Edison’s Desk: How did Thomas Edison Stay Organized?

An ongoing series about Thomas A. Edison’s desk, a popular and sought-out artifact at Edison’s historical laboratories where he ran his businesses and invented from for 20+ years, today known as the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. The desk was frozen in time the day that Edison died, left untouched as a symbol of historic and scientific innovation for hundreds of years to come. As one of the most awe-inspiring stops of the lab’s tour, it leaves visitors with many questions about Edison’s work and life which we will answer in this series.

If you have seen pictures of Thomas Edison’s roll-top desk or better yet, stood close by it, you cannot help but be awed by what the great inventor accomplished from there..including one of his most helpful talents – Organization!

The little cubby holes of the desk are stuffed with papers, notes and documents, topics on Edison’s mind at the time of his passing. The “cubbies” were his own personal filing system, what secretaries of years past would refer to as a “tickler file,” which distinguished things of current and immediate interest. Each cubby was labeled something different, from his well-known businesses like Cement and Disc Records to the more mysterious labels like Ford Starter and Money.

Some cubby holes in Thomas Edison’s Desk where he organized his documents for each project

Our favorite cubby hole is simply labeled “New Things”, stuffed with ideas for investigation that could someday become new products. That little compartment completely captured the essence of his invention factory, where the great inventor gave us the process of taking raw ideas and turning them into finished products…what we call today, team-based product development. Those items in “New Things” cubby were probably waiting their turn for more study or perhaps for being turned over to a project team for prototyping.

But for the deeply curious minds, that “New Things” compartment just begs to be emptied and explored. What was Edison imagining as possible new products? Could it have been something revolutionary? What could its impact on society and the economy have been?

The back story goes like this – Edison spent his evenings in his family den in Glenmont, researching emerging ideas and hunches. This “thought laboratory” helped give birth to the “New Things” that he would parcel out to project teams later at the invention factory. Endearing stories tell how his children helped locate information from books at hand in the den as Edison did his evening research and directed their searches.

Thomas Edison’s second floor den at his Glenmont Estate, where he spent many nights doing research with his family via National Park Service

The “New Things” cubby hole was probably regularly refreshed from promising ideas he conjured up in his family den to ideas he conceived on his day-to-day project management at the factory.

The important take-away about Edison is no matter where his ideas came from or when they popped into his head, he took the time to record them in places like the cubby holes, or in his 4,000+ lab notebooks, or his company writings. Documentation was probably one of his greatest skills..and it was something he did from his earliest days as a budding inventor.


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