Innovative Lives

Celebrating Edison's 150th Birthday at the Lemelson Center

Thomas Edison<BR>1847-1931

On February 11, 1997, the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center celebrated Thomas Edison's 150th birthday with a special interactive program and electronic field trip between the National Museum of American History and the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

Birthday Cake
Students at the Lemelson Center celebrate Thomas Edison's birthday with a light-bulb-decorated birthday cake.
Smithsonian photo by Jeff Tinsley

Historians Robert Rosenberg, director of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University, and Edward Pershey, curator of industrial and urban history at the Western Reserve Historical Society, hosted the event in the Museum's Information Age Theater on Edison's birthday, February 11. Through a slide talk and demonstrations of several of Edison's inventions, the historians showed that many of Edison's inventions were not entirely new devices, but rather improvements on existing ideas or technologies. They also emphasized that Edison relied on a team of skilled technicians to carry out projects at his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory.

Classes from the P. R. Harris Educational Center, Washington, D.C., and the Rosa Parks Middle School, Olney, Md., journeyed electronically to the restored Menlo Park complex at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. Through video-conferencing technology, the students toured Edison's laboratory and office and talked with curators John Bowditch and William Pretzer, learning about the intensity with which Edison and his team worked: in 1882, they applied for 104 patents for the light bulb alone!

A second group of students, from Jefferson Junior High School in Washington, Franklin Middle School, Chantilly, Va., and--participating via a computer video connection--Buzz Aldrin Elementary School in Reston, Va., witnessed a demonstration of one of Edison's early light bulbs. Several of the students had the opportunity to record and play back their own voices on Edison's early tinfoil phonograph, and compare that to a later wax cylinder recording.

Student making a recording on an Edison phonograph.
Smithsonian photo by Jeff Tinsley

All of the students toured the Museum's exhibit about Edison, "Lighting a Revolution," and celebrated Edison's birthday with a "light bulb" cake. Throughout the program, the students raised many questions about Edison, his working methods, and his creations, as well as about inventors and invention in general.

Recording Sound
Bob Rosenberg records "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on Edison's tinfoil phonograph . . .
QuickTime Movie

. . . and plays it back.
QuickTime Movie

Introducing the Edison phonograph
205k WAV file

Recording "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on Edison's tinfoil phonograph . . .
86k WAV file

. . . and playing it back (recorded live at the "birthday party")
95k WAV file

Students recording on the tinfoil phonograph at the "birthday party"
124k WAV file

Click here to learn more about Thomas Alva Edison!

All text and images © Smithsonian Institution. Updated 28 January 2005.

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