Celebrating 100th anniversary of Feynman’s birth

May 10, 2018

Feynman lecturing, with six chalkboards full of equations, diagrams and notes. CalTech?   Feynman would have been 100 years old on May 11, 2018.

Feynman lecturing, with six chalkboards full of equations, diagrams and notes. CalTech? Feynman would have been 100 years old on May 11, 2018.

How to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Feynman?

Here’s what others say and do.

 

Paul Halpern wrote a recent book on Feynma

There are those who look critically at Feynman’s life, and recognize his flaws — as Feynman did, too. This is an interesting thread.

 

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May 11 is Feynman Day! How to celebrate? (It’s his centenary!)

May 8, 2018

May 11, 2018, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Feynman (born 1918, died 1988).

Most Feynman fans are celebrating through the entire year — appropriately, for a man so much larger than life and unable to be constrained after death.

We should mark the actual day, I think. It would be a good thing to celebrate science on May 11 in his honor, I think. And, there are lots of other good ways to commemorate a great guy.

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman. Borrowed from Luciano’s Tumblr, LikeaPhysicist

Feynman’s birthday falls on Statehood Day for Minnesota.  You can fly your flag for both causes, if you wish, Minnesota’s statehood AND Feynman’s birthday.  No proclamation will issue from the White House, but you can fly your flag any day.

Why Feynman Day?  To celebrate invention, physics, interesting characters, and that essential, American quality of je ne sais quoi.

In addition to his winning the Nobel Prize for Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), Feynman popularized the critique of science and other enterprises with what we now call Cargo Cult science, or education, or whatever, where people follow the dance steps, but without the rhythm and music.

Those two things alone would make him a remarkable man.  But, like a product offered for $19.95 as a good buy in a 2:00 a.m. infomercial, with Feynman, there’s more.  With Feynman, there is always more.

I got alerted to Feynman in the first days of the old Quality Paperback Book Club, when they featured his new memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!  QPBC was hot on the book, and with a title like that, how could I resist?  When I got the book a week or so later, I read it within two days, while attending law school and working full time.  I remember Feynman.

Norton published the book — and their description, alone, should make you want to read it:

A New York Times bestseller—the outrageous exploits of one of this century’s greatest scientific minds and a legendary American original.

In this phenomenal national bestseller, the Nobel Prize­-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman recounts in his inimitable voice his adventures trading ideas on atomic physics with Einstein and Bohr and ideas on gambling with Nick the Greek, painting a naked female toreador, accompanying a ballet on his bongo drums and much else of an eyebrow-raising and hilarious nature.

All true, and that’s not even the half of the outrageousness, all done with great good humor, about a life lived in great good humor through what should have been a memorable age, but often was just terrifying.

I think sometimes that Feynman’s calm alone, borne of that great good humor and insatiable curiosity, may have gotten us through the birth of the Atomic Age and the Cold War.

Feynman was a giant, and we don’t revere him enough.  Consider:

  • Feynman’s high school sweetheart, Arlene, came down with tuberculosis.  He married her, and took her with him to New Mexico to make atom bombs.  The stories of her confinement to a hospital, and the laborious trekking he had to make between Los Alamos and her bedside in Santa Fe, are touching, and heartbreaking.  It is one of the great love stories of the 20th century, certainly, and perhaps for all time.  It also provided the title for his second memoir, What Do You Care What Other People Think?
  • Every single, college-age man should read Feynman’s stories of how to date, and how to seduce women. Women should read it, too, to know what’s happening. Consent is necessary. His approach was unique, and endeared him to women — in legend, to many women.  Feynman’s dating must have been part of the inspiration for the comedy series, “Big Bang Theory.”  Feynman’s stories are better.  (Heck, it’s even the subject of a popular, classic XKCD comic — probably only Feynman and Einstein among Nobel-winning physicists have made so much money for so many cartoonists.)
US postage stamp featuring Richard Feynman

US postage stamp featuring Richard Feynman

  • Yeah, he’s already been featured on a postage stamp, see at right.  That’s not good enough for Feynman, though — the U.S. Postal Service created a special cancellation stamp for Feynman, featuring a version of his Feynman Diagrams.

    USPS authorized a special postal cancel (United States Postal Service) to honor the 80th birthday of Richard Feynman. This cancel was used in Lake Worth, Florida. For this special day the post office was renamed “Feynman Station.”
    Feynman Commemorative Cancel Feynman Diagram

    The Feynman Diagram used for the postal cancel on this envelope depicts what is known as a “bubble process.” It shows a high energy particle, for example, a cosmic ray (a) from a distant supernova, which emits a high energy photon, for example, a gamma ray (b). The photon, in turn, creates a particle (c) and an anti-particle (d) that exists for a brief moment and then recombines.

    As Feynman liked to point out, an anti-particle is the same thing as a particle with negative energy traveling backward in time (which is why the arrow at (d) points backwards, i.e. to the left). So you could say the photon created only one particle that, at first, traveled forward in time (the bottom semi-circle) and then reversed and went back in time (the top semi-circle) and annihilated itself! By inventing diagrams like this, Richard Feynman made it much easier to understand what is going on in the interactions between sub-atomic particles without getting lost in tremendous amounts of tedious math

  • Working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, Feynman developed a keen appreciation for bureaucracy and all its follies.  His vexations for the security managers are also legendary.  Here’s a quick version of one story — he asked friends and family to write to him in code, but to not include a key to the code, so he’d have to crack the code to read the letter.  Feynman could do it, but the security people couldn’t.  Hilarity ensued.
  • Feynman developed a love for the still-relatively unknown, landlocked Asian nation of Tannu Tuva.  It’s just the sort of place to appeal to a character like Feynman — so obscure most atlases didn’t, and don’t, show it at all — seemingly consumed by the Soviet Union, but held in a special status.  Home of throat singing — and almost impossible to get to.  During the Cold War, Feynman struck up correspondence with people in Tuva, to the concern of Soviet and American intelligence agencies, who seemed not to understand someone might do such thing out of curiosity.  Feynman hoped to travel there to visit new friends, but his final bouts of cancer took him before it was possible.  Tuva, famous among philatelists only, perhaps, honored Feynman with postage stamps and postcards.
  • Just try to find a photo of Feynman not smiling. The man was a joy to be around, for most people, most of the time.
  • Quantum electrodynamics?  No, I can’t explain it, either — but his work had a lot to do with how particles wobble.  I remember that because, according to Feynman, he got the inspiration for the work for which he won the Nobel while spinning plates, like a Chinese acrobat on the Ed Sullivan Show, to the delight of students in the Cornell University cafeteria, and the shock and horror of the food service people.  Who else has yet confessed to such an inspiration for a Nobel?

There’s more — a lot more.  Feynman outlined our current generation of computer memory devices — in 1959.  No, he didn’t patent the idea.  He did patent an idea for a nuclear-powered spacecraft.  Another delightful story.

Feynman in an Apple ad

Feynman was featured in print and broadcast ads for Apple — not one, but two (did anyone else get that honor from Apple?). “Think Different.” This is one of Apple Computer’s most successful advertising campaigns. The theme of the campaign is one that celebrates figures in history who changed the world by thinking differently. Richard Feynman was among the chosen figures. Image from the Feynman Group.

Feynman served on the board that approved science books for the California school system –– his stories of that work will shock some, but it will make others shake their heads as they recognize the current crop of cargo-cultists and political bullies who dominate textbook approval processes, knowing nothing at all about what they are doing, or why.

No, I didn’t forget his brilliant work on the commission that studied the Challenger disaster, for NASA. There’s so much stuff to glorify!

In history, Feynman should be remembered much as we remember Thomas Jefferson, as a renaissance man in his time, a man who put great intellect to great work for his nation and all humanity.

Feynman's second Apple ad

The second Apple ad featuring Richard Feynman. An excerpt from Apple Computer’s campaign commercial: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them… about the only thing you can’t do is ignore them, because they change things, they push the human race forward; and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

The sages say we shouldn’t have regrets, but I do have one. When the Challenger Commission was meeting in Washington, D.C., I was working on another commission up the street. I knew Feynman was ill, but our work was important, and we’d heard his disease was in remission. I didn’t goof off a day and go to any of the hearings to see him, to get an autograph, to meet the man. I thought I’d have other opportunities to do that. Now I regret not having met him in person.

In print, and in film, I know him well. In our family, reading Feynman is something everybody does. Feynman’s memoir was one of the last books I read to our son, Kenny, as he was growing up, and growing into reading on his own. Even reading about Feynman, together, was an adventure. Our son, James, took us into the real physics of Feynman, and though I struggle with it more than James, we still read Feynman, for humor, and physics.

What would be appropriate ways to mark Feynman’s birth? At some future date, I hope we’ll have public readings of his books, showings of the documentaries about him, recreations of his lectures, perhaps. And then everyone can get in a circle, beating drums and singing about getting some orange juice, before sending postcards to our friends in Tuva.

Richard Feynman, we still need you, and miss you dearly.

Tannu Tuva

Tuva’s capital is the delightfully-named Kyzyl. From this map, can you figure out where Tuva is, or how to get there — without Google, or Bing?

Tuva postcard honoring Richard Feynman

Tuva postcard, in honor of Richard Feynman — who loved to drum.

There will always be “More” about Richard Feynman, if we’re lucky:

Richard Feynman, unlikely leader, from Open University

Have a great Feynman Day, May 11!

This is an encore post.

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

 


Historic Deltoid: Indur Goklany on DDT, corrections from Tim Lambert

April 10, 2018

I’ll have to beg forgiveness from Tim Lambert, but in the interest of accuracy and good history, I have captured below the post Tim Lambert had on the old Deltoid blog (at the Seed Science Blogs site), dealing with Indur Goklany’s errors on DDT.

A bit of other history: Anthony Watts despises my posts (me, too, probably) and I am banned from his site for various sins including calling him out for suggesting Rachel Carson and President John F. Kennedy had more than an occasional handshake personal relationship (a bizarre charge Christopher Monckton repeats and exaggerates on in slightly different ways). Watts and I disagree on what we should regard as facts; I take the old collegiate debate and Scout Law positions, he sides with the Heartland Institute parody/comedy/hoax troupe.

Watts was having none of my corrections. Tim Lambert, who has researched this particular area of pro-DDT hoaxing more than anyone else, was kind enough to respond.

This is borrowed from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, until, and then maybe a supplement to, the reappearance of Deltoid’s archives at the new site. As of April 10, 2018, I have not checked the links. If links don’t work, please tell me in comments, and I’ll work to get a new link to the old information where possible.

You should also know that Sri Lanka today is certified to be malaria-free, without DDT.

Below, Tim Lambert’s post on Indur Goklany’s errors about DDT history:

 

Indur Goklany, DDT and Malaria

More »

Ed Darrell points to a WUWT post by Indur Goklany which promotes the use of DDT to fight malaria instead of more effective measures. As with most of the DDT promoters, Goklany carefully avoids mentioning the way mosquitoes evolve resistance to insecticides. For example, here’s what he has on Sri Lanka:

For instance, malaria incidences in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) dropped from 2.8 million in the 1940s to less than 20 in 1963 (WHO 1999a, Whelan 1992). DDT spraying was stopped in 1964, and by 1969 the number of cases had grown to 2.5 million.

Now compare this with what really happened in Sri Lanka:

With widespread resistance of A. culicifacies to DDT, malathion spraying was introduced in 1975 in areas of P.falciparum transmission affording protection to nearly one million people. Towards the end of 1976 DDT spraying was completely discontinued and during 1977 exclusively malathion was used as an adulticide.

i-888470655207729222fb0f61fe5fa18a-oth_mal_cases_srl60-08.png

Note that the scale for malaria cases is logarithmic, so there was a factor of ten reduction in the number of cases in a few years after DDT spraying was discontinued.

The misinformation about DDT and malaria that Goklany spreads is harmful and could kill people. DDT still has a place in the fight against malaria (because of insecticide resistance we need as many different insecticides as possible), but there are more effective means available, and by trying to undercut the use of the best methods for fighting malaria, Goklany will be responsible for people dying from malaria.

[End, quote from Tim Lambert’s old Deltoid blog]

Now, is it possible that the comments will copy as well as the blog post? There are some good ones in there.

Here’s a try at copying the comments, below the fold.

 

Read the rest of this entry »


Mount Rushmore, as a tribute to a profession

April 9, 2018

It’s sort of a game: Which four people should be ensconced in much larger-than-life stone sculptures on the side of a mountain (preferably an ugly mountain that is not sacred to any First Nation, but I digress)?

Found a puzzle slanted toward a Rushmore of science, featuring Einstein, Curie, Newton and Darwin.

Puzzle created by Discover, honoring four greats of science.

Puzzle created by Discover, honoring four greats of science.

You can purchase the puzzle at MyScienceShop.com.

We’ve featured the Rushmore of Chicago blues here before, Mount Bluesmore, featured in Buddy Guy’s Legends bar and music venue. I understand the painting moved when Legends moved.

Mount Bluesmore, in the old Legends venue: Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, and Howlin' Wolf.

Mount Bluesmore, in the old Legends venue: Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf.

Heck, this could be a great game: Name four people in any profession, art, field of endeavor, who should be featured on a Mount Rushmore-style monument. Above we’ve got science and Chicago blues. On the real Mount Rushmore, we’ve got the Rushmore of U.S. Presidents.

The real Rushmore, in South Dakota. It features Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln, left to right. National Park Service image.

The real Rushmore, in South Dakota. It features Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln, left to right. National Park Service image.

What other monuments could we have? Painting? Picasso and Rembrandt . . . but there are so many.

Renaissance painting. Abstract painting. Landscapes, portrait painters. Architects. Rock musicians. Classical musicians. Baseball. Football. American football. Fiction authors. Engineers. Women scientists. Tuskegee airmen (that would be tough; every one of them deserve it).

Who do you nominate, for what field?  Put nominations in comments. Include pictures if you find one. 

Others have played this game: 

Rushmore of Disastrous Presidents, featuring Trump, Hoover, George W. Bush, and Richard Nixon. By Dan Adel for Vanity Fair magazine.

Rushmore of Disastrous Presidents, featuring Trump, Hoover, George W. Bush, and Richard Nixon. By Dan Adel for Vanity Fair magazine.

Adel’s original, in 2007, featured Warren G. Harding in place of Trump.

Vanity Fair's Disastrous Presidents Rushmore, in 2007, by artist Dan Adel, adding Warren G. Harding, before Trump.

Vanity Fair’s Disastrous Presidents Rushmore, in 2007, by artist Dan Adel, adding Warren G. Harding, before Trump.

A ghost Rushmore, featuring Native American leaders:

Four Native Americans posed as alternatives for Rushmore. (Challenge: Can you accurately identify the four? Please do.)

Four Native Americans posed as alternatives for Rushmore. (Challenge: Can you accurately identify the four? Please do.)

A classical music proposal (would you choose differently?)”

Left to right, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. Gagambo, at Deviant Art.

Left to right, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. Gagambo, at Deviant Art.

Sioux tribes have undertaken a drive to respond to what many consider a desecration of their sacred lands, with a massive monument to Crazy Horse, still being carved, and incredibly impressive (if you visit, spend a lot of time at the museum):

More: 

Tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson at the Chicago Blues Festival, 2010:


‘DDT has become harmless to mosquitoes today’

March 29, 2018

From India today, not news to anyone who follows the fight against malaria, and the fight to save a part of the planet to preserve human life.

DDT resistance prompted India to agree to stop production of DDT by 2020 — the last DDT factory remaining. India’s disease fighters tell of frustration trying to control malaria, because abuse of DDT has bred DDT resistant and immune mosquitoes. This is not news.

But India Today has a news hole to fill, and the continuing crises of vector-borne diseases force public health agencies to turn to “fourth generation” pesticides, as insects are now resistant to DDT and malathion.

The story out of New Delhi on March 13 almost adds some poetry to the issue. I repeat the story from India Today in full, partly because I love the lilt of Indian English, and because it tells the story of continuing attempts to get ahead of pesticide resistance in pests, attempts that just don’t seem to be doing the job.

Delhi’s civic agencies asked to use fourth generation pesticides to kill chemical-resistant insects

A small vehicle fogging streets of Delhi, India, with DDT, to fight mosquitoes. File photo from India Today, used to illustrate the story only.

A small vehicle fogging streets of Delhi, India, with DDT, to fight mosquitoes. File photo from India Today, used to illustrate the story only.

Pesticides such as DDT and malathion, which were once super weapons in the fight against mosquitoes, now seem to have become harmless perfume-like sprays for the blood-sucking parasites.

Scientists at the National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme (NVBDCP), Delhi which is the central nodal agency for prevention of diseases like malaria, dengue, filariasis, kala-azar, Japanese encephalitis and chikungunya, etc, in India has now recommended municipalities in the Capital and other parts of the country to shift to the 4th generation of pesticides that is also the last in the row.

These constitute certain bio-larvicides and insect growth regulators that stop the synthesis of critical hormones in mosquito larvae to prevent them from becoming adult. Only after attaining maturity, do the female Anopheles and Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes suck blood to get protein nutrition to lay eggs.

Scientists explain that the first generation of pesticides was DDT, used since World War II on soldiers in 1940s up till now, as its a powerful poison against mosquitoes. Later, its environmental effects, specifically on birds like vultures, reduced its usage globally.

Then came malathion, which had to be applied in huge quantities, paving the way for 3rdgeneration pesticides like synthetic pyrethroids and temephos. But with reports of mosquitoes developing tolerance towards all of these gradually, scientists are now recommending mixed and increased usage of the fourth generation of pesticides that is also the last line of defence in this class.

Experiments are still going on with genetically modified mosquitoes and introducing batches of mosquitoes injected with wolbachia bacteria in the wild to produce sterile eggs. A senior scientist with the NVBDCP, Civil Lines, said, Just like humans develop resistance towards antibiotics, mosquitoes have also evolved over the past 20-30 years to grow natural defence against DDT, malathion, etc. We are still using these two in virgin areas like forests of northeast India, Odisha, etc. successfully. But we have begun getting reports that even temephos and synthetic pyrethroids have stopped receiving the desired results against mosquitoes.

A pesticide is said to be successful when it kills over 90 per cent of the targeted insect or pest population. Over 3,500 species of mosquitoes, which play host to a number of disease-causing vectors such as zika, yellow fever, west Nile virus, etc. are said to be the deadliest animal family in the world. They kill 700 million people annually world over.
In Delhi itself, at least 10 people died of dengue last year and 9,271 people were affected.

The numbers of malaria and chikungunya cases recorded in 2017 stood at 1,142 and 940. In 2016, at least 21 dengue deaths were reported from various city hospitals. And this year, an early onset of the deadly trio dengue, malaria and chikungunya is expected with summer-like weather conditions already.

High temperature and presence of clear water in desert coolers, flower pots, coconut shells, etc, act as excellent breeding sites for the menacing insects.

We have asked municipalities to even use the fourth generation of pesticides pirimiphos-methyl and diflubenzuron in a mix with the previous generation pesticides to delay mosquitoes developing tolerance towards this in the future, the scientist explained. He said, over the years, the pesticides must be rotated in use so that their effectiveness on hardy mosquitoes does not go down.

Dr Himmat Singh, senior scientist at the National Institute of Malaria Research (NIMR), Dwarka, said, The benefit with these two latest pesticides is that they are only hormone-inhibitors, not poisons, and specific to mosquitoes. So they wouldnt have any effect on other insects, birds, mammals, fishes, etc. They are categorised as non-hazardous by WHO. However, their cost has been prohibitive so far, he said.

Delhi municipalities have begun their use after a meeting of scientists and bureaucrats of NVBDCP, NIMR, ministry of health and family welfare and the Central Insecticide Board (CIB) authorised their application in January, sources said.

Dr NR Das, head of the department of Public Health in east MCD said, We have already procured diflubenzuron on NVBDCP directions and been using it for one month satisfactorily. However, we will be able to ascertain its degree of effectiveness only after two to three months.

For at least a decade, India has been the world’s largest producer of DDT, and the largest user, spraying more DDT than the rest of the world together. China and North Korea were the only two other nations making DDT at the end of the 20th century, but both cut off production. Counter to popular conceptions, India has struggled to control malaria, often being the only nation in the world to account increases in the disease from year to year, since 2001. Malaria increased despite increasing DDT application.

To fight malaria effectively DDT spraying should be limited to Indoor Residual Spraying (IRS), which leaves a fine coat of DDT on the walls of sleeping rooms, where malaria-carrying mosquitoes bite humans, then pause on the walls to squeeze water out of the blood they’ve fed on, to reduce weight to fly. Broadscale spraying of DDT only speeds development of resistance in all mosquito species, and many other pests.

India is catching up with the rest of the world on DDT.

Tip of the old scrub brush to India Today’s Twitter feed.

 

 


Annals of Global Warming: Chukchi ice melt 2018

February 24, 2018

As Bill McKibben notes, something seems amiss with this chart.

Chart from data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) showing sea ice in the Bering-Chukchi Sea; 2018's ice decline in red. Graphic by Zachary Labe.

Chart from data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) showing sea ice in the Bering-Chukchi Sea; 2018’s ice decline in red. Graphic by Zachary Labe.

The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, track ice in the Arctic. The chart shows extent of sea ice in square kilometers, with a comparison of about the past 20 years.

In red, you see what is happening to the ice in 2018 — a dramatic melt, a dramatic plunge in the amount of sea ice.

Arctic Circle area temperatures rose dramatically above normal temperatures for winter in the past few weeks, by 25 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (see report in the Sydney Morning Herald). Such dramatic increases frequently result when a weakened jet stream fails to keep cold Arctic air in the Arctic — and the polar vortex slips to give some temperate latitude land incredible freezes. The colds that get reported on the news and touted by science dissenters as evidence Global Warming does not occur, are the result of those heat blobs in the Arctic.

Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald reports: Arctic temperatures in February 2018 are averaging well above normal, and peaking up to 25 degrees higher than normal. Photo: globalweatherlogistics.com

Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald reports: Arctic temperatures in February 2018 are averaging well above normal, and peaking up to 25 degrees higher than normal. Photo: globalweatherlogistics.com

Tipping points are not always discernable in real time. This may be an exception.

Time to act, people!

 

Tip of the old scrub brush to Bill McKibben, of course.


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.


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