Elisha Gray is one of our more important and prolific inventors, yet today his almost unknown.
In 1865, Elisha had his first invention – a self-adjusting relay for the telegraphic system. A relay is a form of electrically controlled switch. He received his first patent on this device two years later. He would be granted more than seventy in his long career.
In 1869, Elisha partnered with Enos Barton to found Gray & Barton Company in Cleveland, Ohio. This company manufactured telegraph equipment for the Western Union Telegraph Company – the largest telegraph company in the world.
Western Electric would be absorbed in 1915 by AT&T, American Telephone and Telegraph – the monopoly telephone vendor in the US.
One important byproduct of the Western Electric/AT&T operation was the founding of Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1925. This legendary lab produced many inventions including the LASER, the transistor and transformed computer science. In all, eight Nobel prizes were awarded to Bell Labs researchers.
It is clear that Elisha Gray could invent and develop useful technologies and build companies what could stand the test of time, but his greatest contribution was yet to be seen.
At the end of the nineteenth century, electrical technology still needed to mature. The leading force in bringing electricity to market was Thomas Edison, one of our greatest inventors. He also invented motion pictures, sound recording and dozens of other useful items.
Edison’s style of inventing was to figure out something the world needed, then go into his lab and try things until he had a solution. Edison was not a believer in mathematics or systematic science, instead he believed in hiring legions of smart people to try lots of solutions.
Edison was a great inventor but he was not highly skilled with electricity. He filled in the components in his vision with ideas he understood.
Edison was the first person with a vision for how electricity might be deployed. He wanted to bring electricity into people’s homes where they could replace open flames with safe electric lights. He set about creating each component required starting at the light bulb and working back towards the steam engine turning the dynamo. When he was done, he had a way to generate and distribute power to homes, then to meter usage for billing and finally to turn lights on and off at will.
Whenever you see a high line traveling across the countryside, you will see that it usually carries three wires thanks to Tesla’s idea.
The higher managers in Continental Edison quickly noticed Tesla’s advanced knowledge and understanding of engineering and physics and were sending him around France and Germany to troubleshoot all manner of problems for the company. After two years of being a star, Tesla was transferred to the US in 1884.
He spent six months working with Edison’s attempts to use his direct current system in increasingly complex and difficult ways. Finally, Tesla quit in disgust. Legend has it that Thomas Edison promised Tesla a substantial bonus if he could fix a major flaw in Edison’s generators. When Tesla redesigned them and solved the problem, the legend says that Edison refused to live up to his bargain. Or it could simply have been that Tesla was tired of trying to make Edison’s technology work when other technologies were superior. We really don’t know.
This marked the beginning of a bitter rivalry between Tesla and Edison that would leave a huge mark on the world’s economy.
Whenever you hear a buzzer or the sound of a bell, you should think of Joseph Henry, the man who first used electricity to change his world.
In the nineteenth century, electricity was in its infancy. Experimenters were struggling to understand the relationships between electricity, magnetism and the properties of materials.
Around 1826, Joseph Henry, a newly frocked professor at the Albany Academy, was fascinated by the magnetic compass and terrestrial magnetism.
He quickly became a pioneer in the study of electromagnets (devices that are only magnetic when energized with an electrical current).
He built the strongest electromagnet the world had ever seen!
He produced a number of devices that used electromagnets to move pieces of iron or other magnets. We still see these devices today in the form of electrical buzzers, bells, and even doorbells.
In 1832, Henry moved to what is now known as Princeton where he taught numerous classes and continued his research. Here he influenced an entire generation of inventors.
Samuel Morse is an enigma. For the first three decades of his life, Morse showed little sign that he would invent a world-changing technology.
He supported himself by working as a contract painter. He showed great promise as a painter and his work caught the eye of Washington Allston, perhaps the most famous artist in the country at that time.
Tragedy struck in 1825. Morse traveled from his home in New Haven to Washington DC to paint a commissioned portrait of Lafayette. One day, he received a letter from his father indicating that his wife was recovering from a serious illness. This was the first Samuel had learned of her illness. The next day, he received a second missive from his father informing Samuel of his wife’s passing and subsequent burial.
Morse was heartbroken. And he was frustrated at the slow communications of the day which had not given him the opportunity to return to his dying bride’s side in time.
Starting in 1830, Morse returned to Europe for two years—learning new painting techniques and visiting Italy, France and Switzerland. It was on the return voyage in 1832 that his life took a dramatic turn.
Most experts will tell you that the Industrial Revolution started just before our War for Independence, in the middle 1700s, and continued for a century or more. Let us not get hung up on the dates. The truth is that the Industrial Revolution really started slowly around 1700 and continued until well after 1900 in the US.
Life before and after the Revolution was completely changed. In fact, if you were beamed back to 1700 to live, you would find it very strange, while you’d probably be much more at home in 1850.
One reason the revolution took so long was that so many things had to change. Another reason is that there were so many ways things could be improved upon.
Before the revolution, wind and muscles were the prime movers of the world. Sails provided movement over water. Everywhere else muscles did the work—either human or animal. The speed of movement was slow—limited by the walking speed of a horse or the wind—and it had not changed for three thousand years. Or to be blunt, Alexander the Great and George Washington both travelled at the same speed—slow. And a horse drawn wagon was the largest general unit of transfer.