Grade 3-5

Economic Spotter: Inventors and Entrepreneurs in the Industrial Age

Updated: October 10 2019,
Author: Mickey Ebert

The Industrial Age has also been called the Age of Edison. Edison patented more than 1000 inventions and gave rise to three industries: electric utilities, phonograph and record companies, and the film industry. This lesson will help students see the relationship between inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs, and industries.


lightbulbYou are an economic spotter! An economic spotter is able to spot economics concepts at work in historical settings. This lesson’s setting is Menlo Park, New Jersey, where inventions, entrepreneurship, and industry will be combined in an electrical burst that will change the entire world! Here, let me light the way…

Learning Objectives

  • Identify Thomas Edison as an inventor, innovator, and entrepreneur.
  • Identify entrepreneurial characteristics.

Resource List

  • The United States Mint Time Machine: A site which offers a virtual time-machine. (This link requires the use of Internet Explorer, if you are not using Internet Explorer use this activity) This site uses a virtual time machine to tell a story about Thomas Edison at Menlo Park, New Jersey.
  • Quotes of Thomas Edison: This site provides several quotes from Thomas Edison, giving readers a hint of what his character traits were.
  • What Makes an Entrepreneur?: Another EconEdLink lesson where students will list characteristics associated with an entrepreneur, which will be used to create a definition of an entrepreneur. Using their definition students should be able to identify an entrepreneur and explain why the entrepreneur is an entrepreneur and explain the difference between an intrapreneur and an entrepreneur.
  • US History: Inventors & Entrepreneurs: Another EconEdLink lesson where students will learn the difference between inventors and entrepreneurs. From talking with adults they will learn some of the benefits inventors and entrepreneurs have provided for society in the last 40 years.
  • Thomas Alva Edison Worksheet: Have your students use the worksheet to record their observations as to whether Thomas Edison was an entrepreneur, inventor or both as they continue the lesson.


It would surprise most children to know that one of the country’s most famous inventors was called “dull” by his elementary school teachers. Maybe the teachers needed to shine a different kind of light on Thomas Edison to see his brightness!

EdisonHave your students print out the worksheet “Thomas Alva Edison an Entrepreneur or Inventor?“. Have your students use the worksheet to record their observations as to whether Thomas Edison was an entrepreneur, inventor or both as they continue the lesson.

Go to the time machine at the U.S. Mint website to read the story about Thomas Edison and the last part of his journey to develop an electric light bulb. (This link requires the use of Internet Explorer, if you are not using Internet Explorer use this activity) You will be in the “Industry and Expansion” section of the time machine. Be sure and take the “Test of Time” when you finish the site!

An invention is a new product. Thomas Edison was a great inventor. He patented more than 1,000 inventions. He received more patents than any other one person in the history of the United States. A patent is a document that says no one else may make, use, or sell a given product except the inventor. Sometimes inventors sell their patents.

Now, click on  the following link for a time line of Edison’s life.

Edison realized that the use of electric light bulbs would require a system of delivering electricity to places where people wanted electric light bulbs, like houses, stores, factories, etc. So Edison developed a system for generating electricity and sending it to other places.

Innovation is the introduction of an invention into a use that has economic value. Although the telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, Bell’s telephone only operated over distances of about 3 miles. Edison took that invention, improved it and discovered a way to transmit speech across great distances. What a great innovation!

Do you think Edison saw that his electric light bulb had economic value? You bet he did! He had been working over a year on this invention. He spent all that time, used up all that energy, and sacrificed all that it cost so that he could finally invent a light bulb that would stay lit for a long period of time. But he didn’t stop there. He planned how to sell it to people, to business owners, to whole cities. He was an entrepreneur. He was willing to take the risk to put it on the market.

An entrepreneur is someone who is willing to take risks in order to develop new products and start new businesses. Entrepreneurs recognize opportunities, enjoy being their own boss, and accept challenges. You can only imagine how much time, money, and energy Thomas Edison spent in developing his system for getting the electric light bulb to light whole cities. He had to develop an underground power station that could supply power to 2,000 homes. Why would he spend so much time, money, and energy to do that? [To help people and make money.]lightswitch

Eventually Edison’s Electric Lighting Company led to the development of utility companies we have today. His invention of the phonograph led to the music recording business. Edison’s invention of a camera that recorded pictures in motion led to the motion pictures we view today when we go to the movies. Edison made a lot of money from the profits of the industries that his inventions started.

Not all of Edison’s inventions made money. Read about some of his failures like a motion picture with sound! Eventually someone took his idea, improved on it, marketed it, and now we go to movies that have sound.


Thomas Edison was a great inventor and a great entrepreneur. You don’t have to be an inventor to be an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur takes the risk to bring a product to market with the hope of making a profit. Entrepreneurs have certain characteristics that make them willing to take the risks.

Extension Activity

For other lessons on inventors and entrepreneurs, click on:

US History: Inventors & Entrepreneurs
What Makes an Entrepreneur?


Lists of students can print off to complete the following activity.

As students read quotations from Thomas Edison, they should check off what character traits they think he has. When he says, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” what character trait does that describe? [Hard-working.]

Then students need to mark their own character traits; after comparing their traits to Edison’s, they should write a paragraph on whether they would make a good entrepreneur or not.