Friday, February 11, 2011

Edison's Medicine

Today is Thomas Edison's 164th birthday. I just saw him the other day and he doesn't look a day over 125.

As happens every year, the mainstream media spends the day giving a quickie overview of Edison's alleged accomplishments. This year I think it's time I played Devil's Advocate and present a differing view of history.

To be sure, Edison was a great man in his own twisted way and did achieve many things in his lifetime. But he owes many of his achievements to the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla. Tesla invented the alternating current system of electricity that has become such a benchmark standard in America, people forget there could be any other kind.

But in 1882, it was not so. All our nation's electricity came from Edison's direct current system, and when Tesla popped up with the safer and superior alternating current, Edison - eager to protect his own interests - used every smear tactic at his disposal to generate negative PR for it. Edison paid local children to catch stray dogs and bring them to him (many people's pets were no doubt seized by these overeager kids). In showy circus-like press conferences and demonstrations, he would electrocute these poor dogs before everyone's eyes to "prove" the dangers of alternating current.

(In so doing, Edison stole credit for yet another invention: the electric chair. For his anti-Tesla dog-killing shows, he enlisted two of his employees - Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly - to come up with the apparatus that would electrocute the puppies. Because Brown and Kennelly worked for Edison, and because Edison promoted the device as his own, the development of the electric chair still continues to be falsely credited to Edison in some publications to this day.)

Not satisfied with the pet executions, Edison upped the ante. On January 4, 1903, he arranged a public spectacle in which Topsy, an elephant from the Forepaugh Circus at Coney Island's Luna Park, was electrocuted by Edison's lackies to demonstrate that Tesla's AC was so dangerous, it could kill an elephant. What the crowd of gawkers didn't know was that Edison had already arranged that Topsy be fed carrots laced with potassium cyanide, to ensure that she wouldn't live.

He made a film of the event, and showed it around the nation as part of his scare campaign against Tesla's AC.

Edison was not a terribly bright man when it came to science, and he could not even begin to wrap his head around how Tesla's mysterious alternating current worked. Says Wikipedia: "Edison was a brute-force experimenter, but was no mathematician. AC cannot be properly understood or exploited without a substantial understanding of mathematics and mathematical physics, which Tesla possessed."

Tesla had originally been working for Edison, but gradually came to realize that Edison was stealing his ideas and patenting them. The final straw was when Edison promised Tesla $50,000 if he could work the bugs out of Edison's inefficient dynamo. After a year of hard work, Tesla succeeded in improving the dynamo. When Tesla humbly showed up at Edison's office to inquire when he would receive his fifty grand, Edison reportedly shrugged and said: "Tesla, you don't understand our American humor".

Tesla and many other inventors had already invented the light bulb, or light bulb-like creations, long before Edison claimed credit for it and unveiled his own version in Kentucky at the Southern Exposition of 1883. If we regard the definition of a light bulb as "a vacuum tube that lights up", then consider the Geissler Tube, the Crookes Tube, and the works of Hiram Maxim.

It's generally accepted now that Joseph Wilson Swan is the actual inventor of Edison's bulb. Wikipedia again: "In America, Edison had been working on copies of the original light bulb patented by Swan, trying to make them more efficient. Though Swan had beaten him to this goal, Edison obtained patents in America for a fairly direct copy of the Swan light, and started an advertising campaign which claimed that he was the real inventor. Swan, who was less interested in making money from the invention, agreed that Edison could sell the lights in America while he retained the rights in Britain."

But really, it all goes back to Sir Humphrey Davy, who invented the first incandescent light in 1802, by passing direct electrical current through a thin strip of platinum. In 1809, Davy also created the first arc lamp by making a electrical connection between two carbon charcoal rods connected to a 2000-cell battery. But by the time American citizens flocked to Kentucky in 1883 to witness the unveiling of Edison's electric lights, history was ready to forget or ignore all who had come before.

Interestingly, years before the Expo, Edison had actually lived in Louisville circa 1866-1867. It's said he lived in a shotgun duplex on East Washington Street in what is now Butchertown. Today the Thomas Edison House operates in Butchertown as a museum and tribute to the man. However, it should be noted that there's actually no hard evidence that this house is the exact one that Mr. Edison lived in, even though the historical marker sign out front definitively states it as being so.


DH said...

Great post! I've always been a big Tesla fan but I never realized that Edison was quite THAT dirty. It's interesting that we use the term 'shed some light on subject' when referring to learning more about a particular thing. Obviously more light needs to be shed on the history of electricity and the light bulb itself.

JSH said...

It gets worse: I forgot to mention he also electrocuted a circus elephant. Just added another paragraph about that.

Nicholas said...

Wonderful post! Most people think of Edison as an inventor, but he was really more a ruthless businessman.

Tesla was truly a man out of his time, and one of history's most under-recognized inventors.

For those interested,
Suggested reading:
1- Tesla, Man out of Time - Margaret Cheney
2- Empires of Light - Jill Jones
3- My Inventions - Nikola Tesla