Little Bits of History

September 4

Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 4, 2017

1882: The Pearl Street generating station goes live. Thomas Edison was born in 1847 in Ohio as the youngest of seven children. He was raised in Michigan and was home schooled. He increased his curriculum by reading extensively. He saved a toddler from being struck by a runaway train and the child’s father, station agent JU MacKenzie, trained young Thomas as a telegraph operator. He experimented, got into trouble, and was rescued by kind souls – all the while learning as much as he could and beginning his impressive life as an inventor. Some of his earliest inventions concerned telegraphy. He moved to New Jersey and began to churn out new ideas at an astounding rate. Many of his later ideas centered on electricity and it’s many uses.

Edison was a proponent of direct current (DC) and founded Edison Illuminating Company in 1880 in order to compete with gas street lighting. He patented his system for electricity distribution and on this day opened his Pearl Street Station in New York City. It provided 110 volts of DC to 59 customers in lower Manhattan. There is another way to distribute electricity, alternating current (AC) and this was supported in America by Westinghouse Electric Company. The two electric giants battled extensively in the War of the Currents before AC finally won out.

Europeans invented transformers which allowed for AC to be transmitted over long distances and while Edison maintained this was dangerous and continued to support DC energy. His system supplied electricity to street lamps and private dwellings. By January 1883, he was using overhead wires in Roselle, New Jersey. The Edison Illuminating Company’s stations were a prototype for other local illuminating companies throughout the US during the 1880s. The company was purchased by Consolidated Gas between 1898 and 1901 and by 1936, electricity sales were so much higher than gas sales, the company changed the name to Consolidated Edison.

Today, Con Edison or Con Ed is one of the largest investor-owned energy companies in the US. They had about $13 billion in revenue in 2016 with $47 billion in total assets. They continue to supply electricity via 93,000 miles of underground cables and about 36,000 miles of overhead wires. Their gas distribution has about 7,200 miles of pipes and delivers enough gas each year to fill the Empire State Building about 6,100 times. They also produce 30 billion pounds of steam each year to heat and cool buildings in New York City. It is the largest district steam system in the world with some pretty famous customers – the UN complex, the Empire State Building, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity. – Samuel Morse

We believe that electricity exists, because the electric company keeps sending us bills for it, but we cannot figure out how it travels inside wires. – Dave Barry

We forget just how painfully dim the world was before electricity. A candle, a good candle, provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100 watt light bulb. – Bill Bryson

Ben Franklin may have discovered electricity- but it is the man who invented the meter who made the money. – Earl Warren



Go Fly a Kite!

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 15, 2012

Imaginative drawing of Ben Franklin and his kite.

June 15, 1752: Benjamin Franklin’s kite flying experiment proves lightning and electricity are related. Maybe. The account of Franklin’s experiment wasn’t written down for another 15 years when the tale was placed into Joseph Priestley’s History and Present Status of Electricity. While the idea of old Ben standing out in a storm with a kite floating in the ominous sky, key attached, and the scientist in grave danger is pretty standard, if he did perform the experiment at all, he did not put himself in the path of danger.

Franklin did write much about his fascination with electricity and his premise stating lightning was made of the same energy. At the time, the largest electrical sparks to be generated were about an inch long. To take the giant leap from small spark to the outrageously powerful lightning strike being the same would take some proof. Franklin’s ideas about the phenomenon led him to experiment, but with an intermediary collection device. A Leyden Jar, or capacitor, was used to collect the energy discharged during a lightning strike. Although he did not put himself in the direct line of fire, other experimenters did and died as a result.

Lightning is, in fact, an electrical discharge. It usually occurs during thunderstorms, but can also follow volcanic eruptions and dust storms. Lightning is powerful, moving at speeds up to 130,000 mph and reaching temperatures nearing 54,000° F. This is hot enough to melt silica, turning sand into glass. What we know is when there is enough energy buildup, there is an electrical discharge with a bolt of lightning running either between clouds or from clouds to ground.

Thunder is the audible result of the lightning bolt. During a lightning strike, successive parts of the air are used as a discharge channel. The area superheats along the discharge channel and then the air rapidly expands. This causes a shock wave which we hear as thunder. The rumbling variety is caused by the time delay between the sound of different portions of a long strike. There are ≈ 16 million thunderstorms each year around the globe. With this many storms there are about 1.4 billion lightning flashes per year with 80% of them cloud to cloud and the rest ground strikes. That means 280 million times a year, lightning strikes. It is not evenly distributed around the globe, with 70% of all lightning occurring in the topics.

Electricity is really just organized lightning. – George Carlin

I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph. – Ken Kesey

Television news is like a lightning flash. It makes a loud noise, lights up everything around it, leaves everything else in darkness and then is suddenly gone. – Hodding Carter

The reason lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place is that the same place isn’t there the second time. – Willie Tyler

Also on this day:

King “Soft-sword” John “Signs” on the Dotted Line – In 1215, King John of England signs the Magna Carta.
Not Spock – In 1844, vulcanization was patented.
Protect Your Eyes – In 763 BC, the first total solar eclipse was recorded.


Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 19, 2010

It's electric

January 19, 1883: Thomas Alva Edison begins service at Roselle, New Jersey. He had the first electric lighting system employing overhead wires. We take our modern lifestyle with myriad electrical gadgets for granted. But not so long ago, there was no home powered with this energy source.

In about 600 BC, Thales of Miletus described static electricity. The “Baghdad Battery” dating from 250 BC resembled a galvanic cell and may have been used for electroplating. In 1660 Otto von Guericke invented an early electrostatic generator. In 1729, Stephen Gray classified materials as conductors or insulators.

Benjamin Franklin experimented with electricity in the 1740s, sparking follow up studies by Michael Faraday, Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, Andre-Marie Ampere, and Georg Simon Ohm – most of which have names that we use today in electrical studies.

Then next century saw electrical studies continue by Nikola Tesla [induction motor], Samuel Morse [telegraph], Antonio Meucci [telephone], Thomas Edison [1st commercial electric energy distribution network], George Westinghouse [electric locomotive], Charles Steinmetz [theoretician of AC], and Alexander Graham Bell [telephone].

Our mechanized and technological society relies heavily on the transmission of an electrical charge from a power station to our homes and businesses. The culmination of centuries of wonder, is our electric-based society made possible by the painstaking research by these and many other great men. Electrical power to houses has been in use for barely one-and-a-quarter centuries and we are so dependant on it today that when the power goes out, it is an emergency.

“Time and tide wait for no man. A pompous and self-satisfied proverb, and was true for a billion years; but in our day of electric wires and water-ballast we turn it around: Man waits not for time nor tide.” – Mark Twain

“When Thomas Edison worked late into the night on the electric light, he had to do it by gas lamp or candle. I’m sure it made the work seem that much more urgent.” – George Carlin

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” – Thomas Alva Edison

“Why, sir, there is every possibility that you will soon be able to tax it!” – Michael Faraday  (to PM William Gladstone, on the usefulness of electricity)

Also on this day, in 1983 the Apple LISA computer was announced.