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Thomas Edison sitting with two phonograph cabinets one made of concrete and one made of wood.
Thomas Alva Edison, full-length portrait, seated, facing front, between two phonograph cabinets, one of which is made of concrete. 1912

Inventions and Innovations: Thomas Edison and Learning through Failure

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This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress. 

Some regard Thomas Edison as one of the greatest inventors in American history. Over his lifetime, Edison obtained 1,093 patents and played a major role in introducing major technological advancements, including the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera.  But Edison also experienced his fair share of commercial failures. He often learned from such failures and saw them as key to future success. Students examining Edison’s story through primary sources can also learn valuable lessons about invention and innovation.

Show students this photograph of Edison’s first invention, an automatic vote recorder, developed in 1868. Based on what they see in the photograph, ask students to develop hypotheses about what the machine did and how it worked. Using electric circuits and chemically-prepared paper, this invention allowed legislators to flip a switch on their desks and have their votes automatically recorded, thereby increasing legislative efficiency and reducing the chances for error and vote manipulation, compared to previous methods.

Image of Edison's Vote Recorder
Edison’s First Invention: The Vote Recorder, from the book, Thomas Alva Edison; Sixty Years of an Inventor’s Life

Next, explain that the photograph appeared in a book about Edison’s inventions, written in his lifetime. According to the author, it includes anecdotes informed through discussion with Edison himself. Invite students to read about the vote recorder on pages 53 and 54. How did the machine work? Did it become a commercial success? Students may be surprised to learn that while Edison’s invention worked perfectly, it was never adopted because legislators saw “filibustering and delay in the counting of the votes” as too important in the legislative process. Famously, Edison said that he learned from this early experience to “never invent anything . . . that was not wanted.”

Students can also glean lessons from other Edison efforts that did not turn out as expected. For example:

As students examine primary sources for the inventions listed, see if they can determine what problem Edison was trying to solve and how the proposed solution worked. Students might also look for clues in the primary sources—or in related secondary sources —as to why the proposed inventions were not commercially successful at the time. As an extension, students might think about what could have been done to make these ideas work, or they could research whether some of these ideas actually were implemented later.

If you try this activity with students, comment here and let us know what ideas they come up with!

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