Thursday, October 30, 2008

Optimism: On the 10,000th try there was light.

I've seen this billboard from the Foundation For a Better Life, an organization that I find vaguely suspicious for no discernible reason. This billboard is historically inaccurate, or at least misleading. It implies that it took Thomas Edison by himself 10,000 attempts before he made a working light bulb. If that were true, it would be stupid. Only an idiot would keep trying after 5,000 complete failures.

Incorrect implication the first: Edison didn't invent the light bulb. The light bulb was actually invented in 1802, decades before Edison was even born. It just wasn't a practical one. Just getting light out of an incandescent bulb wasn't hard. What was difficult was making it bright and durable.

Incorrect implication the second: Edison worked alone. Edison had an army of (underappreciated) assistants doing much of the work (as described in the biography The Wizard of Menlo Park). He also built on the work of others (as detailed in the afore-linked Wikipedia article), including the key innovations of the evacuated glass bulb and the carbon filament.

What Edison and his team of assistants managed to do in the late 1870s was to perfect the state of the art in electrical lighting. It was a valuable effort, but it isn't nearly the grand leap the billboard implies. I'm not even convinced they really did try 10,000 different types of filaments. Even a thousand seems unlikely, but I don't have a better number. Regardless, the billboard is deceptive.

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