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Getting the Light On October 21, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.

“‘I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come indirectly through accident, except the phonograph. No, when I have, fully decided that a result is worth getting, I go about it, and make trial after trial, until it comes.’”


– Thomas Edison, as quoted in “A Photographic Talk with Edison” by Theodore Dreiser (printed in Success Magazine, Feb. 1898)

We often think of “ah-ha” or “eureka” moments, light bulb moments, and epiphanies as being sudden and unexpected. In fact, the word “epiphany” comes to us from Greek (by way of Middle English, Latin, and in some sense Old French) from a word that means “reveal.”And, one of the definitions is “a moment of sudden revelation or insight” – reinforcing the idea that something is happening in the snap of a finger. The reality, however, is that there is a back story to ah-ha moments, epiphanies, and even the Epiphany.

Consider that The Three Magi don’t follow the star from the East to honor “‘the child who has been born king of the Jews’” if there isn’t a foundation of faith. Theoretically, without his background in science, Ian Fleming would have returned to his lab and thrown out the culture plates he had forgotten to clean when he left for his 2-week vacation in 1928. Without all his previous years of research, he wouldn’t have known what he was looking at and he wouldn’t be credited with discovering penicillin. Then there is Thomas Edison, who had a lot of “light bulb moments.”

Thomas Alva Edison, born February 11, 1847, didn’t invent electric lights (or even light bulbs). They already existed when he set up his Menlo Park, New Jersey lab in 1876, but electric lights were too bright for household use, burned too quickly, and could be dangerous when they melted. So, most people just stuck with gaslights. The problem with gaslight was that it was also dangerous and didn’t provide consistent light (because it flickered). Edison decided he could do better… he just had to invent the infrastructure to safely bring electricity into people’s homes, interior fixtures, and some kind of cost-effective and efficient bulb. The bulb, it turned out, was the rub.

“I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”


– (attributed to) Thomas Edison  

Edison and his team spent several months working 16 – 18 hours at a stretch and testing at least 1,600 different materials – including fishing line, coconut fibers, beard hair, and platinum wire. The platinum wire was moderately successful in that it typically had a high melting point. However, additional research showed that air absorption weakened the filament causing it to melt at lower temperatures than expected. Edison, resolved the issue with a vacuum bulb, but ultimately deemed the design (with its low electrical resistance) too expensive. So, back to the drawing board they went; breaking up their hours upon hours of work with beer and music played (by Edison) on the lab’s pipe organ.

Some would say that the “ah-ha” moment came to Thomas Edison one night when he was “absent mindedly” rolling a piece of lampblack (or black carbon) between his fingers. But such a depiction ignores all the previous experiments, his scientific knowledge, and the fact he had used lampblack in his telephone transmitter. Such a premise also discounts the additional changes that would be made before the bulb was commercially viable. Either way, at some point late on the evening of October 21st, or sometime in the wee early morning hours of October 22nd, 1879, Thomas Edison, age 32, tested what we now consider the first successful (commercially viable) electric light bulb. The carbonized cotton could burn for up to 14½ hours. Later, Edison would switch to bamboo fiber, which lasted for 1,200 hours.

During his lifetime, Thomas Edison would be granted over 1,083 patents for things like the phonograph, the carbon transmitter, the motion picture camera, and the commercial electric light bulb. He was married with children, had influential friends in high (and low) places, and successfully ran an industry that provided for his family and the families of others. Then, at an age that was considered significantly old at the time, he lost “everything. At around 5:20 PM on December 9th, 1914 an explosion ripped through the lab, destroying ten buildings, thousands of prototypes, and years of research. By the time the fire was contained, a little after midnight on December 10th, the damage was estimated at over $2 million dollars and affected over half of the plant’s property. The loss was even bigger when people realized that the insurance wouldn’t even cover a half of the damage.

While those around him were devastated, the 67-year old was in awe of the fire produced by all the different chemicals, fibers, fabrics, and elements in the labs. He was also energized about the possibility of starting over the very next day! His resilient attitude was contagious and, thanks in part to a loan from his friend Henry Ford, the plant was back in operation within three weeks. By the end of the following year, the plant had almost $10 million dollars in revenue.

“It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”


– Thomas Edison (to his son Charles), as quoted in a 1961 Reader’s Digest article



“There’s only one thing to do, and that is to jump right in and rebuild.”


– A. H. Wilson, vice president and general manager of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park

Speaking of resilience and starting over: Today is the anniversary of the birth of the chemist, engineer, inventor, and philanthropist Alfred Nobel. Born today in 1833, the founder of the Nobel Prizes was flabbergasted when his brother Ludvig died (in 1888) to discover that all of his efforts to make gunpowder safer had been completely misunderstood and condemned. A French newspaper erroneously reported the wrong brother’s death and proclaimed Alfred “The merchant of death” who “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” Losing (yet another) sibling, reading your own obituary, and having your “death” celebrated by people who considered your life’s work to be evil would be devastating to most. And, it probably was to Dr. Nobel. It was also, however, the catalyst that led to the Nobel Prizes, which are given to “to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”

Officially presented on the (actual) anniversary of Dr. Nobel’s death, December 10th (1896), the prizes in physical science, in chemistry, in medical science or medicine, in literature are presented at a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden; while the Peace Prize, given to someone who has “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses,” is awarded in Oslo, Sweden. In addition to the original five prizes established by Dr. Nobel’s will, there is a “memorial” prize in Economics, which is also presented at the Stockholm ceremony. Nobel Laureates receive a gold medal, a diploma, and a substantial monetary award.

“If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied.”


– Dr. Alfred Nobel

Please join me today (Wednesday, October 21st) at 4:30 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You will need to register for the 7:15 PM class if you have not already done so. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below or by emailing myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

Wednesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

“Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.”



– Thomas Edison (to his son Charles), as quoted in a 1961 Reader’s Digest article





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