The Wizard of Your Christmas Tree: Thomas Edison's Gift to the Season

By Sloat, Warren | American Heritage, December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Wizard of Your Christmas Tree: Thomas Edison's Gift to the Season


Sloat, Warren, American Heritage


THE DAYS WERE GROWING SHORTER AS the Christmas season of 1880 drew near. Many American families planned to decorate Christmas trees--a German custom that, although it had begun to catch on only a generation earlier, was spreading year by year. But travelers on the Pennsylvania Railroad in the early darkness of approaching winter were excited about a lighting display such as the world had never seen.

Thomas Edison had laid out eight miles of underground wire across a square half-mile of his "invention factory " at Menlo Park, New Jersey. He had planted plain white posts in row upon row in his field and atop them had wired his newly invented incandescent lamps. Glass globes covered the bulbs, At night, when he started up his central power station, consisting of 11 dynamos of his own invention, the bare fields lit up with what looked like the streetlights of a tiny doll-sized town.

The railroad passed close to Edison's rural laboratory outpost. As the trains between New York and Philadelphia approached Menlo Park, the passengers were drawn into a brilliant nighttime spectacle. The lighting display, a good example of Edison's shrewd self-promotion, was the sensation of the season.

The press, which had already dubbed him Wizard of Menlo Park, beat a path to his door. The 33-year-old inventor of the world's first practical incandescent lamp boasted to journalists that he intended to light whole cities with his electrical system, that it was only a matter of time until gaslight, which he called dirty and unsafe, became obsolete.

EDISON HAD PLANNED THIS EXTRAVAGANT DISPLAY for months. His manufacturing plant had turned out thousands of bulbs. Trenches had been dug for underground wiring, conducting mains laid. The generating station was assembled in an annex of the library. In addition to his imposing outdoor display, hundreds of lamps were installed in the homes, boardinghouses, and plant buildings of his New Jersey research facility.

One of the earliest visitors was Sarah Bernhardt, the French tragedienne, who was making her American debut that season. Arriving with a party from New York on December 5, the famous actress was eager to meet the brilliant young inventor, whose renown had spread to Europe. Edison led Bernhardt and her party to his laboratory balcony for a panoramic view of the outdoor display. An assistant dimmed the lights by turning a large wheel that controlled the flow of current. Then, while the party gazed from the balcony, Edison had his assistant turn the power up again, and the starry field was gradually illuminated to full brilliance. Sarah Bernhardt asked to try it herself. She turned the wheel slowly, as she had seen it done, and when she brought the lights up again, she clapped her hands in delight.

Edison's display dazzled hundreds of other visitors that Christmas season. Bankers and stockbrokers, scientists, journalists, and government officials came from Philadelphia and New York to see it. One reporter called Edison "the Enchanter" and described the evening view at Menlo Park as "a fairy-land of lights." The spectators who came to gaze at the lights--and get a close-up look at the Wizard--shared their era's passion for technological progress, and in 1880 Thomas Edison embodied the spirit of that progress.

He had mounted his light show primarily to promote his plan to electrify downtown Manhattan--and eventually the world. Having little use for religion and being indifferent to festivity, he did not intend his display as a celebration of Christmas, yet surely he sensed that identifying his lights with the holiday might further suggest that a wondrous new age was about to unfold.

And the display did influence New York's governing fathers. Just under two years later Edison had a central generating station humming away in downtown New York, and it enabled Edward H. Johnson, a friend and longtime business associate, to decorate a tree in his Manhattan home with red, white, and blue electric lights.

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