"I always invented to obtain money to go on inventing," Thomas Edison once said. The romantic notion of a genius tinkering alone at night over a breakthrough invention? That wasn't Edison. Yes, he was a gifted chemist and visionary, but he was also a shrewd businessman who amassed a fortune. Touring the Edison Laboratory Complex is a fascinating look at one of the most efficient R & D operations in history.
Though Edison's first lab was in Menlo Park, New Jersey, this larger West Orange complex was in operation for over 40 years and accounted for over half of his patents. Notice how closely the ivy-covered red-brick buildings are set together -- Edison designed it this way so he wouldn't waste too much time scurrying from chemistry lab to machine shop to drafting room. The kids may be surprised to learn that, of the 1,093 patents credited to Edison -- the most any American has ever obtained -- many were actually invented by other scientists who worked for him. Walking around the restored lab complex, you can visualize his team of some 200 researchers, hired to refine and improve existing inventions. There were light bulbs before Edison's, but his was more reliable, long-lasting, and easy to manufacture; the telegraph, the phonograph, the stock ticker, the movie camera, and projector were all devices that other scientists pursued at the same time, but Edison's versions worked better. Another 10,000 workers in the attached factory (not part of the historic site) then mass-produced these inventions for commercial sale -- he controlled the entire cycle. Accessories, too -- there's a music recording studio you can peek into, where Edison engineers made sure phonograph customers would have something to play on their new machines.
One mile from the lab complex, you can see the fruits of Edison's labors in Glenmont, a 29-room red Queen Anne–style mansion in Llewellyn Park which Edison bought for his second wife, Mina. All the original furnishings are here, reflecting the formal Victorian style of the era, with lots of ornate carved wood, damask wall coverings, and stained-glass windows; things get comfier upstairs in the family living room, where Edison's children sometimes helped him look up scientific references in shelves full of books. One thing's for sure: This was probably the first house in the neighborhood with a phonograph, let alone the Home Projecting Kinetoscope -- the Edison children must have been very in demand for play dates.
Nearest Airport: Newark Liberty International, 15 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Excelsior Hotel, 45 W. 81st St. (tel. 800/368-4575 or 212/362-9200; www.excelsiorhotelny.com). $$$ Le Parker Meridien, 119 W. 56th St. (pedestrian entrance: 118 W. 57th St.; tel. 800/543-4300 or 212/245-5000; www.parkermeridien.com).