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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Comments (5)
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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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