What are the achievements of Western civilization?
The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the spread of democracy and a free press tower on the intellectual side of the ledger. But they didn't happen in a vacuum; they needed coincidental technological advances.
The printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450, made the Enlightenment possible. Shaft horsepower, invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 and developed by James Watt into a practical steam engine, enabled the Industrial Revolution to get off the ground and make the first great change in how people lived by substituting mechanical energy for human and animal energy.
For all the downsides of the Industrial Revolution, it was the dawn of the possibility of an improvement in the lives of most people. It hinted, even with the horrors of the exploitation of workers and miners by their employers, that life could be lived without relentless drudgery.
Recently Brian Wolff, senior vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, told security analysts in New York that the trade association is launching a campaign to celebrate the value of electricity.
Bravo and about time; for it is electricity that has done more to improve the livability of human life than any other product or service.
Electricity has many fathers, going back to 600 B.C., when Thales of Miletus wrote about static electricity. In 1600, the English scientist William Gilbert gave us the name “electricity,” derived from the Greek word for amber: Early experiments consisted of rubbing amber to produce static electricity.
Investigator after investigator added to the knowledge of electricity. In 1745, it was discovered that electricity was controllable and the first electrical capacitor, the Leyden jar, was invented.
Then came Benjamin Franklin, who popularized concepts of electricity with his key on the kite and his invention of the lightening rod. The first battery was invented by Alessandro Volta, who also proved that electricity can travel over wires, in 1800.
Technology moved way ahead in 1821, when the great English scientist Michael Faraday outlined the concept of the electric motor. Six years later another Englishman, Joseph Henry, built one of the first motors.
All of this paved the way for Thomas Edison, who founded the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878. A year later, the first commercial power station opened in San Francisco and the first commercial arc lighting system was installed in Cleveland.
But it was Edison's demonstration of the incandescent light bulb in 1879 that raised the possibility that human life could get easier. From then on, electricity was deployed at an astounding rate; despite excursions and disputes, like those between Edison and George Westinghouse and Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla.
And what a boon electricity has been. It has made the home life safer, eliminating open flames for heat and light, and more convenient. At various times, as a boy in Africa, I lived in homes without electricity. It's not an experience that I'd voluntarily repeat – no light after dark to read by, little heating, no cooling and immense drudgery to heat water and build a cooking fire.
Electricity has effectively liberated women from the slavery of the home and given then an equal role in society, and has made life in inhospitable climates, including the U.S. South, agreeable. And it's enabled whole technological revolutions to take place: broadcasting, recorded music multistory building, computing, health, refrigeration, transportation and just about anything one can name.
Electricity is ubiquitous and the single-greatest contributor to our quality of life. In our fascinating with computer technology and the Internet, it is forgotten that it rests on an earlier harnessing of electrons by a plethora of scientists down the centuries.
Of all the things invented by the peoples on both sides of the Atlantic, nothing has been such a gift to humanity as electricity. It's appropriate that it should be celebrated and find a prominent place in the pantheon of human achievement.
Flip that switch and marvel. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate