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Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison, famous American inventor and businessman, was born February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio, the son of Nancy Matthews and Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr. His mother home-schooled him; much of his education came from reading R.G. Parker's School of Natural Philosophy. Edison developed many well-known devices which have greatly influenced life around the world. His phonograph seemed so much like magic to people at the time that a newspaperman dubbed him "The Wizard of Menlo Park." His most profound invention, however, was the industrial research and development laboratory itself--something which had never existed before.

In just over ten years Edison's Menlo Park laboratory grew into a facility covering two city blocks. Edison said he wanted the lab to have on hand "a stock of almost every conceivable material." An 1887 newspaper article described the lab as containing "eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits goats, minx, in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, shark's teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell...cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock's tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores and minerals..." and more.

Of particular interest to mineralogical historians was Edison's mineral collection, which was extensive. One contemporary writer recalled seeing it displayed in Edison's large company library at the Menlo Park complex:

"On entering the main building the first doorway from the ample passage leads the visitor into a handsome library finished throughout in yellow pine. The center of this spacious room is an open rectangular space about forty by twenty-five feet, rising clear about forty feet from the main floor to a panelled ceiling. Around the sides of the room, bounding this open space, run two tiers of gallery, divided into alcoves of liberal dimensions. These alcoves are formed by racks extending from floor to ceiling, fitted with shelves, except on two sides of both galleries, where they are formed by a series of glass-fronted cabinets containing extensive collections of curious and beautiful mineralogical and geological specimens, among which is the notable Tiffany-Kunz collection of minerals acquired by Edison some years ago. The shelves on the remainder of the upper gallery and part of those on the first gallery are filled with countless thousands of specimens of ores and minerals of every conceivable kind gathered from all parts of the world, and all tagged and numbered."

Edison was not a passionate mineral collector; he wanted to have specimens on hand only as raw materials to utilize in practical experiments. He enlisted the aid of George F. Kunz (q.v.) to help gather a large collection together, and the Canadian geologist Walter F. Ferrier (q.v.) helped him arrange it. Edison and Kunz also hired others to explore for deposits, including William F. Hidden, who was dispatched to North Carolina to locate domestic platinum deposits.

The Scrapbook Collection in the Edison National Historic Site archives has several books from the period 1899-1910, two of which contain many of the original labels from Edison's mineral cabinet, indicating the species names and localities of the specimens. The bulk of the Thomas Edison mineral collection ultimately went to Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

DYER, F.L., and MARTIN, T.C. (1929) Edison, His Life and Inventions. Harper Brothers, New York.
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