Monday, June 04, 2007

Thomas Edison - greener and brainier than we thought?

Thomas Edison - Henry Ford - Energy and Power - New York Times (Registration required)

Read this informative piece on what Thomas Edison, arguably the most innovative inventor of his times, thought about renewable fuels.

I was astounded to learn from this article that a certain Charles Brush had invented a wind-powered house as early as 1888. Edison wanted to use a windmill for clusters of four to six houses. How forward thinking was this man!! Edison even thought of a battery driven car (something that has barely happened just now) that could be as affordable as Ford's revolutionary Model T. Apparently Henry Ford was a close friend of Edison.

So is it really surprising that Edison wrote the following to his friends sometime before his death?
“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
Wow! Edison! You're brainier than I'd figured!


Aram said...

Hope this additional information from Bryson makes interesting reading.

"Edison was the archetypal American pragmatist. Latin, philosophy and other such esoteric pursuits he dismissed as "ninny stuff." ( P. Smith: A People'sHistory of the United States., vol.7 p.858). What he wanted were useful inventions that would make life more agreeable for the user and bring untold wealth to him. With 1,093 patents to his name ( though many of these were in fact invented by his employees) Edison has almost twice as many patents as his nearest rival, Edwin Land (inventor of the Polaroid camera), and no one gave the world a greater range of products that have become central to modern life. Edison's character was not, to put it charitably, altogether unflawed. He connived against competitors, took personal credit for inventions that were not his, drove his assistants to breaking point (they were known as theInsomnia Squad- P. Smith) and when all else failed did not hesitate to resort to bribery, slipping New Jersey legislators $1,000 each to produce laws favourable to his interests. (Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p. 248). If not an outright liar, he was certainly often economical with the truth. The popular story, which he did nothing to dispel, was that a width of 35 mm was chosen for movie film because when one of his minions asked how wide the film should be he crooked a finger and thumb and said, "Oh, about this wide." In fact, as Douglas Collins points out, it is far more probable that rather than devise his own film, he used Kodak film, which was not only 70 mm wide but 50 feet long. When cut down the middle it would conveniently yield 100 feet of 35 mm film - curiously, the precise dimensions of Edison's first reels. ( Collins, The Story of Kodak, p.72). When George Westinghouse's novel and, in retrospect, superior alternating current electrical system begain to challenge the direct current system in which Edison had invested much effort and money, Edison produced an eighty-three-page booklet entitled "A Warning! From The Edison Electric LightCo." filled with alarming (and possibly fictitious) tales of innocent people who had been killed by coming in contact with Westinghouse's dangerously unreliable AC cables. (Though Westinghouse is associated in the popular mind with electricity, his initial fame came from the invention of air-brakes for trains. Before this useful development trains could only stop in one of two ways: by having brakemen manually turn a hand-wheel on each car, a laborious process, or by crashing into something solid, like another train). To drive home his point, he paid neighbourhood children twenty-five cents each to bring him stray dogs, then staged elaborate demonstrations for the press at which the animals were dampened to improve their conductivity, strapped to tin sheets and slowly dispatched with increasing doses of alternating current ( Flatow, They All Laughed, p.31). But his boldest - and certainly tackiest- public relations exercise was to engineer the world's first electrical execution using his rival's alternating current in the hope of proving once and for all its inherent dangers. The victim selected for the exercise was one William Kemmler, an inmate at Auburn State Prison in New York, who had got himself into this unfortunate fix by bludgeoning to death his girlfriend. The experiment was not a success. Strapped into an electric chair with his hands immersed in buckets of salt water, Kemmler was subjected to 1,600 volts of alternating current for fifty seconds. He gasped a great deal, lost consciousness and even began to smoulder a little, but conspicuously he failed to die. Not until a second, more forceful charge was applied did he finally expire. It was a messy, ugly death and wholly undermined Edison's intentions. Alternating current was soon the norm. Of linguistic interest is the small, forgotten argument over what to call the business of depriving a person of his life by means of a severe electrical discharge. Edison, always an enthusiast for novel nomenclature, variously suggested electromort, dynamort, and ampermort before seizing with telling enthusiasm on "to westinghouse," but none of these caught on. Many newspapers at first wrote that Kemmler was to be electrized, but soon changed that to electrocuted and before long electrocution was a word familiar to everyone, not least those on death row. Edison was to be sure a brilliant inventor, with a rare gift for coaxing genius from his employees, but where he truly excelled was as an organizerof systems. The invention of the light-bulb ( curiously, although everyone refers to the object as a light bulb, few dictionaries do. The American Heritage (first edition) has lighthouse, light-headed, light meter and many others in similar vein, but no light bulb. If you wish to know what that object is, you must look under incandescent light, electric light or electric lamp. Funk & Wagnalls Revised Standard Dictionary devotes 6,500words to light and its derivatives, but again makes no mention of light bulb. Webster's Second New International similarly makes no mention of light bulb. The third edition does - although it has just this to say:"light bulb n: incandescent lamp". For full details you still have to turn to incandescent lamp. In my experience, most dictionaries are the same. I can't explain it). The invention of the light-bulb was a wondrous thing, but of not much practical use when no one had a socket to plug it into. Edison and his tireless workers had to design and build the entire system from scratch, from power stations to cheap and reliable wiring, to lamp-stands and switches. In this he left Westinghouse and all other competitiors standing. The first experimental power plant was built in two semi-derelict buildings on Pearl Street, lower Manhattan, and on 4 September 1882 Edison threw a switch that illuminated, if but faintly, 800 flickering bulbs all over southern Manhattan. With incredible speed electric lighting became the wonder of the age. (American Heritage, 1979, p.76). Within months Edisonhad set up no fewer than 334 small electrical plants all over the world. Cannily he put them in places where they would be sure to achieve maximum impact: on the New York Stock Exchange, in the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, La Scala opera house in Milan, the dining-room of the House of Commons in London. All this made Edison, and America, immensely rich. By1920 it was estimated that the industries spawned by his inventions and business pursuits - from electric lighting to motion pictures - were worth an aggregate $21.6 billion. No other person did more to make America an economic power. (P.Smith op.cit., vol. 7, p.858). Edison's other great innovation was the setting up of a laboratory with the express purpose of making technological breakthroughs with commercial potential. Before long many leading corporations, notably AT&T, General Electric and DuPont were doing the same. Practical science, elsewhere the preserve of academics, had become in America, the work of capitalists."<>

nIlagrIva said...

Thanks for the information. We've been just flooded with information about Edison being Mr. Goody-two-shoes all the time that we find it hard to believe when information not tallying with the normal image comes up.

Looks like Edison was also a "crooked" capitalist! Or I suppose "archetypal American pragmatist" sums him up quite well.

Everybody has good and bad sides and it looks like Edison was no exception. But his AC-debunk fiasco is a series of incidents in really bad taste and tarnishes his otherwise fair image quite badly.

So, in my post, when I said "greener", it looks like Edison was being just pragmatic! Of course, neither I (apart from the "greener" phrase) nor the NYTimes article seem to suggest that his motivations were environmental in nature.

Thanks for the eye-opening comments.

parijata said...

'Green' can have many shlEShArthas. All the meanings seem to hold here! Green for the environment, green for envy and green for money!

hAram said...

Thanks, Neel (I hope I am permitted to address you so).

The key words are already pronounced by you: "Everybody has good and bad sides..."

Most of us, including yours truly, are Dr. Jekylls on one side, and Mr. Hydes when we can't help being hideous.

The good, the bad, and the ugly all have their places and uses in the divine scheme of things.

Probably, if Edison did not have the kind of nature depicted by Bryson, he could not have given us so many useful inventions.

However, I do take an exception to the phrase "crooked capitalist! Of course, you did put the crooked in quotes. I am an unabshed admirer of and subscriber to Ayn Rand's philosophy and "The Virtue Of Selfishness."

Have you ever thought of it? The most selfish of all people are the yogis.

The concept of "Hamsaksheera Nyaya" suggests to me that we must look at and take only the positive side of a person or thing and ignore everything else lest it should cloud our appreciating the good side.

I once attended some lecture on yoga along with a senior accomplished lady. Some of the points in the lecture were not agreeable to me and made me look at the whole program with suspicion with the result that I overlooked even the good points that might have benefited me.

Later when I discussed this with my escort, she revealed to me her philosophy that she always ignored whatever points she did not like and concentrated only on the points that appealed to her. No wonder she was so accomplished.

Do we recall how the internet and the wonder drug penicillin came to be developed? And we condemn war!

Recently, I read in the TOI (Swaminomics?) about how English came into prominence in India post independence. It was because the Delhi satraps tried to impose Hindi in Tamil Nadu. That was a bad thing. However, it was precisely because of this despotic tendency that today you and I are talking such fluent English.

I am reminded of my Reikimaster's words ( He was a militant trade unionist), "There is no good and bad, no right or wrong."

"Yadbhavo Tadbhaavaha!"

GP Rajarathnam's definition of sin is "that act which makes you repent later."

Anonymous said...

"In the early 1900s, General Electric perfected Thomas Edison's most notable invention, the industrial research laboratory. GE's success in bringing management discipline to the chaotic process of scientific discovery allowed Edison to claim that his labs were capable of producing a minor invention every 10 days and a major breakthrough every six months. This was no idle boast. (Gary Hamel, in The Future of Management)