December 11, 2021

FTV: Bell or Edison? Part 2


     In Part 1, we asked whether Alexander Graham Bell or Thomas Alva Edison should be given credit for having the most profound effect on our modern world.  Having made the case for Bell, it is now time to examine the evidence for the fabled Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Alva Edison, to wear the crown.  The information cited in this FTV comes from Simon Winchester’s book, The Men Who United the States (2013 Harper Perennial).

     Born in Milan, Ohio on February 11, 1847, Thomas Edison gained fame for the sheer volume of inventions he is credited with over his 84 years even though he was largely self-educated.  Early in his working career, he was employed as a telegraph operator.  Inspired by this new wonder of modern technology, he established his first laboratory facility in Menlo Park, New Jersey in 1876.  As for his most famous invention, the light bulb, there is a plaque on the roadway above Battle Lake in Carbon County, Wyoming claiming the area can take some credit for the birth of Edison’s incandescent lightbulb.  As the story goes, Edison was in the Wyoming Territory to observe a solar eclipse in the summer of 1878.  After the event, he went to fish in Battle Lake where one of his bamboo fly rods fell into a campfire.  As the filaments of bamboo burned and glowed white hot, Edison is thought to have wondered if such a filament could be made to emit white light if it was heated by electricity running through it.  He also pondered if the filament would last longer if it   was contained inside an enclosed glass bulb from which the air had been removed.

     Most historians choose to believe Edison did most of his filament tests back at Menlo Park.  It is well documented that he tested strands of burned baywood, boxwood, hickory, cedar, flax, and yes, bamboo.  As he himself said, “I ransacked the world,” searching for the longest-lasting filament.  He eventually settled on the carbonized cotton thread he used in his first-ever patented lightbulb in 1879.  The invention proved popular enough to provide Edison with another set of problems to solve.  Telegraph and telephones were powered by battery cells.  Equipping each lightbulb with its own battery made no economic sense, so Thomas set about to find a way to produce, or generate, electricity and then a method to distribute it along wires.

     According to Winchester, “[Edison’s] creation of the new science of electric power generation and distribution is the single unifying achievement that arguably outshines them all,” (‘them all’ meaning his other 1,092 patents).  His first largescale experiment, to light a half mile of Christie Street in Raritan, NJ (now known as the township of Edison), took place on December 31, 1879.

To commemorate this historic event, there now stands a 13 foot high model of a domestic lightbulb  at the southern end of Christie Street.  It is mounted atop a 120 foot tall tower surrounded by a mosaic made up of eight concrete columns, each topped with a floodlight pointed at the enormous bulb above.  The locals credit Edison as the man who “invented today” and the township’s motto is. “Let there be light.”  During the summer of 1879, he oversaw the lighting of Menlo Park’s 36 acres to demonstrate his invention to the powers that be from New York City.  He hoped to convince them to use their city as a test market for lightbulbs and the electrical generation / distribution system needed to illuminate them.

     Manhattan was already being lit by electricity at the time Edison made his proposal.  The streets, docks, and factories had been employing the unforgiving, harsh white light from thousands of carbon arc lights for over a decade.  The electric arc formed between two pointed carbon electrodes was hard on the eyes, smelled bad, caused headaches, and left an oily residue on walls and ceilings.  The batteries used were drained rapidly and the electrodes burned out, which meant they had to be replaced frequently.  Edison promised New York’s visiting bigwigs a ‘softer light’ and had the ‘streets’ he laid out in Menlo Park lined with wooden poles topped with glass lanterns, each containing one of his new bulbs.  The distribution model he used is the same basic pattern still in use:  feeder cables took the power (in this case from a battery array) to the streets, main wires connected the feeder lines to the houses (he had fake homes set up along the streets), and service lines took the electricity to the individual house lamps.  The demonstration worked and Edison forged ahead with the backing of the Vanderbilts, J.P. Morgan, Baron Rothschild, and Henry Villard (among other investors) financing his NYC project.

     Early 1881 found Edison hosting a dinner party to convince NYC’s aldermen and commissioners to okay his first project in the city (catered by Delmonico’s with entertainment by Sarah Bernhardt – it was a lavish affair).  Three weeks later, Mayor William Russell Grace granted the Edison Electric Illuminating Company permission to set up the first power station in a rundown industrial building.  Edison complained about the $155,000 the city charged him for the property but he pressed on regardless.  By September 4, 1882, the system was ready to go – the boilers were fired up and direct current (DC) electricity flowed through fifteen miles of thick copper cable buried beneath the streets and insulated with beeswax, linseed oil, and thick asphalt (the asphalt was specially ordered from tar pits in Trinidad).  The first 800 light bulbs glowed with Edison’s promised ‘softer light’ and this new form of illumination took hold faster than it seemed possible.  Mansions were lit, the stock exchange installed sixty-six bulb ‘electroliers’ (chandeliers), and many industries suddenly found the new safer lighting system a boon to expanding their businesses.  The birth of highrise buildings in the city can be attributed to the invention of the electric elevator and marquees on Broadway festooned with the new bulbs gave the entertainment district a new name:  The Great White Way.  Electric billboards became the rage – consider H.J. Heinz’s creation – a forty-five foot pickle shaped sign with the bulbs covered in green paint, naturally.

     As with any new technology, there were problems.  The generators would sometimes speed up, break down, or in some cases, explode.  Sudden power surges could scorch walls and carpets (one branch of the Vanderbilts tired of replacing burn carpets and went back to gas lights).  Power from the main lines could leak out (if the main cable covering was damaged) causing manhole covers in the street to become electrified.  A major blizzard in 1888 provided the first episode where ice brought down miles of live wires, a problem still occuring 130 years later.  The biggest problem, however, was the type of current itself.  With DC current, electrons move in unison in one direction along a wire and this characteristic limits transmission of power to lines no longer than a mile or two.  When Edison’s rivals discovered a form of generation where the electrically charged particles moved back and forth many times a second (called alternating current or AC), there seemed to be no limitation as to how far electricity could be transmitted.  The so called ‘War of the Currents’ began and the outcome would take electricity from being a local utility to a national one.

     Edison’s DC current was generated at 100 volts meaning all devices had to be built for that particular voltage.  When electric motors for everything from water pumps to electric clocks joined the fray, there were immediate problems harnessing the only voltage available for different devices.  Businessman George Westinghouse and his colleagues soon found electricity generated as AC was more adaptable for their particular uses:  it could be altered up or down by a transformer.  This made it useful for anything from tiny light bulbs to heavy-duty electric motors no matter how far they might be located from the generator.  Thus ensued an epic battle between Edison and Westinghouse over the future of electrical generation.  Westinghouse made his fortune designing brakes for railway trains, signaling systems, and gas pipelines.  He was opportunistic enough to invest $60,000 in seven inventions critical to the development of AC power generation and distribution.  He turned over all of the patents to a young Serbian inventor who had come to New York to work for Edison in 1884.  His name was Nikola Tesla.

     Nikola Tesla has become somewhat of a cult figure today with many calling him ‘the father of the electric age.’  Tesla was shy, soft-spoken, clever, and impeccably dressed yet he had phobias about certain things (like pearl earrings and spherical objects).  Winchester explains Tesla’s personality:  “He was also afflicted with an obsessive-compulsive disorder;  he refused to shake hands, he would feel a need to read all the books written by any author he encountered, and he had a peculiar devotion to the number three and to any other number divisible by it.  Nikola Tesla was, in short, the classic exemplar of the mad scientist, and the fact that he made dangerously interesting inventions by the score resonates still with today’s imaginative fans of the far-fetched.  Tesla is also said by some to have held Thomas Edison in spectacularly low esteem.”

     Tesla worked for Edison at Menlo Park soon after his arrival on these shores.  He told his new boss he could rebuild a DC motor Edison had designed and make it more efficient.  Edison promised him $50,000 if he succeeded.  When he did improve the motor, Edison tried to tell Nikola that he had been joking and the young man apparently did not understand American humor.  With the promised bonus now replaced with the offer of a $10 pay raise,  Edison gained a formidable adversary with a personal grudge against him in the approaching War of the Currents.

     The first demonstration of Tesla’s AC current was conducted in Great Barrington, MA using a  generator designed to produce 500 volts of single phase AC electricity powered by the Housatonic River.  Backed by Westinghouse and using Tesla’s designs, manufacturer William Staley used a big wire wound Tesla-style transformer to step up the generator’s output to 3,000 volts.  His high voltage lines were then connected to six smaller step-down transformers (also designed by Tesla) to bring the voltage down to a more manageable 100 volts.  The process ensured that the lights farthest away from the generator would shine with a steady light just as the ones closer to the electricity’s source.  It was something that was just not possible with Edison’s DC current.

     Edison fought back by warning the public about AC – he claimed the back-and-forth current was dangerous and would kill people.  He resorted to fitting copper shoes on a rogue elephant named Topsy and electrocuting her in public as she stood on a steel plate at a Coney Island zoo.  Topsy had a disagreeable personality and had killed three of her handlers (although one was a man who had tried to get her to eat a lit cigarette), but it was still a horrific (and fortunately quick) death that is still hard to view on the surviving film clips.  The gruesome spectacle of Topsy’s death staged by Edison to show the dangers of AC power put a black mark on the inventor’s resume.  The final nails in the coffin of Edison’s dream to make DC current the standard across the land were much not as ghastly and they were shaped like dollar signs.

     Both competing camps were invited to bid on the honor of lighting the 1892 Columbian Exposition to be held at the year long Chicago World’s fair.  Slated to be the first electrically lit exposition in the world, it would set the stage for what would follow after the War of the Currents..  Whoever won the right to light the Chicago event would undoubtedly be lighting the nation as well.  J.P. Morgan had invested heavily in Edison Electric.  The newly reorganized company was now known as the General Electric Company.  Corporations thrive on profits and GE had no trouble putting a $1.8 million price tag on their proposal.  The Chicago show organizers were outraged and felt the ‘tricky New York bankers’ were trying to make fools of them.  When Westinghouse arrived to make his proposal, both parties were asked to submit sealed bids for the same project.  GE wisely rounded their bid down to a more sensible $554,000.  Westinghouse’s bid was $399.000.  The Expo would be lit by AC and the rest of the United States would follow.

     DC would continue to have its uses – the lines powering many Subway systems (like those in New York City) are DC.  Eventually the technology would be developed for DC current to be carried longer distances on ultra-high-voltage transmission lines.  With that said, by of the end of the nineteenth century, AC would become the dominant electrical system in the United States.

     Before I ask you to cast your vote, I am going to admit that the ‘Bell or Edison?’ question was written as a bit of a red herring.  Both men are certainly due their place in the pantheon of great American scientists, but the final poll should really include four names.  If constructed as a four-way vote, I would have asked, ‘Which two of these four scientists should be given credit for influencing our modern world the most?’  My personal vote then would be cast not for Bell or Edison, but for Morse and Tesla.  Not to diminish what Bell and Edison accomplished – both would have risen to their places of prominence based on their prodigious output of inventions.  Without the contributions of Morse, Bell might not have been pondering how to send messages by wire using electricity.  Without Tesla, would AC have become the standard current used in America or would Edison’s fame have swung the pendulum toward DC?

     As Sir Isaac Newton wrote to fellow scientist Robert Hooke in 1675, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Newton’s meaning is clear – there is nothing wrong with using what one learns from others to fuel creativity, innovation, and new discoveries.  There is no doubt that both Bell and Edison did lean on, if not stand on, the shoulders of Morse and Tesla. 

Top Piece Video:  Okay, can anybody think of a better song about electricity than Eddie Grant?  Okay, they didn’t like me using Eddie Grant and took it down – so we will settle for a little Lou Christie electricity instead – you will have to find your own Eddie Grant!