WPSU

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

An Electrifying Moment in History

Fellow electric-boat owner:
Thomas Alva Edison
The SlowBoat "Visitors" page has been freshly updated; one august visitor we failed to document photographically was the Mayor of Fort Myers himself, Randy Henderson, Jr.!  The mayor stopped by the boat Monday morning with his son Marcus.


From the moment we stepped onto Fort Myers docks and noticed the multiple recycle bins (including one for batteries!), we knew this was our kind of eco-minded town. Mayor Henderson told us one current project is a downtownwater feature that will reduce stormwater runoff.  City Hall is also about to get solar panels on the roof.


The mayor introduced us to Chris Pendelton, CEO of a fascinating local attraction, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates.  This museum-plus-historic homes-plus botanical gardens complex has a brand new solar installation that provides light for (fittingly enough) exhibit halls documenting Edison's invention of such modern essentials as electric power and electric lights.


One of America's most important inventors and innovators (he pretty much gave you your modern lifestyle!), Thomas Alva Edison ("The Wizard of Menlo Park")  took his family to Fort Myers in the winters to escape the winter cold in New Jersey.  Chris gave us the insider's tour of the amazingly preserved laboratory where, spurred by the threat of shortages in World War I, Edison worked to develop a domestic substitute for an essential foreign import (rubber).



We were charmed to learn that Edison toured his many guests around an electric-powered boat, a graceful motor launch built in 1903 by ELCO, a company that still produces similar boats today.  (Their sailboat with backup electric motor won Sail magazine's "Green Award" this year.)
Solar panels at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates


Edison was a fan of electric-powered vehicles of all kinds. He could see lead-acid batteries weren't practical for powering automobiles, so he invented the alkaline storage battery--and spent years improving the product.  


In 1914, Edison's good friend, Henry Ford, had his company start work on a low-priced electric car. 


For many reasons (including the limits of battery technologies of the day, and also perhaps, manufacturers of gasoline-powered engines having the marketing sense to STOP calling them "explosive motors")  gas-powered cars became the norm.


A model of Edison's electric powered motor launch, Reliance.
Though many electrical power plants today run on fossil fuels, Edison didn't see carbon-based power as the ultimate solution to the world's energy needs, saying “I’d put money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”  


So, who will carry on in Edison's footsteps? Who are the 21st-century inventors who will make the next technological transformation of civilization?  We're watching and waiting with interest!

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