Sidetracked! Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park, NJ

The world’s largest light bulb and more!

side·track (sīd´trăk): n. 1. A diversion from the main course. 2. A detour taken with children that you would never, ever take without them.

My family of four, including my ten-year old son, three-year old daughter, and my husband; mainly because I don’t drive New Jersey’s crazy roadways if I can help it.

The Thomas Edison Center in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Edison’s laboratory was located on this tract of land from 1879-1884, before he moved to a more well-known site in West Orange, NJ. Still in his 20’s and relatively unknown during his time here, Edison was already churning out patents at the unbelievable pace of a sheer genius. Besides the phonograph and the light bulb, he came up with 400 other patents.

Museums can be hit-or-miss with kids. Heck, even I get bored walking through stuffy, silent galleries with rows of paintings on the wall. This museum promised a more accessible and engaging experience.

Any grade schooler can attribute the invention of the light bulb to Thomas Edison, but did you know he also invented the phonograph, motion picture camera, dictaphone, mimeograph, storage battery and much, much more? I guess I missed that day of school. Visiting this museum set me straight. The collection includes a model of Edison’s laboratory, early phonographs and light bulbs, original laboratory notebooks from the Menlo Park era, historic photographs, and an early dictaphone known as an Ediphone.

Plus, on the site stands the world’s largest light bulb, and I love visiting “world’s largest” attractions. A monumental replica of Edison’s first practical incandescent bulb, it’s nearly 14 feet of Pyrex glass segments. It sits on top of the 117-foot concrete Memorial Tower, which was built in 1937 by Edison’s employees.

The High Point:
The small staff of museum guides couldn’t be nicer, or more willing to provide one-on-one tours. Our guide patiently answered my son’s questions. Sensing his predilection for all gadgets electronic, the guide pointed out the similarities between how early phonographic recordings were etched into a cylinder, in comparison to how recordings are burned onto a CD today. My son understood, and granted him instant hero status.

Even better, he then played several of the antique phonographs just for us. Even my three-year old daughter stood still long enough to listen to the scratchy melody. Getting that little first-hand taste of history was well worth the trip. Have yourself a 40-second listen!

The Low Point:
The outdated museum building we visited was painfully small, and not great for strollers. A renovation project has begun to make improvements by the fall. Another restoration project is planned to return the light bulb tower to all its Art Deco glory.

The Kids’ Take:
Sometimes a little persuasion – okay, bribery – is needed to convince the kids that a day trip to see a site like this is worth their while. Ultimately, the fourth grader appreciated it much more than the pre-schooler. So we went to IKEA afterwards for Swedish meatballs, and all was right in her world. A little something for everyone!

The Bottom Line:
I would rate this attraction a seven on a scale of ten, especially if you have school-aged children in need of a hands-on history or science lesson.

Due to a strange compulsion for quirky roadside attractions, Traci L. Suppa drags her unfortunate family on trips to see the world’s largest…whatever. She blogs about it at Go BIG or Go Home.

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  1. says

    I just added this to my list of places to see in the United States. Literally. My son wants to be an inventor when he grows up and would LOVE this.

    Thanks. :-)

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