About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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I bought a TV. It's like being born again, but this time retarded.

Rory Blyth



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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 6/15/2018

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Posts - 2502
Comments - 2574
Hits - 2,056,514

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Entries/day - 0.46
Comments/entry - 1.03
Hits/day - 376

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 8:43 AM Pacific


  12:19 PM

I recently finished a book about -- hold on to your hats, this is thrilling! -- the early history of the electrical system in the US. Specifically, it's about the epic battle between Edison Electric (now GE) and Westinghouse to determine whether we would have DC or AC flowing through our houses. Edison had pioneered DC and stubbornly stuck by it, even as the advantages of AC became clearer and clearer. (The fundamental advantage of AC, should you care, is that it can be transmitted long distances; DC is impractical beyond a few miles.)

To bolster support for DC, Edison went on a kind of disinformation campaign about how much more dangerous AC supposedly was. He illustrated this with scare stories about electrocution, which he helped along by doing electrocution experiments with various hapless animals, up to the size of a horse. The odd-bedfellow aspect of the story is that Edison ended up being the technical champion of using the electric chair for executions, in spite of actually having originally been against capital punishment. (The electric chair was considered early on to be a humane form of execution.) Anyway, the book is Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death, by Mark Essig. Very interesting for those who like that kind of thing.

I shall not bore you (more) with any of this. Today I want to cite two bits of the book that I found interesting quite independently of your obvious lack of interest in electrical technology. (Wake up!)

Specifically, the description of Edison's lab and of his development process seemed familiar. This is about the development of the light bulb, which Edison pre-announced several years running:
As criticism mounted, Edison remained calm. "It has been just so with all of my inventions," he explained to a friend. "The first step is an intuition and comes with a burst -- Then difficulties arise. This thing gives out then that. 'Bugs' such as little faults and difficulties are called, show themselves-- Months of intense watching, study and labor are required before commercial success -- or failure -- is certainly reached." He neglected to mention that, back in September, he had already guaranteed commercial success.
I've never heard of a product being announced with much fanfare before it was actually ready, have you? Haha.

There's also a note of linguistic interest in there ... this is the very cite that shows us that the word bug was in use long before computers.

Anyway, Edison could have been describing any software project I've ever heard about -- the idea seems clear, but the implementation has some rough spots. Or for that matter, probably any engineering project. On another day I'll bore you with some cites from a book about the history of the 747, which I'm reading now, and which says pretty much the same thing. Or that book about the history of the Xerox machine, which I read last year. Bet you can't wait.

The other thing I found interesting is the description of Edison's lab(s). He went about establishing a development atmosphere, so to speak, that is still, as far as I can tell, the only way that innovative work is really done. This is long, so I'm cutting out pieces without too many distracting edit marks, ok?
Edison's successes depended in part upon the work environment he created at Menlo Park. The location in rural New Jersey offered seclusion from but also proximity to the centers of capital in New York. Although he complained about the "damned capitalists," it was their money that built him the best laboratory in the world -- complete with a new machine shop, a stockroom filled with every metal and chemical known to science, and an enormous library of scientific journals and books.

The money also allowed Edison to hire assistants of extraordinary talent. [...] Batchelor's methodical work habits complemented Edison's cut-and-try enthusiasm. Kruesi trained as a clockmaker in Switzerland before joining Edison, and those skills served him well when he was called upon to translate Edison's crude sketches into working models. Upton was a Princeton-trained mathematical physicist ... Edison liked to tease Upton about his fancy degrees. But part of Edison's brilliance was in recognizing that Upton's mathematical talents balanced his own more intuitive grasp of technology.
In other words, Edison followed a formula familiar to us still today: get a bunch of money, and then hire the smartest alpha geeks you can get your hands on.

See if this sounds familiar:
In the early evening, when most workers could expect to go home to their families, Edison's men were just hitting their stride. After assembling to review accomplishments and chart strategy, they dispersed to their individual tasks. ... A little before twelve o'clock on many nights, two apprentices would set out for the local grocery. After rousing the grocery keeper, the party returned with baskets laden with crackers, cheese, butter, and ham. A boy fetched buckets of beer from a local tavern, and the crew gathered for midnight supper. After the meal, Edison passed out cigars and amid the smoke the men gossiped and told jokes. Some nights there was clog dancing or a boxing match ... Edison liked to stretch out under one of the lab benches, but not before giving his men orders to wake him if anything important developed. According to one reported, "Life in the Menlo Park laboratory partakes more of the character of a camp pitched near the battlefield than of anything else."
I wonder whether the guys who built the pyramids worked like this. I suspect so ...

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