Thomas Edison Lights the Way

The science behind electricity and the creation of the light bulb is fascinating. Today, we take electric light for granted and we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the work of the engineers, scientists and inventors behind the products we use every day. With this in mind, we celebrate Thomas Edison’s work with the incandescent bulb.

There is a common misconception that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb ─ he did not. But by 1879, the light bulbs that existed would burn out very quickly, so they weren’t really practical for household usage. Edison conducted experiments for 14 months, spending about $40,000 (about $850,000 dollars in today’s money) trying to perfect an incandescent light bulb that would burn for longer than an hour or two. Finally, on October 21st, 1879, Edison tested a bulb that lasted thirteen and a half hours before burning out. Later, after more work, he made bulbs that lasted about 1,200 hours. Edison’s achievement is a great way to introduce energy-related STEM subjects.

Thank you for being a part of the Professional Educators Network. We hope you enjoy this new installment of History’s ARTifacts. Please watch the educational video with your students, and download the poster by this month’s artist, David.

Meet the Artist: David Ungs

David is a multidisciplinary designer who likes working on projects involving branding, art direction, type design, and print design. He finds a lot of inspiration in the space between analog and digital. Whether it is textures, shapes, or line work, anything that starts in the physical world feels more alive, more approachable, and real. David’s goal is to always keep moving and learning and to make his mark on the world around him, doing his best to leave this world in better shape than he found it.

Activities for Thomas Edison Lights the Way

  • When Thomas Edison was developing his lightbulb, homes were usually lit using gas lamps. The gas was delivered to homes via pipes. The gas was also used for heating and street lighting. Edison sought to copy this delivery system for his electric lamp, using wires and powerlines to supply homes with the needed electricity. This set up a direct competition between Edison and the gas industry. Imagine you are a newspaper reporter writing a story on this competition. What are the advantages or disadvantages of gas? Of electricity? What are some of the legal and business-related issues raised by this competition?
  • Edison worked through hundreds of variations for his lightbulb before he developed the one that worked. Many different shaped bulbs, using different materials, were iterated until he found the right combination of form and function. Design your own lightbulbs. Keep in mind how they are to be used –in the home, in businesses or in the towns and cities across America.
  • If you have seen patent drawings from the late 1800s, you will see that they are works of art in their own right. Study some of the patent drawings of the time and then come up with your own invention. Create a patent drawing from the late 19th century.