Thomas Edison and electronic voting

Another day, another batch of primary elections. (How are the candidates doing? Is it obvious at this point that Biden (“the senile puppet,” as an immigrant friend puts it) will win everything?)

I recently finished Edison by Edmund Morris. It turned out that, like the Iowa Democrats, Thomas Edison thought that tabulating votes was a problem in search of a tech solution:

Working nights at Western Union, and by day literally under Williams’s roof in a third-floor attic, Edison invented and made half a dozen devices, including a stock ticker, a fire alarm, and a facsimile telegraph printer (“which I intend to use for Transmitting Chinese Characters”). He executed his first successful patent application on 13 October [1868; age 21] for an electrochemical vote recorder, whittling the submission model himself from pieces of hardwood. “To become a good inventor, you must first know how to use a jackknife.” It was a clever device—too clever to be commercial, as he soon found out. Designed to speed up the laborious process of vote counting in legislative bodies, it took signals of “aye” or “nay” from electric switches on every desk and imprinted them on a roll of chemically prepared paper, in each case identifying the signal with the legislator’s name. At the same time it separately tabulated the votes on an indicator dial. Edison’s dream of seeing his “recordograph” clicking and spinning in the chambers of Congress dissolved when he heard that speedy voting was the last thing politicos wanted in the passage of bills. They needed time to lobby one another in medias res. Edison resolved that hereafter he would invent only things that people wanted to use.

Since at least 1868, then, we have been inventing better machines for counting American votes, but nobody has worked on inventing better Americans!

3 thoughts on “Thomas Edison and electronic voting

  1. Some party hack decreed that the people
    had lost the government’s confidence
    and could only regain it with redoubled effort.
    If that is the case, would it not be simpler,
    If the government simply dissolved the people
    And elected another?

    — Bertold Brecht

  2. From a 2020 perspective, Edison vs Congress = “times change, people don’t”. Pretty much sums up the maxims spelled out by the Durant’s in their epic “The Lessons of History”. If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and read this insightful 128-page book.

    As married authors, the Durants wrote dozens of books documenting+exploring history+politics+philosophy, including their expansive 11 volume “The Story of Civilization”. I’ve read several of them, but they all distill down to “times change, people don’t”.

    • > “times change, people don’t”.

      About 50 years ago that was still a plausible slogan. Today, the latter half is out of date. Western countries are being, let’s say, “reshaped” (to use the most neutral possible word) by beliefs, widely and sincerely held, that have never been held before in any civilisation anywhere.

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