Thomas Edison’s First Patented Invention—a Voting Machine for Congress—Was a Total Flop
On June 1, 1869, Thomas Edison patented his very first invention: a voting machine meant for Congress.
According to Rutgers University’s Thomas A. Edison Papers Project, the 22-year-old inventor might’ve been inspired to design the device after newspaper reports announced that both the New York state legislature and the city council of Washington, D.C., were investigating means of automating their ballot process. At the time, legislators voted by calling out “Yea” or “Nay” (or something of that nature), and a clerk jotted down their responses one by one.
Edison’s “electrographic vote-recorder” had the names of all the voters listed twice: in a “Yes” column on one side, and a “No” column on the other. When a person flipped a switch to indicate their vote, the machine would transmit the signal through an electric current and mark their name in the corresponding column, while keeping track of the total tally of votes on a dial. After everyone had voted, an attendant would place a sheet of chemically treated paper on top of the columns and press down on it with a metallic roller, imprinting the paper with the results.
A telegraph operator named Dewitt Roberts invested $100—about $1754 in today's dollars, according to Tech Times—in the device and set off for an exhibition on Capitol Hill. Alas, members of Congress were completely uninterested, and the committee chairman in charge of deciding its fate declared that “if there is any invention on earth that we don't want down here, that is it.”
The committee didn’t think the vote-recorder streamlined the process enough to be useful, but it’s possible they weren’t too keen on speeding things up in the first place. If the officials didn’t voice their votes aloud, there wouldn’t be any opportunity to filibuster policies or persuade each other to switch their stances—an integral part of congressional proceedings.
Edison, of course, recovered from his first flop. He went on to invent (or at least improve upon) the light bulb, create the cat video, and devise many more notable creations.