Priority message

Exploring The Current War for New Scientist, 10 August 2019

Let’s begin by being boorish. Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb. The German-born precision mechanic Heinrich Goebel demonstrated a practical prototype in 1854.

But of course you can play this game with pretty much any invention. The correct response to such nit-picking is given to Edison himself – inventor of the phonograph, inventor of motion pictures, holder of over 2000 patents – in a new movie, The Current War, which lays out, as surely as any circuit diagram, the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to bring electric light to America at the end of the 19th century.

Salt. Fat. Flour. Water. Only when you put all the ingredients together, in the right proportions, using the right method, so people will spend their hard-earned pennies on the stuff, do you get bread. Priority – being the first to file a patent – is not won by dreaming alone. Edison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, teaches this hard lesson to his personal secretary Samuel Insull, an entertainingly exasperated Tom Holland.

The film itself is the bloodied but unbowed victim of no end of industry trouble. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival ahead of a scheduled release of November 2017 by the Weinstein Company. But as allegations about Harvey Weinstein gathered and grew in severity, the decision was made to quietly shelve the film for a while.

It doesn’t feel like an old movie, but it does feel like an odd one. Big, bold, none-too-subtle speeches by playwright Michael Mitnick are directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon as though they were set pieces by Martin Scorcese, for whom he once worked as a personal assistant.

Inventor George Westinghouse (played by Michael Shannon in a sensitive, understated performance which rather puts Cumberbatch’s familiar schtick to shame) has developed a system of electrification using alternating current. For cost and efficiency, this has Edison’s direct-current system beat. Westinghouse offers Edison a partnership, but Edison behaves like a cad, disparaging Westinghouse’s “lethal” technology and executing dogs, sheep and eleven horses with AC to prove his point. Irony piles on irony as Edison’s demonstrations lead him inevitably towards designing, much against his better ethical judgement, the first electric chair.

In the world outside the cinema, the “war of the currents” is not yet done. DC lost out to AC in the early days of electrification because efficient long-distance transmission required high voltages while the public needed safer, lower voltages. That required transformers, which existed for AC networks, but not for DC.

When it comes to transmitting large amounts of power over long distances, however, high-voltage direct current (HVDC) is way more efficient than conventional AC lines.

The length and capacity of new HVDC projects has risen fast, particularly in China, and calculations suggest that continent-wide HVDC “supergrids” could help smooth out the variable levels of power created by renewable sources.

In 2009 an influential study by Gregor Czish, of Kassel University in Germany, proposed a “super grid” to connect various European countries and bordering regions including North Africa, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, and at a total cost that virtually guarantees cheap green electricity for all.

No one’s heard of Czish, of course, though his insight may give the next generation cheap green energy and a chance to save civilisation from global warming.

It was ever thus: we only remember Nikola Tesla (The Current War’s peculiar third wheel, an AC pioneer and inventor of fluorescent light) because David Bowie played him in Christopher Nolan’s magical puzzler The Prestige.

Priority is a twisty business, and fame is twistier still. Westinghouse so despised the whole business he burned his papers, ensuring that his deeds alone would outlast him. “If you want to be remembered,” he says in the film, “it’s simple: shoot a president. But if you prefer to have what I call a legacy, you leave the world a better place than you found it.”


How the forces inside cells actually behave

animal electricity

Animal Electricity: How we learned that the body and brain are electric machines by Robert B. Campenot (Harvard University Press) for New Scientist, 9 March 2016.

IF YOU stood at arm’s length from someone and each of you had 1 per cent more electrons than protons, the force pushing the two of you apart would be enough to lift a “weight” equal to that of the entire Earth.

This startling observation, from Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, so impressed cell biologist Robert Campenot he based quite a peculiar career around it. Not content with the mechanical metaphors of molecular biology, Campenot has studied living tissue as a delicate and complex mechanism that thrives by tweaking tiny imbalances in electrical charge.

If only the book were better prepared. Campenot’s enthusiasm for Feynman has him repeat the anecdote about lifting the world almost word for word, in the preface and introduction. Duplicating material is a surprisingly easy gaffe for a writer, and it is why we have editors. Where were they?

Campenot’s generous account ranges from Galvani’s discovery of animal electricity to the development of thought-controlled prosthetic limbs. He has high regard for popular science. But his is the rather fussy appreciation of the academic outsider who, uncertain of the form’s aesthetic potential, praises it for its utility. “The value of popularising science should never be underestimated because it occasionally attracts the attention of people who go on to make major contributions.” The pantaloonish impression he makes here is not wholly unrepresentative of the book.

Again, one might wish Campenot’s relationship with his editor had been more creative. Popular science writing rarely handles electricity well, let alone ion channels and membrane potentials. So, when it comes to developing suitable metaphors, Campenot is thrown on his own resources. His metaphors are as effective as one could wish for, but they suffer from repetition. One imagines the author wondering if he has done enough to nail his point, but with no one to reassure him.

Faults aside, this is a good book. Its mix of schoolroom electricity and sophisticated cell biology is highly eccentric but this, I think, speaks much in Campenot’s favour. The way organic tissue manipulates electricity, sending signals in broad electrical waves that can extend up to a third of a metre, is a dimension of biology we have taken on trust, domesticating it behind high-order metaphors drawn from computer science. Consequently, we have been unable to visualise how the forces in our cells actually behave. This was bound to turn out an odd endeavour. So be it. The odder, the better, in fact.

Brilliant by Jane Brox


Brilliant: the Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox (Souvenir Press) reviewed for the Telegraph.

Jane Brox’s fascinating history is let down by its subtitle. Artificial light good enough to live and work by did not “evolve”; it was, as Brilliant ably demonstrates, the grail of an ugly, stumbling and occasionally farcical 40,000-year quest.

If the first half of Brox’s account is more engaging than the second it’s because, since Edison and Tesla fought their electrical duels in the 1880s, light has ceased to be something we make.

Most of the time, it’s not even a product. It’s a utility – ignored until it fails. Brox’s engagement with her subject never falters, but really, how do you follow tales of Shetland Islanders, threading a wick down a storm petrel’s throat and setting it alight? Or the Javanese thief whose shuttered lantern was powered by fireflies?

Brox handles this sense of diminishing returns head-on. Toughened by her earlier studies of hardscrabble American farm life, she absolutely refuses to succumb to nostalgia.

The first forms of artificial light were smelly and gruesome. According to Herman Melville, even in the bowels of a whaling ship it seemed an outlandish thing that “mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp”.

If ever a technology were welcomed without reserve, it was the technique of making candles and lamp oils from something other than the stuff of “the barnyard and the slaughterhouse, from blood and sinew and bone”. Even pure, white candles made from spermaceti – the waxy substance scooped from the head of a sperm whale – were no match for candles made from paraffin, which first appeared around 1850.

The small, independent British publisher, Souvenir Press, is brave to have snapped up this United States title. Popular science from overseas is hard to import. Indeed, Brox does omit much European experience, missing out the 1900 Paris Expo entirely, though 1900 was a vital coming-of-age moment for electric light.

It doesn’t matter: Brox’s concern for the local, the everyday, the rural and the poor gives her book a universal appeal. There’s real passion in the way she uses the tale of power outages to unpick the excesses and inequities of California’s deregulated energy market, and traces the cringing historical correlation between an American’s access to light and the whiteness of their skin.

Enthusiasm for new and better forms of light is powerful and iconoclastic. In the 1830s, thousands were killed and maimed by newfangled camphene lamps, powered by a fuel distilled from turpentine and mixed with alcohol. The stuff wasn’t even cheap. Newness was its only selling point.

Towards the end of the 19th century, massive steel towers were erected over modest cities like Wabash, Indiana. The arc lights they supported were so bright, you could see colours at night. The enthusiastic townsfolk soon found these “second moons” unendurable: they replaced them with street lights.

Brox might have brought this story of Promethean error up to date by exploring the problem of light pollution more deeply than she does. Light pollution isn’t driven by mere carelessness. Our ancient, star-obliterating obsession with more and brighter light shows no sign of abating. Now it’s marring our sunlit hours. Across Europe, vehicles are being fitted with daytime running lights in spite of a pile of ophthalmological evidence that they cause more accidents than they prevent.

Instead, Brox reaches for a sense of closure, and suggests artificial light is losing its significance. It’s being replaced by data. “Any mariner of the 18th century would have found it impossible to comprehend that one day a marker on the Eddystone reef would emit a light equivalent to 570,000 candles,” she writes.

But stranger still is Eddystone’s new obsolescence, replaced by radar, GPS and electronic charts. “Data,” Brox writes, “would become the new lamp.”

This is neatly put, a clever capstone for a narrative that could so easily have petered out – and it’s perfectly true. In 2006, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte launched the One Laptop per Child campaign to promote world education and citizenship. In one Cambodian village where there is no electricity, Negroponte’s solar-powered and hand-cranked laptops are the brightest light source in the home.