Inventions and Innovations:  A New Primary Source Set from the Library of Congress

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

Invention and innovation have served as key aspects of American life since the country’s founding. Can you imagine a world with no electric lights or telephones? But how do such new technologies and ideas come to be? A new primary source set from the Library of Congress invites students to reflect on this question by examining historical primary sources.

The 18 primary sources in this set were selected to foreground inventive processes, showing how people identified problems and designed solutions, built prototypes and iterated designs, collaborated with others, persevered through challenges, communicated their findings, navigated the business and legal landscapes, and more. The sources come from over 150 years of U.S. history and in a variety of formats, including photographs, prints, manuscripts, and newspapers.

Drawing a of person speaking into a model of a telephone with notes by Alexander Graham Bell

Drawing by Alexander Graham Bell 1876

George Washington Carver in a field holding a clump of soil.

George Washington Carver. Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1906

Featured items include early telephone drawings from Alexander Graham Bell’s personal notebooks, a handwritten manuscript providing unique insights into how Morse Code was developed, and a newspaper article recounting how George Washington Carver opened the eyes of U.S. congressmen to new agricultural practices. There is also an original article penned by Thomas Edison on the value of perseverance – aimed at those who may wish to be inventors themselves – as well as a feature on Beulah Louise Henry, who was such a prolific inventor in the early 20th century that she was dubbed “Lady Edison.”

The Inventions and Innovations primary source set includes historical background information and teaching ideas that support students as they analyze these unique primary sources. It may also serve as a springboard for teachers to discuss aspects of invention and innovation not documented within the set.

We hope that you will find this primary source set a helpful resource to use with your students! Please let us know in the comments if you have any favorite items or ideas for how to use them in your classroom.

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