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Power Struggles

Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison

Michael Brian Schiffer
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 432
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  • Book Info
    Power Struggles
    Book Description:

    In 1882, Thomas Edison and his Edison Electric Light Company unveiled the first large-scale electrical system in the world to light a stretch of offices in a city. This was a monumental achievement, but it was not the beginning of the electrical age. The first electric generators were built in the 1830s, the earliest commercial lighting systems before 1860, and the first commercial application of generator-powered lights (in lighthouses) in the early 1860s. In Power Struggles, Michael Brian Schiffer examines some of these earlier efforts, both successful and unsuccessful, that paved the way for Edison. After laying out a unified theoretical framework for understanding technological change, Schiffer presents a series of fascinating case studies of pre-Edison electrical technologies, including Volta's electrochemical battery, the blacksmith's electric motor, the first mechanical generators, Morse's telegraph, the Atlantic cable, and the lighting of the Capitol dome. Schiffer discusses claims of "practicality" and "impracticality" (sometimes hotly contested) made for these technologies, and examines the central role of the scientific authority--in particular, the activities of Joseph Henry, mid-nineteenth-century America's foremost scientist--in determining the fate of particular technologies. These emerging electrical technologies formed the foundation of the modern industrial world. Schiffer shows how and why they became commercial products in the context of an evolving corporate capitalism in which conflicting judgments of practicality sometimes turned into power struggles.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28312-0
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Michael Brian Schiffer
  5. 1 Studying Technological Change
    (pp. 1-10)

    In the New York offices of J. Pierpont Morgan, impatient directors of the Edison Electric Light Company and members of the press assembled on September 4, 1882, to witness a long-delayed demonstration. For more than two years Thomas Alva Edison and his team had labored in Edison’s “invention factory” at Menlo Park, New Jersey, and in the streets of lower Manhattan, to bring electricity to an area of newspaper and financial offices. The Pearl Street District—so named because Edison’s generating station occupied a building at 257 Pearl Street—would be the first large-scale electrical system to bring light to...

  6. 2 Technological Transitions
    (pp. 11-20)

    The first age of electricity awaited neither Thomas Edison’s genius and perspiration nor J. Pierpont Morgan’s largess. During the middle of the eighteenth century, electrical technology had burst forth in hundreds of varieties. Among the most prolific contributors to this cornucopia of strange and wondrous things were Benjamin Franklin and his many friends and correspondents in Europe and America. In addition to the lightning rod, Franklin himself invented two electric motors, one of which rotated with no external connection; electric spiders that danced; the magic table, which could store an electric charge and shock the unwary; and the first “battery,”...

  7. 3 Electromagnetism Revealed
    (pp. 21-30)

    The discovery of electromagnetism by Hans Christian Oersted is often attributed not to a clever experiment but to an accident. While manipulating a current-carrying wire next to a compass, the story goes, Oersted noticed that the needle moved. And presto, there was electromagnetism. This effect is so easy to produce that Oersted could have encountered it accidentally, but that is not how it happened.¹ Instead, he set out with his long-held expectation of a relationship between electricity and magnetism, and with simple apparatus he found it.

    Hans Christian Oersted (1777–1851) was born in Denmark, eldest son of an apothecary.²...

  8. 4 An American Physicist
    (pp. 31-40)

    In some respects Joseph Henry’s long and intensely productive life (1797–1878) echoed Benjamin Franklin’s. Of humble origins, neither man attended college. Yet both men—brilliant, ambitious, energetic, and self-disciplined—attained a high level of learning. In their eras, Franklin and Henry became America’s most celebrated physicists, their discoveries and inventions highly regarded throughout the scientific world. After achieving prominence in science, they served the nation for decades out of a deep sense of duty and left a lasting imprint on public policy and American life.

    Unlike Franklin, Henry carried out research, not as an enthusiast made wealthy by his...

  9. 5 Telegraphic Visions
    (pp. 41-48)

    By 1830, “telegraph” was a familiar term to many people. Semaphore-type telegraphs had become an important political technology that helped several European governments acquire information rapidly from, and exercise power over, areas beyond the capital. France had installed a single, government-controlled telegraph network centered on Paris and used it during the Napoleonic wars.¹ Limited to line-of-sight transmission, semaphore-type telegraphs required many relay stations and personnel. Moreover, they worked slowly relative to the speed of electricity, and most shut down at night and in bad weather. These performance shortcomings helped to inspire visions of electrical telegraphs.

    In Franklin’s time, natural philosophers...

  10. 6 Mechanical Electricity
    (pp. 49-62)

    In light of the unity conjecture and a growing roster of ways to convert one kind of force into another, natural philosophers believed that if electricity could produce magnetism then they might coax magnetism into producing electricity. Such a demonstration would be a triumph on a par with Oersted’s great achievement, almost certainly reserving for the discoverer a place in the pantheon of science’s immortals. Not surprisingly, many men reached for this ripe fruit, trying to materialize the predicted effect in numerous experiments, but none grasped it cleanly. As Joseph Henry put it, “at first sight it might be supposed...

  11. 7 The Blacksmith’s Motor
    (pp. 63-74)

    During the period 1832–1837, when magnetos were being developed in Europe that could function well in scientific research, lectures, and electromedicine, two Americans were trying to stake out for electrical technology entirely new commercial applications. Samuel Morse’s electromagnetic telegraph succeeded brilliantly, but Thomas Davenport’s rotary electric motor suffered a spectacular flop. This chapter and chapter 9 examine their earliest efforts, which eventuated in patents and the formation of companies.

    Until the 1830s, the commercial world’s involvement in the manufacture and sale of electrical technology was confined to the activities of instrument makers, who were allied with scientific experimenters in...

  12. 8 The Chemistry Connection
    (pp. 75-90)

    The inventors of the electromagnet and the electric motor brought into human consciousness entirely new and marvelous phenomena. With little more than coils of insulated copper wire, pieces of soft iron, and a battery, it was possible to produce rotary motion or to lift weights exceeding a ton. These new technologies were exhibited in countless public lectures throughout the Western world, advertising that natural philosophy can drive human imagination and ingenuity. But not every demonstration came off precisely as planned. Large electromagnets quickly lost their maximum lifting power, and motors slowed down and eventually stopped.

    The fault lay not with...

  13. 9 A Peculiar Calling
    (pp. 91-104)

    Peter Barlow was right on the mark when he stated in 1825 that the idea of an electromagnetic telegraph was “obvious.”¹ After Joseph Henry showed that this technology could operate in principle, experimenters in England, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere began in earnest the quest to create functioning systems that might extend communication across hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. In developing a railroad, steamship, or electromagnetic telegraph, however, the devil is in the details—in devising the myriad parts that must work together before a complex technological system can meet basic performance requirements.

    The vision of the system...

  14. 10 Hard Times
    (pp. 105-118)

    In early 1837, with motor patent in hand, Thomas Davenport and Ransom Cook set up shop in Manhattan, a place they believed offered unparalleled prospects for raising money to perfect their motors. Shortly after their arrival, Edwin Williams, Secretary of the American Institute, an organization for promoting invention, approached Cook with a proposition: he and the inventors would form a joint-stock company. Davenport and Cook, rural blacksmith and cabinet maker, neophytes in the ways of big-city business, nonetheless seized the opportunity to parlay the motor patent into funding for their workshop.

    Williams’s lawyer, General Marvin, drew up a contract, which...

  15. 11 It’s a Blast
    (pp. 119-136)

    The British flagshipRoyal Georgewas more than 200 feet long and boasted more than 100 brass and iron cannons. Her masts—the main towering 114 feet above the deck—were the navy’s tallest. Built at Woolwich between 1746 and 1756, she had served well, sinking the French warshipSuperbeand forcing another French ship aground. But one day in 1782, when the British were still fighting their wayward American colonies, theRoyal Georgebrought to George III’s navy more than a measure of infamy.¹

    In the calm harbor at Spithead, near Portsmouth, theRoyal George’screw and hundreds of...

  16. 12 “What Hath God Wrought!”
    (pp. 137-154)

    In March 1839, after spending nearly a year in England and France, his hopes for telegraph sales repeatedly buoyed and dashed, Samuel Morse returned to America by steamship. The discouraged inventor was broke and falling deeply into debt, his affairs in disarray. A possibility remained that the House of Representatives would act on the Commerce Committee’s recommendation to fund an experimental telegraph line, but in the meantime Morse might need a new vocation.

    With an eye toward the future, Morse sought a meeting with Joseph Henry. Capitalists, he may have reasoned, were likely to consult Henry when seeking answers to...

  17. 13 Magnetic Power Derailed
    (pp. 155-174)

    During the 1830s and the early 1840s, inventors in Europe had, like Thomas Davenport and Ransom Cook, built electric motors and exhibited them driving machines. William Sturgeon, for one, used his motors to pump water, saw wood, and pull a wagon.¹ Some projects were even more ambitious. With generous support from the Russian government, Moritz Jacobi assembled a large motor, installed it in a 28-foot boat, and with a dozen passengers cruised up and down the Neva River at about 3 miles per hour.² In Scotland, Robert Davidson constructed an electric coach (namedGalvani); it underwent some testing on British...

  18. 14 Humbug!
    (pp. 175-190)

    The advent of large and complex technological systems, including the telegraph, the railroad, the steamboat, mechanized farming, steam-powered factories, as well as public water, gas, and sanitation systems, presented inventors with an endless array of new technical problems to work on. And work on them they did. The outpouring of inventions increased phenomenally, spurring the creation of new institutions and the remodeling of old ones.

    By the start of the nineteenth century, most countries, hoping to encourage invention, had enacted patent laws and established offices to administer them. Early legislation, such as the U.S. patent law of 1791, merely provided...

  19. 15 Action at a Distance
    (pp. 191-206)

    As we have seen, the electromagnet that Joseph Henry devised around 1830 led almost immediately to the invention of motors, magnetos, and telegraphs. It also spawned hundreds of lesser-known inventions drawing current from batteries. Some of these were brought to market, and a few—including clocks, “fire alarm telegraphs,” and hotel annunciators—enjoyed appreciable adoptions. However, many of the novelties languished until, decades later, they were commercialized, sometimes after reinvention, in altered societal and technological contexts.

    The relatively obscure electromagnetic inventions of 1840–1880 represent a remarkable burst of creativity, for the electromagnet was imagined as an essential component in...

  20. 16 First Light
    (pp. 207-220)

    Before radio beacons, radar, and the global positioning system, traveling by sea was treacherous. Although the mariner had onboard technologies for determining locations, such as sextants, compasses, chronometers, sounders, and charts, their use was far from foolproof. During the nineteenth century, mariners became increasingly reliant on coastal aids such as lighthouses, buoys, and lightships. Although a coastline densely dotted with lights did not eliminate shipwrecks, it helped mariners establish their locations, avoid obstacles, and make it safely to port.¹

    As maritime commerce and naval activities accelerated, given added impetus by steamships and international telegraphs, groups concerned with safety at sea,...

  21. 17 If at First You Don’t Succeed . . .
    (pp. 221-238)

    As his short-lived cable in New York’s East River showed, Samuel Morse had already realized that large telegraph networks would have to include underwater segments. Even before the Baltimore-Washington line was done, Morse was contemplating intercontinental communication through deep-sea cables. Writing to Secretary of the Treasury John Spencer in 1843, Morse drew “the practical inference . . . that a telegraphic communication on my plan may with certainty be established across the Atlantic! Startling as this may seem now, the time will come when this project is realized.”¹

    Morse was just one of many people who prophesied that the Old...

  22. 18 A Thousand Points of Light
    (pp. 239-254)

    During much of its first century, the U.S. government, distancing itself from the decadence of European monarchies and husbanding its limited financial resources, built no grandiose monuments to flaunt the country’s might or glorify its leaders. In contrast to Buckingham Palace and Versailles, the White House was a rather modest residence. Two of America’s most iconic structures—the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument—were not completed until the 1880s, and the federal government initiated neither project. Before the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, the most dramatic architectural symbol of the United States and its representative form of...

  23. 19 Machine-Age Electricity
    (pp. 255-270)

    The course of technological change often takes weird twists and turns. Sometimes a cutting-edge technology is an utter flop in the marketplace, as the first picturephones were; sometimes a technically undistinguished product, such as the Walkman, can be embraced by millions of consumers and achieve iconic status. And sometimes even a component invented for a dead-end or even a discredited technology can become a part of an important system.

    An invention reminiscent of Paine’s Hydro-Electric Light led to the development, in the late 1850s, of the first steam-powered magnetos used in electric lighting. Commercialized in England and France, they were...

  24. 20 A Beacon of Modernity
    (pp. 271-282)

    Although the first arc-lit lighthouses in England and France were working well, beckoning ships to harbors or warning them away from hazards, the adoption of electric lights as a lighthouse illuminant was proceeding at a glacial pace.¹ In 1879 there only 10 arc-lit lighthouses in the world; at this technology’s peak popularity in 1895, long after the advent of dynamos, the total was fewer than 30.² The distribution of electric lighthouses among countries was quite uneven: France and England together had about 20, a few had one or two, but most had none.

    Why did a handful of countries, including...

  25. 21 Enter Edison
    (pp. 283-298)

    In 1847, the year of Thomas Edison’s birth, the joint-stock company had already become the template for creating corporations pursuing private profit. Brought into existence by state charter, its contracts enforced by state power, the corporation was well adapted to raising big money, spreading risk among investors, and insulating stockholders from a company’s debts. Thus, corporations in the United States helped private enterprise to develop, for example, gas lighting, railroads, telegraph systems, and, later, electric light and power systems. When Edison took on the challenge of electric lighting, he did so in the context of a recognizably modern corporate capitalism;...

  26. 22 New Light
    (pp. 299-316)

    One of Thomas Edison’s first inventions at Menlo Park was also his most novel. In 1877 a working model of a phonograph was constructed in accordance with Edison’s drawings by John Kruesi, who ran the Menlo Park machine shop (figure 22.1). Edison went straightaway to New York, where he demonstrated the unprecedented device to Alfred Beach, editor ofScientific American. A large crowd gathered, including reporters, and they were amazed. Newspapers announced Edison’s wizardry the next day. At Joseph Henry’s behest, Edison exhibited the phonograph at the Smithsonian; he also gave a demonstration at the National Academy of Sciences.¹


  27. Notes
    (pp. 317-384)
  28. References
    (pp. 385-414)
  29. Index
    (pp. 415-420)