Last updated: March 12, 2020
The Invention Factory: Thomas Edison's Laboratories
- Grade Level:
- Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
- Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
- Lesson Duration:
- 90 Minutes
- Common Core Standards:
- 6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
- Additional Standards:
- US History Era 6 Standard 1A: The student understands the connections among industrialization, the advent of the modern corporation, and material well-being.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies
- Thinking Skills:
- Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.
Tour Edison's West Orange complex where his creative combination of research, production, and marketing revolutionized the business of invention.
1. To describe how Edison created the first modern research and development laboratory complex and explain its functions;
2. To explain how Edison used his new complex to develop products and create industries that still affect our lives today;
3. To describe the process of invention from having experienced it through a simulation activity;
4. To investigate how technological and industrial developments have affected their own community.
Time Period: Gilded Age/Progressive Era
Topics: The lesson could be used in teaching units on the industrialization of the United States, the development of science and technology, or social change in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Students will discover how Edison systematized the process of inventing, allowing for the rapid development and production of inventions that improved the lives of millions of people.
The cluster of red brick buildings still stands. Asphalt driveways cover most of the space separating the buildings. A chain link fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the complex. Today, this group of buildings looks little different from the hundreds of abandoned factory sites that dot the landscape in the industrial towns of New Jersey and other parts of the Northeast. When it was in operation, however, this complex was one of the most important, if little known, creations of Thomas Alva Edison. These buildings–the chemistry, physics, and metallurgy laboratories; machine shop; pattern shop; research library; and rooms for experiments–were built in 1887. They formed the core of Edison's research and development complex, which he claimed contained everything necessary to invent "useful things every man, woman, and child in the world wants...at a price they could afford to pay” (Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography [New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.,  1992, 314).
It was here in this West Orange, New Jersey, complex that Edison systematically developed his ideas for alkaline storage batteries, recorded music and motion pictures, and transformed them into marketable products. Once perfected, these prototypes were sent to the vast factory complex Edison began building in 1888 adjacent to the laboratory. Here they were produced in commercial quantities and then sold throughout the world. The products developed at the research laboratory during the late 19th and early 20th centuries dramatically changed the way Americans lived and worked. The fusion of business and technology achieved at the West Orange complex provided a model for modern corporate and governmental research and development laboratories.
Edison lacked formal education, but excelled at putting his practical genius to work. He became a hero to most Americans as an example of what they believed was peculiarly American ingenuity. Born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847, he received only a few months of formal education, but his mother, a retired school teacher, provided him with lessons in the basic subjects.
Edison began working for a living when he was 12 years old. As a "candy butcher," he sold newspapers, fruit, candy, and other snacks on a train that ran each day from Port Huron, Michigan (where the family had moved in 1854), to Detroit. He built a small laboratory in the baggage car and conducted experiments in telegraphy during his free time. He continued his experiments as he worked as a telegraph operator in the 1860s. He received his first patent when he was 21 and gained a reputation as an inventor, as well as his first financial success, by developing various improvements in telegraph equipment.
In 1877 Edison achieved international fame with his invention of the first phonograph. Two years later, while working in Menlo Park, New Jersey, Edison developed the first practical incandescent light bulb and a complete electrical power system for making electric lighting for homes and businesses. Edison's invention of the electric light established his place in history, and the sale of light bulbs and power systems secured his fortune.
In 1886 Edison set out to build a new laboratory to continue his work on electricity and to develop a systematic process for turning the endless list of other ideas he had into marketable products. By this time, Edison had both the experience and the capital to build the largest and best equipped laboratory in existence with what he called "facilities incomparably superior to any other for the rapid and cheap development of an invention and working it up into Commercial [sic] shape" (Edison Laboratory Notebook N87.11.15, Edison National Historic Site Archives). Edison worked in his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory for the rest of his life. Of the 1,093 patents he received before his death in 1931, more than half were developed at West Orange.
Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.
Edison National Historic Site
This unit of the National Park Service consists of Edison's research and development laboratory and his home, Glenmont. The park's web pages detail his history; its offerings include photographs, his 1,093 patents, and materials for teachers.
Library of Congress
The LOC Digital Collections offer a wide variety of resources about Edison, including some of the earliest films his company produced.
National Archives (NARA)
The Archives has placed on its web site Edison's patent application for the electric bulb and a petition he signed asking that the Chicago's World Fair be allowed to remain open on Sundays. To find them, visit the NARA search engine and enter "Thomas Edison."
The Thomas A. Edison Papers
The Edison Papers are a documentary editing project from Rutgers, the National Park Service, the Smithsonian, and the New Jersey Historical Commission. Its web site contains photographs, maps, a list of Edison's companies, and reference materials about his records.
Thomas Alva Edison: The Phonograph
This site, part of MIT's Invention Dimension web site, provides a synopsis of Edison's inventions. The site's home page is a gateway to the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program for inventors and provides information about a large number of inventors, from the famous to the lesser known.