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



February 1

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 1, 2017

1893: Black Maria is finished. Officially called the Kinetographic Theater and also known as the Doghouse by its builder, it is often credited as the world’s first movie studio. Built in West Orange, New Jersey by Thomas Edison on his laboratory grounds, it was a dark and cramped space used to film his first movies. Construction began in December 1892 and was completed on this day, costing $637.67 or close to $17,000 in today’s dollars. In early May, Edison brought his Kinetograph to the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences and showed an amazed audience a film. They could view this via a Kinetoscope viewer. The 28-second movie, Blacksmith Scene, showed three actors pretending to be blacksmiths.  The movie can be seen at You Tube by clicking here.

More fascinating films were created and were sent to the Library of Congress to be copyrighted. One of the first of a series of films made starring Fred Ott was officially called The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze and more often called Fred Ott’s Sneeze. Ott was one of Edison’s assistants. The film was made for publicity purposes and was made along with several still shots to accompany an article written about the new technology in Harper’s Weekly. This film was the earliest motion picture to be registered for copyright and was literally the filming of Mr. Ott sneezing after taking a pinch of snuff. If you are interested in this title, it is also at You Tube and can be found here. Ott’s acting career continued when later that year, he also filmed Fred Ott Holding a Bird and in 1900 he filmed The Kiss.

The films were made in the tar-paper covered room with a retractable roof, needed for lighting issues. Early films were scenes from daily life as well as portions of magic shows, plays, and Vaudeville performances. There were strongmen, boxing matches, and cockfights filmed along with some movies of scantily clad women. Another sort of film can be imagined by its title, Prof. Welton’s Boxing Cats. Other titles leave one wondering, such as Cripple Creek Bar-Room Scene. The studio was called Black Maria because that is what crowded, uncomfortable, and stuffy paddywagons or police vans were called and the atmosphere in the studio was akin to that of the vans. The studio was also tar-papered black.

On Saturday, April 14, 1894, Edison began commercially operating his Kinetoscope at the Kinetoscope Parlor, opened by the Holland Brothers at 1155 Broadway in New York City. The first movie theater was a bit different from today and patrons purchased twenty-five cent tickets (about a dollar today), and were then permitted to watch movies showing in five kinetoscope machines lined up in two rows. About 500 people were the first to experience this new entertainment. It was successful enough for kinetoscope parlors to open in other cities (San Francisco, Atlantic City, and Chicago). With success growing, Edison built a new and better theater in New York City and Black Maria was destroyed in 1903.

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.

There’s a way to do it better – find it.

Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless. – all from Thomas A. Edison

Edison Effect

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 13, 2014
Thermionic Emissions or the Edison effect

Thermionic Emissions or the Edison effect

February 13, 1880: Thomas Edison makes another discovery. Thermionic emission is the name for heat-induced flow of charge carriers (in physics, this is a particle that is free to move and carry an electric charge with it) from a surface or over a potential-energy barrier. Today, we know that the charge carriers can be electrons or ions but in older literature they are sometimes called thermions. The classic example of this is the emission of electrons from a hot cathode into a vacuum and it is also known as the Edison effect. The hot cathode can be a metal filament, as in a light bulb.

JJ Thomas identified the electron as a separate physical particle in 1897 so before that time, different words were used to describe the effect seen. In 1873, Frederick Guthrie in Britain initially reported on the phenomenon. It was rediscovered on this day by Edison while he was looking for the reason that a lamp element’s broke with uneven blackening. While working with incandescent lamps, Edison built several bulb with different configurations manipulating the wire or adding a metal plate or foil inside the bulb. He measured the current through various configurations using a galvanometer.

Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. His work with electricity and the light bulb are the most famous of his many inventions. He also worked on the phonograph and motion picture cameras. He used principles of mass production in his Menlo Park laboratory – what we might call a Think Tank today. He owned 1,093 US patents as well as patents in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. While that is impressive in its own right, the impact of many of his patents are even more so. He not only invented things, he created entire new systems such as power utilities and early mass communication modes.

He was the seventh and youngest child in his family. He was not a stellar student and did not pay close attention to the teacher who called him “addled”. He survived just three months of classroom instruction after which time his mother took over his education. He was an avid reader and left to his own devices, could learn much from what he read. He suffered hearing loss as a child, perhaps from scarlet fever or recurrent middle-ear infections. Or else he lost his hearing when he was thumped on the side of the head by an irate railroad worker after one of Edison’s experiments blew up on the train. He sold fruits and vegetables on trains to supplement his income. Finally, Edison obtained exclusive right to sell newspapers on the road, his first of many entrepreneurial ventures which continued throughout his life. He died at the age of 82 in West Orange, New Jersey.

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

I have friends in overalls whose friendship I would not swap for the favor of the kings of the world.

If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.

Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something. – all from Thomas A. Edison

Also on this day: The Center of the Universe – In 1633, Galileo was brought before the Inquisition.
Charlie Brown and the Gang – In 2000, the last original Peanuts cartoon was run.
That’s Debatable – In 1815, The Cambridge Union Society is founded.
Old MacDonald – In 1692, the Glencoe Massacre took place.

Sound Recording

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 29, 2013
Edison was cylinder recorder

Edison was cylinder recorder and player

June 29, 1888: Part of George Frideric Handel’s Israel in Egypt is recorded on a wax cylinder, the first (known) classical music recording. The great composer lived from 1685 to 1759. Israel in Egypt was written in 1738. The biblical oratorio was not well received at the time of its premiere and was reworked with sections deleted and others added. The recording was made by Col. George Gouraud at The Crystal Palace in London. The recording was made using Thomas Edison’s yellow paraffin cylinder. It is badly degraded and little can still be heard.

The cylinder method of sound recording was used from 1888 to 1915. The cylinders had the recording engraved on the outside and playback was achieved via a mechanical phonograph. Edison invented the system to record telephone messages. He first used wax paper successfully on July 18, 1877. He then used tin foil wrapped around a cylinder. Next came the use of wax cylinders. They were mass marketed in the 1880s. A soft wax was used and the recordings would wear out after a few dozen replays.

In 1890, Charles Tainter patented carnauba wax cylinders. The harder wax replaced the mixture of paraffin and beeswax. The early phonographs could both record and play back selections. When the soft wax cylinders no longer replayed recordings, the wax could be smoothed over and a new recording made. The 4 inch long cylinders were about 2 ¼ inches in diameter and held about two minutes of music. Eventually, with continued improvements, the cylinders could be played more than 100 times before the sound degraded.

The cylinders came in cardboard tubes with lids at either end. The cardboard protected the recordings. Record companies had a standard label affixed to their products and there was no indication of title or artist on the label. That information was written by hand on the lid. Later, a number was stamped on the lid and finally the name of the artist and title of the work were printed and glued to the lids. The cylinders were in competition with the disk method of recording and eventually, the disks won.

“Musical compositions, it should be remembered, do not inhabit certain countries, certain museums, like paintings and statues. The Mozart Quintet is not shut up in Salzburg: I have it in my pocket.” – Henri Rabaud

“There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music is.” – William P. Merrill

“Music is the universal language of mankind.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memory.” – Oscar Wilde

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Charles Tainter was born in Massachusetts in 1854. His formal education was meager, but the curious boy taught himself. He was hired by Alvan Clark and Sons Company which produced telescopes. They were under contract with the US Navy and Tainter was sent to New Zealand to observe the transit of Venus in 1874. Upon his return to the states, he opened his own shop and produced scientific instruments. He met Alexander Graham Bell and eventually went to work for him. After 1886 he worked on perfecting his graphophone and produced the first Dictaphone. He caught pneumonia in 1888 and was sickly for the rest of his life. Regardless, he perfected many of the products used for sound recording and is often called the Father of the Speaking Machine. He died in 1940, shortly before his 86th birthday.

Also on this day: I Love You Lighthouse – In 1860, the last stone to the I Love You lighthouse was placed.
Pygmy Mammoth – In 1994, the first near-complete pygmy mammoth fossil was found.
Globe Gone – In 1613, the London theater burned down.


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.