How to Use These Activities
Putting It All Together
Only a small part of the original West Orange invention complex remains today. Those buildings are now preserved as the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. Although Edison had begun the idea of an extensive research and development complex when he set up shop in Menlo Park, New Jersey, it was here in West Orange in 1887 that his dreams came to fruition. In this all-encompassing facility began a new stage in the history of invention. The following activities will help students understand the process of invention as well as its impact on society.
Activity 1: Researching the Impact of Edison's Inventions
Edison received over 1,000 patents during his lifetime. Many of these inventions still affect our lives today, both directly and indirectly. Have students research the development and history of any one of Edison's inventions and trace it to the present day. Books on Edison and on the history of technology found in schools and public libraries provide a good starting point. Especially useful are the following: Charles Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1990); Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 [History of the American Cinema, Volume I] (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990); Robert Friedel and Paul Israel, Edison's Electric Light: Biography of an Invention (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1986); Andre Millard, Edison and the Business of Innovation (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1990); and Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.,  1992).
Activity 2: The Invention Process
Teachers must prepare for this activity ahead of time. It asks students to simulate a research and development team by working in much the same way Edison's employees did. Students work together in teams to design and produce a new vehicle meeting the criteria outlined in the Research Information section. It is through teamwork and problem solving that a new invention is made. Divide students into groups of five and have each group member take a specific role. Every team member has a role, and no team member may take on the role of another team member. Give each team 30-45 minutes to complete their invention, and then have each spokesperson present it to the rest of the class.
Draftsperson will draw the plans for the team's invention. The plans should show two views of the invention.
Stockroom person will choose the proper materials from those available. Materials can be items in the classroom or things brought from home.
Model builder will construct a working model of the invention from the design agreed upon.
Advertiser will write a compelling descriptive paragraph on why people should buy their team's invention.
Spokesperson will try to convince the class that their invention is the best by explaining the plans, demonstrating the invention using a ramp (a board about six feet long that can be propped against a desk in the front of the classroom), and reading aloud the materials prepared by the advertiser.
All of Edison's inventions started out with research. Since your time is short, we will provide some research results for you. Our hypothetical research has found that our society needs a new vehicle, because by the year 2010, students from the fourth grade on will be driving to school. Therefore, this vehicle must be operated easily by people too young to have a license to drive automobiles. It must be safe for you and your friends to use. Through our research we also found it must have the following:
1. An odd number of working wheels.
2. Between 10 and 20 parts.
3. Be able to travel down a ramp without breaking or falling apart.
After all vehicles have been built, described, and tested, hold a full class discussion on why students think some vehicles worked and some did not. Ask students what changes, if any, they would make in their inventions. What would their team do next to improve their invention? What do they think Edison would do next?
Activity 3: Researching the Local Community
Have students research their own communities to see how changes in technology and industry have altered the landscape. In what ways has the appearance of the community changed since it was first founded? Consider changes in buildings, businesses, transportation, and the surrounding countryside. How have inventions of Edison and others of his time (electric lights, cars, power and telephone lines, etc.) affected the community?
Students might also look at economic problems their community may be facing. Are the problems caused by the advance of technology and industry? Could these problems be solved by further scientific or technological advances? Libraries, local historical societies, and chambers of commerce are good sources for photographs, sketches, drawings, or paintings of the community as it changed over time. Have students complete the activity by producing a classroom or hallway display that shows these changes.