Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tales of Everyday Life in Menlo Park (or Francis Jehl: A Young Boy's Experience Working at Menlo Park)

There are many fascinating daily activities the average person took part in from times long past that tend to be shoved into a corner, become filled with dust and cobwebs, and eventually forgotten about.
This is the way history is, isn't it? Only the names of the politicians, the war heroes, and the famous live on while the everyday joe's tend to be cast aside.
The following post is about one ordinary man and of his adventures working with a famous man in the late 19th century:

"It was still dark when I stepped forth from the (Sarah Jordan) boarding house to go across to my first day's work at the laboratory, and a cold rain was falling. I put up my overcoat collar and breasted the wind along the board walk to the point nearest the side gate  where we splashed across and raced into the compound.
The long gray building loomed up through the rain like a ghostly palace, its flickering gas flames already blazing a welcome in the black windows..."
Though it was not dark when I took this photograph, this is very similar to what Francis Jehl saw when he stepped forth from the (Sarah Jordan) boarding house. Yes, that's the famous Menlo Park complex you see there, and it now sits the same distance as it once did when Mr. Jehl worked there back in 1879.
The words above the photograph belong to Francis Jehl (pronounced yale), giving his description of his first day heading to work at the Menlo Park laboratory on an early November morning in 1878.
His boss?
Thomas Edison.
(Internet sources, by the way, say that Mr. Jehl began to work with Edison in February of 1879, but Jehl's own writing - put into book form entitled "Menlo Park Reminiscences" - plainly states (on page 19) "I saw him (Edison) on the second floor of the Menlo Park laboratory on that day in November, 1878, when, as a youth of eighteen, I came to work for him.").
Jehl was recommended to Edison by his former employer, Grosvenor Lowrey, due to the young lad's high interest in electricity. In the letter Lowrey wrote to Edison he commented:
Can you make use of a sturdy strong boy about sixteen years old who has been for several years in our office...
This young fellow is a German, named Francis Jehl, and although he has a rather awkward appearance, and manners, and is rather slow and might seem to some to be stupid, he is quite an intelligent, industrious, faithful, honest and high-minded young fellow. He has always been greatly interested in electricity, and while an office boy used to make magnets and little electrical machines which he brought to the office. They were, of course, only imitations of others, but showed a mechanical turn of mind, and a strong love for the subject of electricity.
He has been kept at the most uninteresting work (I think boring holes and washing bottles, and that sort of thing) and although he would be perfectly willing to do that if he was surrounded by men or things which interested him, he cannot do it there, for, he says, the men and boys are all flatterers of the foreman and do not work honestly and right....I have promised him to write to you.
From left: the Menlo Park lab, machine shop, and glass house...set up exactly the way they were in their original location
Edison obliged, and young Francis soon found himself on the second floor of the Menlo Park laboratory building, cleaning and filling the cells of the Bunsen battery, a tedious job involving moving the the heavy oblong glass jars one by one to the sink, emptying them, scraping off the carbon, rubbing the zinc plate with mercury, and then rinsing it off again.
And that was only the first step of his new job.
Edison inspected Jehl's work and was impressed with the boy's diligence.
The 2nd floor of the Menlo Park Laboratory as Jehl would have seen it
Francis was welcomed to stay on as one of the inventor's workers, and he accepted the offer without question.
However, Jehl came down from New York and went directly to meet with the inventor without finding a place to stay first. Mr. Edison suggested a boarding house down the road a ways - -

"(Edison) led me to one of the windows to the south end of the second floor and pointed past the office building to a drab-colored frame house with green shutters, a short distance down Christie .
'Go over there,' he told me, 'and talk to Mrs. Jordan.'
Can you see Mrs. Jordan's house in the distance? Yes, this photo was taken from the 2nd floor of the Menlo Park laboratory
I picked up my satchel and made my way down stairs and out the front door. It was nearing the time when Christian folks had supper and went to bed.
There was a path leading to the side gate in the rear of the office building. Beyond it stretched Christie Street, running past the picket fence on the east side of the compound.
Sarah Jordan's Boarding House, in the same way Edison's worker's viewed it from the laboratory
The boarding house
I crossed the street diagonally and...I turned in at the far gate and set foot for the first time on the porch of the Jordan boarding house, which was to become my home for more than a year.
In a few moments I was introducing myself to a slight, frail little woman who was the proprietress. 
As the boarding house must've looked when young Francis walk from Menlo Park Lab

The "far gate" that Francis walked through to see Mrs. Jordan.
Business was not yet brisk and she was glad to see a new lodger. She escorted me up the narrow winding stairs and into a large room at the front of the home. Although I did not know it at the time, I came later to the conclusion that the room she gave me was the best she had. It looked over the porch and had an additional window on the far side, making three windows in all. The furnishings were plain but ample - large clean bed, commode with wash bowl and water pitcher, bureau and a few chairs. Board and room, I learned, were to cost five or six dollars a week.
This is the room I suspect was the one Mr. Jehl describes here, for it matches his description closely (he only mentions one bed and no roommates)
I accepted the room at once and after unpacking my satchel by candle light and hanging up my clothes, went downstairs and took a seat in the dining room where two or three men were already at the table. By that time darkness had fallen and a coal oil lamp furnished the light for our supper.
Perhaps a brief explanation about the plan of Mrs. Jordan's boarding house might not be out of place here. It comprised two separate apartments, each unit in itself. One was shut apart from the other and the communicating doors were usually kept locked. In one half lived Mrs. Jordan and her daughter, and the other was given over to the boarders. 
"Aunt Sally's" (as the boarders affectionately called her) family sitting room
This is where the boarders gathered for relaxation
Occasionally the door between the two front rooms downstairs was unlocked and that on the family side was made available to lodgers or visitors as a sitting room. The influx of lodgers taxed the capacity of the little dwelling and it was necessary to use the original sitting room as an overflow dining room to make possible a second dining table at meal time.
The whistle, calling the mechanics and workmen to their tasks in the machine shop, blew at seven o'clock in the morning. Those working in the laboratory with Mr. Edison did not follow its summons for they were likely to remain long after hours; but no matter how late they worked the night before, they usually rose early in the morning to be on hand for breakfast. The first who got to the table had the choice helpings and sometimes could squeeze in a second helping before the late comers arrived.
Supper was a bountiful meal with meat, vegetables, and fruit framing the main dishes. The big meal of the day - dinner - was at noon when soup, potatoes, and the pies, for which Mrs. Jordan was noted, were served.
This is where the men would eat
After the meal we sat for a time in the living room while Mrs. Jordan and her little ten-year-old daughter did the dishes in the kitchen just beyond.
Mr. Edison used to walk down the street past the house when he returned home after the long hours at the laboratory. Frequently at night after I retired in my room I heard his footsteps on the walk as he trotted homeward. On such occasions as he passed the house during the day, he stopped to chat with Mrs. Jordan, or with those of us who happened to be loafing on the stoop when the weather was nice."
Original photo taken sometime between 1879 and 1882 (The year Jehl left for Europe). That's Francis on the far right, Edison in the white shirt on the right, and Mrs. Jordan 2nd from left

Mr. Jehl became one of Edison's close workers and was among those who helped the "Wizard of Menlo Park" develop the electric incandescent light during its early laboratory stages.
This photometer was used by Edison to measure and compare the amount of light produced by light bulbs
As history has shown, the experimentation finally paid off on October 21, 1879. But the rest of the world would have to wait a couple months before witnessing this lighting miracle.
Shortly before the New Year's Eve 1879 public demonstration of the electric light, Edison invited the local newspapers to witness beforehand what he planned show the world. This is how one paper, The New York Herald, described it in the December 21, 1879 issue:
From this...
By this story it will be seen that Mr. Edison has finally elaborated a lamp for the use of electricity that is simpler than any lamp in common use in the houses of the people; as simple as the gas burner itself and more manageable; a lamp that cannot leak and fill the house with vile odors or combustible vapors, that cannot explode and that does not need to be filled or trimmed. 
Once more, therefore, the public may reasonably anticipate a time when they will be free from nearly all the annoyances and grievances of ordinary lighting apparatuses and in the full enjoyment, besides, of a light compared to which every other, save daylight itself, is a mere glimmering and gloaming... this.
People generally knew the soft glory of the light electricity would make, but they never dreamed of the possibility that it could be applied without an apparatus so complicated that it would need a special education to enable them to take care of it.
And the article goes on to explain how the electric light is, perhaps, Edison's great achievement not only because of the invention itself but of its simplicity to use.
Imagine the excitement Jehl must have felt - in under a year's time he went from an ordinary laborer to taking part in an invention that changed the entire world.
Fifty years later, Mr. Jehl, along with Edison, supervised the reconstruction of the Menlo Park laboratory inside Henry Ford's historic Greenfield Village. Ford spared no expense in reconstructing the laboratory.
You must understand, Thomas Edison was Henry Ford's life-long hero and, as adults, were very close friends. So when Mr. Ford formed the idea for his magnificent museum he knew he wanted to pay tribute to this greatest of all inventors. What better way to do this than to restore the "factory" where so many of his greatest inventions took place?
In March of 1928, Ford began the restoration process. He wanted to reconstruct the Menlo Park complex as it was during the period when Edison and his skilled helpers worked at inventing "the future" - 1876 to 1886 - and he wanted it correct in every minute detail.
To give a quick bit of history of the lay out of this laboratory, the first floor was used for mainly testing the products as well as measuring and processing. A small cubby was also used for Edison's original office.
It was on the 2nd floor that the real excitement took place, for it was here that Edison's workers had separate work stations for specific projects, oftentimes working throughout the night on experiments.
Edison had a pipe organ installed for entertainment during their few breaks. The men - Edison included - would take turns picking out a tune on the organ while everyone else sang.
Can you hear the men singing "Old Dog Trey" or "Rose of Alabamy" while the organ played in the background? I bet the sounds could be heard clear over at the boarding house!

It was unfortunate that the original site was nearly completely dismantled not too many years after Edison's move to West Orange, New Jersey in 1887 by neighboring farmers. In fact, it was only a year after Edison had removed himself cows began to wander amongst the buildings of the complex, and a chicken farmer even allowed his flock to make the laboratory their home! Soon after, many local residents began using the quickly dilapidating building's boards to repair their own deteriorating barns and hen houses. A severe storm blew what was left of the building over in 1913.
Luckily, with Mr. Edison's help, many of the original boards were found, including some that were in storage, while others were regained through purchase of the sheds and other farm buildings mentioned above.
Through the aid of photographs and of the memories of those who worked there, Ford was also able to locate or find exact replicas of the furniture, tools, and other artifacts that once played an important role inside the lab.
Edison & Ford inspect the ruins where the original laboratory once stood in Menlo Park, New Jersey
Excavators dug through the original ground and not only found thousands of pieces of Edison's trash and other original "relics" from the lab that had been thrown out (which were gathered and shipped to Dearborn), but they could also see how the original buildings were positioned.
Once they were aligned in Greenfield Village in the same directional orientation as they were in New Jersey (including carloads of New Jersey clay from the original grounds!), the buildings became the focal point on what would be called "the greatest and most significant single preservation effort in America."
After the restoration was completed (with Francis Jehl's help), Mr. Ford asked Edison what he thought of the reconstruction. Mr. Edison replied that it was 99% correct. Wondering about that 1% that wasn't right, Ford questioned Edison what was not correct.
"It was never this clean!" Mr. Edison told him.
Here is the entire Menlo Park complex, situated exactly as it was in New Jersey. The brick building out in front was the office. Ford even brought tons of New Jersey clay for the structures to sit upon!
As you can see, the chair Edison sat upon is truly nailed to the floor!
Although the laboratory is not 100% original, it was close enough to perfect for Edison and his former helpers. Many of the items, the bottles and such, that are now upon the shelves are the very same that Edison had in the laboratory in the late 1870's and early 1880's. The idea that it was in this building (in all reality, it really was in this building when you think about it) that Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light, the phonograph, the stock ticker, a forerunner of the telephone, and over 400 other items, is enough to send chills down one's back upon entering the complex.
In 1929, Edison reenacted the lighting of the first incandescent light on the very same date that it originally took place 50 years ago in this very same building. Henry Ford and President Hoover were right there in the room with him while this event was nationally broadcast on radio. After the glorious moment took place, Ford ordered his men to have the chair upon which Edison sat for the reenactment to be nailed to the floor as is.
To celebrate the invention and the inventor's importance to our modern times, Ford named his new museum The Edison Institute.
Menlo Park truly was an invention factory - Edison didn't necessarily invent everything himself; he surrounded himself with the right workers such as Francis Jehl and others who had the right amount of curiosity and know-how. And together, just like the unsung workers in Ford's automobile factory 30 years into the future, came up with the inventions that changed the world.

Much of the information from this posting came from the following:
The Benson Ford Research Center
Menlo Park Reminiscences by Francis Jehl
As well as the various Greenfield Village guide books I have collected over the years


1 comment:

Richard Cottrell said...

Love this post, as I have never been here. Must go sometime. The boarding house looks a lot like the Lincoln Hole in Springfield,Ill. Same color even. Richard from My Old Historic House