Business and Labor

Thomas Edison Invents Something Politicians Didn’t Want

The first invention ever patented by Thomas Edison did not go over well with his target customers: politicians.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

It was an automatic vote counter.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Alva Edison was born on Feb. 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. By 1868 he had moved to Boston, where he worked as a night telegraph operator. Perhaps more important, he met people who knew about electricity. He also studied the work of Michael Faraday, the English scientist who made important discoveries in electromagnetism and electrochemistry.

He designed the vote counter to speed the count of votes in legislatures.

A lawmaker could cast a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ vote by flipping a switch at his desk. It would eliminate delays in preparing ballots, physically putting them into the ballot box and then counting the ballots. He registered for his patent on Oct. 13, 1868.

Edison tried to sell his vote counting machine to Congress. They weren’t interested. That’s because the delays were deliberate, a way to sense which way a vote was going and an opportunity to influence waverers. As one lawmaker said to Edison, it would upset “the delicate political status quo.”

It would be 23 years before a vote counting machine was used, and it wouldn’t even be Edison’s. Edison, however, would find other things to invent – 1,092, to be exact.  The failure of the vote counting machine, though, taught him an important lesson: “Never waste time inventing things that people would not want to buy.”

This story updated in 2022.


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