Leonard DeGraaf, sporting the familiar beige and green uniform of the U.S. National Park Service, leads the way through a narrow subterranean passageway to one of the country’s invaluable and rarely viewed wonders. Rounding a final turn, DeGraaf points to the chamber before him. “This is always a thrill for me, no matter how many times I come here,” he says in the kind of hushed, reverent tone you might expect from a park ranger approaching the rim of the Grand Canyon or spotting a bald eagle. DeGraaf’s enthusiasm, however, is directed toward the massively thick steel door of an underground bank vault.
Unlike many of his park-ranger colleagues, DeGraaf is neither a forester nor a geologist but a historian of technology. The passageways of his prized grotto, some 15 feet below the barren, paved courtyard of an aging laboratory complex, are human-made and lined floor to ceiling with shelves of papers. DeGraaf pulls open the vault’s thick steel portal to reveal a collection of some of technology’s most fertile germinations: the 3,500 handwritten notebooks of Thomas Alva Edison. Now administered by the U.S. Park Service, the vault is the heart of the Edison Archives, a bomb-resistant bunker built below the famous inventor’s laboratory in West Orange, N.J.
DeGraaf explains that Edison and his colleagues used the notebooks as a daily log of their experiments just as many modern labs do. But Edison also recorded his musings about cosmology, observations of the natural world, sketches, even occasional poetry. In these pages, for instance, Edison not only details the steps leading to his successful prototype of the incandescent lightbulb but also his forays into everything from x-rays to air travel. Spanning most of his astonishing six-decade career, the vast collection offers an opportunity, rare in its detail and depth, to peer inside the mind of one of history’s greatest inventors.
What makes the notebooks all the more fascinating, as DeGraaf knows intimately, is the fact that the Edison estate, bestowed to the Park Service in 1955, also contains a remarkably diverse collection of related documents and artifacts, including correspondence, legal records, prototypes, and Edison’s complete library of books and articles, many scrawled with his wide-ranging and often irreverent marginalia. “We are blessed here with one of the most complete personal archives in the history of technology,” DeGraaf says. “A researcher here can trace an idea from its earliest conception through to its full-scale development and production.”
Complete as the collection may be, though, the locked bunker and bank vault serve as an unfortunately apt metaphor for the sequestered archive. As a result of some measure of neglect, underfunding, and incompetence, only a few individuals have ever viewed the bulk of the papers and memorabilia. Some 65 years since Edison’s death, roughly half of the lab’s 5 million documents and 400,000 artifacts have yet to be catalogued. And despite some 17 years of concerted archival work by the Thomas Edison Papers Project, a joint effort of the Park Service and historians at Rutgers University, only slightly more than a third of Edison’s remarkable notebooks-the chronologically earliest-have been reproduced on microfilm so they can be inspected by more than the tiniest handful of scholars. DeGraaf concedes the obvious: “The material just hasn’t been accessible,” he says. “It has been a very underutilized resource.”
Edison’s papers may remain largely hidden from public view, but we live daily with his overpowering imprint on our technological world. Most people know that the development by Edison and his colleagues of a working incandescent lightbulb spawned the omnipresent electric-power grid whose major components often still bear his name. But Edison’s contributions go well beyond that linchpin of modern technological society: like a runner who leaves even his closest competitors in the dust, Edison’s astonishing record of 1,093 patents far outpaces that of all other inventors before or since, and the breadth of these contributions is equally remarkable. His invention of the phonograph, for example, made possible the music- recording industry just as moving pictures, also his brainchild, eventually put Hollywood on the map. Less well known are Edison’s invention of the microphone and the mimeograph and his key advances in batteries. His portfolio even included a patent on poured concrete, part of his half-realized plan to build the structural shell of an entire middle-class house in just six hours.
How could a maverick with virtually no formal education pull off such an uncanny string of important inventions? Rather than settle for the view popular in his day-promoted largely by Edison himself-that his success derived from some combination of technological genius and single-minded perseverance, the few historians who do have access to Edison’s papers are focusing primarily on the innovative strategies he employed as one of the earliest-and still one of the boldest-practitioners of modern large-scale R&D.