The Failed Inventions of Thomas Alva Edison

American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847 - 1931), in his laboratory at Orange, New Jersey.
Thomas Edison in his laboratory at Orange, New Jersey. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Thomas Alva Edison held 1,093 patents for different inventions. Many of them, like the lightbulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, were brilliant creations that have a huge influence on our everyday life. However, not everything he created was a success; he also had a few failures.

Edison, of course, had a predictably inventive take on the projects that didn’t quite work the way he expected.

“I have not failed 10,000 times, “ he said, “I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

Electrographic Vote Recorder

The inventor’s first patented invention was an electrographic vote recorder to be used by governing bodies. The machine let officials cast their votes and then quickly calculated the tally. To Edison, this was an efficient tool for government. But politicians didn’t share his enthusiasm, apparently fearing the device might limit negotiations and vote trading. 

Cement

One concept that never took off was Edison's interest in using cement to build things. He formed the Edison Portland Cement Co. in 1899 and made everything from cabinets (for phonographs) to pianos and houses. Unfortunately, at the time, concrete was too expensive and the idea was never accepted. The cement business wasn't a total failure, though. His company was hired to build Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Talking Pictures

From the beginning of the creation of motion pictures, many people tried to combine film and sound to make "talking" motion pictures. Here you can see to the left an example of an early film attempting to combine sound with pictures made by Edison's assistant, W.K.L. Dickson. By 1895, Edison had created the Kinetophone—a Kinetoscope (peep-hole motion picture viewer) with a phonograph that played inside the cabinet.

Sound could be heard through two ear tubes while the viewer watched the images. This creation never really took off, and by 1915 Edison abandoned the idea of sound motion pictures.

Talking Doll

One invention Edison had was just too far ahead of its time: The Talking Doll. A fill century before Tickle Me Elmo became a talking toy sensation, Edison imported dolls from Germany and inserted tiny phonographs into them. In March 1890, the dolls went on sale.  Customers complained that the dolls were too fragile and when they worked, the recordings sounded awful. The toy bombed.

Electric Pen

Trying to solve the problem of making copies of the same document in an efficient manner, Edison came up with an electric pen. The device, powered by a battery and small motor, punched small holes through paper to create a stencil of the document you were creating on wax paper and make copies by rolling ink over it. 

Unfortunately, the pens weren’t, as we say now, user-friendly. The battery required maintenance, the $30 price tag was steep, and they were noisy. Edison abandoned the project.