Everybody knows the story of the electric light. Thomas Edison in the shop with his workers trying to come up with the solution for a filament that would last more than a few minutes under load. The first patent issued for an electric light went to Woodward and Evans in Canada. Many other people demonstrated electric lights, but none were commercially viable. Short life and high cost. But Edison concentrated his creativity on a version that would be more cost effective.
But where did the electricity for lighting come from? The Dynamo. Probably the first major application of direct current motors was to generate the electricity for lighting. The dc motor has its roots in the demonstration of Michael Faraday in 1831, but again, many creative people attempted to introduce electric motors in a variety of applications, but they were not cost effective. DC power was not available except in batteries. So while you could show great potential for the DC motor, a large battery pack made it impractical. Sounds like a rehash of the electric car dilemma, doesn’t it.
In the mid 1800’s the dynamo found its first niche in supplying power for electric light. This opened the door for other applications of electric motors. But in creating the power source for electric lights, maybe Edison’s greatest creation was the power utility business itself. The light and power generation business formed the basis for the original General Electric company. The Edison power utilities still exist in many parts of the US.
One major application of the electric motor is the elevator. Elevators had been around for a while, but the electric motor made them more practical and cost effective. Invented by Werner von Siemens in 1880 the electric elevator soon became a major industry. Otis Elevator invented the first fail-safe brake for elevators and started the Otis Elevator Company, still with us today as part of United Technologies.
Nikola Tesla created the AC motor and alternating currents as a means to provide electricity over longer distances. His primary backer was George Westinghouse. So the Westinghouse corporation was created.
But the “Age of Electricity” and all the modern inventions we live with are the work of men who had an idea. The Patent office has over 7 million patents granted. But the ones we live with every day are the ones that serve a customer need AND are cost effective. The idealist in all of us wants to produce things that are beneficial, but commercial success is part of the benefit equation. Commercial success puts people to work in the manufacturing sector of the economy. And we need to be careful with our trade policies before we throw away the opportunities manufacturing represents.
There are many solutions available to the current problems of our age. But the solutions have to meet the test of “commercial viability”, they have to make a profit. Reducing diesel emissions, for example, cannot be legislated. The cost per gallon to reduce sulfur in the fuel is estimated at .70 per gallon. Catalytic converters on trucks are expected to cost $3500 to $4500 per vehicle. So more solutions are need to serve this need.
Government never makes a profit. The DOE hasn’t made much progress in solar cell technology, but will continue to spend millions, $9Billion this year alone. Not very cost effective.
Big corporations can be efficient but lack creativity. Ford Motor Company didn’t come up with the Th!nk electric car, they bought it to re-sell. Which didn’t work out so well and now Th!nk is back on their own getting ready to re-launch their 2 seater electric car in 2010. But Toyota is selling 50,000 Prius Hybrids per year in the US. So do our US car companies lack the creativity they need to compete?
Let’s make up our minds that the real solutions are going to come from people who have an idea, and are willing to meet the challenge of commercial viability.