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. Mrs. Vanderbilt = totally freaked out by the wrong thing.
Quote from "The Papers of Thomas A. Edison, Volume 6". Edited by Paul B. Israel, Louis Carlat, David Hochfelder, Theresa M. Collins and Brian C. Shipley. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
Each week we're bringing you some of our favorite posts from our friends over at TreeHugger. Enjoy!
Cool and Crazy Commuter Bikes
We want to see your bad ass commuter bikes. Send us your photos of ultra sleek designs, hideous hacks, fabulous rebuilds, or whatever it is you use to pedal from place to place.
Hatchery Horrors: Readers React
Both TreeHugger and Boing Boing posted about the gag-inducing male chick massacre video. TreeHugger readers react and cover all angles of the debate. Who do you agree with?
This is a power switch salvaged from an old PC. It is also the switch that most resembles an elephant, beating out its nearest competitor by a factor of 5. In fact, on the SPRS (Standardized Pachyderm Resemblance Scale) it scored an incredible 8.4-- a mammoth only scores 8.2!
Remember this day. One day, your kids will ask where you were when you saw it.
I found this 1972 Investor-Owned Electric Light and Power Companies ad in a Taschen collection.
Radioactivity. It's been in the family for generations. In fact, scientists can tell us just how old our remote ancestors are by measuring the radioactivity still in the bones of prehistoric cave dwellers.
Was this really reassuring? All of the dead people you've ever heard about are radioactive! Why not: "Radiation: because EVERYTHING causes cancer!"