December 31 is Bright Idea Day 2018, anniversary of the Day the Lights Went On

December 31, 2018

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, here at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub we celebrate a variety of historically holy days. December 31, by tradition, is Bright Idea Day, the anniversary of the day Thomas Edison demonstrated for the public a working light bulb, in 1879.

100,000 people gather in Times Square, New York City (surely not the 2 million predicted by NBC!) tonight, and millions more around the world, in festivities for the new year made possible by the work of Thomas Alva Edison.

Here it is, the invention that stole sleep from our grasp, made clubbing possible, and launched 50,000 cartoons about ideas:

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey - Wikimedia image

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey – Wikimedia image (GFDL)

The light bulb. It’s an incandescent bulb.

It wasn’t the first bulb. Edison a few months earlier devised a bulb that worked with a platinum filament. Platinum was too expensive for mass production, though — and Edison wanted mass production. So, with the cadre of great assistants at his Menlo Park laboratories, he struggled to find a good, inexpensive filament that would provide adequate life for the bulb. By late December 1879 they had settled on carbon filament.

Edison invited investors and the public to see the bulb demonstrated, on December 31, 1879.

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb. Library of Congress image

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb. CREDIT: Thomas Edison, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number LC-USZ62-98067

Edison’s successful bulb indicated changes in science, technology, invention, intellectual property and finance well beyond its use of electricity. For example:

  • Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey, offices and laboratory were financed with earlier successful inventions. It was a hive of inventive activity aimed to make practical inventions from advances in science. Edison was all about selling inventions and rights to manufacture devices. He always had an eye on the profit potential. His improvements on the telegraph would found his laboratory he thought, and he expected to sell the device to Western Union for $5,000 to $7,000. Instead of offering it to them at a price, however, he asked Western Union to bid on it. They bid $10,000, which Edison gratefully accepted, along with the lesson that he might do better letting the marketplace establish the price for his inventions. Other inventive labs followed Edison’s example, such as the famous Bell Labs, but few equalled his success, or had as much fun doing it.  (Economics teachers:  Need an example of the marketplace in action?)
  • While Edison had some financial weight to invest in the quest for a workable electric light, he also got financial support, $30,000 worth, from some of the finance giants of the day, including J. P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts who established the Edison Light Company.
  • Edison didn’t invent the light bulb — but his improvements on it made it commercial. “In addressing the question ‘Who invented the incandescent lamp?’ historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel list 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison. They conclude that Edison’s version was able to outstrip the others because of a combination of three factors: an effective incandescent material, a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve (by use of the Sprengel pump) and a high resistance lamp that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.”
  • Edison’s financial and business leadership acumen is partly attested to by the continuance of his organizations, today — General Electric, one of the world’s most successful companies over the past 40 years, traces its origins to Edison.

Look around yourself this evening, and you can find a score of ways that Edison’s invention and its descendants affect your life. One of the more amusing effects is in cartooning, however. Today a glowing lightbulb is universally accepted as a nonverbal symbol for ideas and inventions. (See Mark Parisi’s series of lightbulb cartoons, “Off the Mark.”)

Even with modern, electricity-saving bulbs, the cartoon shorthand hangs on, as in this Mitra Farmand cartoon.

Fusilli has an idea, Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter

Brilliant cartoon from Mitra Farmand, Fluffernutter (regrettably, we note this site is no longer there; but with some hope, we find a new site here)

Or see this wonderful animation, a video advertisement for United Airlines, by Joanna Quinn for Fallon — almost every frame has the symbolic lightbulb in it.

Electrification of America, and the consequent spread of electric lighting and electrical machines to make domestic and industrial life more productive, and the spread of great public works to enable these and other inventions to spread, were made possible by a people roughly united in advancing progress, what historians now call “the progressive agenda” and the great advances of the Progressive Era.

Could we get such agreement among workers, corporate bosses and many levels of government today? When we celebrate anniversaries, like the demonstration of the light bulb, we celebrate the united polity that made such things possible, too.

Gee, I wonder who were the dignitaries to whom Edison demonstrated the electric light on that New Years Eve, in 1879. Anyone know? We can safely wager that there were representatives of the Vanderbilts and Morgans there, families who invested in Edison as an inventor.

Other resources:

Patent drawing for Thomas Edison's successful electric lamp. Library of Congress

Thomas Edison’s electric lamp patent drawing and claim for the incandescent light bulb CREDIT: “New Jersey–The Wizard of Electricity–Thomas A. Edison’s System of Electric Illumination,” 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-97960.

Even More:

This is an encore post.

Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.


December 31 is Bright Idea Day, anniversary of the Day the Lights Went On

December 31, 2017

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, here at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub we celebrate a variety of historically holy days.  December 31, by tradition, is Bright Idea Day, the anniversary of the day Thomas Edison demonstrated for the public a working light bulb, in 1879.

100,000 people gather in Times Square, New York City (surely not the 1 million predicted by NBC!) tonight, and millions more around the world, in festivities for the new year made possible by the work of Thomas Alva Edison.

Here it is, the invention that stole sleep from our grasp, made clubbing possible, and launched 50,000 cartoons about ideas:

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey - Wikimedia image

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey – Wikimedia image (GFDL)

The light bulb. It’s an incandescent bulb.

It wasn’t the first bulb. Edison a few months earlier devised a bulb that worked with a platinum filament. Platinum was too expensive for mass production, though — and Edison wanted mass production. So, with the cadre of great assistants at his Menlo Park laboratories, he struggled to find a good, inexpensive filament that would provide adequate life for the bulb. By late December 1879 they had settled on carbon filament.

Edison invited investors and the public to see the bulb demonstrated, on December 31, 1879.

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb. Library of Congress image

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb. CREDIT: Thomas Edison, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number LC-USZ62-98067

Edison’s successful bulb indicated changes in science, technology, invention, intellectual property and finance well beyond its use of electricity. For example:

  • Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey, offices and laboratory were financed with earlier successful inventions. It was a hive of inventive activity aimed to make practical inventions from advances in science. Edison was all about selling inventions and rights to manufacture devices. He always had an eye on the profit potential. His improvements on the telegraph would found his laboratory he thought, and he expected to sell the device to Western Union for $5,000 to $7,000. Instead of offering it to them at a price, however, he asked Western Union to bid on it. They bid $10,000, which Edison gratefully accepted, along with the lesson that he might do better letting the marketplace establish the price for his inventions. Other inventive labs followed Edison’s example, such as the famous Bell Labs, but few equalled his success, or had as much fun doing it.  (Economics teachers:  Need an example of the marketplace in action?)
  • While Edison had some financial weight to invest in the quest for a workable electric light, he also got financial support, $30,000 worth, from some of the finance giants of the day, including J. P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts who established the Edison Light Company.
  • Edison didn’t invent the light bulb — but his improvements on it made it commercial. “In addressing the question ‘Who invented the incandescent lamp?’ historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel list 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison. They conclude that Edison’s version was able to outstrip the others because of a combination of three factors: an effective incandescent material, a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve (by use of the Sprengel pump) and a high resistance lamp that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.”
  • Edison’s financial and business leadership acumen is partly attested to by the continuance of his organizations, today — General Electric, one of the world’s most successful companies over the past 40 years, traces its origins to Edison.

Look around yourself this evening, and you can find a score of ways that Edison’s invention and its descendants affect your life. One of the more musing effects is in cartooning, however. Today a glowing lightbulb is universally accepted as a nonverbal symbol for ideas and inventions. (See Mark Parisi’s series of lightbulb cartoons, “Off the Mark.”)

Even with modern, electricity-saving bulbs, the cartoon shorthand hangs on, as in this Mitra Farmand cartoon.

Fusilli has an idea, Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter

Brilliant cartoon from Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter (regrettably, we note this site is no longer there; but with some hope, we find a new site here)

Or see this wonderful animation, a video advertisement for United Airlines, by Joanna Quinn for Fallon — almost every frame has the symbolic lightbulb in it.

Electrification of America, and the consequent spread of electric lighting and electrical machines to make domestic and industrial life more productive, and the spread of great public works to enable these and other inventions to spread, were made possible by a people roughly united in advancing progress, what historians now call “the progressive agenda” and the great advances of the Progressive Era.

Could we get such agreement among workers, corporate bosses and many levels of government today? When we celebrate anniversaries, like the demonstration of the light bulb, we celebrate the united polity that made such things possible, too.

Gee, I wonder who were the dignitaries to whom Edison demonstrated the electric light on that New Years Eve, in 1879. Anyone know? We can safely wager that there were representatives of the Vanderbilts and Morgans there, families who invested in Edison as an inventor.

Other resources:

Patent drawing for Thomas Edison's successful electric lamp. Library of Congress

Thomas Edison’s electric lamp patent drawing and claim for the incandescent light bulb CREDIT: “New Jersey–The Wizard of Electricity–Thomas A. Edison’s System of Electric Illumination,” 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-97960.

Even More:

This is an encore post.

Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.


December 31, 2015: Bright Idea Day, anniversary of the Day the Lights Went On

December 31, 2015

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, here at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub we celebrate a variety of historically holy days.  December 31, by tradition, is Bright Idea Day, the anniversary of the day Thomas Edison demonstrated for the public a working light bulb, in 1879.

100,000 people gather in Times Square, New York City (surely not the 1 million predicted by NBC!) tonight, and millions more around the world, in festivities for the new year made possible by the work of Thomas Alva Edison.

Here it is, the invention that stole sleep from our grasp, made clubbing possible, and launched 50,000 cartoons about ideas:

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey - Wikimedia image

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey – Wikimedia image (GFDL)

The light bulb. It’s an incandescent bulb.

It wasn’t the first bulb. Edison a few months earlier devised a bulb that worked with a platinum filament. Platinum was too expensive for mass production, though — and Edison wanted mass production. So, with the cadre of great assistants at his Menlo Park laboratories, he struggled to find a good, inexpensive filament that would provide adequate life for the bulb. By late December 1879 they had settled on carbon filament.

Edison invited investors and the public to see the bulb demonstrated, on December 31, 1879.

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb. Library of Congress image

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb. CREDIT: Thomas Edison, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number LC-USZ62-98067

Edison’s successful bulb indicated changes in science, technology, invention, intellectual property and finance well beyond its use of electricity. For example:

  • Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey, offices and laboratory were financed with earlier successful inventions. It was a hive of inventive activity aimed to make practical inventions from advances in science. Edison was all about selling inventions and rights to manufacture devices. He always had an eye on the profit potential. His improvements on the telegraph would found his laboratory he thought, and he expected to sell the device to Western Union for $5,000 to $7,000. Instead of offering it to them at a price, however, he asked Western Union to bid on it. They bid $10,000, which Edison gratefully accepted, along with the lesson that he might do better letting the marketplace establish the price for his inventions. Other inventive labs followed Edison’s example, such as the famous Bell Labs, but few equalled his success, or had as much fun doing it.  (Economics teachers:  Need an example of the marketplace in action?)
  • While Edison had some financial weight to invest in the quest for a workable electric light, he also got financial support, $30,000 worth, from some of the finance giants of the day, including J. P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts who established the Edison Light Company.
  • Edison didn’t invent the light bulb — but his improvements on it made it commercial. “In addressing the question ‘Who invented the incandescent lamp?’ historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel list 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison. They conclude that Edison’s version was able to outstrip the others because of a combination of three factors: an effective incandescent material, a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve (by use of the Sprengel pump) and a high resistance lamp that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.”
  • Edison’s financial and business leadership acumen is partly attested to by the continuance of his organizations, today — General Electric, one of the world’s most successful companies over the past 40 years, traces its origins to Edison.

Look around yourself this evening, and you can find a score of ways that Edison’s invention and its descendants affect your life. One of the more musing effects is in cartooning, however. Today a glowing lightbulb is universally accepted as a nonverbal symbol for ideas and inventions. (See Mark Parisi’s series of lightbulb cartoons, “Off the Mark.”)

Even with modern, electricity-saving bulbs, the cartoon shorthand hangs on, as in this Mitra Farmand cartoon.

Fusilli has an idea, Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter

Brilliant cartoon from Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter (regrettably, we note this site is no longer there; but with some hope, we find a new site here)

Or see this wonderful animation, a video advertisement for United Airlines, by Joanna Quinn for Fallon — almost every frame has the symbolic lightbulb in it.

Electrification of America, and the consequent spread of electric lighting and electrical machines to make domestic and industrial life more productive, and the spread of great public works to enable these and other inventions to spread, were made possible by a people roughly united in advancing progress, what historians now call “the progressive agenda” and the great advances of the Progressive Era.

Could we get such agreement among workers, corporate bosses and many levels of government today? When we celebrate anniversaries, like the demonstration of the light bulb, we celebrate the united polity that made such things possible, too.

Other resources:

Patent drawing for Thomas Edison's successful electric lamp. Library of Congress

Thomas Edison’s electric lamp patent drawing and claim for the incandescent light bulb CREDIT: “New Jersey–The Wizard of Electricity–Thomas A. Edison’s System of Electric Illumination,” 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-97960.

Yeah, this is mostly an encore post. ‘Tis the season for tradition, especially good, wise tradition.

Even More, in 2012 and 2013:


December 31, 2014: Bright Idea Day, anniversary of the Day the Lights Went On

December 31, 2014

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, here at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub we celebrate a variety of historically holy days.  December 31, by tradition, is Bright Idea Day, the anniversary of the day Thomas Edison demonstrated for the public a working light bulb, in 1879.

100,000 people gather in Times Square, New York City, tonight, and millions more around the world, in festivities for the new year made possible by the work of Thomas Alva Edison.

Here it is, the invention that stole sleep from our grasp, made clubbing possible, and launched 50,000 cartoons about ideas:

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey - Wikimedia image

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey – Wikimedia image (GFDL)

The light bulb. It’s an incandescent bulb.

It wasn’t the first bulb. Edison a few months earlier devised a bulb that worked with a platinum filament. Platinum was too expensive for mass production, though — and Edison wanted mass production. So, with the cadre of great assistants at his Menlo Park laboratories, he struggled to find a good, inexpensive filament that would provide adequate life for the bulb. By late December 1879 they had settled on carbon filament.

Edison invited investors and the public to see the bulb demonstrated, on December 31, 1879.

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb. Library of Congress image

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb. CREDIT: Thomas Edison, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number LC-USZ62-98067

Edison’s successful bulb indicated changes in science, technology, invention, intellectual property and finance well beyond its use of electricity. For example:

  • Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey, offices and laboratory were financed with earlier successful inventions. It was a hive of inventive activity aimed to make practical inventions from advances in science. Edison was all about selling inventions and rights to manufacture devices. He always had an eye on the profit potential. His improvements on the telegraph would found his laboratory he thought, and he expected to sell the device to Western Union for $5,000 to $7,000. Instead of offering it to them at a price, however, he asked Western Union to bid on it. They bid $10,000, which Edison gratefully accepted, along with the lesson that he might do better letting the marketplace establish the price for his inventions. Other inventive labs followed Edison’s example, such as the famous Bell Labs, but few equalled his success, or had as much fun doing it.  (Economics teachers:  Need an example of the marketplace in action?)
  • While Edison had some financial weight to invest in the quest for a workable electric light, he also got financial support, $30,000 worth, from some of the finance giants of the day, including J. P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts who established the Edison Light Company.
  • Edison didn’t invent the light bulb — but his improvements on it made it commercial. “In addressing the question ‘Who invented the incandescent lamp?’ historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel list 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison. They conclude that Edison’s version was able to outstrip the others because of a combination of three factors: an effective incandescent material, a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve (by use of the Sprengel pump) and a high resistance lamp that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.”
  • Edison’s financial and business leadership acumen is partly attested to by the continuance of his organizations, today — General Electric, one of the world’s most successful companies over the past 40 years, traces its origins to Edison.

Look around yourself this evening, and you can find a score of ways that Edison’s invention and its descendants affect your life. One of the more musing effects is in cartooning, however. Today a glowing lightbulb is universally accepted as a nonverbal symbol for ideas and inventions. (See Mark Parisi’s series of lightbulb cartoons, “Off the Mark.”)

Even with modern, electricity-saving bulbs, the cartoon shorthand hangs on, as in this Mitra Farmand cartoon.

Fusilli has an idea, Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter

Brilliant cartoon from Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter

Or see this wonderful animation, a video advertisement for United Airlines, by Joanna Quinn for Fallon — almost every frame has the symbolic lightbulb in it.

Electrification of America, and the consequent spread of electric lighting and electrical machines to make domestic and industrial life more productive, and the spread of great public works to enable these and other inventions to spread, were made possible by a people roughly united in advancing progress, what historians now call “the progressive agenda” and the great advances of the Progressive Era.

Could we get such agreement among workers, corporate bosses and many levels of government today? When we celebrate anniversaries, like the demonstration of the light bulb, we celebrate the united polity that made such things possible, too.

Other resources:

Patent drawing for Thomas Edison's successful electric lamp. Library of Congress

Thomas Edison’s electric lamp patent drawing and claim for the incandescent light bulb CREDIT: “New Jersey–The Wizard of Electricity–Thomas A. Edison’s System of Electric Illumination,” 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-97960.

Yeah, this is mostly an encore post. ‘Tis the season for tradition, especially good, wise tradition.

Even More, in 2012 and 2013:


Insta-Millard: In the new Gilded Age, the rich do not share the wealth

May 6, 2014

Have the GOP and the Über-wealthy set up the whole world for another Great Depression?  Should we expect a World War to follow?

Or, do we have time to make our societies more egalitarian, and more anti-poverty, and more stable?  Graphic from BusinessWeek:

Super wealthy have concentrated the wealth of the world in their personal control.  Capitalism run riot? Graphic from BusinessWeek

Super wealthy have concentrated the wealth of the world in their personal control. Capitalism run riot? Graphic from BusinessWeek

Opportunity to move up, economically, is stifled when so much wealth blocks access to the top economic rungs.

These figures come out of a clever analysis by economists Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley and Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics, who is a visiting professor at Berkeley. The Internal Revenue Service asks about income, not wealth, which is the market value of real estate, stocks, bonds, and other assets. Saez and Zucman were able to deduce wealth by exploiting IRS data going back to when the federal income tax was instituted in 1913. They figured out how much property different strata of society owned by looking at the income that was generated by that property, such as dividends and capital gains. To simplify, if a family reported $1 million in rental income one year and the market rate of return on rental properties was 10 percent, then Saez and Zucman concluded that the family must have owned property worth $10 million.

The message for strivers is that if you want to be very, very rich, start out very rich. The threshold for being in the top 0.1 percent of tax filers in 2012 was wealth of about $20 million. To be in the top 0.01 percent—that’s the 1 Percent club’s 1 Percent club—required net worth of $100 million. Of course, even $100 million is a pittance to Bill Gates, whose net worth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, is nearly 800 times that.

It will require great creativity to work our way out of this maldistribution without some sort of catastrophe.

More: 

Read the rest of this entry »


December 31, 2013: Bright Idea Day, anniversary of Edison’s light bulb

December 30, 2013

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, here at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub we celebrate a variety of historically holy days.  December 31, by tradition, is Bright Idea Day, the anniversary of the day Thomas Edison demonstrated for the public a working light bulb in 1879.

100,000 people gather in Times Square, New York City, tonight, and millions more around the world, in festivities for the new year made possible by the work of Thomas Alva Edison.

Here it is, the invention that stole sleep from our grasp, made clubbing possible, and launched 50,000 cartoons about ideas:

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey - Wikimedia image

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey – Wikimedia image (GFDL)

The light bulb. It’s an incandescent bulb.

It wasn’t the first bulb. Edison a few months earlier devised a bulb that worked with a platinum filament. Platinum was too expensive for mass production, though — and Edison wanted mass production. So, with the cadre of great assistants at his Menlo Park laboratories, he struggled to find a good, inexpensive filament that would provide adequate life for the bulb. By late December 1879 they had settled on carbon filament.

Edison invited investors and the public to see the bulb demonstrated, on December 31, 1879.

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb.  Library of Congress image

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb. CREDIT: Thomas Edison, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number LC-USZ62-98067

Edison’s successful bulb indicated changes in science, technology, invention, intellectual property and finance well beyond its use of electricity. For example:

  • Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey, offices and laboratory were financed with earlier successful inventions. It was a hive of inventive activity aimed to make practical inventions from advances in science. Edison was all about selling inventions and rights to manufacture devices. He always had an eye on the profit potential. His improvements on the telegraph would found his laboratory he thought, and he expected to sell the device to Western Union for $5,000 to $7,000. Instead of offering it to them at a price, however, he asked Western Union to bid on it. They bid $10,000, which Edison gratefully accepted, along with the lesson that he might do better letting the marketplace establish the price for his inventions. Other inventive labs followed Edison’s example, such as the famous Bell Labs, but few equalled his success, or had as much fun doing it.  (Economics teachers:  Need an example of the marketplace in action?)
  • While Edison had some financial weight to invest in the quest for a workable electric light, he also got financial support, $30,000 worth, from some of the finance giants of the day, including J. P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts who established the Edison Light Company.
  • Edison didn’t invent the light bulb — but his improvements on it made it commercial. “In addressing the question ‘Who invented the incandescent lamp?’ historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel list 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison. They conclude that Edison’s version was able to outstrip the others because of a combination of three factors: an effective incandescent material, a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve (by use of the Sprengel pump) and a high resistance lamp that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.”
  • Edison’s financial and business leadership acumen is partly attested to by the continuance of his organizations, today — General Electric, one of the world’s most successful companies over the past 40 years, traces its origins to Edison.

Look around yourself this evening, and you can find a score of ways that Edison’s invention and its descendants affect your life. One of the more musing effects is in cartooning, however. Today a glowing lightbulb is universally accepted as a nonverbal symbol for ideas and inventions. (See Mark Parisi’s series of lightbulb cartoons, “Off the Mark.”)

Even with modern, electricity-saving bulbs, the cartoon shorthand hangs on, as in this Mitra Farmand cartoon.

Fusilli has an idea, Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter

Brilliant cartoon from Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter

Or see this wonderful animation, a video advertisement for United Airlines, by Joanna Quinn for Fallon — almost every frame has the symbolic lightbulb in it.

Other resources:

Patent drawing for Thomas Edison's successful electric lamp.  Library of Congress

Thomas Edison’s electric lamp patent drawing and claim for the incandescent light bulb CREDIT: “New Jersey–The Wizard of Electricity–Thomas A. Edison’s System of Electric Illumination,” 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-97960.

Yeah, this is mostly an encore post.

Even More, in 2012 and 2013:


Quote of the moment repeat: Robert C. Lieberman, “Why the Rich Are Getting Richer: American Politics and the Second Gilded Age”

February 20, 2013

What? You missed this, on February 20, 2011? Well, here it is again. Please pay attention this time.

The U.S. economy appears to be coming apart at the seams.  Unemployment remains at nearly ten percent, the highest level in almost 30 years; foreclosures have forced millions of Americans out of their homes; and real incomes have fallen faster and further than at any time since the Great Depression.  Many of those laid off fear that the jobs they have lost — the secure, often unionized, industrial jobs that provided wealth, security and opportunity — will never return.  They are probably right.

Cover of Winner-Take-All Politics, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

Cover of Winner-Take-All Politics, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

And yet a curious thing has happened in the midst of all this misery.  The wealthiest Americans, among them presumably the very titans of global finance whose misadventures brought about the financial meltdown, got richer.  And not just a little bit richer; a lot richer.  In 2009, the average income of the top five percent of earners went up, while on average everyone else’s income went down.  This was not an anomaly but rather a continuation of a 40-year trend of ballooning incomes at the very top and stagnant incomes in the middle and at the bottom.  The share of total income going to the top one percent has increased from roughly eight percent in the 1960s to more than 20 percent today.

This what the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call the “winner-take-all economy.”  It is not a picture of a healthy society.  Such a level of economic inequality, not seen in the United States since the eve of the Great Depression, bespeaks a political economy in which the financial rewards are increasingly concentrated among a tiny elite and whose risks are borne by an increasingly exposed and unprotected middle class.  Income inequality in the United States is higher than in any other advanced democracy and by conventional measures comparable to that in countries such as Ghana, Nicaragua, and Turkmenistan.

Robert C. Lieberman, reviewing the book Winner-Take-All Politics:  How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Simon and Schuster, 2010, 368 pages.  $27.00.; review appears in Foreign Affairs, January/February 2011, pp. 154-158.

More:

Two years later, even more:


December 31, 2012: Bright Idea Day, anniversary of Edison’s light bulb

December 31, 2012

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, here at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub we celebrate a variety of historically holy days.  December 31, by tradition, is Bright Idea Day, the anniversary of the day Thomas Edison demonstrated for the public a working light bulb in 1879.

100,000 people gather in Times Square, New York City, tonight, and millions more around the world, in festivities for the new year made possible by the work of Thomas Alva Edison.

Here it is, the invention that stole sleep from our grasp, made clubbing possible, and launched 50,000 cartoons about ideas:

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey - Wikimedia image

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey – Wikimedia image (GFDL)

The light bulb. It’s an incandescent bulb.

It wasn’t the first bulb. Edison a few months earlier devised a bulb that worked with a platinum filament. Platinum was too expensive for mass production, though — and Edison wanted mass production. So, with the cadre of great assistants at his Menlo Park laboratories, he struggled to find a good, inexpensive filament that would provide adequate life for the bulb. By late December 1879 they had settled on carbon filament.

Edison invited investors and the public to see the bulb demonstrated, on December 31, 1879.

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb.  Library of Congress image

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb. CREDIT: Thomas Edison, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number LC-USZ62-98067

Edison’s successful bulb indicated changes in science, technology, invention, intellectual property and finance well beyond its use of electricity. For example:

  • Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey, offices and laboratory were financed with earlier successful inventions. It was a hive of inventive activity aimed to make practical inventions from advances in science. Edison was all about selling inventions and rights to manufacture devices. He always had an eye on the profit potential. His improvements on the telegraph would found his laboratory he thought, and he expected to sell the device to Western Union for $5,000 to $7,000. Instead of offering it to them at a price, however, he asked Western Union to bid on it. They bid $10,000, which Edison gratefully accepted, along with the lesson that he might do better letting the marketplace establish the price for his inventions. Other inventive labs followed Edison’s example, such as the famous Bell Labs, but few equalled his success, or had as much fun doing it.  (Economics teachers:  Need an example of the marketplace in action?)
  • While Edison had some financial weight to invest in the quest for a workable electric light, he also got financial support, $30,000 worth, from some of the finance giants of the day, including J. P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts who established the Edison Light Company.
  • Edison didn’t invent the light bulb — but his improvements on it made it commercial. “In addressing the question ‘Who invented the incandescent lamp?’ historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel list 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison. They conclude that Edison’s version was able to outstrip the others because of a combination of three factors: an effective incandescent material, a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve (by use of the Sprengel pump) and a high resistance lamp that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.”
  • Edison’s financial and business leadership acumen is partly attested to by the continuance of his organizations, today — General Electric, one of the world’s most successful companies over the past 40 years, traces its origins to Edison.

Look around yourself this evening, and you can find a score of ways that Edison’s invention and its descendants affect your life. One of the more musing effects is in cartooning, however. Today a glowing lightbulb is universally accepted as a nonverbal symbol for ideas and inventions. (See Mark Parisi’s series of lightbulb cartoons, “Off the Mark.”)

Even with modern, electricity-saving bulbs, the cartoon shorthand hangs on, as in this Mitra Farmand cartoon.

Fusilli has an idea, Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter

Brilliant cartoon from Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter

Or see this wonderful animation, a video advertisement for United Airlines, by Joanna Quinn for Fallon — almost every frame has the symbolic lightbulb in it.

Other resources:

Patent drawing for Thomas Edison's successful electric lamp.  Library of Congress

Thomas Edison’s electric lamp patent drawing and claim for the incandescent light bulb CREDIT: “New Jersey–The Wizard of Electricity–Thomas A. Edison’s System of Electric Illumination,” 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-97960.

Yeah, this is mostly an encore post.

Even More, in 2012:


A cure for the ills caused by air pollution: Vitamin D in milk

October 29, 2011

Air pollution texts often made the note, but I’ve not seen it talked about much recently:  Air pollution in the U.S. (and England) was so bad in the first years of the 20th century that it actually shut out the sun, and an epidemic of rickets followed.

FSA photo of child in Jefferson, Texas, with rickets - Library of Congress

Child with rickets, son of relief client near Jefferson, Texas. This child has never talked though he is two years old. He has never received any medical attention. Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, photographer. CREATED/PUBLISHED 1939 Mar. More information about the FSA/OWI Collection is available at http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.fsaowi; CALL NUMBER LC-USF34- 032719-D REPRODUCTION NUMBER LC-USF34-032719-D DLC (b&w film neg.)

Public health officials, clever devils, discovered a form of vitamin D that prevented rickets.  It turns out that humans manufacture vitamin D from cholesterol, using ultraviolet B from the sun.  So, when the sun was smokily eclipsed, rickets proliferated.

In an era when technical and legal tools were inadequate to clean up the air pollution, physicians, nutritionists and researchers struck on the idea of supplementing food with vitamin D — and that is how we come to have vitamin D-fortified milk today, and a lot less rickets.

I was happy to find a publication at the National Institutes of Health that relates this history, at least in part, “Solar Ultraviolet Radiation and Vitamin D:  A Historical Perspective,” by Kumaravel Rajakumar, MD, Susan L. Greenspan, MD, Stephen B. Thomas, PhD, and Michael F. Holick, MD, PhD, in American Journal of Public Health, October 2007, Vol 97, No. 10.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the expansive industrialization and urban migration in the major cities of western Europe and the northern United States set the stage for the high prevalence of rickets among infants residing in those polluted and “sunless” cities. Overcrowded living conditions in the big-city slums and tenements and the sunlight deprivation precipitated by atmospheric pollution from smoke and smog were responsible for a rickets epidemic.  Increased ozone concentration from industrial pollution and the haze and clouds from atmospheric pollution compromise vitamin D production by absorbing the UV-B photons essential for its synthesis.

*          *          *          *          *

Edwards Park states, “But for rickets vitamin D would not have been discovered. Its discovery was the secret to rickets; its use is essentially the therapy of that disease.” The discovery of vitamin D led to the eradication of the epidemic rickets of the early 20th century. Pioneering advances were made in the understanding of vitamin D and rickets from 1915 to 1935. The discovery of the synthesis of vitamin D by the irradiation of foods was the “jewel in the crown” of vitamin D discoveries. This discovery was a catalyst for the public health triumph against rickets. It became feasible to fortify and enrich milk and other foods with vitamin D to ensure that the general population was likely to consume sufficient vitamin D.

It’s a good article with detailed history of rickets, the search to find what turned out to be vitamin D, and the use of nutritional supplements to eradicate a nasty, crippling disease in children.  Happy to see it online.

Some of our greatest triumphs in science, technology and public health are too little known.  I am working on the history of technology and science, and particularly its wedding with social progressivism in the Progressive Age, part of a project I was fortunate to stumble into in the Dallas Independent School District funded by a Teaching American History Grant from the U.S. Department of Education.  Sadly, Republicans in Congress insisted on cutting those grants to improve teaching with greater emphasis on original sources and original documents.

More Americans, more American school kids, should know about the triumphs of public health and science.  Maybe highlighting some of those advances here can help another teacher somewhere else.

 


Johnstown Flood, May 31, 1889

May 31, 2011

Robber Barons and other very wealthy people owned a dam above Johnstown, Pennsylvania, at a hunting club.  The dam was known to be deteriorating, but the very wealthy did not want to foot the bill to fix the dam.

Bridge and Cambria Iron Works, showing 30 acres of debris in the river - Johnstown Flood

30 acres of debris in the river, bridge and Cambria Iron Works in the background - Johnstown Flood, May 31, 1889 - Library of Congress photo at Johnstown Flood Museum

In a rainstorm, on May 31, 1889, the dam broke.  More than 2,200 people died in the flood and fires that followed.

It is impossible to describe briefly the suddenness with which the disaster came. A warning sound was heard at Conemaugh a few minutes before the rush of water came, but it was attributed to some meteorological disturbance, and no trouble was borrowed because of the thing unseen. As the low, rumbling noise increased in volume, however, and came nearer, a suspicion of danger began to force itself even upon the bravest, which was increased to a certainty a few minutes later, when, with a rush, the mighty stream spread out in width, and when there was not time to do anything to save themselves. Many of the unfortunates where whirled into the middle of the stream before they could turn around; men, women and children were struggling in the streets, and it is thought that many of them never reached Johnstown, only a mile or two below.

At Johnstown a similar scene was enacted, only on a much larger scale. The population is greater and the sweeping whirlpool rushed into a denser mass of humanity. The imagination of the reader can better depict the spectacle than the pen of the writer can give it. It was a twilight of terror, and the gathering shades of evening closed in on a panorama of horrors that has few parallels in the history of casualties.

When the great wave from Conemaugh lake behind the dam, came down the Conemaugh Valley, the first obstacle it struck was the great viaduct over the South Fork. This viaduct was a State work, built to carry the old Portage road across the Fork. The Pennsylvania Railroad parallels the Portage road for a long distance, and runs over the Fork. Besides sweeping the viaduct down, the bore, or smaller bores on its wings, washed out the Portage road for miles. One of the small bores went down the bed of a brook which comes into the Conemaugh at the village of South Fork, which is some distance above the viaduct. The big bore backed the river above the village. The small bore was thus checked in its course and flowed into the village.

The obstruction below being removed, the backed-up water swept the village of South Fork away. The flood came down. It moved steadily but with a velocity never yet attained by an engine moved by power controllable by man….

“Johnstown is annihilated, ” telegraphed Superintendent Pitcarin to Pittsburg on Friday night. “He came,” says one who visited the place on Sunday, “very close to the facts of the case. Nothing like it was ever seen in this country. Where long rows of dwelling-houses and business blocks stood forty-eight hours ago, ruin and desolation now reign supreme. Probably 1500 houses have been swept from the face of the earth as completely as if they had never been erected. Main street, from end to end, is piled fifteen and twenty feet high with debris, and in some instances it is as high as the roofs of the houses. This great mass of wreckage fills the street from curb to curb, and frequently has crushed the buildings in and filled the space with reminders of the terrible calamity. There is not a man in the place who can give any reliable estimate of the number of houses that have been swept away. City Solicitor Kuehn, who should be very good authority in this matter, places the number at 1500.  From the woolen mill above the island to the bridge, a distance of probably two miles, a strip of territory nearly a half mile in width has been swept clean, not a stick of timber or one brick on top of another being left to tell the story. It is the most complete wreck that imagination could portray.

“All day long men, women, and children were plodding about the desolate waste looking in vain to locate the boundaries of their former homes. Nothing but a wide expanse of mud, ornamented here and there with heaps of driftwood, remained, however, for their contemplation. It is perfectly [accurate] to say that every house in the city that was not located well up on the hillside was either swept completely away or wrecked so badly that rebuilding will be absolutely necessary. These losses, however, are nothing compared to the frightful sacrifice in precious human lives to be seen on every hand.

“During all this solemn Sunday Johnstown has been drenched with the tears of stricken mortals, and the air is filled with sobs and sighs that come from breaking hearts. There are scenes enacted here every hour and every minute that affect all beholders profoundly. When homes are thus town asunder in an instant, and the loved ones hurled from the arms of loving and devoted mothers, there is an element of sadness in the tragedy that overwhelms every heart….

“It is impossible to describe the appearance of Main street. Whole houses have been swept down this one street and become lodged. The wreck is piled as high as the second-story windows. The reporter could step from the wreck into the auditorium of the opera house. The ruins consist of parts of houses, trees, saw logs and reels from the wire factory. Many houses have their side walls and roofs torn up, and one can walk directly into what had been second-story bed-rooms, or go in by way of the top. Further up town a raft of logs lodged in the street, and did great damage. At the beginning of the wreckage, which is at the opening of the valley of the Conemaugh, one can look up the valley for miles and not see house. Nothing stands but an old woolen mill….”

Seen from the high hill across the river from Johnstown, the Conemaugh Valley gives an easy explanation of the terrible destruction which it has suffered. This valley, stretching back almost in a straight line for miles, suddenly narrows near Johnstown. The wall of water which came tearing down toward the town, picking up all the houses and mils in the villages along its way, suddenly rose in height as it came to the narrow pass. It swept over the nearest part of the town and met the waters of Stony creek, swollen by rains, rushing along with the speed of a torrent. The two forces coming together, each turned aside and started away again in a half-circle, seeking an outlet in the lower Conemaugh Valley. The massive stone bridge of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, at the lower base of the triangle was almost instantly choked up with the great mass of wreckage dashed against it, and became a dam that could not be swept away, and proved to be the ruin of the town and the villages above. The waters checked here, formed a vast whirlpool, which destroyed everything within its circle. It backed up on the other side of the triangle, and devastated the village of Kernville, across the river from Johnstown.

The force of the current was truly appalling. The best evidence of its force is exhibited in the mass of debris south of the Pennsylvania bridge. Persons on the hillsides declare that houses, solid from their foundation stones, were rushed on to destruction at the rate of thirty miles an hour. On one house forty persons were counted; their cries for help were heard far above the roaring waters. At the railroad bridge the house parted in the middle, and the cries of the unfortunate people were smothered in the engulfing waters. 

Extract from: Willis Fletcher Johnson, History of the Johnstown Flood…. Edgewood Publishing Company, 1889.

What is the moral to this tale?

Resources:


Republican policy: Forward to the Gilded Age

April 10, 2011

Cover of "The Gilded Age"

Cover of "The Gilded Age," a novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published in 1873. Image courtesy of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, Elmira College.

You know why it was called the Gilded Age, right?

Santayana’s Ghost keeps telling me the Republicans don’t know why.  Republicans as a rule do not read Mark Twain, so it’s a cinch they’ve never read Mark Twain plus Charles Dudley Warner.

Mark Twain, PBS image from Mark Twain House

Mark Twain, who wrote the novel, The Gilded Age, with Charles Dudley Warner. Twain wrote of the Republican Manifesto earlier: "What is the chief end of man?--to get rich. In what way? -- dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must." Image from Mark Twain House, Hartford, Connecticut, via PBS

Still, don’t you recall with some fondness the Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford years, when Republicans at least pretended not to be grand misanthropes?  Do you remember that?  Nixon tried to make nicey-nice with conservationists and environmentalists, expanding the National Parks and creating the Environmental Protection Agency (fitting, since the environmental movement had been born among and from wealthy  and smart Republicans); even after killing the air traffic controllers union, Ronald Reagan enjoyed easy camradary with Teamsters, and to some degree, even with the heads of the AFL-CIO.    Reagan encouraged and signed a jobs training bill, and signed our first home health care law, making it possible for people to go home to die, where they ironically lived much longer than in hospitals, but at much reduced cost to Medicare.

Forget those days.  Forget that human compassion.  Today’s conservatives don’t have time for the wimpiness of Ronald Reagan.

Did you see the full list of proposed agency cuts the Republicans tried to pin on the 2011 appropriations bill, H.R. 1?

Here’s the entire list, from OMB Watch:  OMB_Watch-HR1_Policy_Riders (April 7, 2011).  I’m sure OMB Watch  has a bias, but the descriptions of the cuts are so balanced and neutral that they may hide some of the more unscrupulous, Scroogey actions.

In consumer protection, for example, Republicans inexplicably oppose the creation of watchdogs to prevent another housing bubble — are Republicans protecting criminals here?

Prohibits the Federal Reserve from transferring more than $80 million to the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, Sec. 1517
Prohibits funds for a government sponsored “consumer products complaints database,” Sec. 4046.

No one to prevent new crimes, and no collecting of information to warn consumers of dangerous products.  Wonderful.

Prohibits funds to take any action to effect or implement the disestablishment, closure or realignment of the US Joint Forces Command.  Sec. 4020

No, no, don’t want the Pentagon to save money — heaven knows, wasting money at the Pentagon is flag-waving patriotism — so let’s ban the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, from making changes that save money.  It’s in the Bible that this must be done, I’m sure.

Prohibits funds for implementing a provision specific to the State of Texas in the “Education Job Fund.”  Sec. 4051

After claiming he wouldn’t accept “bailouts” from the federal government, Texas Gov. Rick Perry accepted money from Congress to prevent the loss of teaching jobs — but then threw the money into a different pot, so teachers were not protected.  U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, amended the last appropriation bill to say that Texas can’t take money from the teachers — but the Republicans want to allow Perry to take the money, and keep it from the teachers, again.  It’s the old playground game where the big kids play keep away from a little kid.  It’s vicious, of course, and should be criminal — but the older kids have a lot of fun.

Prohibits funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program or the State Energy Program.  Sec. 1434

Let the poor people freeze in the dark — they all vote Democratic, anyway.  But wait!  Tea Partiers, fresh from the Mad Hatter’s, say that global warming will take care of the poor people!   No need for weatherization.

Prohibits funding for various environmental projects in California.  Sec. 1475
Prohibits funding for a climate change czar in the White House.  Sec. 1535
Prohibits funding for EPA efforts to regulate greenhouse gases.  Sec. 1746

Oh, well, maybe there isn’t any global warming.  Yeah, this is contrary to what the Republicans said about warming keeping the poor from needing weatherization — but they’re just poor people, the Republicans say.  Let ’em get a job!  (Where?  Not the problem of Republicans; Republicans identified that the poor need to get a job, and that should be the limit of federal action . . .).

This morning on CBS, New York Sen. Charles Schumer said he would not list cuts until he sees a final copy of the bill.  Probably wise — but it’s also almost a cinch that almost all of the cuts will be mean-spirited, worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge before his conversion, and damaging to the U.S. people and the U.S. economy.

What in the hell is going on in Washington?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Jean Detjen, protecting the nation from being over-run by Canadians up there in the north, in Wisconsin.


Then and now: Capitalism vs. Labor 1883, and today

April 2, 2011

Alas, it’s almost exactly the same now as then:

"Tournament of Today:  A set-to between Labor and Monopoly," Cartoon by Frederick Graetz, Puck Magazine, August 1, 1883 (from files of Georgia State University); click image for a larger view at Georgia State

“Tournament of Today: A set-to between Labor and Monopoly,” Cartoon by Frederick Graetz, Puck Magazine, August 1, 1883 (from files of Georgia State University); click image for a larger view at Georgia State

Information on the cartoon, from SuperITCH: Frederick Graetz, a chromolithograph that was the center spread for Puck Magazine‘s issue of August 1, 1883.  Monopolists portrayed are, from left to right, “businessman, financier and telecommunications pioneer Cyrus Field; railroad tycoon William Vanderbilt; shipbuilding magnate John Roach; financier, railroad mogul, and speculator Jay Gould; and an unknown monopolist.”  Some might say that the “unknown monopolist” bears a striking resemblance to one of the Koch brothers, but that’s fanciful thinking.

Cartoon - Labor vs Monopoly, Graetz, Puck 8-1-1883 (GSU image)

Labor vs Monopoly – click on this image for a larger version of this historic Puck Magazine cartoon

Tip of the old scrub brush to One Penny Sheet’s “condemned to repeat” feature.

More:


December 31: Bright Idea Day, anniversary of Edison’s light bulb

December 31, 2010

100,000 people gather in Times Square, New York City, tonight, and millions more around the world, in festivities for the new year made possible by the work of Thomas Alva Edison.

Here it is, the invention that stole sleep from our grasp, made clubbing possible, and launched 50,000 cartoons about ideas:

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey - Wikimedia image

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey - Wikimedia image (GFDL)

The light bulb. It’s an incandescent bulb.

It wasn’t the first bulb. Edison a few months earlier devised a bulb that worked with a platinum filament. Platinum was too expensive for mass production, though — and Edison wanted mass production. So, with the cadre of great assistants at his Menlo Park laboratories, he struggled to find a good, inexpensive filament that would provide adequate life for the bulb. By late December 1879 they had settled on carbon filament.

Edison invited investors and the public to see the bulb demonstrated, on December 31, 1879.

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb.  Library of Congress image

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb. CREDIT: Thomas Edison, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number LC-USZ62-98067

Edison’s successful bulb indicated changes in science, technology, invention, intellectual property and finance well beyond its use of electricity. For example:

  • Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey, offices and laboratory were financed with earlier successful inventions. It was a hive of inventive activity aimed to make practical inventions from advances in science. Edison was all about selling inventions and rights to manufacture devices. He always had an eye on the profit potential. His improvements on the telegraph would found his laboratory he thought, and he expected to sell the device to Western Union for $5,000 to $7,000. Instead of offering it to them at a price, however, he asked Western Union to bid on it. They bid $10,000, which Edison gratefully accepted, along with the lesson that he might do better letting the marketplace establish the price for his inventions. Other inventive labs followed Edison’s example, such as the famous Bell Labs, but few equalled his success, or had as much fun doing it.  (Economics teachers:  Need an example of the marketplace in action?)
  • While Edison had some financial weight to invest in the quest for a workable electric light, he also got financial support, $30,000 worth, from some of the finance giants of the day, including J. P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts who established the Edison Light Company.
  • Edison didn’t invent the light bulb — but his improvements on it made it commercial. “In addressing the question ‘Who invented the incandescent lamp?’ historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel list 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison. They conclude that Edison’s version was able to outstrip the others because of a combination of three factors: an effective incandescent material, a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve (by use of the Sprengel pump) and a high resistance lamp that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.”
  • Edison’s financial and business leadership acumen is partly attested to by the continuance of his organizations, today — General Electric, one of the world’s most successful companies over the past 40 years, traces its origins to Edison.

Look around yourself this evening, and you can find a score of ways that Edison’s invention and its descendants affect your life. One of the more musing effects is in cartooning, however. Today a glowing lightbulb is universally accepted as a nonverbal symbol for ideas and inventions. (See Mark Parisi’s series of lightbulb cartoons, “Off the Mark.”)

Even with modern, electricity-saving bulbs, the cartoon shorthand hangs on, as in this Mitra Farmand cartoon.

Fusilli has an idea, Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter

Brilliant cartoon from Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter

Or see this wonderful animation, a video advertisement for United Airlines, by Joanna Quinn for Fallon — almost every frame has the symbolic lightbulb in it.

Other resources:

Patent drawing for Thomas Edison's successful electric lamp.  Library of Congress

Thomas Edison's electric lamp patent drawing and claim for the incandescent light bulb CREDIT: “New Jersey--The Wizard of Electricity--Thomas A. Edison's System of Electric Illumination,” 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-97960.

Yeah, this is mostly an encore post.


Fort Worth area teachers: Amon Carter Museum workshop on art from the Gilded Age

November 29, 2010

From the Amon Carter Museum education department (in Fort Worth):

During the Gilded Age, the U.S. economy boomed, the population soared, and Americans flourished. Well, not all Americans; for some this time was not prosperous. During an educator workshop on December 9, [2010] explore both sides of this period using paintings and sculpture from the Amon Carter’s collection.  [Send a note of interest to: education@cartermuseum.org.]

Eastman Johnson, Bo-Peep (Amon Carter Museum)

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), Bo-Peep, 1872, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, 1980.

Or just sign up:

Thursday, December 9, 2010 – 5:00pm – 7:00pm

The Gilded (or Not-So-Gilded) Age

Educator Workshop: $12 for museum members and $15 for nonmembers

During the Gilded Age (late 1800s to the early 1900s), the U.S. economy boomed, the population soared, and Americans prospered. Well, not all Americans; for some this time in American history was not prosperous. Explore both sides of this period using paintings and sculpture from the Amon Carter’s collection. This workshop is most appropriate for educators of all grade levels teaching English, language arts, social studies, U.S. history, and visual art, although others may benefit. Refreshments are provided from 4:30 to 5 p.m.

Download registration form


Last photos of President McKinley — who are those people?

July 25, 2010

Chamblee 54 carried this photo of President McKinley, the “last portrait” before his assassination the following day (there were other, later photos, but no later portraits).  The picture was taken on the afternoon of September 5, 1901, in Buffalo, New York.

The photo comes from the American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress.  It was taken by Francis Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952).

I am curious:  Who are the other people in the photo, especially that tall guy?

Last portrait of President William McKinley

Last portrait of President William McKinley

To the left of the photo, the fellow peeking out from between the dignified-looking woman and the guy with the really droopy, white walrus moustache, is the president of the Buffalo Exposition, John Milburn.  Who is the woman?  Who is the guy with the white moustache?  Is there any chance the guy with the dark moustache to the right could be McKinley’s vice president, Theodore Roosevelt?  (We should be able to figure out where Roosevelt was that day.)  More likely, he’s George B. Cortelyou, later the first Secretary of Commerce and Labor.

People in the picture are:  Left to right: Mrs. John Miller Horton, Chairwoman of the Entertainment Committee of the Woman’s Board of Managers; John G. Milburn; Senor Asperoz, the Mexican Ambassador; the President; George B. Courtelyou, the President’s secretary; Col. John H. Bingham of the Government Board.

More, including a larger version of the photo, below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »


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