° Some of you have asked why I'm not at SXSW: as a person with cancer, have I not suffered enough already?
---- tweet from Xeni yesterday
° I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.
---- Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
° looking for a light bulb for a difficult to reach area - possibly an LED for the first time
Three shards came together to spark an hour of writing. Believe it or not they are connected, so grab your towel and a cup of tea. We'll need to travel to 19th century London to start the connection game.
It was 1810 give or take a few years and demonstrations of all things electricity were the rage in the Royal Society. Sir Humphrey Davy had filled the audience with rumor of his discovery and connected the final wire to one end one end of a battery developed only a decade earlier by Alessandro Volta. The wire from the battery was connected to a carbon rod with a pointy tip separated by a short distance from a similar carbon rod pointed at it and connected with a wire to the other end of the battery.
The crowd gasped as the current jumped the distance between the points creating a bright glowing arch. Everyone had seen bright sparks jump before, but this one was different. The arch was brilliant and kept going. As it burned away applause filled the hall and then an ovation. The first electric light had been demonstrated.1 Within a couple of years he invented a second technique passing a strong current through a platinum wire causing it to glow through incandescence. Davy had invented both the arc and the incandescent lamp.
Candles had fallen in price to the point where many families could afford a few, but outside of cites where a bit of gas lighting had come into use, night brought darkness. I can sympathize - with the help of three major storms in the past two years we've been without metered electric power for a total of nearly three weeks. We resorted to candles and a flashlights, but one comes to appreciate the old French saying
A la chandelle, la chèvre ressemble à une demoiselle 2
In the early part of the 1800s a lot of experimentation with gas lighting was going on. At first demonstration projects like the lighting of Westminster Bridge in 1813, but lighting was so desirable that despite toxic and corrosive fumes from incomplete combustion and a serious fire hazard, the technology rapidly spread to a businesses and the homes of the wealthy in cities.3 People wanted something that was safer and it was assumed that electric lighting was the answer, so inventors slaved away on the problem.
I have to skip over a very rich account of the sausage making of a series of technologies, but it took seven decades from Davy's arc to Edison's light. Along the way there were newspaper reports and articles in magazines like Scientific American and Popular Science on new breakthroughs that would bring inexpensive and safe electric lighting to everyone "real soon now.."
Cracking the problem required a series of technologies to come together. Electric generators had to be developed, a cheap way to create a long lived vacuum, the right materials and so on. Edison gets the credit, but hundreds of people had been involved over the decades.
Edison was involved in an early practical use of electricity - telegraphy. In his 20s he had a few patents that gave him enough funding to become a full time inventor. A curious type he came up with the phonograph. No one knew what it would be useful for, but it seemed brilliant and he was elevated to the status of wizard.
Edison's most important innovation was probably the industrial laboratory. He put together a team of scientists, engineers, and what we would call makers and focused on a few problems. He sensed the practical electric light was close - a number of almost practical approaches had been patented when he announced to a few wealthy investors that he was on the problem.
He took too long for their taste, but when he finally made his demonstrations in 1880 he had delivered the whole ecosystem - generators, wiring, the light bulbs, manufacturing techniques and the ability to train technicians to install and maintain the system. Other people had delivered bits and pieces of the puzzle. Arguably some of these other inventions were superior to bits and pieces of Edison's system, but no one else had the whole ball of wax and Edison's ball of wax worked.
Electric lighting had a dramatic society and technology impact. People started reading in bed and bookstores did very well in communities with lighting. Children could play at dusk and in the evening unattended. Many businesses, like restaurants, expanded evening hours and other inventions involving the electric motor erupted.
For about thirty years there was an unsettled period before real standardization and much lower pricing came about. A serious have and have not divide existed in America and you could see it every night.
But enough of the history other than one bit. Early on it was expensive and one scheme was to put brilliant arc lamps on towers spread through a town or city to provide artful light at night. These "moonlights" were intended to provide enough illumination to read a watch at about a thousand feet. They were erected in a few dozen cities and mostly failed - except in Austin where they still exist.
A few years ago I was at the technical session of a SXSW and became a bit bored by the level of work. To be sure a few interesting things popped up. One was Twitter. I'm not a regular user, but make a quick scan once or twice a day. Yesterday Xeni tweeted the SXSW comment that was one of my triggers. I won't go into my issues with the conference, but note the past decade with Internet 2.0 has been somewhat chaotic. There are certain good explanations, but much of it leaves me cold. There are so many more interesting things to do...
I wandered away from the conference and found one of the old moonlights. I had no idea what it was and was delighted to learn a bit about their history. It illuminated a time we mostly forget but one has to remember the quote attributed to Mark Twain:
History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme
I would add this is doubly true for the history of technical innovation.
Xeni made me think of Marvin the Robot
Douglas' birthday is today. He was famous for missing his book deadlines and had to be forced to complete his books. Much of his time was spent playing with friends. He was one of those who connected a lot of dots and seemed more at home with others who did the same, but were in very different fields. One of his hangouts when he was avoiding what he regarded as work was Bell Labs and I was lucky enough to have spent time with him. He delighted in the jumps that occurred when different ideas came together and had a keen ear for the history of technology. He would have been delighted by the moonlights. It was so sad seeing him leave so soon, but today celebrates his birth and that was such a positive thing. I was delighted to learn Brynne - one of the readers of this blog - shares his birthday. Fantastic!
Yesterday I found myself thinking about a new form of lighting that is still very much in development. It has been in development for a few decades with people saying "real soon now" for about a decade. Finally there are acceptable bulbs for a few of my applications. The shape of the adoption curve for this technology is very similar to other technologies. The slopes can be very different, but other than software innovations these things tend to take much longer than people expect.
Two hundred years since Davy and we're still not there... but in the meantime electric light has been one of the most important society and technology innovations of all times.
I'll stop here - I really wanted to get into intensity - but fodder for a future post.
And thanks to you Douglas for giving the advice on how to fly. Such a fantastic machine he was - fill him with tea and wonderful connections of the mind came out.
1 The arch was somehow shorted to arc and thus the name - arc lamp - came into use.
2 try this post for a translation and explanation
Just a brief note rather than a recipe, but it clearly has to involve goat cheese. Warm weather isn't far off and many of you will probably fire up the barbecue. Two things:
Grilled goat cheese sandwiches
Grilled figs stuff with goat cheese