History Makers: Thomas Edison

Illustrations by Dave Shephard

Imagine life without light bulbs. What would it be like? Up until the late 1800s, homes didn’t have them. People used candles or lanterns to find their way in the dark.

To help improve people’s lives, inventors had been trying to make light bulbs for houses. But their early ideas didn’t work. Some bulbs didn’t last long enough. Others were too dim or bright.

In the 1870s, Thomas Edison announced that he would build the perfect light bulb. He was determined to succeed!

Challenges were nothing new to Edison. Around age 12, he started to lose hearing in both ears.

But Edison didn’t let that slow him down. As a kid, he had a lot of ideas. He also liked to take things apart to see how they worked. That led him to become an inventor.

Bright Ideas

In 1876, Edison opened a laboratory in New Jersey. He hired a team to work with him on the light bulb.

The toughest task was to find the best material for the filament. That’s the thread or wire that lights up when a light bulb is turned on.

Edison tried a piece of fishing line and the stringy part of a coconut shell. He even used hair from a friend’s beard!

After hundreds of tries, Edison’s team found that cotton thread worked best. With it, their bulb glowed for about 13 hours before burning out.

The light bulb was ready for use. Edison had done it!

It's All Right to Fail

Over the years, Edison and his team came up with hundreds of other inventions. One was the phonograph. It recorded and played sound.

Behind every invention, there were many ideas that didn’t work. But these ideas were still important.

“Edison used to say no experiment is a failure,” says Paul Israel. He’s a historian at Rutgers University. “He believed you could always learn something that could help you move forward.”

1. According to the article, what challenge did Edison face when he was a child?

2. What are some ways Edison tried to create a glow inside a light bulb?

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

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