Please note: for both technical and copyright reasons, we are unable to post on the web the articles which go along with this reading assignment.  Please contact Dr. Bix to pick them up if you don’t already have these.



HISTORY 488 - Writing assignment #1


Handed out Thurs. Sept. 12; due back in class Thurs. Oct. 3


Focus – Thomas Edison and the history of technology


          September 4, 2002, marked the 120-year anniversary of modern electric light and power service. On Sept. 4, 1882, at a generating station on Pearl St in lower Manhattan, Thomas Edison's electric illuminating system went into operation.  His carbon-filament incandescent lamp had been developed three years earlier, and in the intervening period Edison added crucial elements such as large-scale dynamos, insulated cables, and fuse boxes, thus transforming his lamp into a complete system.  Edison received more patents in 1882 than any other year of his career, as he solved numerous problems in the generation, distribution, and metering of electric current.

          The method of supplying electricity from a central station to illuminate buildings in a surrounding district had already been demonstrated by Edison in London in 1881, and self-contained "isolated" plants were in place in some of Edison's buildings and in a few private residences in New York, like that of J. P. Morgan, one of Edison's financiers.  There were also a few stations powering arc lights for street illumination.  But with the opening of Pearl St, it was now possible for homes and business to purchase electric light in small quantities for indoor use, at a price that could compete with gas.  It was the Pearl St model of a central station and distribution network that led the way for electrification in towns and cities across the U.S.

          In 1882, Sept. 4 was seen as yet another small step in electrical progress: no one knew exactly where it would lead.  But by the 30th anniversary of the Pearl St station (by then replaced by much larger installations) in 1912, life in New York and around the world had been transformed by the availability of electric light and power.  Opening of the Pearl St central station was commemorated as a momentous occasion, on par with Edison's "invention" of the incandescent lamp itself.



          Your job is to start by re-reading carefully the sections in Technology in America referring to Edison.  Then think about how that discussion fits in with the Marcus/Segal notion of technology and “system”.  Next, read the articles handed out with this assignment. Now, integrate what you have learned - write a four-to-six-page paper (double-spaced) discussing the following questions: 


What was Thomas Edison’s approach to invention and his method of investigating questions, as illustrated (for example) in his experimental notes and in Francis Upton’s letters?  What were the major technical problems facing Edison in the challenge to develop a workable electric system?  What were the economic, social, financial, and political issues involved?  How did he attempt to resolve all these questions, and what were the various stages of his success?  Overall, what can Edison’s example tell us about the nature of invention and development of technological systems in the late 19th century?   How does it illustrate Marcus and Segal’s ideas of “system”?


          Be specific – do not just make broad generalizations! – you should cite specific passages and evidence from documents to make your points! (However, do not devote too much space to really long quotes that eat up most of a page – leave room to put in your own ideas and show critical thinking).

        Take time to check your grammar and spelling; be sure to proofread.  When you take material directly from an article, cite the source in parentheses – for example (Friedel, p. 25) – be sure to avoid plagarism.  Points will be deducted for late papers.