Happy Birthday Thomas Edison!

Happy Birthday Thomas Edison!

This February 11th marks the 165th birthday [1847-1931] of the world’s greatest inventor, Thomas Edison, the Man of the Millennium as Life magazine once proclaimed him. In July 2010, TIME magazine [see photo at bottom] devoted its cover to the great inventor, with feature articles inside extolling his relevance today.

This year is also the 135th anniversary of the phonograph, what Edison termed his most favorite invention.

“…I’ve made some machines; but this is my baby, and I expect it to grow up to be a big feller and support me in my old age.”

Happy Birthday Thomas Edison! His name is synonymous with creativity, invention and entrepreneurship. Engineering organizations hold annual national Engineering Week celebrations around his birthday. Invention societies often induct new members this time of year. The highly popular STEM programs in schools today draw heavily on his inter-disciplinary, multi-dimensional way of solving R&D problems and new product development…the very basis of Edison’s invention factory, later to become our national, academic and corporate R&D labs. His tear drop-shaped light bulb is a universal icon of the bright new idea, something no compact florescent bulb will ever replace.

Edison died in 1931, but his incredible legacy lives on to continue benefiting mankind. The annual economic value to the nation, from his major industrial innovations of R&D labs, electric light and power, recorded sound and motion pictures, has been estimated at approximately $1.5 trillion… 10% of our current gross domestic product.

The hand-held device we all carry around, our cell phone or smart phone, is a testament to Edison, for inside is recorded sound, motion pictures…and when it gets tired from overuse, we plug it into Edison’s model of the electric utility system. He is in everyone’s pocket, purse, or coat, never far from the people he valued the most…..the customer. [Check out Edison TV]

Two of his accidental laboratory “scientific discoveries”, while not made into memorable Edison inventions, were duly recorded in his lab notebooks, later to become the basis for radio-telegraphy (wireless), vacuum tubes, and radio. His visionary work on electric vehicles back in the early 1900s astutely anticipated where gasoline-powered cars would take us….over-dependence on oil, and polluted cities.

GE charging stations for street use; GE® is a registered trademark of General Electric

GE charging stations for street use; GE® is a registered trademark of General Electric

In his later years, Edison’s recognition of the potential of solar and wind energy is found today on every solar/wind equipment supplier’s website.

“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.”

What remains so inspirational in the minds of inventors the world over is Edison’s indomitable spirit and acceptance of failure as a necessary way of life, an opportunity to learn and profit from … a kind of “fail your way to success” credo that suffuses the late night hours of all inventors … when the chips seem down and success appears to be a long way off—that never give up spirit that has come to characterize what we used to call “Yankee ingenuity”. That is what Thomas Edison represents, the rugged individual, a fierce self-determination and drive we all harbor deep within, the American spirit, that Horatio Alger story writ large, visceral, palpable. One can only guess how many of our nation’s almost 8 million patents are a direct testimony to Edison’s inspirational impact on the patent holders. It’s there, and every year as students come to see his legendary West Orange Labs, you can spot that twinkle in their young eyes, that … “I am going to be just like him” … look. Tom is alive and well, and we are all better for it.

Thomas Edison on Time Magazine“My desire is to do everything within my power to free people from drudgery and create the largest measure of happiness and prosperity.”

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc
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MIT Nanotech Battery – an Edison Style Innovation

Over 100 years ago, Edison’s work with storage batteries for electric vehicles often took on mythic proportions. Tens of thousands of experiments were conducted and untold man-hours expended to develop his legendary and rugged nickel-iron storage battery; a product that was widely sold and adapted to many applications and industries. Were Edison alive today he would be clapping loudly at the new MIT Flow Battery-emerging from the research lab to be commercialized by 24M Technologies.

A sample of 'Cambridge crude' — a black, gooey substance that can power a highly efficient new type of battery. A prototype of the semi-solid flow battery is seen behind the flask. | Photo: Dominick Reuter

A sample of 'Cambridge crude' — a black, gooey substance that can power a highly efficient new type of battery. A prototype of the semi-solid flow battery is seen behind the flask. | Photo: Dominick Reuter

Researchers at MIT have used nanotechnology and proven lithium-ion chemistry to completely revolutionize how we think about the venerable storage battery. It could be the holy grail for making electric vehicles very competitive. Called a flow battery, the two thick-gooey chemical mixtures of this system are kept in separate containers until energy is needed – then the reactants flow through a special reactor to produce electricity. What this means is re-charging a battery is no longer about long waits as it is stuffed with electricity, but simply pumping fresh liquids into the separate tanks…..perhaps not so different in the future as saying “filler ‘er up” as we do now at a traditional gasoline station.

The technological magic resides in the gooey black liquids, which for all purposes can be envisioned as liquefied versions of the anode[negatively charged] and cathode [positively charged] of a battery. The positive and negative posts are distributed throughout the black goo in the two tanks in the form of nano-particles. In the energy making process, the two oppositely charged liquids are pumped past a special membrane in the reactor and out comes clean electricity to run your car.

Source: Internet announcements of MIT Flow Battery-showing the two storage tanks and reactor for producing clean electricity.

Source: Internet announcements of MIT Flow Battery-showing the two storage tanks and reactor for producing clean electricity.

This reinterpretation of a battery into separate structures changes lots of things. For one, it could be much cheaper to make these systems than traditional batteries. The energy storage capability or energy density of these systems could be radically improved over traditional batteries….maybe pushing electric vehicle range to being on par with gasoline vehicles. One could make different grades of black goo for better performance and improved mileage. The system might last longer than expensive storage batteries of today. Certainly, this MIT advance changes the battery universe…..a disturbance in the force, ala` Star Wars. Energy storage for such things as wind and solar system applications may also realize significant gains.

Lots more testing and demonstrations are no doubt being planned for this technology, but this is one of the most promising battery advances to come down the road. It just might make it possible for Edison to realize his dream of an electric vehicle transportation system; and for our nation to kick the oil habit.

Thomas Edison on Time MagazineEditor’s Deep Dive:

“Great ideas originate in the muscles.”

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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Thomas Edison Would Applaud Women in Engineering [FemGineers]!

As middle and high schools implement the integrated subject teaching paradigm known as STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math], it is natural that increasing amounts of female students would become more interested in what engineers do, and how they solve problems. This head and hands approach to solving problem has shown young women to be quite adept at designing and building activities. Young ladies with a keen interest in taking these courses in school and also participating in after-school classes and design competitions are informally known as “FemGineers”. Here is a New Jersey story about these amazing young ladies.

The first educational program in the nation to offer a formal woman’s oriented engineering and design curriculum was launched 10 years ago at High Point Regional High School in Sussex, NJ. As part of their technology education program, this activity remains vibrant, with many of its former students continuing their technical studies in college and/or having found employment in science and technology related careers.

In 2008, the Heritage Middle School in Livingston, NJ also started a FemGineers program. Starting with just 10 students, this effort has grown to 35 students this year. The original students have now gone on to Livingston High School and established another FemGineers program at that school, with some of the students even coming back to mentor the middle school students! The plan is to grow the Livingston School District FemGineers program to 100 students by 2014. You can see the FemGineers in action below as they participated in a statewide competition to design new cities. Later, the young ladies also competed in the Edison Innovation Foundation’s Thomas Edison Invention Challenge for unique applications for alternate energy. They won awards in both competitions.

 

FemGineers First Design Their New City Model to Scale

FemGineers First Design Their New City Model to Scale

Building the Scale Model

Building the Scale Model

Presenting to an Engineer-Judge at Statewide Competition

Presenting to an Engineer-Judge at Statewide Competition

Proud of their Work!

Proud of their Work!

 

The main goal of the program is to empower young women to pursue interests in fields that are traditionally dominated by men.  The FemGineer concept, when introduced at the middle school level, provides the young ladies with a “social fit.”  They are accepted by their peers in the group and are not afraid of being judged.  This transfers to the high school as these girls enroll in courses that have been traditionally dominated by their male peers.  The program provides structure and the confidence needed for young women to eventually pursue careers in STEM related fields.

All this is music to the ears of engineering colleges, who for years have been trying to interest young women in becoming full- fledged engineers. Women have already made some significant inroads into engineering, but the profession can use many more; and introductory engineering programs in the middle and high schools can be a terrific way to spread the interest and fun of engineering.

By the way, tiny New Jersey was one of the first states to adopt a technology education curriculum back in 1986, leading to an international revolution in teaching students about the engineered world. This little state is ranked 4th among all states in the total number of inventions awarded to its many scientists, engineers, technologists, and inventors. And of course it is home to the greatest inventor in the world, Thomas Edison. Were he here today, no doubt he would be a supporter of this kind of head and hands, practical method of education. In his time, he made many comments about the state of education and the need for more focused methods of showing how school relates to work. How pleased he would be to see the FemGineers in action!

Editor’s Deep Dive

Thomas Edison on Time Magazine

To have a great idea, have a lot of them.

 Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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