Edison's greatest marvel: The Vitascope, Color lithograph, c. 1896. New York, Metropolitan Print Company.
Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC.
Students may find it difficult to study Thomas Edison's inventions because his work seems so far removed from today's technology. While the incandescent light bulb and the phonograph may be familiar, other of Edison's inventions, such as the kinetoscope, are so strange in name and appearance that students might not make the connection between that machine and today's motion picture industry. Without some understanding of Edison's time, it is unclear just how significant an impact Edison had on the world, both then and now.
The purpose of this lesson is to familiarize students with life and technology around 1900 in order to better understand how Edison influenced both. Through comparing and contrasting life and technology in the early part of the twentieth century with technology found in their own homes and experiences, students will gain a greater understanding of how far the fields of industry and entertainment have progressed since Edison's day and of how Edison's work was the foundation for technology they enjoy today.
Write the word "technology" on the board or on a flip chart and ask students how they would define technology. After the group has had a chance to brainstorm definitions of their own, ask several students to look up the definition in print or online dictionaries, such as WWWebster.com, accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library Kidspace. Discuss the various aspects of the definition, and form one definition on the board for the class to learn and use. Make sure the students understand that technology is the product of scientific research, and that usually those products serve industry, like machines, or people, like computers, stereos and televisions. Technology can also be categorized as products that help people and products that entertain people. It might also help to explain to students that technology is products that use electricity.
Ask students to have their Personal Technology Survey in front of them, and ask for volunteers to share the examples of technology found in their homes; put their responses on the board or on a flip chart. As more students read their lists, place checkmarks next to items already named. Ask the group to identify the most common forms of technology in their homes by looking at the number of checkmarks next to each item. Next, ask the students to consider the role each piece of technology plays in their lives. Give each student a copy of the Helpful and Entertaining Technology Chart provided in .pdf format, and ask them to categorize up to ten examples of technology in their homes as helpful technology or entertaining technology. You might ask students to complete this exercise in pairs or small groups.
Following this exercise, have the students write a short response to the following question, either alone or in small groups: How does technology affect your life—for instance, in what ways does it make your life easier, more difficult, more fun, more complex, more challenging?
Segue into the second lesson by explaining that the students are going to learn about what life and technology were like over one hundred years ago in America. You might begin by asking students to brainstorm, in small groups or as a whole group, what they think life and technology were like in the early 1900s. Write student responses on the board or on a flip chart. This activity would also be fun in small groups!
**If you teach in a laptop school, students can complete the next part of the lesson online using An Interview with Max Morath, from the website The American Experience—WayBack U.S. History for Kids - Technology in 1900, accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Internet Public Library-Youth Division.
If not, you can download, print, and hand out copies of the paraphrased interview, provided in .pdf format. If using the website, tell the students to omit questions 8, 9, 10, 11, and 13.
After the students have had time to read through the interview, you might want to discuss the interview with them. You could also compare the facts of the interview with the students' predictions about what technology was like in the 1900s. Finally, have students write a short essay comparing and contrasting life in early-1900s America with their lives in America today. You might have them choose three or four of the questions from the interview and answer those questions from their own point of view.
**Example: In 1900, most kids were dying to get their hands on a phonograph. The quality and the variety of the music the phonograph could play were not very good, though. Today, most kids want to play their music on a CD player, which has better sound. Today there are also more types of music to choose from—like country, pop, and classical. Most children today probably wouldn't choose to listen to opera, as some children did in the 1900s. Others might want an MP3 player to play music. An MP3 player doesn't use discs at all.
Segue into this lesson by explaining to students that the man responsible for most of the inventions talked about in the Max Morath interview is Thomas Alva Edison, and that they are going to learn about his life and his inventions.
Students should read through the selection and answer the following questions for comprehension:
After students have completed the reading assignment, review the three inventions introduced in the article—the stock ticker, the tin foil phonograph and the incandescent light—and ask students to categorize them as technology that helps people or technology that entertains people by writing each invention's name in a space under "Product" on their charts from lesson 1.
Next, look at a second page devoted to Thomas Edison's inventions at "The Inventions of Thomas Edison" on Inventors at About.com, accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Internet Public Library Kidspace. The material on these pages can be somewhat dense, so you may want to download, print, and hand out to students the condensed, paraphrased version, "A Survey of Thomas Edison's Inventions" with the name of the inventions followed by a short description of their workings.
You might also break students into groups and assign each group a specific invention to read about and report on. After students have read and discussed each invention briefly, ask them to categorize each invention as technology that helps people or as technology that entertains people, using their charts.
**Before completing this lesson in class, have students take their personal technology surveys home again, and this time have them make a list of all the items in their homes that are modern versions of Edison inventions, such as lights, iPods and mobile devices and iPads, etc.
Ask the class for examples of modern versions of Edison's inventions in their homes. Write student responses on the board or on a flip chart. Individually, ask students to write a short response to the following questions:
Share responses as a group to review the lesson.
Individually or in small groups, have students draw or use images from the internet and magazines to create colorful pictorial timelines of the evolution of Edison's inventions. Pictures of Edison's inventions can be found on all the pages referenced in this lesson.
**Example: Edison cylinder phonograph » Edison disc phonograph » record player » CD player.
4 class periods