Friday, December 05, 2008

The Age of Edison is Over

Turn on the light so I can see this record label, please--The inventions of Thomas Edison, which became the hallmarks of 20th century civilization, are dead, dying, substantially altered, or doomed. The new century will be something else: the Post Edison Age. It is hard to imagine one man who had more influence.

The phonograph record was replaced by analog tape 30 years ago, and then digital disks, and even they are now being replaced by digital Internet downloads, which give purer sound, can be copied without loss and can last forever. The incandescent light bulb will be an anachronism in five years, falling to the compact fluorescent bulbs which use less power and last much longer. The power grid had grown in ways Edison could not have anticipated. The motion picture--images on celluloid film projected on a screen--is gradually being replaced by digital recording and projection, which gives a clearer picture without deterioration and allows for easier digital effects and better sound. And everyone is working on ways to substitute the current alkaline batteries with more efficient ones. Even the electric chair is passé.

Within 10 years, we will be using almost nothing that came from Wizard of Menlo Park. His time has just passed.

Edison was not a scientist and never pretended to be one. His most famous contribution to science, the Edison Effect, which anticipated the discovery of electrons 15 years later, was an accidental discovery and Edison left it to physicists to explain it. (In 1882, one of his assistants, William Hammer, discovered that when he turned on the filaments in an experiment light bulb, there was a blue glow around the positive pole and its shadow on the negative--we now know it was electrons moving from one to the other).

Edison did not invent the telegraph, of course, but his first inventions materially improved them, making it possible to send two messages at once, something Samuel Morse and the European co-inventors couldn’t do, and making it easier for someone hearing disabled, as Edison was, to read telegraph messages. Edison was so successful, he gave up a career as a telegrapher to be a full-time inventor.

While experimenting with underwater cables, he found that electrical resistance and the conductivity of carbon varied with pressure, a major theoretical discovery that allowed Edison to come up with carbon pressure relays to replace magnetic ones, improving Bell’s telephone network.

He produced the first electric printer for the telegraph, and in 1877, the phonograph, a matter of serendipity. (Edison was bright enough to appreciate accidents and thought nothing of reversing course to explore something). He was trying to find a way to record telegraph messages and found that using a stylus-tipped carbon transmitter on wax-lined paper, he could get a rough approximation of sound if you moved the paper. The vibrations left a path on the paper. He switched to tin foil instead of paper and wrapped it on a spinning cylinder. It took 10 years of refinement, but soon there was one in almost every home and Edison became world-famous. (The first recoding was Edison reciting “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” That would eventually replaced with hip-hop.)

In the 1870s, Edison bragged he could produce an electric light bulb, and with the backing of J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts, began work in Menlo Park, south of Newark. It proved more difficult than he anticipated and while he was failing, he built a practical generator that became the basis for the electric power grid, first installed in London in 1882. In October, 1879, he produced the first bulb using a carbon filament and he could demonstrate it to backers two months later. The steamship Columbia installed the first samples and became the first structure to use an electric lighting system. The first office building plugged in January 1881 in New York.

In 1888, using the concept of a zoetrope, a peek-in device that gave the illusion of motion to pictures flashed at a regular speed, Edison developed first the Kinetoscope, which vastly improved the zoetrope, and created the world’s first motion picture company in West Orange, N.J., to produce something to see on his new viewer. He then adapted a projector invented by Thomas Armat, which he called the Vitascope, and which became the first theatrical movie projector. He later found a way to synchronize the phonograph to the Vitascope and added sound to motion pictures.

Most homes lacked electricity and Edison wanted a power source for phonographs. That also was harder than he thought until (1912) Henry Ford, a friend, asked him to develop a battery Ford could put in his cars to crank up the starter. Ford produced research funds. Out of Edison's lab came the alkaline storage battery.

Edison acquired 389 patents for the electric light and power grid, 195 patents for the phonograph, 150 for the telegraph, 141 for the storage battery, and 34 for telephone inventions. His company became General Electric and he was, for a while, the main stockholder.

The electric chair? Edison’s power plants produced direct current and Edison believed the future rested in DC, not on the alternating current (AC) advocated by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse. He thought AC was dangerous and to prove it, he helped develop the electric chair, which used AC to kill its guests. He lost that battle.

Now the digital world has replaced some of his inventions and we have moved on. But the 20th century was Edison’s. All hail!


larry said...

One of Edison's greatest feats was the teleporting of Menlo Park, New Jersey to what became known as Menlo Park, California, while at the same time leaving the New Jersey Menlo Park in place and seemingly untouched. Eventually most of Edison's inventions were put in use in both places. If indeed they ARE two places.

Daro said...

Let's not leave out Edison's skill at performance art, publicly electrocuting an elephant to death...

100+ points for his inventions.
99- points for being a dour Scots b@stard.

via the fantastic Pinky Show..