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What Was the Problem Mary Wanted to Solve? Investigating a Curious Invention with Primary Sources

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This post is by Kellie Taylor, Ed.D., the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow.

Mary Hallock Greenewalt at the electric light “color organ”, which she invented. Underwood & Underwood, 1925

Ask students to observe the photograph of Mary Hallock Greenewalt. What will they see? They might see a woman and a machine. They may think it is an old photo because it is black and white. Some might notice that her right hand is on a knob while the left is on a series of handle-like pieces. While we can see there is a machine and a woman, it is difficult to determine the components of the machine or what it may have been used for, which generates a lot of questions. Ask students to record their ideas about the photograph using a see, think, and wonder analysis process.

Before sharing Mary’s story with the students, let them know that the object in the photograph is an invention. Ask students to work with a new shoulder buddy to try and identify what type of problem this invention was trying to solve. Students may refer back to their analysis to brainstorm ideas. Ask partners to share their suggestions.

The photograph of Greenewalt with her electric light color organ invention does include much information, but newspaper articles from 1919 and 1922 in the Library’s online newspaper collections offer some insights. Greenewalt was a pianist who wanted to join colored light and music. She believed the light could be used to further express human emotion and could help the music connect to a varied audience. What was the problem Mary was trying to solve? How could she synchronously connect colored light and music? In order to develop a solution to her problem, Mary continued working on her design which led to her becoming an electrical engineer and inventor with nine patents to her name. She first developed a phonograph that could be synchronized with colored light and then invented Sarabet, named after her mother, which was an instrument designed to control a bank of lights.

Challenge students to work with a partner or in a small group to create a way to connect music and colored light. Remind students that color and music can convey emotions. A faster tempo and higher pitch in music may create a sense of happiness when combined with a yellow color further emphasizes the feeling or association with happiness. Collaborate with your music and art teachers to help your students identify music qualities and colors that determine mood and reinforces what students are learning in both music and art.

Allow students to choose the materials and method to demonstrate their invention from the options available within your classroom. Perhaps they will use a coding platform such as Scratch to create their synchronous display. Other students may also use handheld lights, music, and recording of a video to demonstrate their synchronous use of colored lights and music. Once students have created their method for connecting colored light and music to highlight the feelings of the music, provide them with an opportunity to share with the class, their parents, or even their school.


  1. Love the use of primary sources to explore invention, art, and human design. We may use this activity in future PDs. Love the opportunities to bring in intellectual property concepts. Thank you for sharing!

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