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Global Economy

In Thomas Edisons Winterlabor

In the harsh winter of 1885, inventor Thomas Edison was looking for some sun. To escape the cold of New Jersey, he had to move further and further south, all the way to Fort Myers, Florida.

The perfect place for scientists

Fort Myers then had a population of no more than 200 – ideal for an inventor to focus on. On the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, on pastureland, Edison's winter laboratory was built; Florida's premier research and development center. It became the scene of his last major project.

By the time Edison got to Florida, he had already helped the incandescent light bulb take off with light switches, power plants, and electric meters. He had developed the phonograph, which could record and reproduce sound using a cylinder. Technological advances brought with them completely new possibilities.

"First the pier was built to face the water," says Taylor, who shows tourists around the houses and gardens. "The wooden houses were produced in Fairfield, Maine. There they were completely assembled, then dismantled, shipped to Florida on six steamboats, brought across the pier and finished."

The blue-grey wooden houses have two floors; the ground floor is surrounded by expansive verandas with bright red canopies and tall palm trees. Inside, dignified bourgeois style with dark wooden floors, a grand piano, desks and a large dining room.

Only attended school for a short time

None of this was foreseeable: Born in 1847 as the seventh child of a family in Ohio, Thomas Edison only attended school for a short time. His mother did the rest. First job at twelve: as a train attendant selling sweets and newspapers.

It was only his work as a telegraph operator, his understanding of the technology, ideas and contacts with investors that helped him, his companies and research laboratories to rise worldwide.

Tests with thousands of plants

There were enough tasks: At the end of the 1920s, for example, there was growing concern in the USA that it was too dependent on rubber imports from abroad. Edison founds the Botanical Research Society. It will be his last project that will challenge the entire family.

"The Edisons didn't leave Fort Myers until June 1931," says guide Taylor. Because Thomas Edison is pursuing one of his last research tasks: He is looking for a plant for the production of rubber in the USA.

Edison brings 17,000 different plants to Fort Myers to test them. Which one is good for production? Goldenrods seem promising. But in the middle of the research, Edison dies. A few months after his death, the DuPont company launched a competing synthetic product, neoprene.

Edison's research center in Fort Myers is closing forever. Today the labs are an official historic landmark of chemistry in the United States.

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