Thomas Edison’s Hugely Ambitious “To-Do” List from 1888


Even beyond developing the phonograph, the motion picture camera, light bulb, and the creepy talking doll, Thomas Edison got a lot done in life. With his even greater knack for enterprise than for invention, he might, had he lived in the 21st century, traded on his reputation for productivity and industry by selling us his personal “life hacks.” Alas, those in search of Edisonian tips and tricks for living must infer them from all the materials he left behind after a life that stretched from the mid-19th century to nearly the mid-20th, such as this extensive to-do list from January 3, 1888.

“Throughout his life, Thomas Edison kept ‘idea books’ filled with to-do lists, sketches and other notes on current and future projects,” says the site of PBS’ American Experience. Just over a month after opening his new lab in West Orange, New Jersey, “Edison created a five-page list of ‘Things doing and to be done.’

That year alone, Edison would execute 45 patents, primarily concerned with the phonograph and cylinder records. Alexander Graham Bell and his associates had begun to make improvements on Edison’s decade-old phonograph, which pushed Edison into action. Despite this competition, Edison’s ‘To Do’ list shows that the phonograph wasn’t the only thing on the inventor’s mind.”

These five pages of things to acquire or create (see the full list below) include not just the “New Standard Phonograph” but an “Improved Magnetic Bridge for practical work,” “Uninflammable Insulating Material,” a “Box balancing System,” “Artificial Mother Pearl,” “Butter direct from Milk,” “Artificial Ivory,” “Marine Telegraphy,” and a “Long distance standard Telephone Transmitter which employs devices of recording phonograph.” While not all the ideas that inspired, or were inspired by, the items on this long list came to fruition, Edison clearly saw value in getting them all out of his head and on paper. One wonders what the man who declared that “genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” would make of the countless organization and productivity tools now on the market. Nobody ever perspired because of using an app, after all — but plenty have perspired developing them.

Things doing and to be done:

Cotton Picker
New Standard Phonograph
Hand turning phonograph
New Slow speed cheap Dynamo
New Expansion Pyromagnetic Dynamo
Deaf Apparatus
Electrical Piano
Long distance standard Telephone Transmitter which employs devices of recording phonogh
Telephone Coil of Fe [iron] by tt in Parafine or other insulator
Platina Point Trans using new phono Recorder devices
Gred Battery for Telephones
“ “ “ “ Long Distance
“ “ “ — Phonoplex
“ “ “ Jump Telegraph
“ “ “ Voltmeter
Improved Magnetic Bridge for practical work
Motograph Mirror
“ Relay
“ Telephone practical
Artificial Cable
Phone motor to work on 100 volt ckts
Duplicating Phono Cylinders
Deposit in vacuo on lace, gold + silver also on cotton molten chemical compound of lustrous surfaces to imitate silk— also reg plating system
Vacuous Ore milling Large Machine
Magnetic Separator Large
Locking material for Iron sand
Artificial Silk
Artificial filiments [sic]
New [illeg.]
Uninflammable Insulating Material
Good wax for phonograph
Phonographic Clock
Large Phonograph for Novels, etc.
Pig Iron Expmts with Electricity + Magnetism
Malleablizing Cast now in Vacuo
Drawing fine wire
Joy phonograph for Dolls
Cable Motograph
Very Loud Motograph telephone with 1/3 siz phonogh motor.
Magneto telephone with actual contact end magnet compression of an adjustable rubber press as in new phones
Snow Compressor
Glass plate water ore repeator
Tinned faced [illeg.] for Stove Castings
Refining Copper Electrically
Quad neutral relay
Cheap low induct Cop Insulating material for Lead Cable people
Constant moved for nonfoundry
200 volt 20 cp lamp
Cheap [illeg.] Indicator
Recording Valt Indicator
Box balancing System
Alternating Machine + Transformer
Sifua Surface Switches
Vulcanizing [illeg.] African Rubber adullement
Platinum wire [illeg.] cutting Machine
Silver wire wood cutting system
Silvering or Coppering bathing cloth in Vac for durability
S Mater attend own with new devices for c speed
Expansion mirror plat… wire in vacuo
Photoghy by camping heat after central points
Boron fil.
Hg [mercury] out of Lamp
Phonaplex Repeater
Squirting glass sheet tube etc. Nickel [illeg.]
Artificial Mother Pearl
Red Lead pencils equal to graphite
India Ink
Tracing Cloth
Ink for blind
Fluffy Incandescent Burner for gas
Regenerative Kerosene Burner
Centralized arc in arc Lamp
Cai–[illeg.] Tesla arc lamp test
Strengthening alternating cli by sternt Dynamo
ERR Cont [illeg.] reducers
Electroplating Machines for Schenectady
Condenser Transformer
Sqr ft difraction gratings in silver by 5000 [illeg.] tool special [illeg.] lathe for ornamental purposes
Photo Scant–[illeg.]
Cheap plan produce Mimeograph surfaces
Miners battery + lamp
Sorting Coal from Slate Machine
Butter direct from Milk
Burning asphalt Candles by high chimney
Magnets RR signals
Soften [illeg.] of books transfer to Cop plate + plate to [illeg.] matrix
Telephone Repeater
Substitute for Hard rubber
Artificial Ivory
Soften Vegetable Ivory to press in sheets
Various batteries on [illeg.] Type
Revolving Thermo
Caller Indicator for Jump Telegh
Marine Telegraphy
Long distance speaking tube filled H20 2 dia pressure
Lend plate battery for modifying attending Current
Two revolving bands in battery Lead faced press in liquid close together + out into separate chambers to [illeg.]reduce by gas the other
Siren phonogh
Perm mag like an electromag of [illeg.] hand steel high polish separately magnetized + forced together powerfully[illeg.]
Telephone working more [illeg.]
Eartubes formed crescent [illeg.] wire
Long strip 50 cp carbon under stress [illeg.] for
Cheap Voltmeter
Chalk Battery
Dynamo or motor long tube in long magnetic field top + bottom contacts forcing water through generator current by – passage.
Thermo battery slick Copper oxidized then plated over surface oxide nailed to make good contact [illeg.]
Disk Phonogh

Related Content:

In 1911, Thomas Edison Predicts What the World Will Look Like in 2011: Smart Phones, No Poverty, Libraries That Fit in One Book

A Brief, Animated Introduction to Thomas Edison (and Nikola Tesla)

Thomas Edison & His Trusty Kinetoscope Create the First Movie Filmed In The US (c. 1889)

Hear Thomas Edison’s Creepy Talking Dolls: An Invention That Scared Kids & Flopped on the Market

Take the 146-Question Knowledge Test Thomas Edison Gave to Prospective Employees (1921)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • Vijay says:

    I wonder how many of these things are yet to be invented? Does anyone know if all the imaginary things he thought about have been invented?

  • Gadge says:

    Edison gets much more credit than he deserves. This man stole the credit for all his inventions (including three light bulb) from those who are the true geniuses. He swindled Tesla (and others) out of $50,000 and made a campaign to discredit him. This also resulted in Edison intentionally electrocuting countless animals including an elephant. This is just the tip of Edison’s scum-baggary. Needless to say, he was actually a very bad man.

  • Thomas Alva Edison Jr says:

    5194783726 E.G aka Thomas A Edison Jr aka William L Griffin Jr aka Charles Williams Jr aka James P. Griffin Jr patents over 18510 genius Kids legacy aka William Brian Jr .

  • Thomas Alva Edison Jr says:

    5104783726 E.G aka Thomas A Edison Jr aka William L Griffin Jr aka Charles Williams Jr aka James P. Griffin Jr patents over 18510 genius Kids legacy aka William Brian Jr .


    Unstoppable, education rules the national, image my situation if you could take walk in my shoes …Could you love and forgive all you your brother’s and sisters whoever did you wrong 💯 God is good is great I live and walk by faith 🙏🙌so my heart ❤big enough to love and forgive cause I wanna be just like Jesus christ our lord ❤

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