Electricity from Edison to Silicon Valley and Beyond

Electricity is by far the most important energy in our lives today, just as it has been since Edison and Tesla battled in the 1880's to see whether AC or DC electricity would dominate and Tesla won. Once in homes, offices and factories to provide light, nearly all steam and manual power was shifted to electrical machines and appliances. Since Samuel Morse's 1840's telegraph, electricity has been the basis for communications with transistors and integrated circuits leading to computers and information technology as well as telecommunications and Internet of today.

At the start of the 20th century, electricity dominated the exploding urban and interurban transport market. Through plans of Edison and Ford, electricity was on the verge of taking much of the newly established motor vehicle. But it didn't happen.

With Maxwell's theory and Hertz's validation of electromagnetic waves, Marconi demonstrated wireless telegraphy. Armstrong in NY and Farnsworth in San Francisco, along with others, advanced it to radio and TV broadcasting. Advances in that wireless technology led to all the mobile devices we increasingly rely on today. And electricity underlies nearly all the success of new Silicon Valley venture based firms and their indispensable innovations and applications that support life styles here and around the world.

But electricity is still a story without an end. Communication electricity has been ever triumphant since the telegraph replaced the Pony Express and computers displaced clerks. But power electricity, which displaced petroleum in lighting and steam in factories, stumbled in it's march to replace petroleum in transport.

Join with us to see why all this happened over the last century and explore whether electricity will also dominate transportation and whether the triumph of electricity in communications makes much of today's transport needs moot.

Electricity from Edison to Silicon Valley and Beyond will not cover the physics or atomic and electron intricacies, complexities and nuances of electricity. It will view electricity as by far the most important power source in our world and whether it will become even more dominant in years ahead. It will assess how the mystery of relatively small electric flows have underlayed communications over distance from telegraph to today's telephones and Internet.

Our study of electricity will show how these communication achievements compare with the enormity of electricity's vast power to light and run the machines of homes, offices and factories throughout the world. Finally, we will look at why big electricity has not yet dominated transportation, without which there appears to be no near-term hope of progress to resolve either energy crises or meeting global warming threats.

The milestones of both the progress and limits of electricity unfold in the stories of individuals and years:

  • 1800 when Volta first developed a battery to store electricity;
  • 1821 when Faraday and Henry introduced electromagnetism and motors;
  • 1843 when Morse started electricity to communications domination with the telegraph;
  • 1879 when Edison perfected that light bulb filament to justified electricity distribution;
  • 1893 when Westinghouse and Tesla AC triumphed over DC electric systems and engines
  • 1914 when Ford and Edison plans for electric cars collapsed with World War I
  • 1920 when Armstrong and Sarnoff led evolution of wireless telegraphy to broadcasting
  • 1947 when Bell Labs introduced the transistor launched computer, telecom and IT revolutions


What we do know is that the technology advancement associated with Silicon Valley here and around the world is almost totally based on electricity. What we don't know yet is whether electricity or some other power will replace internal combustion in transportation, just as electricity replaced kerosene and gas in lighting at end of 19th century. And just oil then displaced electricity to power urban mass transit a couple decades later, on it's way to the lock on transportation it still holds. The outcome of that battle will determine both how our world will change, as well as life on it.


Electricity Course Outline and Syllabus

Electricity Bibliographical Resources and Videos

1. Slides and Highlights - Electricity Science to Telegraph and Telephone

2. Slides and Highlights - Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse Battle for DC and AC

3. Slides and Highlights - Wireless Transmission to Broadcasting

4. Slides and Highlights - Network Radio and Television

5. Slides and Highlights - Recording and Electricity Expansion to Homes, Offices, Factories

6. Slides and Highlights - Computer, Telecommunications and Internet Development and Reliance on Electricity

7. Slides and Highlights - Potential Improvement of Electricity and Energy Use

Website Links for Background Information on Course Topics

Breakthrough Industry Timelines

Other Industry Timelines

Technology Timelines

Inventors Hall of Fame Summary

Inventors Hall of Fame Detail

US Business Innovators

US Innovators, Builders, Business Hall of Fame

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