What if Thomas Edison were alive today?

Edison by Edmund Morris, gives us some hints as to how Thomas Edison might have dealt with our society’s challenges today. (Below, Edison’s workshop, transported to Michigan by Henry Ford and now part of Greenfield Village.)

Although he was an early enthusiast for aviation, trying to build a helicopter in the 1880s, Edison (1847-1931) actually lived (and continued to work hard and effectively) through the period of the most rapid advances in aviation. He seems not to have contributed anything significant to the development of flying machines.

One thing that I learned from the book is that Edison loved huge projects and was not afraid of doing things at scale. He put about $2 million and years of work into trying to mine iron ore in New Jersey and then mill it profitably. From the early 1890s:

A party of inspectors sent by Engineering and Mining Journal toured the plant early in the fall. Although some sections were idled for refurbishment and Edison was coy about showing any of his new machines, they could see that he already excelled at quarrying and magnetic separation, if not yet in the difficult processes of crushing and refinement. They were particularly impressed with his cableway system, every suspended “skip” delivering four tons of rock to the crushers at only twelve cents a load. But they predicted that in view of the low iron content of local ore, Edison would still have to spend a fortune and deploy “the utmost resources of engineering skill” to compete with Mesabi ore at 64 percent iron. “With his surpassing genius [and] capacity for taking infinite pains, it cannot be doubted that he will ultimately achieve success.”

In July Edison learned that his mining venture had so far cost him $850,000, including some $100,000 that could not be accounted for. A profit-killing amount of money was being lavished on labor that simply loaded and unloaded rock at either end of the conveyors. The jaw crushers took too long to do their work and often broke down, necessitating expensive repairs. The magnetic separators, plagued by screening problems, were concentrating only 47 percent iron—far less than the 66 or 70 percent he needed to match the richness of Great Lakes ore. He was still digesting this information when a stockhouse under construction at Ogden collapsed, killing five men and injuring twelve. Lawsuits alleging negligence were filed by bereaved families.106 A newspaper clipping he carried in his wallet read, “Thomas Edison is a happy and healthy man. He does not worry.” As usual he countered the pull of bad news by pushing forward harder. Rather than continue to “improve” Ogden with ad hoc adjustments, he increased the capital of its parent company to $1.25 million, then shut the plant for a tear-down rebuild that would expand it enormously and make it a showpiece of automated design. No sooner had a new separator house gone up than he decided it needed some screening towers, and should be constructed all over again.

Given what we now know about the ore near Lake Superior (ore in the water of Tahquamenon Falls, below, from Travels with Samantha), the idea seems laughable today and, indeed, it was a complete failure. Nonetheless, it was amazing how many problems Edison was able to solve.

My theory about what he would be working on today, therefore, is geoengineering. He would take complaints about a warming planet as inspiration to work in the lab and then build infrastructure on the scale of the largest mines and power plants.

How about coronaplague? Edison did like to jump into solving problems that society perceived as urgent. But what kind of machine would be useful for fighting the plague? Big shade structures to move activities outdoors? Edison did put a lot of effort into “tornado-proof concrete houses”:

Last May’s catastrophic earthquake in San Francisco revived an idea he had had when the cement mill was first ready to roll. He saw low-cost, molded concrete houses replacing the fragile wooden boxes in which most Americans lived—houses that contractors would mix from cement (with a colloidal additive for grit suspension) and spill on the spot into prefabricated forms. A three-story house could be poured in six hours and set in less than a week.

He had to admit that the individual kits, consisting of nickel-plated cast iron parts, would be expensive, at around $25,000 apiece. But they would pay for themselves in frequency of use and universality of detail, molding mantelpieces, banisters, dormer windows, conduits for wiring, “and even bathtubs.” Having made the investment, a contractor could pour a new house every four days. Each could be sold for $500 or $600, enabling millions of low-income Americans to become homeowners for the first time, with no need to worry about earthquakes, hurricanes, or fire. “I will see this innovation a commonplace fact,” Edison promised, “even though I am in my sixtieth year.”

What about a wearable device that would deflect the evil coronavirus away from a person’s mouth and nose, but without obstructing breathing the way that a mask does?

Where would Edison have stood on this year’s Presidential campaign? “Edison had always been a loyal Republican,” writes Morris, but quotes Edison explaining why he voted for Teddy Roosevelt whose statue was just toppled in Manhattan: “I’m a Progressive, because I’m young at sixty-five,” he said. “And this is a young man’s movement. There are a lot of people who die in the head before they are fifty. They’re the ones who get shocked if you propose anything that wasn’t going when they were boys.” Morris says that “Edison had come to despise government bureaucrats, seeing them as a blight on democracy,” but perhaps Edison’s Progressive streak would have led him to support Bernie nonetheless!

On the third hand, Edison would probably not have been able to hold a job in the present-day U.S.:

Relations between him and [son] Charles warmed to the extent they could resume their old exchange of “negro jokes.”

Wikipedia points out that Edison married a subordinate whom we would today call “underage”:

On December 25, 1871, at the age of 24, Edison married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell (1855–1884), whom he had met two months earlier; she was an employee at one of his shops.

Mary likely died, only 28 years old, in the modern American manner. The author quotes from a contemporary source:

At the request of Mr. Edison she took a trip to Florida last winter. Instead of obtaining relief she fell victim to gastritis, due to the peculiar atmosphere or perhaps the long acquaintance with morphine. She returned to Menlo Park in a more troubled condition. Her pain intensified, and at times she was almost frantic. Morphia was the only remedy, and naturally she tried to increase the quantity prescribed by the doctors. From the careless word dropped by [a] friend of the family it was more than intimated that an overdose of morphine swallowed in a moment of frenzy caused by pain greater than she could bear brought on her untimely death. The doctor in attendance said she died of congestion of the brain. When a reporter put the question to him he positively asserted that it was the immediate cause, but about the more remote causes he preferred to remain silent.

(1.5 years later, Edison was 39 and married Mina, age 20.)

What about shutting down schools, society, and the economy for three months so as to end up with the same death rate from Covid-19 as Sweden?

as Edison lay dying [in 1931, age 84], it was suggested to President Hoover that the entire electrical system of the United States should be shut off for one minute on the night of his interment. But Hoover realized that such a gesture would immobilize the nation and quite possibly kill countless people.

Readers: Fun speculation for today… suppose that Thomas Edison were alive today, age 40, and had $1 billion available to invest. What problem would he attack?

More: Read Edison by Edmund Morris.

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Migrants and Refugees were Genghis Khan’s best weapons

I enjoyed Professor Dorsey Armstrong’s Years that Changed History: 1215 course.

One interesting tidbit: When Genghis Khan wanted to take over a big fortified city, he would attack surrounding small villages and drive the inhabitants as migrants and refugees to the big city. Swelled with a larger-than-usual population, the big fortified city would collapse from within, its resources (such as food) exhausted. This saved Temüjin, the Great Khan, the effort of a traditional Greek/Roman-style siege and catapult attack on a walled city.

Thus did Genghis Khan assemble the largest contiguous land empire that the world has ever seen.

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Popularity of Bernie Sanders proves that Marx was right?

Karl Marx remains one of the most referenced and taught authors in Academia today. The best that one has been able to say about him was that he was a great historian and sociologist, but a failure as a prophet. It was supposed to be a rich industrialized country that turned socialist and, ultimately, communist, not a relatively poor and just-beginning-to-industrialize country such as Russia. (the Bolsheviks got a big boost from Germany, though, which may have distorted the natural course of history)

What if the socialist governments that returned to a market system, e.g., in Russia and China, were not evidence that Marx was wrong, but only that the particular countries that had adopted socialism weren’t rich enough?

The U.S. right now is in an unprecedented position of material prosperity. Americans on welfare today have a far higher material standard of living than did middle class Americans in Marx’s time. Suppose that Bernie wins the primary elections and then at least wins the popular vote in November. Wouldn’t that be evidence that Marx was right? Once a country is rich enough, the working class citizens will demand socialism and many of the elites will go along with this.

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Medieval Scholar explains why elites fear a shrinking population

One staple of American elite media is the scary headline regarding a potential fall in population. Without open borders and a warm welcome for migrants, the story will read, U.S. population will actually drop. The same papers sing the praises of middle class wage growth from 1950-1970, when the population was about half what is it today, so it is unclear why a return to that level is an emergency for the elite.

“The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague” by Dorsey Armstrong, a professor at Purdue, explains exactly why! The fall in population from the Black Death in Florence led to a dramatic reduction in the economic power of the elite. Skilled and unskilled laborers experienced at least a 3X boost in wages. She attributes the Ciompi Revolt (1378) and similar uprisings elsewhere in Europe (e.g., one in England) to the loss in elite power that occurred due to the population reduction.

The Florentine elites knew that a shrinking population was going to be bad for them. The miracle of valorizing single motherhood was in the future, so they came up with the idea of giving young single women dowries to ensure that they would get married as quickly as possible and then start to produce children. (See “When and why did it become necessary to pay Americans to have children?”)

It is interesting to see how little has changed in 650+ years!

Examples of headline hysteria:

Related:



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Academic lectures on a modern subject: the Black Death

I’m listening right now to “The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague” by Dorsey Armstrong, a professor at Purdue. Unfortunately, due to coronavirus, this is a timely subject. Fascinating topic even without the connection to our latest events.

Oh yes, guess where the author says the first wave of plague that hit Europe in the 14th century started? The Hubei province of China, in 1331.

Related:

  • “Immigration is the Reverse Black Death?” (Professor Armstrong concurs with other scholars that the reduction of population by 50 percent led to an enormous boost in income and standard of living for the survivors and their descendants; the U.S. is trying this in the other direction and expecting the same result!)
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Give thanks that we don’t live in the early PC age

Happy Thanksgiving! (Or National Day of Mourning, depending on your perspective/ethnicity.)

Here’s a friend’s nostalgia shelf:

I hope that we can all agree to give thanks that we’ve moved on from this phase of personal computing!

Separately, with no Thanksgiving to slow them down, China can concentrate fully on Christmas decoration weeks earlier than Americans. “There’s Snow Place Like Shanghai Disney Resort” shirts in a city where November high temps had fallen to around 70 degrees…

Related:

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Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the Mosquito

Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, marking the anniversary of the beginning of European immigration to the U.S. (Who will be brave enough to suggest a further renaming of Columbus Day to “Destruction of Native Society via Immigration Day”?)

I’m in the middle of The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, which blames smallpox, measles, and other diseases than can be transmitted from person to person for the majority of Native American deaths as a consequence of this immigration.

I recently finished The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator. This book, by contrast, says that it was mosquito-borne diseases, notably malaria and yellow fever, that were responsible for most of the killing. North America had mosquitoes prior to European migration, but was free of malaria, yellow fever, and a variety of other diseases spread by mosquitoes:

The deadly yellow fever virus disembarked in the Americas with African slaves and an imported Aedes breed of mosquito that easily survived the journey on the slave ships, reproducing in the plentiful barrels and pools of water. European slave traders and their human cargo provided ample opportunity for a continuous cycle of viral infection during the voyage until fresh blood could be claimed upon arrival at a foreign port. The Aedes mosquito quickly found its niche and a suitable home in the cheerful climate of its new world and thrived both in its superiority to domestic species and in its role as a deliverer of suffering and death.

Readers: What do you think? Most of what I have read suggests that malaria and yellow fever were at their deadliest in the coastal South. Yet Native American populations were largely destroyed throughout the continent.

Related:

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National Museum of African American History and Culture

The crowds are thinning out at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. I simply showed up on a recent Sunday afternoon and was able to walk in (in theory this is possible only on weekdays in the off season).

The most prominent funders of the museum are white do-gooders:

And they are challenging stereotypes by serving fried chicken and collard greens in the cafeteria:

Slavery is presented as something that white Europeans did to African blacks. This sign regarding Olaudah Equiano is about as close as the museum ever gets to noting that black Africans were predominantly captured and sold into slavery by fellow black Africans and/or Arabs.

The museum confidently presents an economic history in which black labor is the basis of American wealth:

The Smithsonian does not explain how it is possible that enslaved blacks generated most American wealth and yet the South was much poorer than the North, to the point that it lost a war where the defense had a big advantage.

Suppose that the $250 million number for the value of cotton produced by slaves in 1861. A guesstimate of U.S. GDP at the time was $4.6 billion (source, in which it is noted that the $8.3 billion number for 1869 might be good, but earlier numbers are extrapolations).

Also, if slaves guarantee long-term wealth, why aren’t the other parts of the world that had a lot of slaves in the mid-19th century very rich today?

Most of the exhibits consist of “artifact plus explanatory written sign” that would have been familiar to a visitor to the British Museum circa 1759. And the collection is actually kind of short on artifacts, so much of the experience becomes reading while standing in a crowd. Will this be compelling for visitors in 25 years after everyone has grown up wearing AR glasses?

That said, there are some cool artifacts. A Stearman open-cockpit biplane trainer used by the Tuskegee Airmen:

The most shocking revelation to me was that the future P-51 fighter pilots were also doing needlepoint:

A KKK hood from New York and Chuck Berry’s Cadillac:

An updated touch-screen lunch counter for sit-ins:

The museum explicitly notes that “the critical role played by women in the Civil Rights Movement has not received enough recognition,” that attention should be paid to a “black lesbian feminist group,” and that the Third World Women’s Alliance “encouraged women to recognize their ‘triple jeopardy’: racism, imperialism, and sexism.”

After telling visitors that women are important, the museum shows that one man’s achievements far exceed those of all women collectively:

The shrine to Barack Obama, whose connection to formerly enslaved African Americans is never explained, continues in the bookstore:

A giftshop section “Because of Her Story” does not come close to tilting the scales in favor of women against Barack Obama:

(Unrelated, but fun:

)

Does black gay man beat black straight woman in the Victimhood Order of Hands? If so, the museum is ready:

African Americans are the group whose prosperity is most injured by low-skill immigration (Harvard study) and the museum notes that “Caribbean immigration increased 1,000 percent from 50 years earlier.”

(Result: lower wages, but some awesome calypso albums.)

The art museum part of the museum has some great pieces that are conventionally organized and presented:

The first African American to star in a TV drama is a challenge for the curators:

Fortunately, we will always have Oprah:

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Northwest Passage and Donald Trump

I’m in Washington, D.C. today. What does the former malarial swamp have to do with the mostly-frozen (still) Northwest Passage? It turns out that timbers from a British Royal Navy ship sent out to search for Franklin, HMS Resolute, were used to make the Resolute desk, a gift from Queen Victoria to Rutherford B. Hayes.

Who is using the desk now? Donald Trump! (at least until he is convicted following the impeachment process that the New York Times assures us is right around the corner)

Where else in the U.S. do folks love polar exploration? One of the experts on our cruise had studied the Arctic at Ohio State, home of the Institute for Polar Studies (renamed “Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center” because #ClimateMatters).

Here are some photos from Nome, Alaska, commemorating the Amundsen-Ellsworth airship trip over the North Pole, very likely the first time that humans reached that point:

Readers: What do we make of the fact that most American presidents do much of their work at a desk that is associated with a famous British failure?

Related:

  • In the #MeToo age, let’s just be grateful that no furniture associated with the polar hero Fridtjof Nansen is in the White House; it turns out that he was sending nude selfies (made with a view camera?) to a woman 30 years his junior (Vice)
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New Englanders: Father’s Day weekend at the tank museum

New England’s latest museum to open is the American Heritage Museum in Hudson/Stow, Massachusetts. It is run by the long-established Collings Foundation, which owns priceless warbirds and classic cars, but shows off a new collection of armored vehicles.

It is a great museum any time (passionate and knowledgeable volunteer guides bring the machines alive), but especially great this coming weekend when they’re having the “Tanks, Wings, and Wheels” event.

[It is currently not simple to buy a membership at the front desk, so if you want to get an annual membership, sign up via the web site.]

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