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Friday March 23 2007

Last Monday I posted an excerpt from Electric Universe by David Bodanis.  Here is a second excerpt, this time about the career of Thomas Edison, the world’s first great systematiser of large-scale industrial and technological research and development.  Alec Bell, the man Edison started out battling against, was Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.

Bell’s work in the 1870s was the start of a great outpouring of new discoveries. A proconsul from the Roman Empire, suddenly transported to the muddy swampland of the American settlement of Fort Dearborn, in the year 1850 A.D. - a little before Bell’s work - would not have been especially surprised at what he found. There were horse-drawn vehicles and wooden houses, and candles or oil lamps to hold back the night. The few telegraphs that might be found in big cities had scarcely changed the quality of daily life. But if that proconsul had returned a single lifetime later, in 1910, that muddy town would have exploded to become the city of Chicago - and amid the cars and electric lights and telephone poles, where powerful electric charges were led whirling along at immense velocities, our time-voyaging pro-consul would have been utterly startled.

This second generation of transformations was begun by individual inventors such as Bell. But as the 1870s went on, an increasing number of discoveries were made by larger groups of researchers, working in a new style of industrial research laboratory. They were the ones who produced the generators and streetcars and motors and lighting systems that created modern Chicago and other great metropolises around the world.

Running these big research labs required a different personality than that of the gentle Alec Bell. The new research directors had to understand electricity, of course, but they also had to be willing to work on assignment ... and not worry too much what those assignments were.


Thomas Edison was the most powerful of these new industrial research chiefs, and one of his great successes came in 1877 when he accepted an important assignment to crush Bell. The world’s largest telegraph company. Western Union, had been watching what Bell was doing, and even before his final model was ready, they’d tried to get him to leave a prototype overnight at their New York headquarters so they could ‘examine’ it. Bell was a trusting man, but not that trusting; he kept the prototype secure in his own hotel room.

Once he had his patent, more-direct measures were needed, for who was going to let an upstart undercut a giant industry?  Certainly not William Orton, the head of Western Union. His strategy was almost embarrassingly simple. America after the Civil War was a violent place. Strikes were often resolved with rifles and dynamite; patents were stolen; fledgling investment houses were destroyed by established firms. It wasn’t surprising that within the technology field, predators began to appear, generally bankrolled by rich financiers. When they identified a new electrical product, they would try to find a technological mercenary skilled enough to produce the same device using a slightly different process. The original inventor would be destroyed; the company that had arranged for the copy - and the mercenary who produced it - would become rich.

Because Bell’s telephone threatened to undermine the entire telegraph business, Orton had to go to the most skilled enforcer he knew. This was the young Thomas Edison, a man who, as Orton happily explained to a friend, ‘had a vacuum where his conscience ought to be.’

Edison was almost exactly Bell’s age, but from a very different background. Instead of the doting parents and uncles and education in Scotland and London that Bell had, Edison had a father who had once whipped him in a public square, and he had left school in frontier Michigan when he was barely a teenager. He’d supported himself as an itinerant telegraph operator for years, sleeping in cheap hotels and rooming houses across America. This would have been hard enough for any fifteen-year-old, but Edison was also very hard of hearing.  When he wanted to hear a piano properly, he’d have to get a piece of wood, bite down on it, and then push the wood as hard as he could against the piano. (’I haven’t heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old,’ he once casually remarked.)

When he got married, young, he ended up with a woman with whom he soon found he had almost nothing in common; when he tried his first legitimate invention, a quick vote-counting machine for legislatures, he found that he was laughed at: everyone in the know understood that legislators did not want their votes to be counted quickly.

By the time he reached New York he was resentful, and he was poor, and he was bright - just the man to coldly undercut another man’s work. In time he would redeem himself, but not yet. There was a flaw in Bell’s work, and Edison accepted Orton’s assignment to attack it.

Bell’s design depended on sending the vibrations of the human voice into a microphone, to start the electric current that would run through the wire stretching from one telephone to the next. But to get a signal to travel more than a few hundred yards, you had to yell, and the signal often died or became too feeble to hear before it got more than a few miles away.  Edison thought about it and saw there was a way to keep an electrical signal going as it traveled further through the phone wires. Before anyone even exhaled into the phone, he had a dedicated battery pump a strong, steady electric signal through the wires. When the speaker began to talk, his breath had only to modify the already robust battery signal, making it a little bit stronger or a little bit weaker. The result was that the speaker’s voice didn’t fade so quickly, and phone messages could be sent dozens of miles.

Orton was delighted, and paid off Edison with the equivalent of several million dollars in today’s money. But Orton’s delight didn’t last long, for although Bell was meek, his new father-in-law was not. There were lawyers hired, leaks to the newspapers; it’s possible there were some quiet threats to Orton. Bell ended up keeping the main phone patents, although Western Union got some income from the improved microphone.

None of this mattered to Edison and his team. For Edison’s stint as a patent-breaker had led him to think some more about the way Bell used the resistance in a wire to modify a moving electric current. Other devices, he realized, could use the same twist. And indeed, on October 30,1878, J. Pierpont Morgan wrote to his Paris representative:

‘I have been very much engaged for several days past on a matter which is likely to prove most important to us all. ...  Secrecy at the moment is so essential that I do not dare put it on paper. Subject is Edison’s Electric light. ...’

Edison liked gruffly pretending to his friends and to visiting newspapermen that he was just a simple man who had no interest in anything more than patching together a few practical devices. But that wasn’t true. When someone’s smart enough to duplicate or improve an important invention, as Edison had done with Bell’s telephone, he’s usually smart enough to wish to come up with important insights of his own. Edison had tried to read through Newton’s writings as a youngster. He wanted to make an original contribution to this new world of electricity in which his technical skill had allowed him to get rich. An effective lightbulb would be a good start.

For decades researchers had dreamed of making a practical artificial light, but no one had come close to succeeding.  Anyone who had watched a cast-iron stove knew that heated metal glowed first red, then orange, and finally it might even glow white. If a piece of metal could be connected to a battery and heated up that much, it would produce light. But how to make the glowing metal last long enough to be useful?

This is what no one had managed. The microworld was so little understood that it was hard to control how electric power jumped out when it was tapped. As early as 1872, the Russian Aleksandr Lodygin had placed two hundred electric lamps around the Admiralty Dockyards in St Petersburg, but when he switched them on, they burned so powerfully that the metal filaments melted in just a few hours.

The lure of an electric light didn’t go away, though, for the oil or gas lights that were the best alternative had problems of their own. Great groups of whales had been destroyed in the early 1800s to get a relatively clean oil for lamps. When that got too expensive, kerosene and other heavier oils were used, producing, however, smoke, smells, and - when the lamps were knocked over - fires. Natural gas was a little better, but it was expensive and hard to pipe for any distance, and users had to keep on adjusting their lamp burners to keep streams of soot from billowing out.

The first metal that Edison considered for his electric lights was platinum, since it has one of the highest melting points of any known metal. But ifs also one of the most expensive metals known, and pretty soon he moved on to cheaper ones, at one point thinking he might succeed with heated nickel wires. This didn’t burst into flames as much as his previous tries, but even when it just glowed, the light was too strong: ‘Owing to the enormous power of the light; Edison jotted in his notebook, ‘… suffered the pains of hell with my eye last night from 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. ... Got to sleep with a big dose of morphine.’

In time he managed to build the nickel-wire lamps without staring at them, but they still burned out too fast. A colleague recalls one of his first demonstrations, to Wall Street backers: ‘Today I can see these [nickel wire] lamps rising to a cherry red, like glowbugs, and hear Mr. Edison saying “a little more juice,” and the lamps began to glow. ... Then ... there is an eruption and a puff; and the machine shop is in total darkness.’

The first trick Edison used to keep the filaments from burning out was to stop any oxygen from getting to them. That meant surrounding them with little vacuums. He bought pumps that would pull air out of glass containers, and he hired a top glass blower, and he improved the pumps, and before too long, there in his rural New Jersey laboratory, his team had created small glass containers in a shape that reminded onlookers of tulip bulbs - our ‘lightbulbs’ - that had less air inside than is found at the top of Mount Everest, or even several hundred miles higher above the Earth. By late 1879 he had small glass bulbs that held barely one-millionth as much air as the ordinary atmosphere.

They still didn’t work. Any metal filament Edison put at the center of one of these bulbs got so hot that it would bum or melt or crack or - despite the low air pressure in the bulbs - just sizzle along to failure. He realized he had to try something other than metal.

For a while Edison put strips of charred paper between two electrodes to see how well they would glow, and he also tried fragments of cork, and then cotton threads. The cotton seemed especially promising, and for a long time he trumpeted that as his great success. But in time that too failed, and in exasperation he examined the paper fragments under his microscope, only to find that he couldn’t magnify them enough to see the electrical sparks that he imagined running through them. All he had was the belief that any gushing electric particles would bump and slap along inside one of his filaments, hitting so hard that the wire or thread would get hot - just as the friction of rubbing your hands together quickly makes your palms heat up. He decided to search for a smoother filament.

‘I believe,’ he told his workers, almost in exasperation, ‘that somewhere in God Almighty’s workshop there is a vegetable growth with geometrically parallel fibers suitable to our use.  Look for it.

And this his team did. He had more money than any of the other inventors working on electricity - those nearly limitless funds from his New York backers - and more important, he had the most motivated workers. Edison knew that his drive came from having been poor, and he generally hired others like him: there were tough, itinerant technicians who’d done who knows what in the Civil War; there was a bright London Cockney, Samuel Insull, and many others. The team had developed expertise in wire filaments and air pumps; now they collected learned volumes on plant fibers. When hunting through books still didn’t yield an answer, they started traveling: one worker to Cuba, another to Brazil, a third to China and other points east.  And there, in south-central Japan, they came across the Madake bamboo. It had a fiber far better for Edison’s needs than platinum, nickel, or even the highly scorched cotton that had been the best till then.

When Edison’s men connected strands of Madake bamboo to the wires from the battery metals and turned the battery on so that powerful charged electrons poured out, a faint glow came from the bamboo. When they slipped a glass bulb around the bamboo and pumped the air out of it, the bamboo strand got brighter, and would glow and glow and glow. The platinum bulbs in Russia had lasted twelve hours at best; efforts by Joseph Swan and others in England, around the same time as Edison’s experiments, had reached a few dozen hours. But the Japanese bamboo, glowing away in its airtight bulb, as isolated as if it were in the vacuum of outer space, lasted for more than 1,500 hours.

To make his invention truly practical, Edison and his men had to create numerous related inventions. Their first impulse, as always, was to steal from other patents. But they were venturing into such fresh territory that it wasn’t always possible simply to copy other people’s work. The electric bulbs had to be easily fitted into sockets, for example, yet no one else had needed to do that, so the team came up with an original way of modifying the screw stoppers of kerosene cans (whence our screw-top bulbs today). They attached the vacuum bulbs so tightly to the screw that no air would seep in and make the glowing filament bum too fast.

Still more inventions were needed. They needed a system of automatically measuring the electricity that was used (so they could then bill for it), and there had to be improved ways to power the bulbs, and soon Edison and his team had so much new ground to cover that, without realizing it, they’d almost entirely stopped copying patents. A single telephone could be invented by a single individual. But Edison’s network of power stations required dozens of synchronized developments in switches, fuses, power lines, underground insulators, and the like. Edison wasn’t a cheat anymore. He was a creator.