Light Bulbs, Phonographs, and Spinning Buildings: The Thomas Edison Birthplace Museum

“We got these from a shop in Milan,” my supervisor said, pointing to some old phonographs in library storage. “It’s the town where Edison was born. I don’t know if you know anything about him, but it’s a nice town and there’s a museum there.”

As it turns out, I was a bit familiar with Thomas Edison. When I was growing up, my dad worked for the energy company in Detroit, which at that time was called Detroit Edison. It’s since gone through a restructuring and a name change, but I maintain that there was a certain amount of poetry in naming the company that makes the lights go on after the guy who made the lights. There was even a copy of one of Thomas Edison’s design plans framed and hanging in our living room. So, naturally, I was curious to see the place where this man, who was omnipresent throughout my childhood, had come from.

 

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Milan (pronounced my-len, not mih-lahn as my Italian-trained mind had thought) is a small town in Ohio, a bit southeast of Sandusky. Despite being quite small today, back in Edison’s time, it would have been quite the bustling place. The Milan Canal ran through town, and brought with it all sorts of industry, especially milling. Edison’s parents moved there looking for work, and he was raised in a house on a fairly large piece of property which was bordered by the canal.

 

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The house itself is a traditional Midwestern farmhouse, albeit a fairly large one with enough space to have a formal parlor, which by all accounts young Thomas’s mother kept closed except for holidays and special occasions. The museum organization keeps it furnished with period-appropriate pieces (most of the original furniture was lost after the Edison family moved out), and decorated with items that actually belonged to the Edison family. One of my favorites was a bedspread hand-knit for Thomas’s sister by the mother on the occasion of her wedding.

Although Edison did very little of his inventing in this house – he quickly moved out east, where he could access the resources he needed to tinker with his inventions – there are some of his tools and notes in the house. The museum, which is next door to the house, contains Edison’s larger inventions, which were developed during his time at Menlo Park in New Jersey. All the greatest hits are there: the light bulb, various versions of the phonograph, even a model of a movie studio he built which would allow for natural lighting to be used in filming at any time of day (it has a massive skylight, and it’s built on a turntable, so film crew could literally spin the building to follow the sun).

 

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The Edison property has since been divided up and parceled off, and the canal dried up when the railroad was built through the next town over. But the house still stands, and documents the great mind that lived, ate, played, and learned in it.

 

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Visiting the Thomas Edison Birthplace Museum

Getting there: The best way to get there is to drive. While there’s only limited on-street parking right by the house, there is ample parking in downtown Milan, a 5-minute walk from the house and museum. The address is: 9 N. Edison Drive, Milan OH 44846.

Admission: Entry is $9 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $5 for children.

Opening hours:

  • The house and museum are open in the summer (June, July, August) Tuesday to Saturday from 10 to 5, and Sunday from 1 to 5.
  • In the spring and fall (April, May, September, October), they’re open Tuesday through Sunday from 1-5.
  • In the winter (November, December, February, March), they’re open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 1 to 5.
  • Both the museum and house are closed in the month of January.

Website: You can find the Thomas Edison Birthplace Museum website here.

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