As I See It: Shocking
Published: September 24, 2007
by Victor Rozek
This is a story about accidental discovery, inspired breakthroughs, resentful rivalry, and the execution of an elephant. It is also a story about what is arguably the prime driver of modern civilization and the life-force of computing. As with many significant achievements of western culture, it began in ancient Greece some 2,600 years ago.
The details are a bit fuzzy. It may have started with a shepherd polishing a piece of amber with a woolen cloth, or a scholar experimenting with "invisible fields of attraction." Regardless, someone was vigorously rubbing a chunk of amber with a patch of wool and noticed that the magnetized fur mysteriously attracted bits of straw. The bewildering force could similarly draw shreds of paper and even feathers. More rubbing ensued and it was discovered that with enough force and velocity, small sparks could be produced. This was other-worldly. What Zeus did with great bolts in the sky, man could recreate with amber and wool, albeit on a very modest scale. It was the first known instance of humans generating electricity and the results were startling enough to be recorded. Thereafter, amber acquired a reputation for being "the holy stone," believed to posses its own soul. Wooly sheep, however, got no credit and retained their lowly status.
Anointing a "holy stone" was about as close as the Greeks got to explaining the phenomenon. After the novelty of rubbing amber wore off, the records were stored and the mystery remained unexplored for 2200 years. Finally, around 1600 A.D. William Gilbert, an English scientist and personal physician to Queen Elizabeth, came across accounts of the Greek experiment and decided to replicate it. This time, though, the charged wool was passed--perhaps unintentionally--over a compass, and to Gilbert's surprise the needle jumped. Although compasses were already ancient devices (mention of magnetism can be found in Chinese literature as early as the 4th century B.C.), up to that point, they remained something of a mystery. The needle pointed northward, but no one really understood why. But Gilbert had the grand aha: The earth itself must be magnetic.
It was the humble beginning of the study of electromagnetism, and Gilbert is believed to have coined the word "electricity." He chose the word as homage to the Greeks, who made the initial discovery. It comes from the word "electron," which in Greek means amber.
One hundred-fifty years later, an illustrious American was making his contributions to taming the eternal spark. Benjamin Franklin was a man of many interests and commercial pursuits, among them ownership of an insurance company. Franklin insured his clients against the ravages of fire, and lightning was his nemesis, which may explain one of his other obsessions--a fascination with electricity. Franklin believed there was a connection between the sparks he produced in his workshop and the celestial bolts that regularly destroyed the colonial homes of Philadelphians. Being a practical man, Franklin began contemplating ways of minimizing his losses.
Franklin was fascinated by the possibilities of conduction (the movement of electrically charged particles through a transmission medium). He believed electricity had fluid properties and, if he was right, then it could be directed. This led to his now legendary, and potentially suicidal, kite-flying experiment to see if he could coax a bolt of lightning to strike a key attached to his kite string.
The experiment was successful on two counts: Franklin was, in fact, able to influence the flow of electricity; and, he survived the event. If lightning could be drawn to a key fluttering wildly in the wind, Franklin reasoned it could be directed away from a stationary house. The lightning rod was the result and it was so elegant a solution that it is still in use today. But although Franklin's foul weather antics are known to every school child, less acknowledged are Franklin's many other contributions to the study of electricity. According to Redwood Kardon's A Brief History of Electricity, to which I am indebted for this excellent chronology, "most of the electrical terms we use today, such as battery, positive/negative, condenser, conductor, charge, and even electrician, were originally coined by Franklin."
About 30 years later, an Italian physician did something for which he would have been burned at the stake had he accomplished it in the Middle Ages: He made a dead frog twitch. He was conducting an experiment with static electricity and while dissecting a frog on a metal plate he inadvertently touched a nerve in a frog's leg with a scalpel that had picked up a static charge. The leg jumped. Luigi Galvani had inadvertently discovered the essence of a chemical battery (later developed by Galvani's contemporary and rival, Alessandro Volta). Galvani mistakenly thought the source of the electricity was the frog's bodily fluids when in actuality the fluid served as an electrolyte between the two dissimilar metal surfaces. Which is why batteries aren't filled with dead frog fluids today. (In one of history's novel coincidences, a young English woman read accounts of Galvani's work and used it as the basis of her own. Her name was Mary Shelly and her best known creation was a corpse zapped back to life in a doctor's laboratory, Frankenstein. If only "Frankenstein" meant frog leg in Greek, the coincidence would have become legendary.)
There were other notables who unearthed discoveries along the way. The contributions of James Watt, Andre Ampere, and George Ohm, gave us the common language of electrical power, but it was Michael Faraday who ushered in what Kardon calls "the modern age of electricity." Alas, nothing memorable is named after him except the Faraday constant (the amount of electric charge in one mole of electrons), not exactly a household concept, used primarily in physics and chemistry.
Faraday discovered that electric current could be generated by moving a copper coil through a magnetic field. It was the seminal insight that led to the creation of both the generator and the electric motor: generators convert mechanical energy into electricity, while motors convert electrical energy into mechanical energy.
If you're wondering about the elephant, we're getting to that. The poor pachyderm was the victim of inventor Thomas Edison's ego and his bitter rivalry with industrialist George Westinghouse. After Edison perfected the light bulb (by soaking a cotton thread filament in carbon, which allowed it to glow rather than combust), the burning question was how best to deliver power to the masses. Edison believed Direct Current (DC) power was the future and opened the first commercial power plant in New York in 1882. Unfortunately, DC has a number of limitations. The distance it can be transmitted is relatively short, thus requiring many substations, and power could only be transmitted at low voltages. The first plant provided only 85 local customers with power, but Edison set about building more, believing he would soon preside over a vast power-generating monopoly.
Two years later, a Serbian immigrant arrived at Edison's door with an outrageous proposition: he wanted to harness Niagra Falls to produce an unending supply of electrical power. Nikola Tesla was not, however, a proponent of DC power. Instead, he was among a growing number of inventors who believed Alternating Current (AC) power, which could be transmitted far greater distances, was the better solution. Edison's ego wouldn't allow him to hear such blasphemy, so he fired Tesla, who was promptly snapped up by Edison's hated competitor, Westinghouse.
Protecting his interests, Edison went on a brutish campaign to discredit Westinghouse and to portray AC as dangerous by publicly electrocuting cats and dogs. Enter poor Topsy, an elephant with a Coney Island circus who had dispatched three men in as many years and was scheduled for hanging. There's evidence to suggest Topsy may have been killing her tormentors. Her last victim was one of her handlers who fed her a lit cigarette. Nonetheless, she was now too dangerous to work with, and her owners wanted to execute her in a spectacular fashion from which they hoped to further profit.
When there was a public outcry against hanging (a monumentally stupid idea for an animal weighing three tons), Edison suggested zapping her with 6,600 volts of AC power. On January 4, 1903, after being fed carrots laced with cyanide, the unfortunate beast was electrocuted while Edison gleefully filmed the event. He then released the film throughout the country to garner support for DC power. All he garnered, however, was sympathy for the elephant and disgust for a man who could film such cruelty and use it as propaganda. Public opinion turned against Edison and, by the end of the decade, he was out of the electricity production business.
Today, electricity is as common and ubiquitous as illegal immigration. And although we hardly notice its presence, we become nearly paralyzed when the power grid goes down. Largely taken for granted, it is nonetheless the most essential staple of modern civilization. Like the electrical impulses within our own bodies, electricity animates our homes and businesses and underpins human progress. It is the bridge between intellect and machine, the life-force for millions of computers which give expression to a full range of human aspirations from architecture to space travel.
Epilog: In an eruption of delayed karmic justice, several decades after Topsy's grizzly electrocution, the Coney Island circus was itself destroyed by three catastrophic fires. In 2003, a monument to Topsy was unveiled at the Coney Island Museum. Of course, the museum is not interested in the elephant, only in the freakish and exploitable way in which it died. But if elephants were able to experience irony, Topsy would be ruefully amused by the electric lights that illuminate her exhibit.
I guess that's progress.
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