Bringing Power to the People

A new book rescues the lost history of electrical engineering

2 min read

On 20 August 1842 an explosion on the Potomac River pulverized an old clam boat and sent its ”millions of fragments 500 feet into the air,” in full view of U.S. President John Tyler and 8000 other spectators. The explosion was triggered by remote control, when Samuel Colt, the famous revolver maker, threw an electric switch some 8 kilometers downstream. A clearly awed Congress later gave Colt US $15 000 to pursue his research into what he called ”submarine batteries”—today’s mines and torpedoes.

A new book by technology historian Michael Brian Schiffer vividly recounts this and other little-known tales of the pioneers who first tamed ”galvanism” and mastered magnetism. These early innovators contended with such hidebound experts as pioneering scientist and founding Smithsonian director Joseph Henry, who, despite his discovery of inductance, impeded the practical application of this still-pure electrical science. Back stories, like the first sketches for a 1753 telegraph and a faxlike machine from 1853, emerge like long-neglected ghosts.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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