WEST ORANGE, NJ — A new biography about Thomas Edison written by Pulitzer Prize winner Edmund Morris recently made its national debut at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park (TENHP) in West Orange, where Township Historian Joseph Fagan will lead the first in a series of presentations on Sunday as part of a new book club based on Morris’ manuscript.
In conjunction with Morris' release, the TENHP has developed a program known as “One Book, One Town - West Orange Reads Edison” with the purpose of encouraging the community to attend a series of eight free presentations between November an April to discuss the book. The book is recommended but not required to participate or attend.
Each guest speaker will talk about a specific topic covered in the book as a stand-alone presentation to complement Morris' extensive research. Fagan’s presentation, entitled “Thomas Edison during World War I,” will show West Orange as it existed during World War I, beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 10.
“The added purpose is to provide local texture and perspective to Morris' chapter on defense during that period,” said Fagan. “Key elements from the book as they relate to Edison and national defense from the time leading up to and during World War I will be presented and discussed.”
Since Morris passed away on May 24—shortly after completing his manuscript—Fagan noted that the debut was a bittersweet moment, as his presence at the book release would have attracted national media and put the Township of West Orange in the spotlight.
Fagan also shared the following information about Morris' book and the new program at TENHP:
“One chapter discusses that U.S. Navy submarines on the surface ran on diesel power, but once submerged, they relied on battery power. In the years before the war, submarines were equipped with lead-acid batteries. This restricted the dive angle of the submarine to no more than 15 degrees of descent. The danger was that spillage from the storage batteries if contacted with seawater could create dangerous chlorine gas inside the submarine.
“This program will examine Edison's relationship with Miller Reese Hutchison, who attempted to convince the inventor to develop a safe, alkaline-nickel, steel storage battery for U.S. Navy submarines. Hutchison was an electrical engineer with a military background and a Llewellyn Park resident who had been previously acquainted with Edison. Hutchison eventually became an Edison company associate and charged to supervise a prototype storage battery for development.
“Edison's storage battery had worked for cars and trucks but challenges lie ahead for a bigger battery in the confined and enclosed quarters of a submarine. Hutchison went into action lobbying the Navy Department. On Dec. 21, 1911 Hutchison brought Edison an order from the U.S. Navy for development of a trial submarine battery to be tested.
“Hutchison, with his work, became associated with Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. This relationship eventually lead to the creation of the Naval Consulting Board (NCB), headed by Edison.
"The board was created as World War I waged in Europe and President Wilson pledged to the American people to remain neutral. The NCB was made up of leaders of industry to develop and research weapons for defense for preparedness should America be forced to join the war on the side of the allies.
“As part of Edison's research, he was granted access by the Essex County Park Commission in 1917 to conduct secret experiments at the Eagle Rock Reservation. He conducted many of these experiments on the second floor of the Casino at Eagle Rock, which is the current-day Highlawn Pavilion Restaurant.
"Another little known aspect of Edison's pre-war research involved testing explosives in the abandoned deep rock cut of West Orange's cable cars. The site is located near the current-day Rock Spring Golf Club on Rock Spring Road.”
Below is a complete list of program dates and speakers, all of which are being held on Sundays at 2 p.m.:
- Nov. 20, 2019 – Joseph Fagan, West Orange Township Historian, to discuss Edison’s life in West Orange as it existed during World War I.
- Dec. 15, 2019 - Edison Archivist Leonard DeGraaf to discuss interpretations from a 1910 authorized biography about Edison to more recent studies.
- Jan. 12, 2020 - Marta McDowell, a teacher of history at the New York Botanical Garden, to discuss the Edison Family and gardening.
- Feb. 16, 2020 - George Willeman, nitrate film vault manager at the Library of Congress, to discuss motion pictures.
- March 1, 2020 - Playwright Ben Clawson to discuss Edison narratives in film, theater, and literature.
- March 8, 2020 - Mara Mills Associate, a professor at New York University, to discuss Edison and deafness.
- April 19, 2020 - David Edison Sloane, a professor at the University of New Haven and great grandson of Thomas Edison, to discuss the Edison Family.
- April 26, 2020 - Kathleen Carlucci, executive director of the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park, to discuss Edison's Menlo Park work.