Thomas Edison Lights the Way

The date was October 21st, 1879. Thomas Edison had been conducting 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. There is a common misconception that Edison invented the light bulb ─ he did not. But on that day in October, 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.

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. Of course, we now know that an incandescent light bulb uses much more energy than new and improved versions like CFLs and LEDs. Edison’s achievements are a great way to introduce STEM subjects and talk about the future of green energy and the careers available in STEM industries.

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, download the poster by this month’s artist, David Ungs, and watch David’s Meet the Artist video.

Meet the Artist: David Ungs

Activities for Thomas Edison Lights the Way

Discuss Thomas Edison with your class. Edison was an inventor who, over his lifetime, created, altered and perfected many inventions including the phonograph, movie projector, lightbulb and many other things. His inventions brought him success and notoriety to the point that he became a household name. His lightbulb is one of the most significant inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Have your class discuss his importance in history.
One of the ways that energy and electricity are measured is by watts. Watts are used over a period of time, measured in kilowatt-hours. So, if you had a 100-watt lightbulb and used it for one hour, you would have used .1 kilowatt-hour of electricity. If you used that same lightbulb for 10 hours, you have used 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity. This is why energy-efficient lightbulbs and appliances save people money. Utility companies measure our energy use in kilowatt-hours. The less energy you use, the fewer kilowatt-hours are billed to you and the less you have to pay! Have students investigate their family’s home energy bill to discover how many kilowatt-hours of energy they use per month.
Energy is measured in a number of different ways: watts, British thermal units, amps and volts, to name a few. Exploring these different ways of measuring energy can illustrate how energy is used every day. For example, new LED lightbulbs use far fewer watts of energy than older incandescent lightbulbs, yet they yield about the same amount of brightness. An 800-lumen bulb has the approximate brightness of the old 60-watt bulb. A new 7-watt bulb has about the same brightness level as both of these. A better way of judging a bulb’s brightness might be to compare the number of lumens of different lightbulbs. It can be illuminating.
Science fiction stories often involve spaceships, domed cities or massive computers. Many times, these fantastical creations need equally fantastical sources of energy to make them run. From the anti-matter warp drive in Star Trek to the kyber crystals that power the light sabers in Star Wars, inventive energy sources are the things that allow the characters to travel to new worlds and have amazing adventures. In “hard” science fiction, these energy sources are researched and scientifically plausible, if unlikely. An example of a futuristic energy source would be fusion energy. Other times, they are completely unrealistic and are a means to an end, used merely as a way to accomplish an author’s goal. Talk to your students about some of their favorite science fiction stories and what energy sources are used in them.