Author Archives: Edison Innovation Foundation

Next Generation of STEM Leaders Emerge at Thomas Edison Pitch Contest 2023

[West Orange, New Jersey, June 1] — On May 17, 2023, the Edison Innovation Foundation held its 13th annual pitch contest final competition. Twelve teams competed, 4 each in the elementary, middle school and high school divisions—via a mixture of live and Zoom presentations. This event was once again hosted at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ. A distinguished panel of judges from the science/technical, business and governmental communities evaluated and selected the order of top award recipients.

This final competition was the culmination of five months of intense creativity and invention by student design teams, involving 319 teams, with 962 students from 97 schools across the country (37 states), including teams from France and Canada. Here is the order of awards from that high energy final competition:

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5 Ways Thomas Edison Changed World Economy

History does appreciate the way that inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs change the world, making things better for us all. It’s a kind of visceral feeling, often anecdotal. One of those great paradigm changers was Thomas Edison, who brought light to a lot more than just the electrical industry. Even though Edison died decades ago, his life’s work is still a significant portion of the world’s economy – About $12 trillion of the current world economy of $90 trillion. In fact, experts believe his accomplishments have resulted in one in four of all the jobs on the planet today! 

Edison is often called a “disruptor” for the way that he flipped industries on their heads with his inventions and created new ways of doing things. He is among other like Martin Luther King Jr. and Elon Musk, who have been put into the same category for how they challenged the old ways. Here are 5 ways he “disrupted” and changed the world as we know it today:

1. Thomas Edison increased the telegraph industry’s productivity times 4, with his improvements that increased the number of messages able to be sent down a wire at once.

2. During his quest to inaugurate concrete homes into American life, Edison increased the output of concrete manufacturing plants 4 times. He increased kiln length from 50 to a gigantic 200 feet with his giant ore crushing rollers in order to produce the massive amount of cement for homes and stadiums. While concrete buildings never became an industry itself, experts claim that Thomas Edison had the biggest influence in today’s cement production technology.

3. The Research & Development (R&D) industry was born when Thomas Edison opened the first industrial R&D lab based on team-based work in 1887. By 1931, every major company in the world had an R&D lab like Edison’s. This year, the USA will spend about $650 billion in R&D in all sectors, which is almost the size of the nation’s defense budget.

4. By improving on Alexander Graham Bell’s original speaking microphone in the phone with the carbon button transmitter, Thomas Edison made the telephone more of a widespread technology in every house throughout the world. Edison’s microphones were in just about every phone in the world from the early 1880s to the mid 1980, eventually becoming a mainstay of the broadcasting and sound amplification industries.

5. By discovering “thermionic emission” while experimenting with the carbon light bulb filament, Thomas Edison created the basis of the electronic industry. While he didn’t do much with this discovery in his time, the diode and triode vacuum tubes that came from it led to radio and television, and ultimately transistors and integrated circuits

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Artificial Intelligence – Smarter than Thomas Edison Himself

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a branch of computer science that can simulate human intelligence, such as reasoning, learning, problem-solving, and decision-making. Think of it as algorithms with certain sets of rules. AI systems have the ability to learn from the iteration of tasks where the computer data (aka machine learning algorithms) are fed to the system. Thomas Edison was a big fan of innovations that saved time and made life easier or more convenient for the public – That’s exactly what AI does.

Image: Chapt GPT capabilities via OpenAI ChatGPT

One impressive recent example (some would also say “scary”) is a program called ChatGPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) from OpenAI. Within 5 days of it being launched, 5 million people were using it.

The tool can be used to fulfill many requests from answering questions to writing poems to having a conversation with you. It responds within seconds and reads as if a human has typed the response.

We are much past the days of Thomas Edison’s Ediphone that he created for efficient oral dictation “without the aid of stenographers.” As OpenAI has showed us, people can do a lot more jobs today without the help of others, thanks to AI.

Image: Advertisement for the Electrip Ediphone via National Park Service

Can you imagine Thomas Edison with a personal assistant, perhaps affectionately named “Mina” after his wife, that could search his massive on-site technological library for information on what has been done before in certain key areas of interest? Think of the time he could have saved manually looking through books and technical reports!

Other Examples of Artificial Intelligence Technology That Would Impress Thomas Edison

  • Alexa and Siri, personal home assistants (Alexa, will you turn on my incandescent light bulb?)
  • Healthcare disease diagnosis–such systems (expert systems) have been in operation for close to 40 years
  • Pattern recognition-these systems (neural networks) are able to discern data patterns both digitally and visually, such as facial recognition.
  • Trouble-shooting systems; to determine root causes of hardware failures
  • Fraud detection; looking for patterns or the forensics in financial transactions
  • Prediction analytics; for potential future failures in subsystems and equipment
  • Smart cars and drones; operation, navigation, and collision avoidance
  • Text editors and autocorrect
  • Social media and search algorithms that show you recommended content you’d like
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Lewis Latimer – Great Black Inventor and Edison Colleague

In honor of Black History Month, we’d like to shine some light on an invaluable partner of Thomas Edison…Lewis Howard Latimer (1848-1928). Today, Latimer is considered one of the top ten black inventors, up there in stature with the great George Washington Carver. He was a man who never stopped learning and improving himself. 

Latimer was a chief draftsman, patent expert, and inventor. As the son of an escaped slave, Latimer overcame poverty and racism in his scientific career. Similar to Edison, he was self-taught and all of his inventions were related to improving quality of life for others.

Portrait of Lewis H. Latimer, “70 years young.”

Latimer and Edison

Latimer joined Thomas Edison’s lab in 1884, after he had already patented a process for making improved carbon filaments for bulbs.

He served as Edison’s key legal defense agent in his incandescent light patents against many infringers. He was of great importance to Edison finally helping him to gain total recognition as the inventor of incandescent lighting. He would work for Edison until about 1911, when he became an independent patent consultant.

Lewis H. Latimer, second from right, with staff of the “experts’ office,” legal department, General Electric Company.

Latimer also served as an expert witness for Edison, testifying on behalf of the great inventor in many court cases challenging Edison’s electrical system.

In 1924 at the age of 75, he helped form the “Edison Pioneers”, a group dedicated to keeping alive the ideals and aims of Thomas Edison. Latimer was its only African American member.

Edison once said…

Lewis Latimer…A True Renaissance Man

In addition to his scientific and business accomplishments, Latimer was also an active artist and civil rights leader.

Latimer served proudly in the civil war, and continued to advocate for civil rights throughout his life. From protesting the unlawful removal of a black school board member to teaching mechanical drawing classes at the Henry Street Settlement House, he often contributed both time and money to his community.

Latimer also wrote poems, plays and books. In 1889, as an expert electrical engineer, Latimer wrote a highly regarded technical book of its time, “Incandescent Electric Lighting—A Practical Description of the Edison System”. 

Diagram of Latimer’s bulb (1883) and acclaimed book (1889)

In his obituary by the Amsterdam News, it was written that, “His work in science was an achievement and his personal life was a work of art.”

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