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        Thomas Edison | Inventor and Entrepreneur

        Thomas Edison, a leader of American innovation, was responsible for developing many modern devices. He created the first organized industrial research laboratory where he and a team of scientists and innovators brought to life home electricity, the light bulb, car batteries, movies, music players, and thousands of other innovations. Through a video and primary source activities, students will learn about Edison’s remarkable business of innovation and some of his 1,093 patented devices. 

        Lesson Summary

        Students will learn about the inventions and path to success of Thomas Edison by watching a short biographical video, analyzing a photograph of Edison and one of his most famous inventions, and reading a letter written by Edison to a Minnesota high school student. The lesson concludes with students assessing and updating one of Edison’s many inventions.

        Time Allotment

        20 - 40 minutes

        Learning Objectives

        Vocabulary

        • Innovation - a new invention, process, or idea
        • Incandescent - something that gives out light when heated
        • Illuminate - to light
        • Deemed - viewed as
        • Telegraph - a system for sending long distance messages along a wire by making and breaking electrical connections using a uniform system of making letters and numbers
        • Shrewd - clever, intelligent
        • Patent - a government issued license giving the creator of an idea or invention the sole rights to that idea during a set period
        • Viable - feasible, doable
        • Precursor - something that comes before another

        Links

        Phonograph Invented in 1877 by Thomas Alva Edison, the phonograph reproduced and played back sound. For Edison’s machine, soundwaves were etched onto a cylinder and then traced by a stylus to make sound. The success of the phonograph led to Edison becoming a household name throughout the United States.

        For more information on phonographs:

        Background on Thomas Edison | Inventor and Entrepreneur

        Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847. When he was eight years old, his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. He was deemed a troublesome student at school, but his mother, also a teacher, saw brilliance in the young boy and educated him at home. Edison was a voracious reader, and his mother encouraged him to study a broad range of subjects.

        When he was just 12, Edison began working for the Grand Trunk Railroad, selling newspapers on trains. He even printed his own newspaper to sell to passengers--his first foray into entrepreneurship. At age 15, he learned telegraphy and spent the next five years traveling around the country working as a substitute telegraph operator for men fighting in the Civil War.

        As he worked with the telegraph, he saw ways to make it better. In 1869, he settled in Newark, New Jersey, and built a personal laboratory to pursue inventing full-time. Edison made many improvements to the telegraph--patenting 150 of them--and selling those inventions to the highest bidder.

        In 1876, in Menlo Park, New Jersey, he established the first-ever industrial research laboratory—a creative hub full of scientists and innovators focused on creating practical innovations and inventions that could be used to improve everyday life. In 1877, Edison made a device that had indentations on tinfoil that was wrapped around a cylinder, which rotated while pressing against a needle. He had invented the phonograph, the first instrument capable of recording and reproducing sound. Hailed as a “genius,” Edison became a celebrity, even demonstrating the device to the President of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes.

        The next groundbreaking device to come out of the Menlo Park research facility was the first commercially viable incandescent bulb--one that was long-lasting, safe, and inexpensive. Following the development of this usable light bulb, Edison established the first electric power generation and distribution company, the Edison Illuminating Company. On September 4, 1882, he activated the electrical power distribution system at the Pearl Street plant in Lower Manhattan, providing electricity to 400 bulbs for 82 customers. By 1884, the Pearl Street Station provided electricity to light more than 10,000 bulbs.

        In 1887, Edison moved into a new, larger laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. Working again with his phonograph, Edison devised a method of linking it with a zoetrope (a device to turn photographs so that the images looked as if they were moving). In 1891, he patented this device as a “Kinetograph,” better known as a motion picture camera. He opened a film studio that made close to 1,200 films with the Kinetograph, including The Great Train Robbery. Also in 1891, he patented the Kinetoscope, a precursor to the movie projector.

        Edison even innovated with other great American inventors. He had a long and fruitful friendship with Henry Ford (whom he once employed). In 1912, at the request of Ford, Edison designed a car battery for the self-starting (versus crank) version of the Model T car.

        On October 18, 1931, Edison succumbed to complications from diabetes. He was survived by his second wife and their three children, as well as his three children by his first wife, who died in 1884. At the time of his death, Edison held a record 1,093 U.S. patents.

        Background

        Vocabulary

        • Innovation - a new invention, process, or idea
        • Incandescent - something that gives out light when heated
        • Illuminate - to light
        • Deemed - viewed as
        • Telegraph - a system for sending long distance messages along a wire by making and breaking electrical connections using a uniform system of making letters and numbers
        • Shrewd - clever, intelligent
        • Patent - a government issued license giving the creator of an idea or invention the sole rights to that idea during a set period
        • Viable - feasible, doable
        • Precursor - something that comes before another

        Links

        Phonograph Invented in 1877 by Thomas Alva Edison, the phonograph reproduced and played back sound. For Edison’s machine, soundwaves were etched onto a cylinder and then traced by a stylus to make sound. The success of the phonograph led to Edison becoming a household name throughout the United States.

        For more information on phonographs:

        Background on Thomas Edison | Inventor and Entrepreneur

        Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847. When he was eight years old, his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. He was deemed a troublesome student at school, but his mother, also a teacher, saw brilliance in the young boy and educated him at home. Edison was a voracious reader, and his mother encouraged him to study a broad range of subjects.

        When he was just 12, Edison began working for the Grand Trunk Railroad, selling newspapers on trains. He even printed his own newspaper to sell to passengers--his first foray into entrepreneurship. At age 15, he learned telegraphy and spent the next five years traveling around the country working as a substitute telegraph operator for men fighting in the Civil War.

        As he worked with the telegraph, he saw ways to make it better. In 1869, he settled in Newark, New Jersey, and built a personal laboratory to pursue inventing full-time. Edison made many improvements to the telegraph--patenting 150 of them--and selling those inventions to the highest bidder.

        In 1876, in Menlo Park, New Jersey, he established the first-ever industrial research laboratory—a creative hub full of scientists and innovators focused on creating practical innovations and inventions that could be used to improve everyday life. In 1877, Edison made a device that had indentations on tinfoil that was wrapped around a cylinder, which rotated while pressing against a needle. He had invented the phonograph, the first instrument capable of recording and reproducing sound. Hailed as a “genius,” Edison became a celebrity, even demonstrating the device to the President of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes.

        The next groundbreaking device to come out of the Menlo Park research facility was the first commercially viable incandescent bulb--one that was long-lasting, safe, and inexpensive. Following the development of this usable light bulb, Edison established the first electric power generation and distribution company, the Edison Illuminating Company. On September 4, 1882, he activated the electrical power distribution system at the Pearl Street plant in Lower Manhattan, providing electricity to 400 bulbs for 82 customers. By 1884, the Pearl Street Station provided electricity to light more than 10,000 bulbs.

        In 1887, Edison moved into a new, larger laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. Working again with his phonograph, Edison devised a method of linking it with a zoetrope (a device to turn photographs so that the images looked as if they were moving). In 1891, he patented this device as a “Kinetograph,” better known as a motion picture camera. He opened a film studio that made close to 1,200 films with the Kinetograph, including The Great Train Robbery. Also in 1891, he patented the Kinetoscope, a precursor to the movie projector.

        Edison even innovated with other great American inventors. He had a long and fruitful friendship with Henry Ford (whom he once employed). In 1912, at the request of Ford, Edison designed a car battery for the self-starting (versus crank) version of the Model T car.

        On October 18, 1931, Edison succumbed to complications from diabetes. He was survived by his second wife and their three children, as well as his three children by his first wife, who died in 1884. At the time of his death, Edison held a record 1,093 U.S. patents.

        Introductory Activity

        Ask students: What are some items that you use today that weren’t around when your parents were growing up? Who is credited with inventing these things? How do you think the inventor or inventors came up with the idea?

        Introduce Thomas Edison: 
        Thomas Alva Edison was a badly behaved student who went to work when he was only 12 years old; however, he is often described as the inventor who most shaped the modern world. 

        Learning Activities

        Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)

        Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.

        Download the Graphic Organizer [PDF].

        Play the Video:

         

        Discussion questions after viewing:

        1. The phonograph was one of Edison’s most famous inventions, but which of his inventions do you use most often today?

        2. Edison is also credited with inventing the first light bulb. How do you think access to light twenty-four hours a day changed people’s lives in the late 1800s? 

        3. Edison once wrote, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” What do you think he meant by this?

        4. Edison was known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” Why do you think he was called this? Is it a fitting label for him?

        5. Although Edison is credited with many inventions, he often collaborated with other innovators and scientists, particularly once he moved his laboratory from Menlo Park to West Orange, New Jersey in 1887. What label other than the “Wizard of Menlo Park” might also be fitting for Edison?

        Examining Primary Sources

        Visual Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)

        Project or make copies of the photo to the right. When Edison first invented the phonograph, he used foil cylinders to record sound. After other innovators developed and patented improvements to his invention, he worked with his large staff of scientists, machinists, and craftspeople to further advance the phonograph. This June 16, 1888 photograph was taken to document the  “Perfected Phonograph” that Edison (seated, center) had developed with a group of collaborators in his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory. This version of the phonograph replaced tinfoil with wax cylinders, an advance that Edison hoped would make the phonograph commercially viable as an office dictating machine. Also pictured with Edison are (standing, far left) William Kennedy Dixon, who later became a pioneer in the film making industry; (next to Dixon) Charles Bachelor, Edison’s long time colleague; and (seated, far right) George Gouraud, Edison’s British agent who hoped to sell the new phonographs in the United Kingdom. The other men are all various Edison employees who had worked on the phonograph.

        The photograph was taken in the courtyard of Edison’s West Orange laboratory. The photograph, as well as a large painting based on the photograph, are currently the property of the Edison Historic Site, based in Edison’s West Orange laboratory, which is run by the National Park Service.

        Questions:

        1. Edison had as many as 200 people working at his West Orange laboratory. He often put them in small teams with each group working on the same challenge as he moved from team to team asking questions and making suggestions. Some of these men are pictured in the photograph along with Edison, William Kennedy Dixon (an inventor), Charles Bachelor (known as Edison’s “right hand man”), and George Gouraud who hoped to sell phonographs in Britain. If you could draw a “thought bubble” above the heads of these men, what words would be in them? What different perspectives might Edison and the others have had as they looked at the “Perfected Phonograph”?

        2. Notice the way the men in the photograph are dressed. What can you learn about men’s clothing and grooming habits during the mid-19th century by examining this photograph?

        3. Do you think you would enjoy working at Edison’s laboratory?  How does Edison’s strategy of collaborative teamwork compare to the structure of today’s large technology companies? (NOTE: Google, Pixar, and Apple are all major technology companies known for collaborative teamwork; for more information, see How to Build a Collaborative Office Space Like Pixar and Google)

        Written Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)

        Students will read a letter written by Edison to the yearbook editor at a Minnesota high school named after him. The letter is currently the property of the Minneapolis Central Library.

        Download the Primary Source Activity [PDF].

         

        Culminating Activity

        This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.

        To be completed using the Graphic Organizer.

        Choose one of Thomas Alva Edison’s many inventions that you think should be considered his most significant contribution to the modern world.

        • Explain how this invention is something that you still use, even if in a different form.
        • Develop an advertisement for the invention appropriate for the time it was first developed.
        • Describe a new invention based on one of Edison’s ideas. How could you make something of his even more helpful to people today?

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