Thomas Edison

This inventor didn’t let his failures stop him from reaching his goals.

The sun is setting, and your room is getting dark. What if there were no light switch to flip on? Until the late 1800s, homes didn’t have light bulbs. People used candles or lamps that burned oil or gas to find their way in the dark. 

For decades, inventors had attempted to create a practical electric light bulb. But none of these early versions worked properly. Some bulbs didn’t last very long, and others were too dim, too bright, or too dangerous.

But Thomas Alva Edison was determined to find a solution. And he wasn’t going to let any challenge stop him.

All illustrations by Dave Shephard

Keeping Busy

Edison was born the youngest of seven children in Milan, Ohio, in 1847. He developed a curiosity about the way things worked at a young age. When he was 12, he got a job selling newspapers on the local railroad line. He set up a small laboratory in a train car. During an experiment, Edison accidentally started a fire. That ended his railroad days—but it was the start of his career as an inventor.

At about the same time, Edison began to lose hearing in both ears. By the time he was an adult, he was nearly deaf. But Edison didn’t let his hearing loss slow him down. In fact, he later credited it with helping him focus better. 

“He liked to say this helped him when he was busy trying to think,” explains historian Paul Israel, an expert on Edison. “He wasn’t distracted by noises from outside.”

Bright Idea

In 1876, Edison opened a lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, that many have called an invention factory. Edison hired a team that helped him develop hundreds of inventions. One was the phonograph, a machine that recorded and played sound. 

But many consider the long-lasting light bulb to be Edison’s greatest invention. His team worked tirelessly to find the best material for the filament—the thread or wire that lights up when a bulb is turned on. 

They tried fishing line and the stringy part of a coconut shell. Edison even used hair from a friend’s beard. It took hundreds of attempts before Edison and his team found the answer. A bulb with a cotton thread filament glowed for about 13 hours before burning out. Months later, the team discovered that a bamboo filament worked even better. They used it to create a longer-lasting, affordable bulb.

Edison and his workers also invented the system needed to bring electricity into homes—wires, fuses, and switches to turn the lights on and off. 

Failure to Fame

Edison became known as the Wizard of Menlo Park. During his lifetime, he received more than 1,000 patents from the U.S. government. But for every successful invention, there were many others that didn’t work. 

“Edison used to say no experiment is a failure,” says Israel. “He believed you could always learn something that could help you move forward.”

1. What physical challenge did Edison face when he was a child?

2. What materials did Edison try using for the filament inside a light bulb? What eventually worked best?

3. What did Edison mean when he said that no experiment is a failure?

Skills Sheets (2)
Skills Sheets (2)