Vintage Science: Armstrong professor restores historic Thomas Edison laboratory


Dr. Richard Wallace, an organic chemistry professor at Armstrong, never imagined that answering a few questions about Thomas Edison's work would lead him to participate in the restoration of the iconic inventor’s historic laboratory in Fort Myers, Fla., and would establish three National Historic Chemical Landmarks in Edison’s honor.

Wallace, an Armstrong faculty member for more than 20 years, was first introduced to Edison's developmental chemistry research when his friend and former Armstrong colleague, the late History professor Dr. Mark Finlay, called on him in 2010 to clarify scientific information for a book he was writing about the search for a domestic source of rubber. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone carried out a collaborative research project that was a big part of this story. 

Dr. Richard Wallace, Professor of Chemistry & Physics

Wallace, who graduated from Armstrong in 1984 with a B.S .in Chemistry, was intrigued by his discussion with his colleague and, later, was asked to assist with a three-year restoration of Edison’s lab. Working with the automobile manufacturer and tire magnate, Edison originally set up the Edison Botanic Research Laboratory in Fort Myers in 1927 in a quest to identify domestic sources of rubber as a way to lessen foreign dependency. Edison analyzed more than 17,000 plant samples from around the world for their latex content.

Asked to identify the functions of Edison's glassware, equipment and instruments and to label them in an approachable way for the general public, Wallace found the experience to be thrilling. 

“As a scientist, to walk into this lab where the real equipment that Edison and his co-workers used is amazing,” he says.

Following the restoration, Wallace helped stage the lab set-up, designing the lab space to look as if Edison and his team left for lunch and never came back. They used Edison's original notebooks, filled with meticulous details and historic photos, for guidance.  

Recognizing the importance of sharing this largely unknown body of work with non-scientists, Wallace nominated the lab as a National Historic Chemical Landmark to generate more interest. Following those efforts, the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific organization, suggested that he submit Edison's two other important laboratories -- located in West Orange, N.J. (Thomas Edison National Historic Park), and Dearborn, Mich. (located at The Henry Ford)– as well.

The approval of all three sites, and Wallace's involvement, recently garnered attention from Chemical & Engineering News, a weekly ACS publication. 

“It really turned into a much bigger project than I anticipated,” he notes, “but in the end it gives a really nice picture of how Edison's chemistry played a role in so many different areas in our society.”

Image courtesy of Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Inc., Fort Myers, Fla.