Edison and the Roots of STEM

In today’s schools, the educational philosophy known as STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] has become popular and indispensable in integrating subject matter; and teaching young minds about the value of critical thinking and problem solving.

The roots for the modern day STEM philosophy actually date back to the late 1800s, when Thomas Edison was forging his invention factory / industrial R&D concept. It is plainly evident in the small cluster of buildings [which still stand today for public visitation] that formed the central focus of his legendary West Orange Labs. Here in his epicenter of creativity and invention, a one-acre nucleus of buildings formed the heart of Edison’s revolutionary enterprise….. an enterprise that would come to define today’s modern industrial model.

An early photo of the Edison invention factory (ca.1888). These buildings remain to this day. Eventually an additional 20 acres of manufacturing buildings would surround this nucleus of buildings on three sides, employing 10,000 people in the making of a variety of Edison products.

An early photo of the Edison invention factory (ca.1888). These buildings remain to this day. Eventually an additional 20 acres of manufacturing buildings would surround this nucleus of buildings on three sides, employing 10,000 people in the making of a variety of Edison products.

The small buildings arranged to the side of the main prototyping factory contained certain important specialties and expertise, and equipment that would be needed to support the multi-disciplined, multi-dimensional aspects of invention. There was a physics/electrical lab, a chemistry lab, a metallurgical shop, a model making shop; and supporting all this were engineers, scientists, mathematicians, inventors, technologists, machinists, draftsmen, and electricians. Edison knew back then that bringing ideas from concept to market required physical resources, and a multitude of talents and skills…..all conveniently available. He also had marketing, legal, accounting, economic, and sales expertise on-hand as well.

Today’s modern business structure emerges from this integrated approach Edison formed for the solving of problems, and the launching of new products. The world’s greatest companies today have R&D labs like Edison did, fully understanding how R&D project management crucially drives the process of new product commercialization. Edison becomes the first industrial project manager, forming interdisciplinary project teams, often overseeing as many as 30-40 teams at once. He is the premier integrated thinker of his time, matching people, talents, resources, and disciplines to solve multi-dimensional problems creatively.

Teamwork was an essential part of the invention factory “magic”. Pulling “all-night”creativity sessions was not unusual at all. Here in a famous photo, Edison takes a meal with his famous “insomnia squad”.

Teamwork was an essential part of the invention factory “magic”. Pulling “all-night”creativity sessions was not unusual at all. Here in a famous photo, Edison takes a meal with his famous “insomnia squad”.

It is interesting to note how that initial two-acre parcel of buildings at West Orange produced enough new product ideas to keep the surrounding twenty acres of massive buildings around it busy turning out new products. Those factory buildings are gone now, but at one time, the great inventor had 30 companies and 10,000 employees working under the imprimatur of Thomas A. Edison Industries. This is the iron core of strength that STEM thinking can produce in the real world. It has been shown to work for 125 years, forming the foundation for an on-going industrial revolution, and ultimately, today’s digital-electronic explosion. STEM is precisely what is needed in our schools to show the head and hands relevance of the school-to-work progression; and the application of knowledge to addressing world needs. 

Throughout his life, Edison documented his work, staying true to his scientific process of invention. He so loved the process of research and development, he established his office in his library.

Throughout his life, Edison documented his work, staying true to his scientific process of invention. He so loved the process of research and development, he established his office in his library.

The STEM of yesteryear has certainly evolved, and will continue to do so as mankind advances. Back in Edison’s time, most folks were satisfied that new products were time-saving, understandable, and affordable. As our civilization progressed, we developed new concerns [design constraints] like environmental stewardship, product safety, and regulatory impacts that began to re-shape the way we saw the “Edisonian” model of progress; and this made new product development ever more complex, multi-dimensional, and inter-disciplinary….and all of this is good for a society’s growth….but make no mistake, STEM’s taproot lies at the heart of the legendary West Orange Labs, and the seminal idea of perpetuating the industrial revolution as a codified process….a process that revolutionized the cottage industry of invention into a commercial powerhouse. It is Edison’s greatest invention, and the heart of America’s ingenuity. West Orange is the “Mother Ship” of innovation.

The famed Edison library-home to 10,000 technical books, journals and paraphernalia.

The famed Edison library-home to 10,000 technical books, journals and paraphernalia.

Today, the total money spent on all national R&D in all sectors is about $370 billion (2010). That is bigger than the largest US oil companies, and also the entire electric utility industry, probably getting close to giants in revenue like Wal-Mart and the automakers. Obviously this style of STEM thinking has produced and continues to produce great success and wealth. When students study under the guidelines of STEM and technology education they are automatically invoking Edison-style thinking and problem solving, they are being readied for a world of global competitiveness, and adding great value to our society. 

Edison at his roll-top desk, ready for work in his library-office.

Edison at his roll-top desk, ready for work in his library-office.

Technology education does in miniature, what must be done to the entire school curricula……integrate it…change the way we teach school [and teach teachers] to focus on subject integration and creative solutions to problems. Statistical relevance of IQ test scores is not the only metric we need to concentrate on anymore. It is how students solve problems, the thinking processes applied, that we need to address. It is the driver for the future. It will win the competitive wars, and get us back to that Edison spirit, of which President Obama spoke in 2011 in an important address to the nation.

Technology education is the paradigm shift, whose roots are firmly grounded in a small cluster of buildings known as Thomas Edison’s invention factory/R&D lab. Every Fortune 500 company has an R&D lab. What does that say about how valuable STEM thinking is? The customers of technology education and STEM are not just the parents and educators. It is our entire society.

Thomas Edison on Time Magazine“Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do in the first place doesn’t mean it’s useless….” 
Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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The House that Babe Ruth….and Edison Built

Everyone knows the saying that Yankee Stadium is the house that Ruth built, a tribute to the iconic baseball player whose charisma and slugging power were legendary. His rise to prominence coincided with the rise in status of the great ballpark. Most folks however, don’t know that Thomas Edison’s Portland Cement was used to actually build the world’s most famous ballpark…about 68,000 bags in fact…..but, it wasn’t all he did with concrete.

 

Yankee Stadium-early 1923

Yankee Stadium-early 1923

 

Iconic photo of the playing field

Iconic photo of the playing field

Edison can be considered the father of pre-fabricated housing. He built a variety of concrete houses using complex molds and arrangements that allowed his workers to continuously pour a complete home in about six hours. A number of these homes exist today. His technology was licensed to builders, with several New Jersey housing clusters built. Edison also thought about a wide variety of other uses for concrete, including furniture and phonograph cabinets.

 

Model of Edison concrete house

Model of Edison concrete house

 

Steel molds used to construct concrete homes-completed house at right

Steel molds used to construct concrete homes-completed house at right

The garage and potting shed at Edison’s historic home, Glenmont in LlewellynPark in West Orange NJ are classic examples of his concrete building technology. Both structures were built about 1908-1909, and are in fine structural condition today, toured by many visitors to the site each year. The garage houses a variety of historic automobiles owned by the Edison family.

 

Edison garage at the site of his historic home

Edison garage at the site of his historic home

 

Potting shed and attached greenhouse

Potting shed and attached greenhouse

Edison’s work in concrete changed the cement industry as well. He redesigned the kilns used to make the concrete and increased their size radically, in most cases doubling their length. A great deal of the technology he used for concrete-making derived from his failed efforts to crush large scale rock formations to extract iron ore.

Thomas Edison on Time Magazine

Editor’s note:Very soon, there will begin a serious fund raising campaign to rehabilitate the garage and restore the Edison era automobiles there; including three electric vehicles, and the personal chauffer-driven car of Edison’s son, Charles, who used the car when he was governor of New Jersey [1940-44].

“Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.”

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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Nanotechnology Energizes Solar Panels

Something very small [nanotechnology] is happening in the world of solar panels, but it promises big changes. It cuts to the heart of solar panel engineering, and the big dream solar aficionados have harbored for decades……thin film technology that is both cost effective and practical.

With nano-solar technology, the panels themselves change as well, their manufacturing becoming more like a film making process than adhering silicon-like materials to glass substrates. The use of customized nano particles has the ability to make the cells better able to capture incoming solar radiation, thereby increasing panel efficiency; and also enabling a cheaper manufacturing process. To give you a sense of the scale, a nanometer is equal to 1 billionth of a meter.

Konarka

Check out a photo below of Konarka’s, plastic, organic, thin film material, and visit them to see their typical product performance spec sheet. Konarka Technologies is located in Lowell Massachusetts, and was originally founded in 2001 by a team of researchers at UMass at Lowell, including Mr. Howard Berke, who now serves as Konarka’s Chairman and CEO.

Nanosolar, is now marketing their nanosolar panels, boasting a 15% panel efficiency. On a thin piece of aluminium, the company adds a nanoparticle ink, at a rate of printing 100 feet of solar cells a minute. They can produce panels [containing many solar cells] for 60 cents per watt, retailing them for about $1.00 a watt when production is full-scale. A fully installed Nanosolar panel system would cost about $2.50 a watt, much lower than the $6-8 a watt today with conventional solar panels. You can see an interesting video of their panel making operation and also via this photo below.

Nanosolar Scientist at Work

Nanosolar was founded in 2002, recently benefiting in 2010 from a revamped team of management talent with experience in growing technology companies into potent billion dollar organizations. The new team is headed by Mr. Geoff Tate, Chairman and CEO, and located in San Jose, CA.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory has teamed up with Microcontinuum Inc. and the University of Missouri to develop a very interesting nanoantenna which can capture up to 80% of the sun’s mid-infrared rays. Spiral nanoantennas, 1/25th the width of a human hair, do the work. These little babies can also harvest energy after the sun goes down! See photo below, and check out this website and fascinating video. Since these arrays absorb infrared radiation, they also absorb the sun’s infrared energy reradiated by the earth after dark. Similarly, they also take in heat from industrial processes. This opens up a whole series of applications for absorbing waste heat and reradiating it as electricity, effectively cooling buildings, computers, equipment, etc. … without air conditioning. This could be revolutionary in just a few more years. From tiny nanotechnology, big new applications grow.

 From tiny nanotechnology, big new applications grow

Microcontinuum was originally founded in 1998 by a former team of Polaroid scientists and engineers. Dr. W. Dennis Slafer is currently  President and CFO, Cambridge, MA.

New Energy Technologies, Inc. says it’s come up with a patent-pending method of spraying windows with a nano-thin photovoltaic material. The spray is an organic semitransparent material that converts sunlight to electricity. Using this technology the company will produce its SolarWindows, equipped with a nano film 1/1,000th the thickness of a human hair. Researchers found that its super small solar cells can harness more artificial light than other solar cells “under normal office lighting conditions, without the benefit of outside natural light from windows.” Check them out!

Mr. John A. Conklin is President and CEO of New Energy Technologies, located in Columbia, MD.

Editor’s Deep Dive

Thomas Edison on Time MagazineThomas Edison was a big fan of solar energy … “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.”

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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