Inventor Nikola Tesla turned to an old trick to sell the brilliant concept of alternating current, which would enable the electrical power grid and the modern machines that run off it

In the fall of 1887 Nikola Tesla was scared. Three years earlier he had emigrated from Europe to New York City, set on becoming an electrical inventor. He had pinned his hopes on inventing an electric motor that used alternating current (AC) instead of direct current (DC), and had just demonstrated such a motor to one of his backers, Alfred Brown. But when Brown saw that Tesla's amazing new motor consisted of a shoe-polish tin spinning around in the middle of a large doughnut-shaped coil, he was distinctly unimpressed. Read more »

Date of Event: 
Monday, September 12, 1864

Thomas Edison’s Deadly Game

It changed the course of capital punishment in America

Capitalism sometimes operates in unexpected ways and turns up in unexpected places. It can even be involved in what has been, legally, a monopoly of the state since the time of King Henry II—capital punishment.

Capital punishment has been much in the news lately. Its use has been increasing rapidly in this country in recent years. The number of people on death row, more than 3,500 currently, has been climbing steadily. Several states that abolished the death penalty in earlier years have reinstituted it. Read more »

“We Get the Technology We Deserve”

A leader in the emerging field of technological history speaks about the inventors who made our modern world and tells why it is vital for us to know not only what they did, but how they thought

When people say that technology is a juggernaut dragging a helpless society along behind it, Thomas Hughes shakes his head. History shows otherwise, he says. In his landmark study Networks of Power , he tells how in Victorian England electrification was stopped cold for many years by apprehensive small-town councils. Such episodes—and the book describes many of them—have convinced Hughes that technology is quite tamable—if we keep close account of its past and present interactions with society.Read more »

City Lights

The decline and fall of the lamppost

I DON’T THINK of myself as having a “thing” about lampposts, but when I walk Manhattan’s streets at night— streets naked to the greenish glare of 1,000-watt lights vaulting three stories high—I realize how much I miss those graceful, human-scale streetlamps of my youth. Read more »

From Pearl Street To Main Street

Lighting Up America

“Remember,” Thomas Edison liked to say, “nothing that’s good works by itself, just to please you; you’ve got to make the damn thing work.” One hundred years ago this October, after trying to make the damn thing work for thirteen months, Edison invented an incandescent bulb that would burn for forty hours.Read more »


The outdoor electric-light spectacular that transformed cities all over the world was born at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, where a single lighted column glowed with no fewer than four thousand incandescent lamps. By 1900, fifteen hundred incandescent bulbs had been hung on the narrow front of the Flatiron Building in New York City to form America’s first electrically lighted outdoor advertising sign. After that, incandescent signs began to flicker on across the country.Read more »

“Gems of Symmetry and Convenience”

So Richmond proudly described its electric trolleys, the first truly successful system in the world

For the citizens of Richmond, Virginia, in 1888 the city’s new trolley system was a source of inordinate pride. “All are modelled on the Broadway style and are gems of symmetry and convenience,” proudly wrote a reporter for the Richmond Dispatch of the little four-wheeled electric cars that were clanging cheerfully through downtown streets on their route between Church Hill and New Reservoir Park. “Brilliantly lighted” by incandescent lamps, heated by Dr.Read more »

“What Good Is a New-born Baby?”


Seventy-seven-year-old Benjamin Franklin was at the top of his form in the fall of 1783. Minister to the court of France since 1776, this revered figure from the new young country had scored widely in France. Finally, in September, 1783, he had signed the definitive treaty of peace between America and England, bringing the Revolution to its formal end. The crowned heads of Europe saluted him; the diplomats admired him; the ladies adored him. Read more »