Did N.J. invent holiday light displays? How Thomas Edison lit up Menlo Park and changed Christmas forever.
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Did N.J. invent holiday light displays? How Thomas Edison lit up Menlo Park and changed Christmas forever.

May 15, 2023

Over several days in late December 1879, hundreds of people came from near and far to see the tiny globes bursting with light in Thomas Edison's Menlo Park buildings and in the streetlamps outside. (Andrea Levy | Advance Local)

From the star that shines atop the iconic Rockefeller Center tree to the dazzling, multicolored bulbs strung on houses, storefronts and public squares around the world, Christmas lights brighten winter's darkest days.

Whether in the form of candles or LEDs, light has played a role in Christmas traditions for centuries. In more recent years, though, it seems Americans’ obsession with holiday lighting has reached peak Clark Griswold levels, with kaleidoscopic displays synchronized to music and fluorescent pixels depicting zoo animals and storybook scenes.

But before "The Great Christmas Light Fight," and before people trekked to stadium-sized holiday light shows, a more meager light display in a humble New Jersey hamlet mesmerized crowds.

In the days around Christmas in 1879 — after finally figuring out how to make a lightbulb that would last — Thomas Edison and his team lit up their laboratory and a nearby street, transforming Menlo Park in Middlesex County into what newspapers dubbed the "Village of Light."

Hundreds of people arrived over several days in late December to see the tiny globes bursting with light at Edison's "invention factory," the research complex where he and his staff worked and lived. The laboratory, office, a few homes and the streetlamps outside surged with electricity.

A more official demonstration was held New Year's Eve, when even larger crowds came to Menlo Park to see the buildings and streetlamps lighting up the night.

"Edison's laboratory was tonight thrown open to the general public for the inspection of his electric light," the New York Herald reported in the next day's edition. "Extra trains were run from east and west, and, notwithstanding the stormy weather, hundreds of persons availed themselves of the privilege."

The inventor and his crew had not invented Christmas lights exactly — the idea of stringing lights on holiday trees wouldn't come until three years later when the vice president of Edison's electric company wrapped colored bulbs around his holiday tree.

And it would take more than a decade for President Grover Cleveland, another of Jersey's own, to add lights to the White House Christmas tree and help popularize the trend.

But, on those cold days in 1879 before the growing crowds in Menlo Park, Edison had taken the first incandescent step toward showing how electricity could be used to transform the darkest nights of the year into something dazzling.

The laboratory and Christie Street below were suddenly aglow with the bright, unwavering light from lamps that could burn continuously for 150 hours. The demonstration was proof that the lamps with the carbonized filament that Edison and his team had developed were cleaner and safer than gas and could burn longer and steadier than the electric arc lights being introduced in some city streets.

A painting depicts the New Year's Eve demononstration of Edison's incandescent lightbulb. (Courtesy photo from the Collections of The Henry Ford)

The many people arriving by train and horse-drawn carriages on that stormy night were instantly drawn to the lights, according to newspaper reports.

"The newcomers always gathered around the electric street lamps, their expressions of astonishment were loud and frequent," The New-York Tribune reported. "The lights were steady and powerful and did not throw the sharply defined shadows that are seen from gas lamps."

The newspapers mostly cheered Edison's "great discovery," but there were skeptics in the science community and rival inventors looking to get a jump on the patent. Henry Morton, the president of Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, called Edison's incandescent lamp "a conspicuous failure," and cast doubt on the energy efficiency of stringing together a huge number of bulbs.

Despite the criticism and amid pressure from investors, the lights in Menlo Park stayed on. Over the next few years, Edison would take his electric revolution to New York City, where he and his men designed the country's first electrical grid and lit up lower Manhattan.

Not only did Edison and his crew set up a factory in East Newark to mass produce the new lightbulb with a carbon filament, they also designed and patented almost every component of the electrical system that would serve New York's homes and businesses: a central power station, wires, connectors, switches and meters.

"Edison didn't just invent the lightbulb," said Paul Israel, editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University. "He invented a whole system."

An artist's illustration of the testing of Thomas Edison's incandescent lightbulb by Edison and his co-workers at Menlo Park in 1879. At right, a portrait of Edison from 1881.

Less than three years after the New Year's Eve demonstration, the country's first central power station went online on Sept. 4, 1882, lighting up a square-mile section of Manhattan. Electric power had come to the masses.

That Christmas, the vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company celebrated by wrapping 80 red, white and blue bulbs around the Christmas tree he set up at his home on East 36th Street. Edward H. Johnson's flashy display marked the first time electric lights were used on a Christmas tree.

"Johnson understood marketing. He recognized that it was good marketing (for electricity), not just a cool Christmas display," said Hal Wallace, the curator for electricity collections at the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institute. "What he was saying was, take a look at what electricity can do. A lot of people didn't understand electricity. There was a fear factor there."

Many people must have seen the twinkling boughs that Christmas, but the New York papers either missed the story or dismissed it as the mere publicity stunt that it was. The light shone down from Johnson's second-floor parlor and a tradition was born, but it would be up to an out-of-town reporter to tell the story:

"Last evening, I walked over beyond Fifth Avenue and called at the residence of Edward H. Johnson, vice president of Edison's electric company," wrote William Augustus Croffut in the Detroit Post and Tribune. "There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect."

Croffut was not only impressed with the maze of lights, but with the electric motor that powered the tree, allowing it to rotate and blink.

"The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue — all evening. I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight — one can hardly imagine anything prettier."

As more cities wired up, electric lights gradually replaced the candles that were often clipped to Christmas trees for decoration. The future looked bright, and there would be less need to keep a water bucket nearby in case of fire.

"We stand today on the threshold of tremendous possibilities," Edison told the Electrical Review in 1885. "The uses to which the electrical energy can be adapted are so numerous that the present generation hardly dreams of them."

An engraving from 1876 shows a family lighting the candles on their Christmas tree.Universal Images Group via Getty

Another Jersey guy, President Cleveland (born in Caldwell), helped things along in 1895 when he requested electric lights for the White House Christmas tree to please his daughters.

In 1903, General Electric — the Harrison-based corporation that began as the Edison Electric Light Company — produced its first set of Christmas lights.

Though it would take several decades for Christmas lights to go mainstream (they were initially quite expensive), the product's debut underscored just how much Edison's innovations had changed Americans’ lives by the turn of the century.

Edison was only 32 years old on that New Year's Eve in 1879 when he introduced his electric light, but he already had a bunch of inventions to his credit. A native of Ohio, Edison had moved east without any formal education and set up his first laboratory in Newark in 1871.

By the time he moved his operation to Menlo Park in 1876, Edison had already improved on the telegraph and the stock ticker, and invented a copy machine he called the electric pen. But it was his invention of the phonograph at Menlo Park in 1877 that made him famous — and a hot commodity for investors looking for the next big thing.

Edison envisioned the phonograph as a way for businesses to take dictation, not a music box. But being able to record sound and play it back made the possibilities seem endless.

"The invention of the phonograph just blew everyone away," Wallace said. "Inventions rarely work the first time you try them, but this one did. When he demonstrated the phonograph, that's what made him the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park.’ That's when everyone sat up and took notice."

Investors, among them J.P. Morgan, were keen on Edison developing electric light and giving the gas industry a run for its money. But, creating a bulb that didn't burn out quickly proved to be a challenge.

During the fall of 1879, Edison experimented with all kinds of material for his "filaments" — the squiggly piece inside the bulb that carries the electrical current. He tried hundreds of plant fibers, grains of wood, papers, but all were unsuitable.

"Those were hard days for Edison, and yet he worked tirelessly," recalled Francis Jehl, one of Edison's laboratory assistants, in his memoir, "Menlo Park Reminiscences."

"Others would have abandoned the task as impossible; he kept right on. No experimenter before him had visioned a filament of carbon, nor had any believed that such a filament could be made to serve as the light-giving element of a lamp," Jehl wrote.

Kathleen Carlucci, director of the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park, says what made the inventor successful was that he wasn't afraid to fail.

"He used to call it ‘stick-to-it-iveness,’" she said. "He just never gave up. When something didn't work it wasn't a failure. It was a learning opportunity."

A replica of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory, part of Henry Ford's innovation museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The Plain Dealer

His perseverance finally paid off.

On Dec. 21, 1879, the New York Sunday Herald ran a full-page spread announcing the news of Edison's "Great Discovery," complete with drawings of the bulb and highly technical descriptions that only a rival inventor could appreciate. The writer, Marshall Fox, reported that Edison's discovery of the carbonized filament came almost by accident one night in October.

"Sitting in his laboratory one night, Edison began abstractly rolling a piece of compressed lampblack mixed with tar for use in his telephone," Fox wrote. "For several minutes, his thoughts continued far away, his fingers in the meantime mechanically rolling the little piece of tarred lampblack until it became a slender filament."

A lightbulb of an idea went off.

"Happening to glance at it, he conceived the idea that it might give good results as a burner if made incandescent," Fox wrote. "A few minutes later the experiment was tried, and to the inventor's gratification, satisfactory although not surprising results were obtained."

The New York Herald details Edison's lightbulb in 1879.

Fox also reported Edison's plan for a public demonstration on New Year's Eve. But when the story broke a few days before Christmas — earlier than Edison had planned — and was picked up by other papers, curiosity-seekers began showing up at Menlo Park. Some were skeptics, some were investors, and others were inventors who wanted a sneak peek.

The crowds started out small but grew by the day, with the railroad company eventually ordering extra trains to Menlo Park. Carriages also "came streaming from near and far," one reporter wrote. In the last days of December, the laboratory, machine shop and Edison's office were overrun with visitors who plied his assistants with questions.

Edison was something of a publicity hound and, as the hordes got off the train in Menlo Park, the inventor spent most of the week after Christmas showing visitors his latest invention. His patent attorney worried that someone might steal his ideas. And only his lab assistants knew that as the New Year's Eve demonstration approached, Edison still had some tweaking to do.

"Few know that Edison was pressed by his financial backers to hurry his exhibition," Jehl wrote in his memoir. "Newspapers and journals were impatiently clamoring for something tangible in the lamp that Edison had promised the world."

Jehl writes that in the waning days before the New Year's Eve demonstration, Edison had to fix the clamps on the bulbs that held the filaments in place. "We worked day and night to get the lamps with new platinum clamps ready — and everything turned out well after all," he wrote.

The cover of The Daily Graphic illustrated newspaper depicts scenes from the New Year's Eve demonstration in its edition published on Jan. 3, 1880. (Courtesy photo from the Collections of The Henry Ford)

Indeed it did. The demonstration came off without a hitch, with Edison putting his lightbulb under a series of tests in front of the masses.

The throngs of visitors included gas company officials and electricians, a senator from Kansas, and men who ran the gamut in terms of prominence and scientific knowledge. But the papers also note that "many ladies were present, and several old-fashioned wagons brought loads of farmers and their families from neighboring country towns."

"All the visitors seemed satisfied that Edison had actually solved the problem of practical household illumination by electricity," proclaimed the next day's New York Herald.

Three weeks later, Edison obtained the patents for his bulb and the electrical system that powered it.

By the following winter, Edison and his team had added many more lights at Menlo Park while testing an underground power system.

"Edison divided the whole territory about Menlo Park into imaginary streets and lined them with lamp-posts," Jehl, his office assistant, recalled in his memoir. "The posts out in the field were of a simple nature, plain square ones painted white and with clear round glass globes that protected the incandescent lamps."

More traditional streetlamps were placed near the buildings and the train station.

"At night when the electric lights were in operation, the place seemed like a dream-land," Jehl writes. "One writer, calling Edison ‘The Enchanter,’ said nothing could be more beautiful than an evening view of Menlo Park and Edison's fairyland of lights."

The lights were especially captivating to those passing by on trains.

"As the trains from Philadelphia approach Menlo, passengers on the southern side of the cars are the first to see the lights ahead," Jehl's memoir says. "As the road curves they disappear, soon to burst again into view, however, in a magician's blaze of electricity made subservient to the needs of man."

"When the famous spot is being passed," Jehl wrote, "all the passengers rush to the Menlo side, and the excitement only ceases when the last lights disappear as the train dashes on through Rahway."

An illustration from the early 1880s depicts Menlo Park with both electric lights and overhead telegraph wires.De Agostini via Getty Images

Edison kept the lights on at the Menlo Park buildings for a few more years — while mostly working in New York — and in 1887 opened a new laboratory in West Orange, where there would be more discoveries, like records and improvements to the phonograph. It was in West Orange that Edison began dabbling in movies, inventing the equipment that laid the groundwork for the motion picture industry.

In 1929, the automaker Henry Ford moved the remaining Menlo Park buildings to his innovation museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where they are still open to the public today.

A tower was erected to Edison at Menlo Park, but it was ironically destroyed by lightning in 1937. In the spirit of Edison, the organizers tried again and built a huge stone tower with a lightbulb on top. It shines every night over the township that now bears the inventor's name.

An evergreen with Christmas lights stands where Edison once greeted his guests at the corner of Christie Street and what is now Tower Road in Menlo Park.

But other than that huge lightbulb and a museum that draws thousands of visitors each year, Christie Street looks like your average suburban neighborhood. On a recent December night, it was quiet and mostly empty, with the exception of a buck that wandered out of the shadows and toward the tower.

With Edison's office and laboratory long gone and modern-day street lighting in place, there's little to help conjure the scene from late December 1879, when the Wizard of Menlo Park gave the world a glimpse of the future — and when farm families and well-heeled investors stood shoulder to shoulder, mesmerized by the glowing buildings and streetlamps.

But occasionally a train goes by, and you realize an evergreen tree with multicolored lights and a luminous star stands where Edison once greeted his guests.

Electric candles illuminate a nearby home's windows.

Houses on this quiet street are draped in Christmas lights, with strings of bulbs twisting around trees and across rooftops.

The lights burn brightly on the next street, too — and the next, and the next, and the next, across the state, the rest of the country, and all over the world.

And sometimes, like all those years ago, people stop for a moment to take it all in.

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