Louis (Drew) Goodwin
HIST 2020-760 United States History II
February 17, 2014
I chose some specific articles related to Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb, and for numerous reasons. The main reason being I wanted to see what it would be like to step back in time to the absolute wonderment surrounding such an exciting and revolutionary invention. In our current age, when we can literally teleport objects like atoms from one place to another, I feel it’s safe to say the light bulb is something we all take for granted, at best, and more likely, don’t even think about at all. Another reason being I don’t have the foggiest in terms of the details surrounding how Edison’s company was able to figure out the wiring, supplying power, or most anything in terms of the process of actually making it happen. The final reason is because I think it’s important to see if there’s anything we can learn from our past, both good and bad, and even more so, to see how we can apply that to new technologies and new inventions in present day, especially for ones as colossal as the light bulb. In early May of 1881 the Boston Journal sent a correspondent named Nick Sidom to New York City, and on May 5th and 7th, the Journal published his letters. His main job was to give a full report of the electric lighting that was put into place around the city by Edison’s Electric Light Company. Wasting no time in his first correspondence, the first line in his letter sums up the seemingly general sentiment of the day. “The electric light, until recently an object of wonder and curiosity than of established interest, is now a familiar feature of the New Your City streets.” To think that the incandescent light bulb itself, one of the most fundamental and most-used products of the last 120-130 years, started out as something amazing to people is amazing in itself. The only thing I could think to compare that to in modern terms would be the invention and skyrocketing success of the personal computer. Meaning, they both drastically revolutionized the way humans live, work, and act, and on a massive scale. At the time of the bulb’s invention it was hard to see any negatives in ushering in this new technology b/c it would allow people to do things we think of as almost more-than-routine - fans operating by themselves, get other things done while they ran their laundry, etc. Most importantly, however, their cities would glow, quite literally. Indeed, there were problems with the illumination of cities at the time. Gas lamps provided minimal, orange, dim, and what most people considered ‘ugly’ light, not to mention their inefficiency and soot problems. With the incandescent bulb there was a “sun-like blaze of electricity” that lit up the city “to the heavens and stars”, as Mr. Sidom puts it. This blaze was accomplished by a complicated series of events that included Edison and his team investing over $75,000 in the latter half of 1881 (about $1.2 million today) alone, essentially using a system of funding his light bulb endeavors with the money he made from all of his other inventions. He considered the light bulb his greatest invention, so to that means he saw to it that things went according to his plan as much as possible. This included inventing generators (called dynamos) that could supply power to the lighting and seeing to it that seemingly never-ending construction crews would lay down wire underneath the city. He made constant repairs and upgrades to the bulbs, going from a 40-hr lifespan to 200 in just mere months by experimenting with literally thousands of different materials. A certainly tireless individual, Edison’s hard work paid off, and in early fall of 1882 residents in New York City could purchase electricity for their homes. The rest, as they say, is history. As good an invention as the light bulb was there were definitely consequences to its brightening of our nation’s landscape. It takes a copper filament, for example, to stay illuminated. Glass and other metals are involved, too, and these are all examples of non-renewable resources. As irrefutable, scientific information about the extent of the damage we are doing to our planet by mining such materials gets more and more clear to us all we need to take serious pause and think about what direction we are going now with new inventions. As human nature is likely to do sometimes, I don’t think we are learning enough from our past. For example, the light bulbs today that will last you more than a year of continual use contain mercury in them to a degree that we aren’t even allowed to thrown them away regularly. As a move to solar seems more and more inevitable, and logical, it will be interesting to see to which of the lessons from Edison we will take serious heed.