21 Science: Thomas Edison

Objective:

Students study Thomas Edison and his inventions and how movies are made.  They will then draw the same scene on the flip pages with slight modifications to create a movie.

Materials:

  • Strips of paper
  • Stapler
  • Pencils and skinny markers

Directions:

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  • Tell your students that they are the director on this project!
  • Ask your students to think of a simple action like a balloon floating, man waving, or a flower growing.
  • Use the space in their books to sketch out what they will draw on the cards for their movie.
  • Explain that directors plan for years before actually shooting a file. They should consider small aspects of their film.  Some might include if it is a flower growing, do the roots grow too?  Do any leaves fall off as it grows?  Is there a sun in the sky…

 

Explain to your students that motion pictures are just that!  They are pictures that are in motion.

Background:

In 1869, Edison moved to New York City and developed his first invention, an improved stock ticker, the Universal Stock Printer, which synchronized several stock tickers’ transactions. The Gold and Stock Telegraph Company was so impressed, they paid him $40,000 for the rights. Edison was only 22 years old. With this success, he quit his work as a telegrapher to devote himself full-time to inventing.In 1870, Thomas Edison set up his first small laboratory and manufacturing facility in Newark, New Jersey, and employed several machinists. As an independent entrepreneur, Edison formed numerous partnerships and developed his products for the highest bidder. Often that was Western Union Telegraph Company, the industry leader, but just as often, it was one of Western Union’s rivals. In one such instance, Edison devised for Western Union the quadruplex telegraph, capable of transmitting two signals in two different directions on the same wire, but railroad tycoon Jay Gould snatched the invention from Western Union, paying Edison more than $100,000 in cash, bonds and stock, and generating years of litigation.With his ever-increasing financial success, in 1871 Edison married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell, who was an employee at one of his businesses. During their 13-year marriage, they had three children, Marion, Thomas and William, who became an inventor. Mary died of a suspected brain tumor at the age of 29 in 1884.

By the early 1870s, Thomas Edison had acquired a reputation as a first-rate inventor. In 1876, he moved his expanding ope rations to Menlo Park, New Jersey, and built an independent industrial research facility incorporating machine shops and laboratories. That same year, Western Union encouraged him to develop a communication device to compete with Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. He never did. However, in December of 1877, Edison developed a method for recording sound: the phonograph. Though not commercially viable for another decade, the invention brought him worldwide fame. The 1880s would be a busy time for Thomas Edison too.

In the early 1800s, English inventor Humphry Davy created the first early electric arc lamp  and during the next several decades scientists such as Warren de la Rue, Joseph Wilson Swan, Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans worked to perfect electric light bulbs or tubes using a vacuum, but were unsuccessful in their attempts to commercialize an efficient electric light bulb. Edison was also driven to perfect a commercially practical incandescent light bulb. After making improvements in his design (as well as buying Woodward and Evans’ patent in 1879), he was granted a patent for his own improved light bulb in 1879, and began to manufacture and market it for widespread use. In January 1880, Edison set out to develop a company that would deliver the electricity to power and light the cities of the world. That same year, Edison founded the Edison Illuminating Company—the first investor-owned electric utility—which later became the General Electric Corporation. In 1881, he left Menlo Park to establish facilities in several cities where electrical systems were being installed.In 1882, the Pearl Street generating station provided 110 volts of electrical power to 59 customers in lower Manhattan. In 1884 Edison’s wife, Mary, died, and in 1886, he married Mina Miller, 19 years his junior. In 1887, Edison built an industrial research laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, which served as the primary research laboratory for the Edison lighting companies. He spent most of his time there, supervising the development of lighting technology and power systems. He also perfected the phonograph, and developed the motion picture camera and the alkaline storage battery.

Industrialist and Business Manager

Over the next few decades, Edison found his role as inventor transitioning to one as industrialist and business manager. The laboratory in West Orange was too large and complex for any one man to completely manage, and Edison found he was not as successful in his new role as he was in his former one. Edison also found that much of the future development and perfection of his inventions was being conducted by university-trained mathematicians and scientists. He worked best in intimate, unstructured environments with a handful of assistants and was outspoken about his disdain for academia and corporate operations.

He eventually became embroiled in a longstanding rivalry with Nikola Tesla, an engineering visionary with academic training who worked with Edison’s company for a time, parting ways in 1885. The two would publicly clash about the use of direct current electricity, which Edison favored, vs. alternating currents, which Tesla championed. The latter inventor entered into a partnership with George Westinghouse, an Edison competitor as well, and thus a major business feud over electrical power came into being.  One of the unusual and cruel ways Edison tried to convince people of the dangers of alternating current was through public demonstrations in which animals were electrocuted. One of the most infamous of these shows was the 1903 electrocution of a circus elephant named Topsy in New York’s Coney Island.

On a couple of occasions, Edison was able to turn failure into success. During the 1890s, he built a magnetic iron-ore processing plant in northern New Jersey that proved to be a commercial failure. Later, he was able to salvage the process into a better method for producing cement. On April 23, 1896, Edison became the first person to project a motion picture, holding the world’s first motion picture screening at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall in New York City.

As the automobile industry began to grow, Edison worked on developing a suitable storage battery that could power an electric car. Though the gasoline-powered engine eventually prevailed, Edison designed a battery for the self-starter on the Model T for friend and admirer Henry Ford in 1912. The system was used extensively in the auto industry for decades.

During World War I, the U.S. government asked Thomas Edison to head the Naval Consulting Board, which examined inventions submitted for military use. Edison worked on several projects, including submarine detectors and gun-location techniques. However, due to his moral indignation toward violence, he specified that he would work only on defensive weapons, later noting, “I am proud of the fact that I never invented weapons to kill.”

By the end of the 1920s Thomas Edison was in his 80s and he slowed down somewhat, but not before he applied for the last of his 1,093 U.S. patents, for an apparatus for holding objects during the electroplating process. Edison and his second wife, Mina, spent part of their time at their winter retreat in Fort Myers, Florida, where his friendship with automobile tycoon Henry Ford flourished and he continued to work on several projects, ranging from electric trains to finding a domestic source for natural rubber.

Final Years

Thomas Edison died of complications of diabetes on October 18, 1931, in his home, “Glenmont,” in West Orange, New Jersey. He was 84 years old. Many communities and corporations throughout the world dimmed their lights or briefly turned off their electrical power to commemorate his passing. Edison’s career was the quintessential rags-to-riches success story that made him a folk hero in America. An uninhibited egoist, he could be a tyrant to employees and ruthless to competitors. Though he was a publicity seeker, he didn’t socialize well and often neglected his family. By the time he died he was one of the most well-known and respected Americans in the world. He had been at the forefront of America’s first technological revolution and set the stage for the modern electric world.

Edison, considered one of America’s leading businessmen, is credited today for helping to build America’s economy during the nation’s vulnerable early years.

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