Speed of Light


Edison’s first lamp, by Robert Farrow.

I am not a luddite, but I do have a very healthy skepticism about technology representing our salvation. In the past 10 generations, we have succeeded in making an enormous mess, thanks to technology, a mess of such proportions that we are only now beginning to understand what we have done, and what the mess means for our future. Now we use technology to assess the damage, and the reports are grim.

Nonetheless, I was curious last week about technology and speed. How quickly can a new invention change our cities? So I took some time to do some fast research, in two categories. Take a look at this.

One. In September of 1878, the Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison, declared that he would provide incandescent light to New York City.  He did not have a workable light bulb, and only limited means of generating power, but he did have the financial backing of a handful of Wall Street tycoons. The race for illumination was on.

On New Year’s Eve of 1879/80, Edison demonstrated his lighting system – bulbs, fixtures, switches, wiring – to an amazed crowd of thousands, at his New Jersey laboratory. In 1882 his Pearl Street power station in Lower Manhattan came to life, and the lights went on in New York. The city, which had been in William Manchester’s words “a world lit only by fire,” would never be dark again.

In May of 1893, at the beginning of a worldwide economic meltdown of gigantic proportions, George Westinghouse’s installation of 250,000 light bulbs and 29,000 horsepower of electric dynamos (made possible in large measure by the patented inventions of Nikola Tesla) magically lit up the White City of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, pumped water in great fountains, ran moving sidewalks, and dazzled 27 million visitors. The electric city had arrived.

That’s 15 years, from Edison’s cocky boast to a city of light.


The White City, from the Goodyear Archival Collection, Brooklyn Museum.

Two. Equally astonishing in speed, and nearly equal in its impact on our cities is, of course, the car. In 1900 there were 4,192 cars in the U.S. Today there are 250,000,000.

Henry Ford started The Ford Motor company in 1903. That year he built 1,700 cars. In 1908 he started production of the soon to be ubiquitous Model T. In 1910 Ford built 19,000 cars. In 1911 he produced 34,500. In 1924, the 10 millionth Model T rolled off the production lines.

And so our cities became places for cars, eventually at any and all cost.


Henry Ford and the Model T, 1921.

I suppose the moral of the tale is clear. We can change our cities, and how we live in them, at blazing speed – the speed of light, if you will. Perhaps not as quickly now as then, when there was very limited regulation of any kind on money, manufacture, materials, or consequences. But fast. Take comfort in this, since we now, again, must make huge changes to our cities in record time.

And perhaps the second part of the lesson is that neither Edison, nor Ford, nor pretty much anybody else during those, or any other, boom times, took much of a measure of the consequences.

Then as now, Edison burned coal to make electricity, in cities that were enormously polluted, even without cars. When Edison was at work in Manhattan, there were 150,000 horses at work in Manhattan alone. The city stank and waste was everywhere – about 2 or 3 million pounds of it a day.

So in 1887, when Frank Sprague invented the electric steetcar in Richmond, Virginia, city dwellers were elated, and the horse population dwindled quickly. Then Henry Ford sped things up even more with the mass-produced automobile.

Electricity and cars, two of the most powerful shapers of our cities, changed our cityscapes completely in just twenty years – one generation. And they set us on a course for the mess we face today.

I am certainly not eager to return to candles and horses. But I did hear something that caught my attention as I was writing today. A TV ad said that the sun provides enough energy for the entire planet’s day in just 30 seconds.

Inventors – back to your labs!


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