Teaching With Documents:
Alexander Graham Bell's Patent for the Telephone and Thomas Edison's Patent for
the Electric Lamp
This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.
- Era 6 -The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)
- Standard 1A -Demonstrate understanding of the connections among industrialization, the advent of the modern corporation, and material well-being.
This lesson correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.
- Standard V.B.3 -Evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding economic rights . . . including the right to establish and operate a business, copyright, and patent.
This lesson relates to the power of Congress to pass laws related to the granting of patents (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8).
Share this exercise with your colleagues in history, government, language arts, and science.
Analyzing the Document
- Provide each student with a photocopy of each of the featured documents,
and make a transparency with the following questions: What types of documents
are these? What are the dates of the documents? Who wrote the documents? What
is the purpose of the documents? What information in the documents helps you
understand why they were written? What can you deduce about the process of applying
for a patent from these two documents? What makes them legal documents as opposed
to merely personal requests? Why was a drawing a necessary part of the application
process? Are the drawings done to scale? Why are parts of each invention numbered
and lettered? Ask one student to read the documents aloud as the others read
silently. Lead the class in oral responses to the questions.
- Direct students to study Bell's patent drawing and determine what part of the telephone apparatus each letter in Bell's Figure 7 represents. Challenge students to do the research to find out whether they were correct.
Research and Compare
- Bell and Edison led fascinating lives in tandem. At different points in time they even made improvements to each others' inventions! Divide students into pairs. Ask student A in each pair to read a short biographical account about Bell and student B about Edison. Ask each pair to exchange information and determine what qualities these inventors shared. Ask students if they think all inventors share these qualities.
- Ask students to name all appliances in their homes that operate by electricity.
Ask them to imagine one week in their lives without a telephone. Then, ask students
to imagine how life was conducted differently in the early 19th century.
Next, using the following list of categories, lead a class discussion in which students brainstorm how the telephone and electric light changed life in the United States. Ask in what ways did each invention affect the following sectors:
- Home life
- A previously existing industry
- Creation of a new industry
- Social classes from poor to rich
- Urban life and growth of cities
- Rural life and farms
- Leisure time and entertainment
- Safety and health
- Etiquette and social interaction
A Timeline of U.S. Inventions
- Post on your classroom wall a timeline dated from 1800 to the present. Set
up groups of students to research the significant inventions patented during
a specific time frame -- for example, assign a decade or quarter-century to groups
of three. Students should be encouraged to use their school library resources
as well as on-line resources. Ask each group to draw each invention it finds
on one index card, and to write a description of its impact on another. All information
can be tacked onto the timeline.
When the timeline is complete, ask the entire class to pick one invention in every quarter century that they think made the greatest overall impact. This should generate some lively debate.
Create a Corporation
- Conduct a simulation to help students experience the steps necessary to create
First, discuss with students the differences between a proprietorship, a partnership, and a corporation.
Second, divide the class into six small groups and ask each group to complete the following tasks:
- Imagine an invention that will change our lives in the 21st century.
- Draw it and write the specifications for it.
- Explain how it will be manufactured and distributed.
- Create an advertisement for it explaining its uses and desirability.
- Decorate a box to be filled with investments by students in the other groups who wish to invest in the company that will manufacture your invention.
Third, give $500 of play money to each student (ten $50 bills). Tell them that they will be able to invest this money in any corporation except the one they have founded. Fourth, ask a representative from each corporation-group to present their product and plans to the class (the prospective investors). Fifth, set up a sale time where class members can invest their money. Direct students to "invest" by inserting the money they wish to invest into the appropriate box. Sixth, when the time to invest is over, count up the money collected in each box and report the amounts to the students. Finally, discuss with students why they invested where they did.
Research and Compare
- Ask students to compare the breakup of AT&T in 1982 to the litigation
for the late 1990s against Microsoft. Identify the sections of the Constitution
and acts of Congress under which the suits were initiated. Ask students to evaluate
the benefits of competition over universal and standardized service. When buying
out its competitors for long-distance service, Bell Telephone claimed that the
nation was better served by "one policy, one system, universal service."
Ask students what claims Microsoft is now making in its defense?
- Ask students to compare the management of public utilities in the United States and in a country whose government, rather than the private sector, is responsible for those services. Ask students to determine the advantages and disadvantages of each system.
The documents included in this project are from Record Group 241, Records of the Patent and Trademark Office. They are available online through the Online Catalog (OPA) National Archives Identifiers:
You can perform a keyword, digitized image and location search in NARA's Online Catalog. The online catalog's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.
The online catalog is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA holdings across the country. You can use the online catalog to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.
Currently, about 80% of NARA's vast holdings have been described in the online catalog. Thousands of digital images can be searched in the online catalog. In keeping with NARA's Strategic Plan, the percentage of holdings described in the online catalog will grow continually.
This article was written by Joan Brodsky Schur, a teacher at Village Community School in New York, NY.