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Primary Source Set Inventions and Innovations

The resources in this primary source set are intended for classroom use. If your use will be beyond a single classroom, please review the copyright and fair use guidelines.

Teacher’s Guide

To help your students analyze these primary sources, get a graphic organizer and guides: Analysis Tool and Guides


Invention (creating something new) and innovation (improving on something previously developed) have served as important aspects of American life since the country’s founding. This primary source set provides students with the opportunity to examine and reflect on the ways in which a number of new technologies and new ideas came into being and became widely known. The primary sources in this set are intended to foreground inventive processes, showing how people identified problems and designed solutions, built prototypes and iterated designs, collaborated with others, persevered through challenges, communicated their findings, navigated the business and legal landscapes, and more.

The Incandescent Lamp

While a number of individuals developed electric lighting during the early to mid-19th century, Thomas Edison designed the first incandescent lamp that was long-lasting enough for widespread, practical use in 1879. Edison's lamp worked by passing electricity through a thin filament, placed inside a glass vacuum bulb that delayed the filament from melting. Edison tried literally thousands of different materials to serve as his filament before finally landing on the use of carbonized cotton thread, which allowed the bulb to burn for long periods of time. Edison's experiments on many different technologies took place in his famous Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory, which were conducted not as a solitary endeavor, but collaboratively, with others.

Agricultural Innovations

By the early 20th century, some in the United States had become concerned that the widespread monoculture of cotton farming was stripping the soil of nutrients, leading to erosion and poor yields. While serving as head of the Agriculture Department at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, George Washington Carver decided to tackle the problem, helping poor southern farmers through a series of agricultural innovations. These innovations included new crop rotation methods, which alternated nitrate-producing legumes such as peanuts and corn with cotton. Carver also experimented with alternative uses for a variety of crops including sweet potatoes, soybeans, and peanuts. In all, Carver developed more than 300 food, industrial and commercial products from peanuts – everything from peanut milk and punch to peanut soaps and cosmetics. In 1921, Carver was invited to testify before Congress regarding the benefit of the peanut.

Everyday Devices

Inventions and innovations do not always need to involve grand, world-changing technologies such as the telephone or electric light. Sometimes, they take the form of small-scale products--or improvements to existing products--that make people's everyday lives better. During the early to mid-20th century, Beulah Louise Henry was so prolific in developing such products that she was dubbed "Lady Edison." Examples of Henry's creations include: a vacuum ice cream freezer that relieved the user from excessive cranking; a bobbinless sewing machine that significantly increased seamstress productivity; and an air baby doll that could be blown up like a basketball. Between 1912 and 1962, Henry developed over 100 new products and received 49 patents.

The Steamboat

Up until the 18th century, people relied on wind, animal, or human power to travel over water. However, with the development of the steam engine, which used steam from boiling water to drive pistons back and forth, individuals such as John Fitch and James Rumsey began to develop plans for steam-powered boats. Fitch's initial design built upon earlier forms of aquatic transportation, with steam-powered oars used as a means of propulsion, though he would later replace the oars with paddlewheels. In a 1788 letter to James Madison, Fitch argued that using steamboats could cut shipping costs in half, showing detailed calculations of what it cost to supply a ship with human oarsman, who required "provisions and liquor" and who added non-cargo weight to the ship.

The Telegraph

Before the 19th century, communicating over distance was either time consuming – such as when horses delivered letters – or subject to the elements – such as when signals were sent via smoke. This changed when a number of inventors, including Sir William Fothergill Cooke, Sir Charles Wheatstone, and Samuel F. B. Morse, experimented with developing early electrical telegraphs. On May 24, 1844, Morse dispatched his historic first telegraphic message, transmitting a series of electrical signals over a wire between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland. To do so, Morse used a code that he and his partner Alfred Vail had developed, in which the long signals (dashes) and short ones (dots) stood for letters and numbers. Morse Code was designed with efficiency in mind, with the most frequently used letters given the shortest codes. Throughout his life, Morse continued to find new applications for his telegraph, such as enabling railway signaling that automatically reported the presence of a train anywhere on the railway line.

The Telephone

While the telegraph marked the world's first real-time electrical communication, the telephone enabled real-time voice communication for the first time. During the mid-19th century, various inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray worked on this problem. Then, on March 10, 1876, Bell uttered his now famous words over the telephone: "Mr. Watson--come here--I want to see you." Bell's telephone worked by converting sound waves into electrical signals through the use of a vibrating needle attached to a battery. These electrical signals were then sent over a wire and decoded into audible speech once more. Bell's many notebooks, available at the Library of Congress, document his plans and experiments as he sought to develop the telephone. After Bell's successful test with Watson, he staged grand demonstrations to spread the word. Despite these early successes, Bell still had to work hard to achieve commercial success, including fighting a bitter patent dispute with fellow inventor Elisha Gray.

Suggestions for Teachers

  • Ask students to examine one or more primary sources from the set and make a list of what aspects of the engineering design process the source illuminates. For instance, did the individuals behind the invention identify problems, design solutions, make models or draw pictures, change their designs, or collaborate with others? Did they show creative thinking or illustrate perseverance in the face of challenges? As students make their lists, ask them to cite details from their sources to support their conclusions.
  • Invite students to examine one or more primary sources from the set and note steps that inventors and innovators took after developing a new technology or idea, such as communicating their findings to a larger public, lobbying the government for business, or filing for a patent. As they make their list, ask students to cite details from the source to support their conclusions. What do these details tell us about the goals of the selected inventors and innovators and how they pursued them?
  • Encourage students to examine primary sources related to several different inventions. Compare and contrast the approaches taken. For instance, students might compare the motivations behind the development of different inventions and innovations, the challenges that were overcome, or the steps necessary to design the product.
  • Ask students to analyze an invention or innovation from the set and see if they can determine what problem it was trying to solve. Then, challenge them to research what effects – both positive and negative – the invention or innovation had on society.
  • Challenge students to think about how inventions and innovations arise from previous efforts and discoveries. For instance, what previous inventions and innovations were necessary for the invention of the telegraph, telephone and electric light? What might this say about the process of invention? Additionally, how did other inventors and innovators subsequently improve upon the technologies featured in this set? What do these technologies look like today?
  • Ask students to choose one of the inventions and innovations within the set and research several people who may have been working on similar ideas at the same time. What does their research tell them about the process of invention and innovation within communities of people vs. the notion of a lone inventor working in isolation?

Additional Resources