Discover ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’

Quiet museum shows talent, drive of Edison, America’s greatest inventor

The Edison Museum in downtown Beaumont. ISSUE photo by Andy Coughlan

To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.

It has been said that an hour does not go by where someone is not using an invention that was created by Thomas Edison. The inventor’s work ushered in many of the conveniences that we sometimes take for granted, but as Hurricane Harvey reminded us, it would be difficult to live without them.

Beaumont pays its own tribute to “The Wizard of Menlo Park” through the Edison Museum, located at 350 Pine St. behind the Edison Plaza office building downtown.            

“The museum exhibits a variety of artifacts and items from Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory,” museum director Alexandra McKenna said. “We show a mix of information about his personal life, but also about Edison, the man and the brand.”

The museum is housed in the historic two-story Travis Street Substation built in 1929 and occupies space once used for distributing electricity throughout Beaumont. The first floor displays more than 70 genuine artifacts from Edison’s laboratories on permanent loan to the museum from the Charles Edison Fund.

The second story hosts a meeting room and archival and collections storage space where one can see household appliances from the early 20th-century by a variety of manufacturers, many in working order.

So why Beaumont? And why Edison?

Gulf States Utilities began a concept of displaying industry gear, equipment and employee memorabilia, and over time it grew into something larger. Edison had no personal affiliation to Beaumont, nor did he ever visit the city, McKenna said.

“So much of what Thomas Edison created led to what most people saw as consumer boom after the ending of World War II — better household appliances, television,” McKenna said. “He didn’t necessarily invent every device, but he embodied the idea of progress and the future.”

When GSU and Entergy merged, Entergy developed the concept further by showing what the “Age of Edison” was all about and how much impact he had on daily life. Entergy is the museum’s largest and most dedicated sponsor.

“Gulf States Utilities began converting the building into a museum space in the early ’80s as newer equipment was smaller and more efficient — the main gallery is where all the older-style equipment used to be,” McKenna said. “What is also interesting is the building houses new equipment behind the back wall that is hidden from view, so the building is actually a working museum, too.”

McKenna said the museum hopes to develop a display in the future showing mid-century appliances and furniture to give guests an example of what life was like back then.

The museum is one of only a handful dedicated to Thomas Edison in the country and the only one west of the Mississippi River.

The museum has displays that highlight many of Edison’s achievements including a phonograph exhibit, his various endeavors at creating lighting and light bulbs, and motion-picture making equipment such as a replica Kinetoscope.

During his lifetime, Edison would have 1,093 US patents in his name and 2,332 worldwide. He would also go on to found 14 companies (General Electric, for example) and accrue great personal wealth.

Some exhibits display how Edison was far ahead of his time with creating ideas. One display with items from 1911 features a promotion with Edison showing a prototype electric car running on batteries he designed, accompanied with a quote by him saying, “Gasoline engines are unscientific and wasteful.”

Another interesting exhibit is a hands-on display about telegraphy that allows guests to create and decode Morse Code messages. In addition, he had personal and special connection to that form of communication. Edison learned telegraphy as a favor he earned by saving a 3-year-old boy’s life. The boy’s father was so grateful he taught Edison the skill as a gift.

“Edison’s career started as telegraph operator, and because he was hard of hearing from a childhood illness, he and his wife communicated with each other by tapping out Morse Code on each other’s wrists,” McKenna said. “He nicknamed his first two children ‘Dot and Dash.’   

“This museum has something for all ages, from young children seeking discovery to older folks that can recall how much technology has changed over the decades,” McKenna said.

The Edison Museum is located at 350 Pine St. in downtown Beaumont and is open Tuesday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free. For more information call 409-981-3089.

Story by Stephan Malick, ISSUE staff writer

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