Thomas Edison’s Connection to Radio Astronomy

Today we detect and research radio waves that emanate from stars and other bodies to interpret how the universe works. Credit for the beginnings of this fascinating science and technology stems from 1931. Karl Jansky, a Bell Labs scientist, first built an antenna to reliably detect these radio waves and determine their origin. Five years later, Grote Reber an amateur astronomer, is credited with building the first radio telescope. Since then, world scientists routinely listen to the heavens.

With a diameter of 1,000 feet, The Arecibo Radio Telescope, at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, reigned supreme from 1963 to 2016 as the largest and most recognizable radio telescope in the world. However, the Chinese have now begun operation of a 1,500 foot diameter device. The popular 1997 science fiction movie,” Contact” (based on a detailed and very accurate script written by scientist Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan), chronicles the adventures and frustrations of a scientist from Arecibo who is engaged in interpreting radio signals as a prelude to detecting life on other planets…think SETI…the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. [By the way, see “Contact”, it’s terrific!]

The Arecibo Radio Telescope

The Arecibo Radio Telescope

Let’s return to the birth of radio astronomy in 1931 (coincidentally the death year of Edison), and step back farther in time. It’s 1890 and Edison is very well aware that radio waves exist, as famed scientist Heinrich Hertz proves their existence in the late 1880s [Maxwell of Maxwell’s equations fame had predicted their existence, circa 1865]. For his accomplishments , the unit of frequency — cycle per second — was named the “hertz” in his honor.

In 1890, Arthur Kennelly, an electrical engineer working for Thomas Edison, wrote a letter to the director of the Lick Observatory, describing an interesting proposed experiment being considered by the great inventor that may have been the first radio telescope — forty years before its official invention. Edison’s idea was to wrap a large mass of iron with turns of cable to create a crude radio wave detector. Edison suspected that electromagnetic emissions (radio waves) would be associated with sunspot activity and hoped that Lick Observatory would be able to provide information as to just when these occurred.

Edison’s experiment was never conducted, and in retrospect, the experiment would not have been able to accurately detect the proper wavelength of the radio waves because the Earth’s natural atmospheric boundary layers, the ionosphere, would have absorbed those signals. But the intent was “spot-on”! Curiously, the actual prediction of a reflecting layer in the upper atmosphere, the ionosphere, was made by Kennelly and Heaviside in 1902.

This was not Edison’s first interest in astronomy. In the eclipse of 1878, Edison traveled to Rawlins Wyoming with a new invention he was going to use to try and detect the heat in the sun’ corona during the celestial event. Known as a “tasimeter”, the device was able to detect the heat, but was not accurate in determining just how intense it was.

Not bad for a kid from Milan, Ohio who became the world’s greatest inventor and changed the world. His country schoolhouse teacher thought little Tom had severely limited mental capacities. His mother thought otherwise and homeschooled the lad. Wonder how many little “Edison’s” slip by today? The answer may be in the stars!

Edison’s tasimeter

Edison’s tasimeter

Thomas Edison said, “If we all did the things we are really capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves …”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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Thomas Edison – A Founder of the Electric Utility Industry

Thomas Edison in 1882 in New York City operated the world’s first modern electric utility system. Known as the Pearl Street Station, it serves to this day as the model for generating and distributing electric power.

Modern power station

Modern power station

As we watch more renewable energy technologies like solar and wind come on line, many experts wonder about the fate of today’s electric utilities. The sun does not always shine and the wind is subject to long lulls. How will this impact the reliability of electricity we have come to expect; and to the digital economy so important to our economic growth? Does this mean we need to co-install massive energy storage facilities either in a centralized or distributed fashion as more and more solar and wind systems are put into service?

Wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels

Wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels

Renewable advocates are loudly proclaiming a total solar/wind energy grid by mid-century. While it is technically feasible, is it a wise path? Wouldn’t a diverse energy mix be more logical and desirable? Back in the 1970s, the world learned a harsh lesson when too much of its energy economy was invested in oil. Is it wise to swing back to the other end of the energy spectrum for philosophical and political reasons?

While Edison did originate our modern electric utility system, he did have a great sense of what the future might hold. Consider his quote, circa 1910……

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that. I wish I had more years left.”

Stay tuned for the many discussions you will likely hear about our nation’s energy future; and remember…..Thomas Edison is still relevant in the discussion!

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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Thomas Edison Magic

Many marvel at the great inventor’s prodigious output, the breadth and depth of his patents and the great industries he is responsible for starting…recorded sound, motion pictures and the electric light/utility systems. He also made significant achievements in telegraphy, telephony, battery storage and the manufacture of cement; but his “magic” is much more important–for when these industries are replaced by other things, his true genius will still be evident and eternally relevant.

A young and proud Edison shows off his phonograph to President Rutherford B. Hayes at the White House, 1878.

A young and proud Edison shows off his phonograph to President Rutherford B. Hayes at the White House, 1878.

Ever see a modern laboratory or research facility like at a high tech company, an academic lab on campus, or maybe you were lucky to walk the halls of the world famous Bell Labs. You notice a great similarity. Long halls with many labs and teams of researchers busy, creating the future. Each lab a world unto itself, consumed with making something happen…ideas being born into prototypes. This model derives directly from Edison’s early work at his Menlo Park labs, later super-charged at his formalized invention factory at the legendary West Orange Labs.

This first, true R&D lab he invented gave tremendous advantage over other inventors who tended to be lone wolf or independent dreamers. Using his natural leadership and management skills to create the right teams of people and expertise, Edison could explore a large number of ideas at once (typically 30-40 at a time); and could:

  • Invent faster than competitors, giving him market and surprise advantage
  • Take advantage of spinning off technological achievements into whole families of inventions
  • Multiplex his insights and wisdom across multiple teams at once
  • Develop his staff into independent inventors and project managers like himself
  • Develop management and leadership styles that would suit specific situations, invention challenges and team make-up.
  • Set goals and timelines so the R&D lab was constantly running at capacity and efficiency
  • Maintain a centralized stock of ready materials so teams always had what they needed to create their prototypes.
Edison knew the leadership value of working with his teams, often eating and joking with them. This was the heart of the magic of his invention factory.

Edison knew the leadership value of working with his teams, often eating and joking with them. This was the heart of the magic of his invention factory.

Although Edison provided initial guidance and suggestions on how to approach each problem, the experimenters were often allowed, and indeed encouraged, to find their own way to a solution …

“I generally instructed them on the general idea of what I wanted carried out, and when I came across an assistant who was in any way ingenious, I sometimes refused to help him out in his experiments, telling him to see if he could not work it out himself, so as to encourage him.”

The more his stable of inventors achieved, the more responsibility they were given. His centralized library also gave inventors a huge resource of information at their disposal as well. He even set stretch goals for his teams….an minor invention every 10 days and major one every 6 months!

Like his project teams, Edison often retreated to a secluded lab of his own to explore something new

Like his project teams, Edison often retreated to a secluded lab of his own to explore something new.

Careful records of each experiment were kept in notebooks as a permanent record of learning was thus preserved for possible patent application filings; as well as a jumping off point for other teams to carry some line of research further or into related areas. A daily update newsletter kept by his office staff served to let Edison know every day what was happening with his project teams. Careful records of expenditures, stores drawn from the centralized stockroom and timesheets were kept for each team’s activities. We see this done today via sophisticated computerized programs, helping to determine the cost effectiveness of new product development. It would seem R&D lab operational procedures were also pioneered by Edison.

Like any good R&D organization, a capable staff keeping project managers aware of what is going on is indispensable. Here Edison confers with staff.

Like any good R&D organization, a capable staff keeping project managers aware of what is going on is indispensable. Here Edison confers with staff.

So powerful and advantageous was Edison’s R&D lab, that before he dies in 1931, the world’s great companies implement their own labs; and America’s business model for converting raw ideas into new ready-to-be-marketed products forms the mainstay of our team based, technology driven economy. Today, we teach this head and hands, problem solving philosophy starting in America’s middle schools. It’s called STEM or perhaps STEAM. The currently popular term “maker space” derives from all this. This year, America will spend over $500 billion on R&D in all sectors-business, government, academia.

That dear readers, is Thomas Edison’s greatest and most enduring invention/accomplishment, a process to keep our nation’s technological cornucopia always overflowing!

Thomas Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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