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Thomas Edison’s Favorite Invention: The Phonograph

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This post was written by Lesley Anderson, 2021-2022 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

If you ask students what invention Thomas Edison is known for, they might respond by saying, “the light bulb.” However, Edison’s favorite invention he ever worked on was the phonograph. So what exactly is a phonograph?

Edison’s phonograph, Experimental Dept., Orange, N.J. 1892 Sept. 24.

Show students this photograph of Edison’s phonograph experiment project. Invite them to look at the picture and write down their observations before sharing with a friend. Next, ask students to reflect on how they think the phonograph works. Finally, ask students to write down the questions that they have after the first two steps.

Student questions may lead to investigation into the following areas:

  • How does a phonograph work?
  • How might sound be related to this experiment?
  • Is music an important part of the phonograph experiment?

Students can make predictions about how they think a phonograph works based on the photograph. Encourage students to use their knowledge of physics and sound waves in order to construct their argument. If students need assistance, share with them images of wax cylinders to promote their creativity.

Additionally students might be excited to look at a 19th-century example of a makerspace, Edison’s Laboratory, where the phonograph was invented. Students can play Hide and Seek in the picture, giving clues to other students about where they “are” in the picture and seeing if the rest of the class can guess based on their description of the resources around them.

Finally, ask students to think about different uses for the phonograph. Thomas Edison thought that the phonograph would be a way to dictate letters or record books for the blind. How would your students have used the phonograph?

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Comments (2)

  1. Edison and his inventions are always a very exciting theme in education. He is credited with about 1100 patents. Most of them, since they are more than a century old, is obviously obsolete. For instance, the bulb filament lamp is almost out of the market now; the phonograph has been replaced by other sound recording systems since around 1920.
    An interesting challenge for students is to find which of Edison’s inventions are still in use.

  2. Not only is this lesson great for Adult Learners, my 5th grade science students studied Thomas Edison this last school year! They were able to pick a famous scientist, write an essay about their scientist’s achievements, and dress-up like their scientist to present their essay and powerpoint presentation. Thomas Edison was a popular choice!

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