In a classic "Simpsons" episode, Homer's admiration for Thomas Edison leads him to break into the Edison museum at night, where he accidentally reveals one of Edison's undiscovered inventions (an untippable chair) along with a separate invention of his own (an electric hammer). Edison ends up posthumously getting credit for both.
"Thomas Edison, the greatest inventor of all time, is apparently still inventing despite the notable handicap of being dead," Springfield news anchor Kent Brockman says.
If not for that handicap, Edison would be celebrating his 165th birthday this Feb. 11. And even though no such chairs or hammers have emerged from Edison's labs since his 1931 death, he might still be surprised at how often his name comes up 80 years later — and not just among historians and Homer Simpson.
Aside from launching the lighting, electricity, sound-recording and motion-picture industries more than 100 years ago, Edison is also proving surprisingly relevant to emerging technologies in the 21st century, from data centers and smart grids to electric cars and wind farms.
"When I give talks, I often talk about how Edison really set the stage for modern innovation," says Paul Israel, director of the Thomas Edison Papers project at Rutgers University. "A lot of the things he did are still relevant today. We're still very much working in a kind of Edisonian model."
In honor of Edison's 165th birthday, here's a look at some of the ways the Wizard of Menlo Park continues to influence innovation despite his notable handicap.
Edison was as much an improver as an inventor. He didn't actually invent the light bulb, but he did invent seven different components to make it safe and practical for widespread use. And when he unveiled his Pearl Street power station in 1882, he touted it as a model of efficiency: It used one-third the fuel of its forebears, burning about 10 pounds of coal per kilowatt hour.
Yet in the late 19th century's "war of the currents" — which pitted Edison's direct current (DC) againt rival Nikola Tesla's alternating current (AC) — Edison suffered a defeat because his way was less efficient. "The direct current sort of represents Edison's primary weakness, that he often stuck too long with a system as he introduced it, rather than move with the times," Israel says.
Still, a century later, DC is making a comeback because it's now more efficient than AC, at least in certain uses. The semiconductors in modern electronics need DC power, so they convert the AC supply to DC, creating heat and wasting energy. DC can also now be transmitted at high voltage over long distances, which wasn't possible in Edison's time. That's a big reason why high-voltage DC power is key to many smart grid plans. "Everyone says it's going to take at least 50 years," market analyst Peter Asmus recently told Reuters, but "the role of DC will increase, and AC will decrease."
"I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy," Edison reportedly told Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone in the 1930s. "What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that."
Edison didn't have much of a chance to tackle solar power in his era, but he is playing a role today in how both solar and wind power are distributed. Solar panels and wind turbines generate DC power, which must be converted to AC before it's pumped into the grid. But high-voltage DC transmission could link renewable energy sources to energy-hungry facilities like data centers, a potentially "game-changing" prospect, according to ABB, a European automation firm that advocates direct current.
Edison was convinced electricity would power cars of the future. He began work in the 1890s on a durable battery for electric cars, and also tried to set up a recharging infrastructure with utility companies. He ended up building three prototype electric cars, but much like his battle with Tesla, his methods were deemed impractical. Henry Ford's gas-powered Model T ultimately won out.
Also like his Tesla feud, though, Edison's way is becoming popular again 100 years later, albeit slowly. "Talk about a man ahead of his time, and even ahead of our time, coming up with a rechargeable battery back at the turn of the 20th century," says Carmen Pantaleo, a ranger at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park in West Orange, N.J. Edison's cars were just too expensive, Pantaleo says, costing around $2,500 compared with a $500 Model T. But electric and hybrid cars are now surging back into the mainstream, from the Prius and Leaf to the Volt and Focus.
Edison's incandescent bulb dominated the 20th century, but since it wastes energy as heat, it's now being replaced by compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and more efficient incandescents. U.S. President George W. Bush signed an energy law in 2005 mandating such upgrades, but many Republicans have recently turned against the law. During a 2011 effort to repeal it, some even invoked Edison's name, lamenting that his legacy was under fire.
Several of Edison's descendants eventually responded, arguing he would welcome CFLs and other efficient bulbs. "If my great-grandfather were alive today ... he would have already moved on to the better, cleaner, sustainable technology," said great-grandson Barry Edison Sloane. "The technology changes. Embrace it," added Robert Wheeler, Edison's grand nephew and president of the Edison Birthplace Association.
The bill to repeal the efficiency rules failed, but GOP lawmakers later added a rider to a spending bill, temporarily delaying the rules from taking effect. In a Politico column last month, Sloane called this "little more than a speed bump on the road to the light bulb revolution." He also pointed out that, contrary to some descriptions, "the new standards don't outlaw the incandescent bulb. Instead, they have spurred much-needed innovation and improvements — the kind Edison loved."
Israel says Sloane and Wheeler are probably right, despite Edison's habit of clinging to things he created. "I would agree with them 100 percent," he says. "I very much think Edison would have seen improved efficiency of light bulbs as the future, especially at this point in time where there are all sort of issues around supply and energy sources and climate change. He definitely would have seen that as a new challenge."
When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died last year, he was often compared to Thomas Edison. The two lived in very different times, but the comparison is still apt, Israel says. "If there's anyone who's a modern equivalent, it's Steve Jobs. Both were very good at managing large organizations that were designed to be innovative. And both had visions for what those innovations should be, so it wasn't innovation by committee. And I think that's a very important distinction. That's one of the things Jobs and Edison were very successful at."
Both had their shares of misses, though Israel says Jobs had an advantage by being born in the 20th century. "Jobs grew up in an era when consumer technologies dominated," he says, "but for Edison they were just emerging, so Edison didn't have as good of a grasp on consumer markets as Jobs did."
Nonetheless, both had a knack for anticipating consumer desires before they existed, Pantaleo argues. "They were coming up with things you didn't know you needed until you had them. Suddenly, it's like 'How did I live without this iPad before,' and I think that's exactly how it was with the phonograph, the light bulb and movies."
And with old projects like DC power and electric cars making a comeback, this famous Edison quote is starting to seem prophetic: "I would like to live about 300 years. I think I have ideas enough to keep me busy that long."
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