American Portraits

Lighting the Way: Thomas Alva Edison and Diligence

In this lesson, students will learn about the diligent work of Thomas Edison and how they can work to learn more throughout their lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


“I am now twenty-one. I may live to be fifty,” Edison said to his friend Milt Adams. “I have got so much to do and life is so short, I’m going to hustle.” Thus began Thomas Edison’s approach to his new life in Boston. He would be diligent, not slothful, and by careful and persistent work, continue his experiments with technology. Employed as a telegraph operator by night, during the day Edison tinkered with a duplex telegraph, one that could send two messages at once. In addition, he was awarded his first patent for the creation of an electronic vote recorder that could be used in a legislature. He also made improvements on a stock ticker used by investors wanting up-to-date information on stock or gold prices. After selling the rights to his model, Edison finally had enough money to devote himself to inventions….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you be diligent by learning about and experimenting with new things?

Virtue Defined

Diligence is intrinsic energy for completing good work.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the diligent work of Thomas Edison and how they can work to learn more throughout their lives.


  • Students will examine the diligent life and work of Thomas Alva Edison.
  • Students will determine ways that they can be more diligent in their actions.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of diligence to their own lives.


Thomas Alva Edison was one of America’s top inventors. He held the record for the most patents awarded to one man by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) with 1,093 until he was passed by Shunpei Yamazaki in 2003 and Kia Silverbrook in 2008. He was the first inductee into the PTO’s National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1973 because of his significant contributions.

Edison, called Al by his family, was born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio as the youngest of seven children. He suffered hearing loss from a childhood bout with scarlet fever and had trouble concentrating at school, leading his mother to educate him at home. Edison loved books, especially those that detailed science experiments. Edison set up his first lab in the basement of his home so that he could conduct experiments. He took a job at twelve selling candy and newspapers on a train to earn money for his tests. He soon became fascinated with telegraphy and learned how to operate a telegraph machine, which sent messages over a wire using Morse code. After a few years traveling around as a telegraph operator, Edison ended up in Boston, where he hoped to focus more on the technology of the telegraph machine.


  • Inductee
  • Contributions
  • Scarlet fever
  • Telegraphy/telegraph
  • Morse code
  • Slothful
  • Persistent
  • Tinkered
  • Duplex
  • Legislature
  • Stock ticker
  • Meticulous
  • Thoroughness
  • Carbon-button transmitter
  • Phonograph
  • Filament
  • Patent
  • Carbonized
  • Innovations
  • Iron ore
  • Domestic
  • Legacy
  • Endures

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Thomas Edison? Why was he a significant historical figure?
  • What was Edison’s purpose in life? Why did he strive to continue to learn more throughout his life?
  • What diligent actions did Edison take in his life?
  • How did Thomas Edison’s diligence help to advance freedom?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Ford, Carin T. Famous Inventors: Thomas Edison, Inventor. New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2002.
  • McCormick, Blaine. At Work with Thomas Edison: 10 Business Lessons from America’s Greatest Innovator. Canada: Entrepreneur Press, 2001.
  • Most Prolific Inventors, Business Insider,
  • National Inventors Hall of Fame,
  • Stross, Randall. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.
  • Sullivan, George. In Their Own Words: Thomas Edison. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2001.
  • The Thomas Edison Papers,

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