Thursday, March 7, 2013

Age of Edison: Review

The Age of Edison by Freeberg is a compelling tale of technological innovation and the machinations and creations of all those who participated. At the center is Edison, whose fame was a creation of what he accomplished, what he proclaimed, and what the Press found as good news copy, independent of the reality of what was truly happening. Mr Freeberg has written an exceptionally well balanced and factual book. Unlike the book, The Idea Factory, about Bell Labs, Freeberg looks at each player evenly and based upon facts. His view is expansive and he does not appear to make saints out of sinners. Thus unlike The Idea Factory which is replete with positive statements where the truth may actually be different, Freeberg presents the facts and the result is masterful.

I live but a short distance from Edison’s last lab was in West Orange in New Jersey and it is now a National Parks site. Much of what Edison did is memorialized by the many labs, books, and remnants of his hundreds of “inventions”. Of course next to this National Landmark is the Edison battery factory which one may suppose is left in a state of total collapse because the cleanup of the site would be astronomical, but those factors are somewhat missing from the tale.

The book is exceptionally well written and it is really a tale of the electric light, with Edison cast as someone who comes and goes, and yet has a lasting influence. Like so many technological advances there is usually not one person, but many competing for the prize. The goal was clear, light, but the path uncertain. The author details the competition between the arc light and the incandescent light, the need for an infrastructure, and the problems of that infrastructure. Power lines grew, collided with humanity, and in urban areas were driven underground. However they remained to be smashed down during hurricane Sandy, almost 150 years after all of this began. Thus the power industry, unlike the electronics industry rapidly grew, and then froze, for almost a century. But this is a tale of the light bulb, perhaps the most significant driver of that industry.

The author opens with the inventing of the light bulb. He wonderfully shows with balance and insight many if not most of the players during this time. Edison was thus one of many, but perhaps the most effective self-promoter. He also had strong financial backers who used their strength as well.

The author then discusses the diffusion of light to both work environments as well as leisure environments. He does a great job showing hos this diffusion changed the way people interacted. This is a critical observation of how technology effects sociological change.

The author discusses the whole issue of patents and patent battles. At the time of Edison there was a strong development of Socialist movements in the US. On p 153 the author discusses the battles over patents. Socialists as he says:

“People invented to satisfy natural creative urge, the socialists insisted, and out of desire to help others. But capitalists bought up the patent rights.”

In a sense the author describes the same battle we see today with some on the Internet who feel that content should be free, and that copyright rights are to be trampled.

The author discusses the expansion of applications, some good and some useless. On p 169 he describes certain medical applications, some good some useless. Yet at the same time we see the invention of the X-ray systems, which in a way was a natural step from the incandescent light bulb.

The battle between “standards” is also brought out by the author in the battle between AC and DC. In reading of Edison’s views, for he was a DC promoter due to his collections of patents in that space, he never did grasp the basic truth that high voltage AC, using transformers, allowed for very low loss transmission over long distances. Edison apparently just did not understand the theory, unlike Tesla, who was a well-educated engineer. Edison was a technician at best, and when that failed he had a large collection of technicians, but in reviewing his library he had little along the lines of true technology. He had technique, a technique developed by extensive trial and error.

On p 199 the author discusses the issue of municipal ownership of utilities. Specifically he talks of the strong Progressive drive to have municipalities control such vital resources. In fact they wanted to control telephone and telegraph, water and sewer. Again what the author has done is to lay out the issue as the technology evolved and he demonstrates so well the mapping on today’s same issues in such areas as broadband. In a sense this book uses the light bulb to demonstrate a near universal development process, sociologically and politically, of almost any new massively accepted technology.

On p 205 the author recounts the development of the technologists, the introduction of electrical engineering into universities such as MIT, Cornell, and Columbia. In this case the universities were followers; they were presented with a pile of technology driven by techniques with no well accepted basis for growth, and then began constructing the basis.

Later in the book the author returns to Government control over the diffusion of this technology. On p 301 is a discussion of the New Deal and the Rural Electrification Administration, bringing light to the farmer. As he says:

“The New Deal’s social engineers believed that rural electrification would do much to ease the burden of farm work…”

Also he notes the FDR administration wanted to bridge what they saw as a growing gap of rural and urban America. Again the author has brilliantly carried the tale to an end point and a point which we can see again today in the broadband arguments.

Overall this book serves two purposes. First it is an excellent summary of the evolution of the light bulb across many facets of society. Second and I believe more important, it represents a paradigm for understanding the development, diffusion and politicization of technological change.