for the whole when the work which happens in society . . . is undertaken by small self-governing human groups; groups small enough to give people understanding through face-to-face contact, and autonomous enough to let the workers themselves govern their own affairs.41
It is important to note here that from “A man enjoys his work” onward, Alexander’s explication is deeply modern. Despite the importance of Menlo Park to later media labs, Internet startups and other hybrid spaces, its underlying assumptions about where and how work takes place, and how it can be governed, do not hold in the work “spaces” of a 21st-century digital networked culture any more than would the assumptions of a medieval abbot about how work would take place in their abbey. Every intellectual genealogy is always such a series of long continuities and abrupt breaks.
On to the second floor. New York Daily Graphic writer William Croffut describes this floor as being “walled with shelves of bottles, like an apothecary shop—thousands of bottles of all sizes and colors. In the corner is a cabinet organ. On benches and tables are batteries of all descriptions, microscopes, magnifying glasses, crucibles, retorts, an ash-covered forge, and all the apparatus of a chemist.”42 (In chapter three on Apparatus we elaborate on how lab apparatus prepares knowledge because its mechanisms, arrangements, spaces, and situations define what counts as knowledge.)
Croffut’s comparison of the Menlo Park lab to apothecaries points once again to the long spatial genealogy that is at play here. What makes the space at Menlo Park historically distinct is the way that familiar patterns from arcades, paths, flexible and configurable workshop spaces, furnaces and kitchen areas were extracted and reconfigured in order to embody late 19th and early 20th century discourses of innovation, industry and workplace efficiency. Though the individual elements may seem familiar, and may even bear the same names, their position in the larger assemblages of their own past and our present are different, so they enable different practices and the production of different kinds of knowledge and different ideologies.