When I do get around, I write about it. If you want to read exclusively about my visits to United States presidential sites, you can do that over here.

Travel: New Jersey

Considering how much time I have spent in New Jersey, this page seems a little thin. But who wants to read about me going to the beach when I was 10? You can get a little more of a fix at the Grover Cleveland page, if you really need it. Also, bear in mind that Seaside Heights was CRUSHED by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.


Tommy, Can You Hear Me?

November 2013

It's easy to credit politicians with all the great things that have happened to humanity, like highways and nacho safety regulations and Medicare Part D. But we should also recognize the contributions of regular Joes who changed the world. Let's take a minute and reflect on the subtle ways that Thomas Edison shaped our lives:

  • Invented the movie industry
  • Invented the record industry
  • Invented electricty
  • Invented stealing other people's ideas and presenting them as your own
  • Invented crushing opponents like bugs with morally questionable business practices

Edison crammed a lot of innovation into his lifetime, and you can learn all about it at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, N.J. If you're wondering why such a genius never invented a way to leave New Jersey, cut him some slack -- there are only so many problems that one man can solve.

He started his life in north-central Ohio, then moved with his family to easternmost Michigan; as a teenager, Edison roamed the Midwest while working as a telegraph operator. He tinkered with some of the telegraph equipment in attempts to improve it. The invention that helped him break through was a stock ticker, the sales from which allowed him to set up operations in New Jersey.

By 1876 he had set up a lab in Menlo Park. According to the National Park Service, Edison's greatest invention was "a new way to invent." Put another way, he made 1980s Japan possible. Edison seldom focused on breakthroughs; instead, he used a team of industrial researchers to take other people's breakthroughs and make them better or more marketable. At Menlo Park, he devised the phonograph while trying to improve on Alexander Graham Bell's telephone designs; he didn't invent the incandescent light, but he developed a model that could be readily reproduced and sold.

As Edison's fame grew, he landed the contract to electrify Manhattan and other major metropolitan regions. He moved to New York City, and in 1887 he set up a massive new lab in nearby West Orange; it was near the new home he purchased for him and his new bride.

The lab is where you begin your tour of the historical park. Most of it looks like your grandfather's garage, at a time when garages were manly places filled with lots of things to choke or dismember children. Edison wanted the lab to have a storeroom filled with anything that his employers could conceivably need to build a prototype. There were drawers of nuts, bolts, screws, seashells, metals, fairy corpses, glue, string, chewing gum, uranium 238, the powdered blood of a serial killer, an orphan's tears, and probably all the inventions that Edison was hoping to copy.

The downstairs shop has rows of awesome looking workstations, where Edison's employees would create the machine parts needs for Edison's industrial empire; the upstairs shop has smaller precision-tooling devices that were used to make prototype devices. Edison let his employees -- they were known as muckers -- compete against each other to build the first functional, patent-worthy model of each project; the promise of getting your name on a patent inspired men to work at a feverish pace. Edison would check in with his guys constantly to see how they were doing. There was a chemistry lab, a photography studio for creating visual records of the prototypes, a drafting room for drawing up blueprints, and all sorts of outbuildings for conducting various kinds of experiments.

And let's not forget that Edison's lab was the birthplace of modern showbusiness. Two major inventions were perfected in West Orange: the phonograph, and the kinetoscope. Some of the first motion pictures were filmed in a makeshift room in the precision-tooling shop, and when they realized that they needed something better they built "Black Maria" -- an oddly shaped rotating structure that is considered the world's first movie studio. (A replica is on the grounds today.) Edison wanted to make money off his phonographs, so he hired top-flight performers of his era to come to West Orange and record in a special music room. Generations before Dr. Dre put a studio in his basement, Thomas Edison was laying down tracks at his office.

The best room in the whole facility is Edison's library and office; it was the "deep thinking" room where Edison and his top guys would think about what they wanted to build, and it was also the showroom where they brought potential investors. It just looks like a smart person works there. The central atrium is surrounded on all sides by shelves of books. Edison decorated the ground floor with his desk, photos of famous visitors, and some of the many awards he was given. There's a cot in the corner where he would take power naps. It looks, in all seriousness, like something a movie set or video game designer would produce if you told them, "make me an inventor's library."

And when you've soaked in enough of the office, you have the option of visiting Edison's house. Glenmont was not built for Edison; it originated as the mansion of a New York City office clerk who was embezzling from his company. The clerk built a huge mansion on a 10-acre plot in the Llewellyn Park neighborhood, which was a series of estates sold to New York City executives who weren't enamored with 19th-century big-city hygeine. The house was so nice that it was written up in architecture magazines, which made people wonder how an office clerk could afford it, which made the office clerk flee the country to avoid prosecution. Edison bought the mansion for Mina, his 20-year-old second wife, and let her do whatever she wanted with the place.

It's not too shabby. You can't photograph the inside, and they're very strict about people trying out the furniture, but it seems moderately luxurious. There are lots of animal prints and wood paneling and big paintings, and the kinds of entertaining spaces you need when you're a really famous inventor. Edison apparently did not like having guests, because he was almost deaf and thought it was a pain in the ass to chit-chat with morons. So at dinner parties, he would eat fast, say he had tummy aches, then go upstairs to do whatever the hell he wanted. It was, in short, a perfect marriage. Mina was technically the owner of the house -- Edison sold it to her for a dollar so that creditors would never be able to take it from him if all his businesses tanked.

Thomas and Mina are buried in the back yard. They have simple markers, with one strange flourish: some Japanese admiration societies donated urns to decorate the gravesite, since (as I mentioned above) Edison's strategies for industrial engineering are the reason you had affordable televisions and cars for most of your childhood.

FUN EDISON FACTS!

  • Llewellyn Park is still a gated community, though Glenmont is the only 10-acre plot left. According to the volunteer docent, notable residents of the neighborhood include Whoopi Goldberg and a few guys from Earth, Wind and Fire. Really.
  • Edison's favorite room in the workshop was the chemistry lab, because he loved huffing anything he could get his hands on.
  • The early kinetoscope projects were short films, often with stunning subjects: the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots; a passionate kiss; and Thomas Edison admitting that Nikola Tesla was the only man he ever loved.
  • Edison's campaign against Tesla and AC power was one of the douchiest things ever done to a brilliant person, surpassed only by that time the pope gave Copernicus an atomic wedgie.
  • The most successful early phonographs were of opera stars, popular blues musicians and a five-minute freestyle rap where Edison claims to have invented beatboxing.

A Collection of Somewhat Negative Thoughts That Do Not Really Reflect the All-Around Great Time I Had at Seaside Heights

July 23, 2009

1. So often we only see the "pleasure" end of guidodom: half-drunk semi-literate people with spiked hair trying to show off their physical fitness on a boardwalk, while using sexual harrassment as an icebreaker. But to maintain that physical fitness, and still be free in the afternoons to get back out on that boardwalk, guidos must get up early for the business end and exercise in the blazing, exposed heat of the seashore. So the next time you see someone clearly hungover, close to vomiting, yet still running 8-minute miles in a 90-degree morning sun, show some respect. Pop your collar.

2. Many of the people slamming energy drinks do not seem to be using all that much energy, except maybe to quickly consume energy drinks. In fact, if you are in New Jersey, and someone is slamming an energy drink while wearing a track suit, there is a 90 percent chance that they are not maximizing the potential of either item. At that point, why not carry around a calculus textbook? Then you can just tell people that you love irony.

3. I love the beach, my tragic skin impediment aside. But on the beach at Seaside Heights, it is illegal to "play ball" or throw a frisbee. In case you didn't know this, a man comes on a loudspeaker every hour to tell you, and someone patrols the beach ready to issue a summons at a moment's notice. Oh, those carefree, totalitarian days by the sea! I also saw a lifeguard whistle a teenager to fill in a hole that couldn't have been more than two feet deep. I think we all feel for the unfortunate kid who died in a beach cave-in one time, but you CAN'T DIG HOLES ON THE BEACH? Some of my best beach memories come from heading down early, digging a 4 x 5 x 5 hole and then hanging out in it all day. We pimped out the best holes with bucket seats, shelves and stairway access. No one died and everything got filled in when the day was done. Giant holes are awesome, not only as metaphors for repressed sexual desires, but as metaphors for intense physical labor with no tangible long-term results. Kids need this stuff. FREE THE BEACH!

4. Seaside Heights has two nice little amusement piers, with some neat rides. And then there's the Skyscraper. In this slightly blurry photo, it's the big green thing:

Each end of that beam has two seats attached on a axle. As the whole thing spins like a propeller, the seats also flip constantly. It's $20 to ride. I almost puked after riding the swings for $5, so we're saving the Skyscraper for the next time I feel like throwing up everything I've eaten since the age of 4.

5. T-shirts shops are a big part of the boardwalk when I was a kid. There were some racy T-shirts: "It's not a bald spot, it's a solar panel for a sex machine!"; and the always-popular fuzzy green monster flipping the bird. T-shirt shops are still a big part of the boardwalk. There are some racy T-shirts: for example, a decal showing (SPOILER ALERT!) a woman performing a sexual act on a man as the man sits on the toilet, with text indicating some unfortunate consequences should the woman not complete said act in a particular way; and beyond T-shirts, women's underwear with slogans such as, "I don't have my cherry, but I have the box it came in." Last days of the Roman empire, folks. Last days.

To sum up, things were better when I was a kid, and GET OFF MY LAWN!



One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2014, Chris White