Illustration of a person in a suit next to a lightbulb

All illustrations by Dave Shephard

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? Up until the late 1800s, homes didn’t have light bulbs. People used candles or lanterns to find their way in the dark. 

Beginning in the early 1800s, several inventors attempted to create an electric light bulb. None of these early versions worked properly. Some bulbs didn’t last very long, and others were too dim or too bright. 

But Thomas Alva Edison was determined to get the job done right. He wasn’t going to let challenges stand in his way. 

Keeping Busy 

Challenges were nothing new to Edison. He was born the youngest of seven children in Milan, Ohio, in 1847. At around the age of 12, Edison began to lose hearing in both his ears. By the time he was an adult, he was nearly deaf. 

Hearing loss didn’t slow Edison down. When he was 12, he got a job selling newspapers along the local railroad line. 

Edison liked to figure out how things worked. So he set up a small laboratory in one of the train cars. During an experiment, he accidentally set the car on fire. It was the end of his railroad days—but the start of his career as an inventor. 

Bright Idea

In 1876, Edison opened a lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and hired a team to help him. They came up with 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 hard to find the best material for the filament. That’s the thread or wire that lights up when a bulb is turned on. 

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

It took hundreds of attempts, but Edison and his team didn’t give up. They tried cotton thread. With that, their bulb glowed for about 13 hours before burning out. Months later, the team found 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

Over the years, Edison went on to receive more than 1,000 patents from the U.S. government. But behind every successful invention, there were many that didn’t work. 

“Edison used to say no experiment is a failure,” says historian Paul Israel. “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 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)