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Thomas Alva Edison

The inventor who gave us the electric light bulb, the phonograph, the motion-picture camera, the microphone and a thousand other devices that improved life for humanity the world over was a hard-working, dedicated researcher. Learn about his life and his inventions in this unit.

Edison Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. He was the youngest of seven children born to Samuel Edison Jr. and Nancy Elliott Edison. When Thomas Edison started school, the schoolteacher considered the famous inventor to be a bit dull. After three months of schooling, one day the teacher called Thomas an "addled" (confused) student. Thomas hurried home and told his mother. When she went to the schoolhouse to talk to the teacher, they got into a heated discussion and the teacher told Mrs. Edison that Thomas was not teachable. Mrs. Edison promptly removed Thomas from the school and from then on he was homeschooled!

As a young child Thomas Edison began to lose his hearing. Eventually he became totally deaf in his left ear and had only 10% hearing in his right ear. Edison did not consider his loss of hearing a disadvantage but said it was actually an advantage to his style of work. He was able to concentrate deeply on his experiments since he was not distracted by noises or chatter while he was working.

His career began with a fascination for the telegraph. At the age of ten, young Thomas and a neighborhood friend built their own telegraph and used it to communicate with each other from house to house. In this way, Thomas taught himself to send and receive the complicated Morse code used in telegraphing.

When Thomas was 12 years old, he took a job selling papers on the train to Detroit. This gave him spending money and during the long layovers in Detroit he could buy chemicals and supplies for his experiments. He used to do experiments on the train when he had breaks from selling papers, but once some of his chemicals started a fire on the train and he had to stop.

One day when the train was stopped at a station, Thomas saw a young boy playing on the tracks. Suddenly an unmanned railroad car came rolling right at the boy. Thomas ran and pulled the child to safety-barely missing getting himself squashed too! The little boy turned out to be the station agent's son. The boy's father was so happy that he offered to train Thomas as a telegraph operator as a reward. This was a big breakthrough for Edison.

He got his first regular job as a telegraph operator at the age of sixteen at Stratford Junction in Canada. He liked to work nights so he could read and do experiments during the day. Though he never needed a lot of sleep he still often got tired late at night. The telegraph office required operators to send a signal every hour to prove they were awake. This led Thomas to invent the first automatic telegraph, a device that would send the signal for him every hour so he could sleep. He nearly lost his job when he was caught sleeping one night.

In 1868 Edison applied for his first patent on an invention, the "Electrical Vote Recorder"-a device designed to speed up the voting procedure in the legislature. Unfortunately, Congress did not want to use this invention. It counted votes too quickly and there would not be enough time for "filibustering" to take place-a delaying tactic that minority parties used to block unwanted legislation. Edison was crushed. He decided he would only invent products that were sure to be commercially successful. All he needed was to wait, however! Different versions of that same voting machine are used in state legislatures all around the U.S. today.

Edison built a laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876. This was the world's first scientifically organized industrial research laboratory, and it is considered to be one of his most important inventions. In this lab Edison and his staff were very productive. They sometimes worked on more than 40 projects at a time, and applied for as many as 400 patents in a year. In the Menlo Park lab Edison invented some of his most famous and useful devices-the carbon telephone transmitter, the phonograph, and the incandescent light bulb. He became known as the wizard of Menlo Park.

In 1887 Edison built a new laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. This lab was ten times bigger than the Menlo Park lab, and is now a national monument. The new lab complex had 14 buildings, six of which were devoted to inventing. Edison worked at this lab for another 40 years. He improved the phonograph so that it had commercial value and began producing phonographs for sale. He created the first movie camera and film reels. Later Edison connected a phonograph and made the first talking movie! He also invented the dictating machine, the cement mixer, the microphone, and a magnetic process to separate iron ore. And after laboriously testing over 17,000 different plant species, Edison came up with a new synthetic rubber.

During World War I, Edison turned his efforts to helping improve the military. Working without pay, he helped invent a sonar system to detect submarines and torpedoes, and also invented an electric torpedo. At Edison's urging, Congress established the first military research laboratory in 1920.

Edison believed in hard work. He is known for his focus and determination, and for regularly working 100 or more hours in a week. One of his favorite sayings was, "Genius is one percent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration." He also believed in the importance of making science practical and useful to people. Edison invented well over a thousand devices that improved life for humanity the world over.

Thomas Alva Edison died on October 20, 1931, at the age of 84.

Learn More About Thomas Alva Edison!

  • Edison National Historical Site Web Page
    This site, provided by the National Park Service, includes an entire section on "Edisonia " with historic photos, recordings, and much more. Be sure to click on the Edison's Invention Process link on the main page for a great java-based tour of the lab, and to explore two fun and famous inventions.


  • Thomas A. Edison Papers
    This site is an archive of papers relating to Edison's life and work. It includes his scientific journals, business documents, newspaper clippings, and other correspondence.


  • Thomas A. Edison and the Menlo Park Laboratory
    This exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum includes a biography, a timeline and some great historic photos.


  • Edison National Historic Site
    If you get a chance to go to New Jersey, be sure to stop by and visit Edison's West Orange laboratory and home-now a National Historic site.


  • America's Story: Thomas Alva Edison
    This short but fun tour of Edison's life includes several media clips of some of his recordings and films.


  • Inventive Thinking Curriculum Project: An Outreach Program of the US Patent and Trademark Office



    LESSON 1:
    Test Your Knowledge of Edison

    You will learn about the life of Thomas Edison and what inspired him.

    In this lesson students will read about Thomas Edison and take a short quiz to test their knowledge.

    First, have a discussion about what it must have been like when Thomas Edison was a child. Talk about how there were no telephones, electric lights, televisions, automobiles, or electric appliances. Have students try to imagine living without these things that we take for granted in our lives. Ask questions like: Would it have been harder or easier? Why do you think Edison worked so hard on his inventions? Why was Edison a Genius?

    Next, have students go to About Thomas Edison for help in answering questions and learning even more about Thomas Edison.


    LESSON 2:

    You will learn about the importance of patents and the patent process.

    At the age of 23, Edison sold his first invention, a Universal Stock Ticker. It was based on the telegraph and could send instant stock market information to businesses, newspapers, and offices. He sold it to General Lefferts, the head of the Gold and Stock Telegraph Co. in New York City. Before negotiating the price, he had decided that the stock ticker was worth $5,000 and that he would be willing to accept $3,000 for it. Edison was reluctant to ask for this high price. When Lefferts asked, "How would $40,000 strike you?" Edison nearly fainted!

    Thomas Edison became especially good at inventing contraptions that would help people to live better, easier lives. Patents were also developed to help inventors sell their designs, and to prevent unscrupulous people from stealing ideas and profiting unfairly from the work of others. Edison obtained several patents on various improvements he made to his stock ticker. These patents meant that no one else but him had the right to reproduce his stock ticker designs unless he gave permission. A person with a patent can sell the rights to his design; that's why Edison was offered $40,000. It was for the rights to use the stock ticker design. An important key to being a successful inventor is being able to sell your designs.

    Discuss the concept of copying someone's invention without permission. Ask, "Has anyone ever stolen your idea and then taken credit for it?" "How did that feel?" Sometimes it can be hard to prove who had an idea first, especially if one person is willing to lie. Talk about the world of business where an entire fortune can be made from one really good idea-and the patent for it.

    Next, use these online lesson pages about patents to help your students learn more about patents:

    For younger kids (grades 3-8):

    • It's About Design
      Included are an overview of the patent process, a short quiz, and a web quest.
    For older kids (grades 6-12):

    Additional Resources:


    LESSON 3:
    Some Simple Experiments

    You will learn about basic electrical theory including simple circuits and fuses.

    In this lesson students will do some experiments to understand the basics of electricity. Some are simple and can be done with common household items, some are more complex and require materials you will probably have to go out and buy. Print out the lab sheet of Electrical Circuit Experiments and have students follow the directions.

    These experiments are an introduction to basic electrical theory. For further lessons, check out the sites below.

    Additional Resources:



    LESSON 4:
    The Light Bulb

    You will learn about the history of the lightbulb and Edison's experiments.

    Print out the short history of Edison's invention of the light bulb. Have students read it and then answer the questions on the attached worksheet.

    The answers to the questions are listed on the word search puzzle page.

    The answers to the word search can be found attached.

    Additional Resources:

    Light Bulb Resources from the Edison Papers Archive:
    • The Carbon Lamp Filament I
      After experimenting for a year with metal filaments for his incandescent lamp, Edison turned his attention to carbon in the fall of 1879. This is one of the early notebook entries from that work, written on 22 October by Edison's laboratory lieutenant, Charles Batchelor.


    • The Carbon Lamp Filament II
      Some notes written on the same day by Francis Upton, Edison's university-trained laboratory assistant.


    • Great Expectations
      Francis Upton's exuberance shows in this cartoon he drew in the spring of 1880-an electric lamp with the caption, "I shed the light of my shining countenance for $15,000 per share."


    LESSON 5:
    The Phonograph-What's in a name?

    You will learn about the phonograph and how it was named.

    The phonograph was Thomas Edison's favorite invention. He was always fascinated with devices that had to do with sound-most probably because he was very nearly deaf. It's amazing that a man who could not hear created a machine that would bring music into the homes of millions.

    The original phonograph was invented at Edison's lab in Menlo Park. It was a simple construction. The heart of the machine was a brass cylinder wrapped in tinfoil. This cylinder was attached to a threaded steel rod that turned within a steel nut. To record something, a person shouted into a trumpet-like piece on the side of the cylinder and turned the rod. Inside the trumpet was a diaphragm with a needle attached to it. Sound would make the diaphragm vibrate and the needle would scratch a groove shaped like the vibration onto the tin foil of the cylinder as it turned along the nut.

    To play the recording back, first the cylinder would be wound back to the beginning. On the opposite side of the cylinder, a needle attached to another diaphragm was pushed up against the foil, and as the cylinder was turned the needle would travel through the grooves in the foil causing the diaphragm to vibrate in the same manner as it did during the recording. The vibrating diaphragm would reproduce the sound.

    When Edison tested the first phonograph in 1877, he expected the recording to play back a rough generalization of the original. He was astounded as much or more than his co-workers when he spoke the words "Mary had a little lamb" into the phonograph and it played back his words with great clarity.

    Have students look at this image of Edison's original phonograph and listen to some early phonograph recordings at the Edison NHS: Sound Recording Collection. This collection of downloadable sound files contains a wide variety of musical genres, speeches and other recordings. The Vaudeville comedy sketches are a lot of fun!

    Next have them read Naming the Phonograph II set of four pages from Edison's journal with a list of possible names for the phonograph that Edison made up out of Greek and Latin words put together.

    Now ask your students if they like any of Edison's other names for the phonograph better than "phonograph". Can they think up any other good names for the phonograph? Tell them to think about what it does, because a good name needs to not only sound good, it also needs to describe the invention's function.

    Finally, have them think up a fictional invention. Have them draw a picture of it, find the perfect name for it, and write about what it does. Use the attached worksheet.

    Additional Resources:

    Additional Resources from the Edison Papers Archive

      Inventing the Phonograph I
      On 17 July 1877, Edison sketched and described a device that would record a telephone message and play it back slowly enough to be written out.


    • Inventing the Phonograph II
      By the next morning he realized he was not just recording a message-he was recording sound. (See the paragraph at the bottom of the page.)


    • Inventing the Phonograph III
      Almost twenty years later, Charles Batchelor recalled those first experiments in detailed testimony. Ten years after that he wrote out his recollections (starting at the bottom of the first page), although his memory of the date was a little fuzzy.


    • Naming the Phonograph I
      The word "phonograph" first appears on a 12 August 1877 drawing, labeling a machine that would record on paper tape (using "any power to rotate" a "Roll [of] paper").


    LESSON 6:
    Thomas Edison was an Outstanding Failure!

    You will learn how failure can be a part of success.

    Thomas Edison was a firm believer in the importance of failure. Failure was what led him to success. Once, when he was working on developing a better battery, a discouraged assistant came up to him and suggested that Mr. Edison must be ready to quit after having performed some 50,000 tests without success. "You must be pretty downhearted with the lack of progress", the assistant said. Edison replied, "Downhearted? We've made a lot of progress. At least we know 50,000 things that won't work!" In the end he developed a nickel-iron alkaline battery that became an industry standard and is still used today-more than 90 years later!

    If Edison had let the 50,000 failures get him down, we might not have that battery today. It took more than 2,000 tests to find the right filament for the light bulb. We all use the light bulb; imagine if Edison had given up because it was too hard? We might still be reading by candlelight!

    There are lots of things in our everyday life we have to fail at before we will ever perfect them. Why, if babies weren't willing to fall down a few times, they would never walk!

    Ask your students what kinds of things in their own lives they needed to fail at to become more perfect. It could be learning to do something new, a sport, even playing video games. Next ask them to think about goals they have that may take some failure before they can make them happen.

    Now have them write a short story in which failure eventually leads to success. It can be fiction or based on fact.



    LESSON 7:
    Your Own Invention!

    You will learn about your own creative and inventive thinking skills.

    Do your children have any invention ideas of their own? Would they like to? Here is a curriculum set designed by the United States Patent and Trademark Office called The Inventive Thinking Curriculum Project
    . This document is over 60 pages long and includes copy masters and extra resources that can be printed out.

    Invention Competition Resources:
    Do your students have inventions that they're proud of? Have them enter one of these competitions:

    Article by Laurie Furumoto, HLN Curriculum Development
    Article © Homeschool Learning Network, All Rights Reserved.


Last Updated on Monday, 20 February 2012 19:09

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