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: Thomas Edison, on how to succeed at anything

February 11, 2013

Edison on cover of 2012 Time history issue

Thomas Edison on the cover of Time Magazine history issue, July 2010.

Stolen in its entirety from Maria Popova’s Explore (well, she Tweeted it):

You do something all day long, don’t you? Every one does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and it is certain with most men, that they have been doing something all the time. They have been either walking, or reading, or writing, or thinking. The only trouble is that they do it about a great many things and I do it about one. If they took the time in question and applied it in one direction, to one object, they would succeed. Success is sure to follow such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have an object, one thing, to which they stick, letting all else go. Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.

Thomas Edison, born on this day in 1847, on the secrets of success

Maria Popova’s post at BrainPickings explores Thomas Edison’s unusual preoccupation with sleep.  I’ve usually considered him a model for some behaviors — he kept cots in his office for naps — but it becomes clear he was probably chronically sleep-deprived.  With the knowledge we have now on how sleep deprivation hampers daily activities, Edison’s accomplishments become all the more fantastic.  Imagine what he could have accomplished, had he had enough sleep!

Edison was born February 11, 1847, when Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both 38 years old, Darwin working in experiments with animals to disprove the evolution operations he had observed (he didn’t disprove them), and Lincoln in the middle of his sole term as a U.S. Congressman, during the Mexican-American War.  (Both Darwin and Lincoln were born February 12, 1809.)  In 1847 Brigham Young was leading Mormons across what Lewis and Clark had called “the Great American Desert,” the Great Plains, into the Valley of the Great Salt Lake (more desert than Lewis and Clark could have imagined).  Famously, the main body of the Mormon emigration wagon flotilla would enter Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847.

Edison would probably agree:  Overnight success takes years of preparation and practice.

More:


Abraham Lincoln, inventor – only president with a patent?

February 10, 2013

Lincoln’s (and Darwin’s) birthday rolls around again next week. What do we know about our 16th president who was the subject of a great and a silly movie in the last year?

Some wag sent out this Tweet today.

Any visitor to Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello knows of Jefferson’s wide-ranging interests, and work in science and invention.  I was rather surprised to discover the depth of George Washington’s inventive work, in a seminar sponsorred by the Bill of Rights Institute at Mount Vernon a few years ago.

Abraham Lincoln, too?

Sangamon_River_near_Lincoln's_First_Home_in_Il...

Sangamon River near Lincoln’s first home in Illinois – Photo from Wikipedia

Lincoln lived along the Sangamon River, and he saw development of the river for commercial navigation to be a boon for his district’s economic growth.  Unfortunately, the Sangamon is not deep; boats had difficult times navigating over the many logs and snags, and shallows.

So, Mr. Lincoln offered a technical solution, for which he was granted a patent in 1849.  Details below, from Google Patents:

lincoln-patent-for-buoying_vessels_over_shoals

lincoln-patent-for-boat-buoying-in-jpg

Drawing for Abraham Lincoln’s patent of a boat bouying apparatus.

Was Lincoln the only president to get a patent?  Thomas Jefferson and George Washington worked hard at inventions.  Jefferson shared Ben Franklin’s view that new inventions should be for the benefit of all; does that mean he didn’t seek patents?  Washington’s inventions — including the 16-sided barn for threshing wheat — tended to be improvements on processes; I don’t know of any evidence he even thought of patenting any idea.

It’s possible that Lincoln was the only president so far to have held a patent.

Lincoln’s invention was never built, and that patent never used.

This is an encore post with additions.

More, and miscellany:

 


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:


Ingenious anti-personnel mine finder

December 19, 2012

Brilliant little film about a wonderfully creative guy, a war refugee, who developed a wind-powered device that can find and detonate anti-personnel mines.  It’s part of the GE-sponsored FOCUS/FORWARD film contest:

Description and credits at Vimeo’s site:

MINE KAFON is a Finalist in the $200,000 FOCUS FORWARD Filmmaker Competition and is in the running to become the $100,000 Grand Prize Winner. It could also be named an Audience Favorite if it’s among the ten that receives the most votes. If you love it, vote for it. Click on the VOTE button in the top right corner of the video player. Note that voting may not be available on all mobile platforms, and browser cookies must be enabled to vote.

A short documentary portrait on a designer who has created a low cost solution to landmine clearance.

Check out his website:  massoudhassani.com
or for other films by us at Ardent Film Trust:  ardentfilm.org

DIRECTOR
Callum Cooper
DOP
Michael Latham
CAMERA
Michael Latham
Mahmud Hassani
Callum Cooper
SLOW MOTION CAMERA
Ed Edwards
EDITOR
Anna Meller
COLOR GRADER
Chris Teeder
SOUND MIXER AND DESIGNER
Sandy Milne
TITLE DESIGNER
Ray O’Meara
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
Bobby Kapur
PRODUCERS
Alicia Brown
Michael Latham
Callum Cooper
THANKS
Lucie Kalmar
Slowmo High Speed
Optimism Films
The RNLA explosive ordnance disposal service
Copyright Ardent Film Trust 2012


Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina: Wright Bros. National Memorial

December 17, 2012

Kill Devil Hills monument to theWright Brothers

Wikipedia description: Standing sixty feet (18.3 meters) tall and perched atop a ninety foot (27.4 meters) stabilized sand dune known as Kill Devil Hill, this monument towers over Wright Brothers National Memorial Park in Kill Devil Hills, NC. The park commemorates and preserves the site where the Wright brothers launched the world’s first successful sustained, powered flights in a heavier-than-air machine. The inscription that wraps around the base of the monument states “In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright. Conceived by genius, achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.” Photo by Ken Thomas, taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 in Dare County, NC, USA.

At this site, on December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright first achieved flight in a heavier-than-air machine.

 


Encore quote of the moment: John F. Kennedy, “We choose to go to the Moon”

September 12, 2012

John F. Kennedy at Rice University, Houston, Texas, Sept 12, 1962 - photo from NASA

John F. Kennedy at Rice University, Houston, Texas, Sept 12, 1962 – photo from NASA

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, at Rice University, Houston, Texas

This is an encore post, on the 50th anniversary of the speech.

Why this speech in Houston?  There’s more here than just a speech in a football stadium.  Kennedy was working to save the space initiative, and to make America more secure.

In this quest, Kennedy lays out the reasons we need strong science research programs funded by our federal government, and strong science educational achievement in all of our schools.

From the White House History Association:

Race to the Moon

President John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) awoke on April 12, 1961, to the news that the Soviet Union had won the race to put a man into space. Kennedy immediately met with Vice President Lyndon Johnson in the White House to discuss the embarrassment of the Soviets beating America again. “Can we put a man on the moon before them?” Kennedy asked. A few weeks later, Kennedy challenged the nation to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

Kennedy challenged Congress and the imaginations of all Americans a few weeks later, when on May 25, in a special Joint Session of Congress, he proposed a Moon exploration program.  In a speech outlining defense and foreign policy needs to make the U.S. secure and safe against threats from Soviet communism, or any other nation or faction, Kennedy spoke openly about the space race that had been waged since October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union became the first nation on Earth to orbit an artificial satellite, Sputnik.

Kennedy told Congress in that part of the speech:

Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take. Since early in my term, our efforts in space have been under review. With the advice of the Vice President, who is Chairman of the National Space Council, we have examined where we are strong and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. Now it is time to take longer strides–time for a great new American enterprise–time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.

I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of leadtime, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last. We take an additional risk by making it in full view of the world, but as shown by the feat of astronaut Shepard, this very risk enhances our stature when we are successful. But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.

I therefore ask the Congress, above and beyond the increases I have earlier requested for space activities, to provide the funds which are needed to meet the following national goals:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations–explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

(Here’s a link to an audio excerpt of that speech, from the Kennedy Library.)

The race was on.  The Soviet Union’s massive rocket engines gave them a decided advantage.  Kennedy’s challenge captured the imagination of Americans and America.  Necessary money flowed from Congress, but not in a completely free flow.  Some opposed the nation’s efforts in space exploration because they thought spending on space exploration detracted from the nation’s defense efforts.  Kennedy continued to stress the connection between space exploration and defense.  He was backed by successes — Navy Commander Alan Shepard, Jr., had successfully launched into space and returned safely; and on February 20, 1962, pilot Marine Capt. John Glenn orbited the Earth three times, catching the U.S. up almost to where the Soviet Union was in manned space exploration.

Kennedy understood that constant attention, constant selling of the space program would be necessary.  So in September 1962 he found himself in Houston, the newly-designated home of the manned space program, and he took the opportunity to cast the American goals in the space race as peaceful, good for all mankind, and definitely worth the massive costs.

Notice in how he casts putting a human on the Moon in league with other great achievements of civilization.  Kennedy was truly shooting for the stars.

Notice also how he relates space exploration to practical applications then in existence, such as communication, navigation of ships at sea, and weather forecasting.  This was years before geosynchronus satellites were used for everyday telephone conversations, years before quantum theory was harnessed for Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and digital personal, handheld telephones, and before the newly-invented printed circuits were miniaturized to make computer calculating a possibility in space — the Moon landing was done with slide rules and hand calculations.

Just over 14 months later Kennedy would die in Texas, in Dallas, on November 22, 1963.  On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle Lunar Module on the Moon, at the Sea of Tranquility.  A few hours later, on July 21, they stepped out on the Moon.  From Kennedy’s speech to Congress, the task had taken 8 years, one month and 26 days.

More resources:

Tip of the old scrub brush for inspiration to “Anything You Ever Wanted to Know” at KERA-FM 90.1 in Dallas, on July 24, 2009.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, with Neil Armstrong, the U.S. flag, and the Eagle Lunar Module reflected in his helmet visor, July 21, 1969 - NASA photo via Wikimedia

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, with Neil Armstrong, the U.S. flag, and the Eagle Lunar Module reflected in his helmet visor, July 21, 1969 – NASA photo via Wikimedia

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August 14, 1951: Leo Fender’s Telecaster guitar patent issued

August 16, 2012

August 14 carries a lot of weight in history, doesn’t it?  Just learned of this August 14, 1951 event:

Patent drawins for Clarence L. Fender's new guitar , later named "Telecaster"

Most guitar aficionados recognize this icon of rock and roll — the Fender Telecaster. In these drawings on the August 14, 1951, patent grant, it was just a “guitar.”

Leo Fender‘s first name was Clarence?  Who knew?

Take a look at page 2 of the patent:  Gretsch?  What other names do you recognize?

One of my ex-brothers-in-law was Fender’s tax guy, but years later.  I was never successful in dropping the hint that Fender’s tax attorney’s brother-in-law might be real grateful if, you know, a sample or a second might find its way to the tax attorney’s office, and then to the brother-in-law’s home and amplifier . . .

Tip of the old scrub brush to Premier Guitar’s Facebook page.

More, Related Material:

"Road worn" Fender Telecaster - photo by Fender

“Road worn” Fender Telecaster – photo by Fender


Bright idea day, October 21 – Edison’s demonstration of the light bulb

October 21, 2011

GE cartoon on Edison's light bulb, by Maki Naro

Cartoon by Maki Naro, for GE - Click for larger image

GE’s release said:

Perhaps there should be a bumper sticker: “If you love doing stuff at night without a kerosene lantern, thank Edison.” Okay, it doesn’t roll trippingly off the tongue. Still, today is the anniversary of Thomas Edison’s 13-and-a-half-hour test of the carbon filament lightbulb that made electric light a practical reality for the world. As we’ve discussed before, Edison was one of many inventors of the lightbulb, but his designs proved to be transformative for the technology. Maki Naro marked the occasion with a short comic (replete with Alexander Graham Bell, who’s hoppin’ mad).

Too commercial for classroom use?  Not with proper attribution, I think.

Meanwhile, earlier at the Bathtub:


White House notes advances in light bulbs and energy conservation

August 14, 2011

L-Prize-winning bulb from Philips North American Lighting -- a 10-watt LED bulb to replace 60-watt incandescent bulbs

L-Prize-winning bulb from Philips North American Lighting -- a 10-watt LED bulb to replace 60-watt incandescent bulbs

From the White House blog, something you probably didn’t see in your local newspaper and/or Tea Party organ:

Bright Ideas: Thomas Edison would be amazed. The conventional light bulb now has some serious competition. Philips Lighting North America has invented a revolutionary 10-watt light emitting diode (LED) bulb. Phillips is the first winner of the Energy Department’s Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize(L Prize). The L Prize challenged the lighting industry to develop high performance, energy-saving replacements for conventional light bulbs that will save American consumers and businesses money.

Some business gets an award for lights that conserve energy?  Rats, there goes Rand Paul’s raison d’etre — all but for the lack of a toilet Paul could flush on his own.

More: 


Typewriter of the moment: July 23, 1829 William A. Burt’s typographer patented

July 23, 2011

William Austin Burt received a patent on a typographer on July 23, 1829 — signed personally by President Andrew Jackson.

First patent issued for a typewriter, July 23, 1829, to William Austin Burt -- signed by Andrew Jackson

Image of the first patent issued for a typewriter, July 23, 1829, to William Austin Burt, a Michigan surveyor and inventor. It was signed personally by President Andrew Jackson.

The typographer is considered the forerunner to the typewriter.

Burt’s chief reputation came from his work as a surveyor in Michigan.  He discovered the massive iron ore deposits for which Michigan became famous, the iron that fueled much of American industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries.  He discovered one of the world’s largest deposits of copper, the Calumet and Hecla Mine.  He invented the solar compass, to survey areas where iron deposits made magnetic compasses inaccurate.

Drawing of W. A. Burt's typographer, the first patented typewriter - Wikimedia image

Patent drawing of W. A. Burt's typographer, the first patented typewriter - Wikimedia image

Some of Burt’s biographies do not mention his invention of the typewriter.

Burt was born in an era of great technological development and invention.  People in all walks of life invented devices to aid their work, or just for the joy of invention.  Even future president Abraham Lincoln invented a device to float cargo boats in shallow water, hoping to increase river commerce to his home county, Sangamon County, Illinois.

Burt invented devices to aid his work in surveying, a very important service industry in frontier America.   Because surveyors often worked on the frontier, they were famous for discovering natural resources in the course of their work. So it was that Burt, working in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, found his magnetic compasses spinning wildly.  Suspecting a natural phenomenon, Burt ordered his crew to look for ferrous rocks, and they quickly determined they were in an area rife with iron deposits.

It was to further surverying in such areas that Burt invented the solar compass.

Even uninteresting frontiersmen could lead lives that fascinate us today.  Was it Burt’s inventiveness that led him to such a life as a surveyor, or was it his work that pushed him to invent?

First typewritten letter, 1829 - Wikimedia Image

First letter ever written on a typewriter, in 1829 -- to Martin Van Buren, then Vice President of the U.S., and future president. Notice the letter was written nearly two months prior to the patent being issued on the device upon which it was written. Wikimedia image


Typewriter of the moment: Godrej & Boyce, the last manual ever made

April 30, 2011

Can this be correct?

The Daily Mail in London reports that the last manufacturer of manual typewriters in the world, Godrej & Boyce of India, is shutting down production.

Is this the last manual typewriter ever to be made?

Godrej and Boyce, Prima, the last manual typewriter manufactured in the world

The Prima, from Godrej & Boyce; in India, the last company making manual typewriters is closing down

According to the Daily Mail:

It’s an invention that revolutionised the way we work, becoming an essential piece of office equipment for the best part of a century.

But after years of sterling service, that bane for secretaries has reached the end of the line.

Godrej and Boyce – the last company left in the world that was still manufacturing typewriters – has shut down its production plant in Mumbai, India with just a few hundred machines left in stock.

Although typewriters became obsolete years ago in the west, they were still common in India  – until recently.  Demand for the machines has sunk in the last ten years as consumers switch to computers.

The company’s general manager, Milind Dukle, told India’s Business Standard newspaper: ‘We are not getting many orders now.

‘From the early 2000s onwards, computers started dominating. All the manufacturers of office typewriters stopped production, except us.

‘Till 2009, we used to produce 10,000 to 12,000 machines a year. But this might be the last chance for typewriter lovers. Now, our primary market is among the defence agencies, courts and government offices.’

The company is now down to its last  200 machines – the majority of which are Arabic language models.

The firm began production in the 1950s – when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru described the typewriter as a symbol of India’s emerging independence and industrialisation. It was still selling 50,000 models annually in the early 1990s, but last year it sold less than 800 machines.

The first commercial typewriter was produced in the U.S. in 1867 and by the turn of the century had developed into the  standardised format – including a qwerty’ keyboard – that we know today.

Say it ain’t so, Mr. Christopher Latham Sholes!

Godrej & Boyce manufactures several different technology products in its conglomerate of factories — but the typewriter is already gone from their website’s listing of company products.

Electric typewriters will continue to roll off of foreign assembly lines, for companies like Swintec and Brother.

More, resources, etc.: 


George Jetson come true? Maverick Flying Car at Oshkosh

April 14, 2011

Next time somebody asks ‘where’s my flying car?” you can show them this.

Steve Saint of I-TEC drove his road-legal flying car from Florida to Oshkosh this summer. Since then the FAA has also issued the Maverick a S-LSA aircraft airworthiness certificate. I-TEC hopes to be in production by EAA Oshkosh 2011.

[Because it comes with built-in autoplay from the Experimental Aircraft Association, it's below the fold.]

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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.


DDT: One of the 50 worst inventions

May 30, 2010

Time Magazine recently proposed a list of the “50 worst inventions.”

Wouldn’t you know it?  The piece was published on May 27, the anniversary of Rachel Carson’s birth (just to give fuel to the fire of the conspiratorialists), and DDT was listed as one of the 50 worst inventions.

After the war, use exploded: from 1942 to 1972, some 1.35 billion lb. of DDT were used in the U.S.

But absent from the DDT mania was consideration of the environmental effects of dumping millions of pounds of potent pesticides each year. Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 environmental tract Silent Spring was the first to call attention to the nasty little fact that DDT produced fertility and neurological problems in humans and accumulated up the food chain in wildlife, poisoning birds. Use of the compound plummeted, and in 1972, DDT was banned in the U.S. entirely.

The list is more humorous than accurate, but it’s nice to see a journal that doesn’t suffer from DDT poisoning to make it claim, against the facts, that DDT is a miracle chemical with no harms.
Other inventions among the 50 worst, according to Time:

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