Turning on a 100-year-old light bulb

Incandescent lights work by turning heat into light. You run an electric current through a filament, the filament heats up, and as it does, it starts to glow. The basic element has been around since 1809. The trick is finding material for a filament that will get hot enough to glow, but won't destroy itself too quickly. In fact, that's really the breakthrough Thomas Edison brought to the table in 1879. His carbonized bamboo filament lasted for 1200 hours—long enough to make the investment in a light bulb worth it. According to sources I found in the Wisconsin Historical Archives while researching my upcoming book on the past, present, and future of electricity, one of Edison's bulbs cost the equivalent of $36 in 1882.

This is not one of the earliest Edison bulbs. It's a later model, with a tungsten filament, dating to 1912. It was found in a time capsule at NELA Park, the General Electric headquarters and research laboratory that was opened that year. There were five light bulbs in the time capsule. This is the only one that GE engineers were able to get to light up. In the video, you can see it faintly glowing, 100 years after it was squirreled away.

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Woman recalls the hydroelectric power plant her father built in 1922

Before the Lights Go Out is Maggie's new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we'll have to change them in the future. It comes out April 10th and is available for pre-order (in print or e-book) now. Over the next couple of months, Maggie will be posting some energy-related stories based on things she learned while researching the book. This is one of them.

One of the things I loved about researching my book on the future of energy was getting the opportunity to delve a little into the history of electricity. Although I'd heard plenty about the Tesla vs. Edison wars—the "great men doing important things" side of the story—I was pretty unfamiliar with the impact their inventions had on average people, and how those people responded and adapted to changing technology.

What I found in my research was fascinating. I spent a lot of time in the archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society, turning up letters and documents that introduced me to a perspective on history I'd not previously known. I learned about the skepticism and fear that surrounded electricity in the 19th and early 20th century. I found out that many, many of the early electric utilities went bankrupt—unable to make enough money selling electricity to cover the costs of building the expensive systems to produce and distribute it. I learned that, outside the hands of a privileged few geniuses, electric infrastructure and generation was a slapdash affair, focused more on quick, cheap construction than reliable operation—a reality that still affects the way our grid works today. Read the rest

What it's like to wear a brain-stimulating "thinking cap"

Science writer Sally Adee provides some background on her New Scientist article describing her experience with a DARPA program that uses targeted electrical stimulation of the brain during training exercises to induce "flow states" and enhance learning. The "thinking cap" is something like the tasp of science fiction, and the experimental evidence for it as a learning enhancement tool is pretty good thus far -- and the experimental subjects report that the experience feels wonderful (Adee: "the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes.")

We don’t yet have a commercially available “thinking cap” but we will soon. So the research community has begun to ask: What are the ethics of battery-operated cognitive enhancement? Last week a group of Oxford University neuroscientists released a cautionary statement about the ethics of brain boosting, followed quickly by a report from the UK’s Royal Society that questioned the use of tDCS for military applications. Is brain boosting a fair addition to the cognitive enhancement arms race? Will it create a Morlock/Eloi-like social divide where the rich can afford to be smarter and leave everyone else behind? Will Tiger Moms force their lazy kids to strap on a zappity helmet during piano practice?

After trying it myself, I have different questions. To make you understand, I am going to tell you how it felt. The experience wasn’t simply about the easy pleasure of undeserved expertise. When the nice neuroscientists put the electrodes on me, the thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut the fuck up.

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Prospecting for wind

Before the Lights Go Out is Maggie's new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we'll have to change them in the future. It comes out April 10th and is available for pre-order now. (E-book pre-orders coming soon!) Over the next couple of months, Maggie will be posting some energy-related stories based on things she learned while researching the book. This is one of them.

Steve_Saus submitterated this video that combines 14 years of weather radar images with a soothing piano concerto. It's a neat thing to watch a couple minutes of (though I'm not sure I needed to sit around for all 33 minutes of the video). It also reminded me of something really interesting that I learned about U.S. weather patterns and alternative energy.

Weather data, like the kind visualized here, can be collected, analyzed, and turned into algorithms that show us, in increasingly granular detail, what we can expect the weather to do in a specific part of the United States. Today, you can even break this information down to show what happens in one small part of a state compared to another small part. And that's important. As we increase our reliance on sources of energy that are based on weather patterns, this kind of information will become crucial to not only predicting how much power we can expect to get from a given wind farm, but also in deciding where to build that wind farm in the first place.

Take Texas as an example, which has the most installed wind power capacity of any U.S. Read the rest

Water bubbles orbiting a knitting needle on the ISS

Astronaut Don Pettit is a national treasure. He's been to space three times—once for a six-month stay on the ISS. On every mission, he's found time to make huge contributions to the public communication of science, including making a series of amazing "Science Saturday" videos and inventing (from spare parts he found lying around the ISS) a system to help the space station take clearer, sharper pictures of the Earth at night.

Pettit went to space with an international crew in December 2011 and is currently in space. This new video—where he demonstrates the way a small electric charge can manipulate the behavior of water droplets in microgravity—is a great addition to his oeuvre!

Thanks for Submitterating, James!

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PREVIOUSLY: Invention of the space-coffee-cupSaturday Morning Science Experiment: Gravity Is For SuckersSaturday Morning Science Experiment: Gyroscopes in spaceHOWTO Drink Coffee in Space (video demo)Astronaut in Antarctica to conduct fun experiments for the publicSoap bubbles in space: cool online experiment logs from the ISSAstronaut describes what space smells likeFive questions with astronaut Rex Walheim Read the rest

Does light make people safer? Maybe. Maybe not.

One of the cool things about LED lighting is that it provides opportunities to bring some of the benefits of big, modern infrastructures to developing countries without having to actually build the big, modern (and expensive) infrastructure.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a story for ArchitecturalSSL magazine about people installing solar-powered LED streetlights in remote villages in southern Mexico. Tying these places into the larger electrical grid would have been extremely difficult. But solar LED streetlights allowed the people who lived in those places to get the night light they wanted.

Now there's similar work happening in refugee camps in Haiti, where many people displaced by the 2010 earthquake still live. The change is undoubtedly useful: LED streetlights don't have to be powered by expensive gasoline generators, they're better on the lungs than fires, and the light level is bright enough to allow people to work and live far more easily. But what about physical safety? Surprisingly, there turns out to be a decent amount of debate over whether or not the extra light actually reduces violence and makes people safer. It's an interesting case study in how "common sense" doesn't always match up with reality and how difficult it is to attribute cause and effect in complicated social environments. From at story Txchnologist:

In recent months, the lights have come on at two camps through the efforts of aid groups, the Haitian government and the particular expertise of the Solar Electric Light Fund, or SELF, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that uses renewable energy to provide light and power in developing countries.

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HOW TO: Make silver ink that conducts electricity

This custom silver ink, developed by materials researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, allows you to draw working circuits out on paper. It's extremely cool, and the video shows you step-by-step how they make it. Bonus: This ink provides an actual reason to use cursive.

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The ongoing mis-adventures of Thomas A. Edison

Yesterday, Thomas Edison set W. H. Vanderbilt's house on fire. Today, America's most prolific inventor terrorizes the horses of New York City, and gets propositioned by unscrupulous businessmen.

But first, background. I'm currently writing a book about the mix of energy technologies we're going to have to adopt over the next 20 years—in order to avoid some of the less-fun consequences of climate change—and how changing the way we use energy will change the way we live.

As a reference, I'm taking a peek into the past, to see what happened the last time we radically altered our energy infrastructure. It's easy to forget, but electricity wasn't always the reliable, user-friendly energy source it is today. Once upon a time, it was just another unproven technology, with a lot of flabby bugs that needed a good working out. Hilarity, as they say, ensued.

Like the time a faulty junction box turned a major New York City intersection into one giant joy buzzer. It happened shortly after Thomas Edison opened the world's first commercial electric plant, at 255 Pearl Street, in 1882. Read the rest

How Thomas Edison set W. H. Vanderbilt's house on fire

This anecdote, taken from Edison's autobiographical notes, may well be one of the most awkward moments in the history of public relations.

So, William Henry Vanderbilt was an early investor in Thomas Edison's electric lighting endeavors, and it wasn't terribly surprising that Vanderbilt wanted to be one of the first kids on the block, so to speak, to get the new lights installed at his own house. This was prior to 1882—and the opening of the first centralized power plant—so the lights were run by an on-site generator installed in the basement. Sadly, the first demonstration of Vanderbilts' lighting system went a bit awry.

About 8 o'clock in the evening we lit it up and it was very good. Mr. Vanderbilt, his wife and some of his daughters cam in and were there a few minutes when a fire occurred. The large picture gallery was lined with silk cloth interwoven with fine metallic tinsel. In some manner, two wires had got crossed with the tinsel, which became red-hot and the whole wall was soon afire ... [the fire is put out] ... Mrs. Vanderbilt became hysterical and wanted to know where it came from. We told her we had the plant in the cellar, and when she learned we had a boiler there, she said she would not occupy the house; she would not live over a boiler. We had to take the whole installation out.

Lessons learned: Better insulation on your electrical wiring = good. Tinsel in your wallpaper = bad. Read the rest

The Young Man's Book of Amusement

From the title of this Victorian science book it's not out of line to assume that there might be at least a few diy methods for accidentally electrocuting yourself, but that's just the beginning.

The tome in its entirety is supposed to be available for free as a hi-res e-book sometime this month, but for now you can see a full list of some actually really beautiful sounding demonstrations, (like how to make phosphorescent displays using oyster shells), and some other cool heirloom science excerpts at Lateral Science.

Thanks to Tim O'Reilly for the link. Read the rest

Making good use of hot air

Thermocells based on carbon nanotubes (and, thus, cheaper and more efficient than the kind based on platinum) could help capture the wasted heat put off by everything from car exhaust pipes to power station generators, and turn it into electricity. Read the rest

Saturday Morning Science Experiment: Static is funny

What do you get when you combine Mr. Wizard, Harpo Marx and "Adventures with Bill"? I'm not sure exactly, but the exploits of Dr. Ernest Otherford get pretty close.

In this segment, the good Dr. Otherford explores the power of static electricity.

Thumbnail image courtesy Flickr user johnwilson1969 via CC

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Highlights from the AAAS: Food allergies, superheroes, electric cars and Opie

Now we're getting into the thick, juicy part. I spent Friday in a flurry of tweeting and note-taking, bopping from one two-hour symposium to another. I was really pleased with myself for managing to pack in five different sessions—until I realized that I'd totally missed meeting Ron Howard, King of the Gingers, at a presentation on science and Hollywood. Whoops. Thanks to my science journalism colleagues, though, I am able to tell you this: Nobody ever worked out the physics behind turning a jukebox on just by hitting it.

Those disappointments aside, the day was chock full of fascinating facts. After the jump, I'll tell you about the science of superheroes, the best way to make electric cars profitable to own and why the advice many new parents get about preventing food allergies is probably wrong. Read the rest

Science Question from a Toddler: The color of light

Why does a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee glow green? Why does a spark from a light socket look blue? Two different questions, but one intertwined answer.

Hopefully, readers Inga Foster—who asked about electricity—and Stewart Haddock—the man with the glow-in-the-dark query—don't mind being lumped together. As it turned out, they were really asking about the same thing. Both these phenomena stem from the weird ways light interacts with atoms.

Yes, we're talking about physics today. But don't worry. If I can understand it, you can understand it. Read the rest

Flex-fuel electricity production

Bloom boxes are fuel cells that create electricity using a variety of energy sources. Powered by natural gas, they could produce cleaner power for Western homes. Running on plant waste, they could bring grid-less power to developing countries. And they could also be used as storage/backup for solar and wind generation. Read the rest

Weird, New Electricity Generator Takes Baby Step Into Real World

Yesterday, in Mark's post about new technology that could one day generate power from slow moving currents in rivers and oceans, commenter SamSam wondered whether "any weird and new generators ever get out of the lab and start providing meaningful amounts of power?" It's a fair question, and I think a lot more technologies are announced than do (or ever will) make it to market. Partly, that's just the nature of invention. Partly, it has to do with the fact that it takes a long time to develop this stuff and we're still kind of at the beginning of the alternative generation industry. But sometimes, the crazy ideas do work, at least well enough to move out of the lab and into beta-testing. For instance, today, Norway's state-owned utility opened a prototype generator that produces electricity via osmosis.

The plant is driven by osmosis that naturally draws fresh water across a membrane and toward the seawater side. This creates higher pressure on the sea water side, driving a turbine and producing electricity. The main issue is to improve the efficiency of the membrane from around 1 watt per square meter now to some 5 watts, which Statkraft says would make osmotic power costs comparable to those from other renewable sources.

The prototype is very small--it only produces about a coffee-pot's worth of electricity--but if the kinks with the membrane can be worked out at this small scale, the utility could have a full-scale plant powering 30,000 homes by 2015. Also, I have to give a shoutout to the Norwegians for not claiming that their osmosis-based generator will magically solve the world's energy problems--instead describing it as part of a mix of different technologies that, together, could make a difference. Read the rest

Mishap at the Electrical Substation

As a little kid, I used to think electrical substations would make really awesome jungle gyms. This video helpfully demonstrates why 5-year-old Maggie was an idiot.

This is the Eldorado Substation near Boulder City, Nevada. What you're seeing: A substation like this one is connected to long-distance transmission lines and electricity has to be very high voltage to travel on those. The substation "steps up" the voltage so the electricity can travel. Everything at a substation is hot, in that shock the bejeezus out of you sense. So that maintenance can be done, substations are built with switching functions that allow you to disconnect and reconnect various parts of the system in modular sort of way. The big, crazy spark in this video happened when some of the switching mechanisms failed. The Arcs 'n Sparks page at Stoneridge Engineering explains what happened next... Read the rest

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