Inventions 1: Edison and the Light Bulb

What You Need


  • Light bulb
  • Telephone (actual or photo)
  • Pencil
  • Eraser
  • Stapler
  • Watch
  • Scissors
  • Other simple, handy "inventions" from classroom
  • Poster paper
  • Crayons
  • Markers

Optional Activity Materials—Making a Light Bulb

  • One small jar
  • Cork stopper for a lid
  • Three feet of shielded copper wire
  • One 6-volt battery
  • Thin iron wire (the best source for this is unraveled picture hanging wire)

An easier alternative:

  • 1 C-cell battery
  • 1 Flashlight bulb
  • Coated copper wire with both ends stripped of coating
Inventions 1: Edison and the Light Bulb


To introduce students to the realm and power of inventions, and help them to better recognize their impact on people and society.


This lesson is the first of a two-part series on technology and inventions. Students are introduced to the world of technology and inventions and how its ongoing development continues to affect all aspects of living—in both good and potentially bad ways.

In Inventions 1: Edison and the Light Bulb, students learn how inventions are created to solve problems or improve the way things are done. The improvement of the incandescent light bulb by Thomas Edison is used as an example.

In Inventions 2: The Impact, students focus on the process of inventing, particularly on what short- and long-term issues inventors have to consider before developing an invention. They examine a number of other revolutionary American inventions and are encouraged to evaluate the effects of their own invention ideas in terms of their usefulness and public impact.

At this early level, it is important to introduce students to the idea of technology, and help them to identify its various forms and ongoing effects on society. It is also worthwhile to help them see that technology, including the invention of processes and tools since the beginning of time, shows that people have some control over their destiny and can handle problems by searching for better ways to do things, inventing solutions, and taking risks. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 53.)

Having students take part in simple design projects gives them interesting opportunities to solve problems, use tools well, measure things carefully, make reasonable estimations, calculate accurately, and communicate clearly. They also are given the opportunity to ponder the effects that their inventions or projects might have, particularly on their surroundings. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 54.)

Planning Ahead

Read the following general background materials that will be used as reference material in the lesson.


As a way to spark interest and ease into the subject matter, start the lesson by asking students this question:

  • What is something that you find is hard to do?

Elicit a number of responses until one or two of the examples could be improved or simplified through the invention of a tool, device, or process. Then ask:

  • Can you think of a tool or device that can help you do ______ more easily?

Encourage more responses, affirming their general ideas. (The ideas expressed in this exercise should be noted, because they will play a role in the second lesson of this series, Inventions 2: The Impact, where students begin to evaluate the potential impact of inventions and take part in their own creative invention processes.)

One by one, gather a pencil, an eraser, a watch, a stapler, a pair of scissors, a light bulb, and a telephone (actual or photo) from around the classroom. Display the items before the class and ask questions like these:

  • What is this? (Show item.)
  • What is it used for?
  • How does it help people?
  • How do you think it was created? Why?
  • What if people did not have _____? In what ways would life be harder without it?

Next, give students a basic explanation of technology and inventions, discussing how inventions like the pencil, watch, light bulb, and telephone were created by everyday people just like them who identified problems in their lives and were motivated to come up with new or better ideas to make life easier.

Then, as a way to get students to think of inventions as a means of solving everyday problems—that can ultimately change society and the way people live—ask questions like these:

  • Does anyone know what an invention is?
  • Can you give me an example of an invention?
  • What problem does it solve or ways does it help people?
  • When do you think it was created?
  • How do you think it was created?
  • In what ways do you think it has helped people?

    (Accept all answers, but ask students to support their views with explanations.)


Inform students that they will learn more about one of the most important inventions of the past few centuries—the light bulb.

Edison and the Light Bulb
Have students first think about and answer open-ended questions like the ones below. (Encourage them to elaborate on their answers as a way to get them to think about what life was like before the light bulb improved the quality of people's lives.)

  • What do you think life was like before the light bulb was invented?
  • What did people do to see at night or in the dark? (They used candles, oil lamps, fireplaces, etc.)
  • When do you think it was invented?
  • What kinds of problems did the invention of the light bulb solve?
  • In what ways did it make life easier for people and society?
  • Do you know who invented the light bulb?

Then, using the About Edison page and background resources like Thomas Alva Edison, tell the story of Edison and the invention of the light bulb using photos and illustrations. Illustrations of the phonograph, kinetoscope (motion picture camera), and other inventions should also be presented.

In addition to having the previous discussion questions answered, students will be informed of, among other things: background information on Thomas Edison; how the hardworking Edison summed up the invention process with the quotation, "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration," which should help students see that anyone who is inspired and hard working can create meaningful inventions or breakthroughs; and that the light bulb ultimately illuminated homes, buildings, and cities across the world, providing people with innumerable benefits.

Encourage students to ask questions during this presentation. During this discussion, ask questions like these to broaden their understanding and help them make connections with the present:

  • How do you think light bulbs have changed since Edison's day?
  • What kinds of light bulbs are there?
  • What other kinds of tools, machines, or other inventions use the light bulb? (Items include table lamps and light fixtures, cars, airplanes, street lamps, advertising signs, flashlights, holiday ornaments, etc.)
  • How often do you use light bulbs? When? Where? How?
  • What would your life be like without them?

    (Encourage all answers with students supporting their views with examples.)

To spark further interest and expand upon their learning, construct before the class an example of an invention-type apparatus from the components listed in the Materials section, as based on the Make a Light Bulb resource.

During this hands-on demonstration process, it should become clear to the class that anyone with the inspiration and capacity to work hard can develop life-changing inventions like the light bulb. This activity may also help them to begin thinking about how inventions are constructed, which may help them in the second lesson of this series.


Review the key discussion questions and lesson material. The subject matter and concepts related to the second lesson of this series should also be asked. These may include:

  • What was unique about Edison?
  • What makes people want to invent new things?
  • What would life be like if people did not make inventions?
  • If you were an inventor, what kinds of tools, devices, or machines would you like to create? Why?

As a preview for the second lesson, ask:

  • What kinds of things do people have to think about when they try to invent something?
  • Are all inventions successful? Why or why not?

Time to Draw—Making Posters for Edison
Divide the class into groups of two or three. Have each group imagine that it is the late 19th century and they have been hired by Edison to make special posters that advertise the uses and benefits of the light bulb (and or other important inventions they have already seen visuals of, like the phonograph or the kinetoscope [motion picture camera]).

Let the groups know that it is important to make the posters interesting and easy to understand. The posters should also have a big picture of the invention and show how it helps to solve problems or make life easier or more efficient.

One way to do this would be to draw a quick poster on the board for them to see. Tell and show them that each poster will need to have these parts:

  • A title (example: "Light Up Your Homes At Night!")
  • A big picture of the invention being used (example: a light bulb lighting up a room)
  • Show how it helps people (example: a smiling family sitting at a dinner table)

In this example, point out that students may also adorn the poster with descriptive and enticing words like "bright!" and "wow!" to get people's attention. They may also wish to use Edison's famous name to explain who created the new product.


Follow this lesson with the second lesson in the series on technology and inventions: Inventions 2: The Impact.

Students can learn more about inventors and inventions by exploring the Inventor of the Week Archives from The Invention Dimension. This extensive database offers an alphabetical listing of numerous inventors of the past and present and detailed information on their important accomplishments.

Invention at Play is part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History that challenges students to explore, question, invent, and collaborate to make their own discoveries.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards

Other Lessons in This Series