Wednesday, November 4, 2009

It all began with the light bulb...

Last Thursday, Ernest Freeburg, PhD. from the University of Tennessee visited LVC to speak as part of the College's Colloquium series, "Wired". He is author of the book "Incandescent America: Cultural History of the Lightbulb", which discusses the importance of invention starting with Edison's light bulb.

Freeburg's discussion was very interesting and relevant to my blog in that it deals with the cultural adaptations that technological inventions bring about. Freeburg is a historian who realizes that invention and the power of technology in the past few hundred years is very central to our civilization and our social history.

He said that in today's world, invention in technology is ongoing and constantly changing. The first important defining invention in history was the telegraph in the 1940's. This began our "wired world".

1940 was only 70 years ago now, and we all know that technology has taken us very far beyond a telegraph message. The rate at which inventions in technology are occurring is astounding and sometimes overlooked. Therefore, the real effects on society and our culture cannot be fully known sometimes until much later on.

The effects of invention on society was riveting to hear about. Freeburg said, "We made the light bulb, but it also made us", and to think about all the things the lightbulb allowed us to do as a society is extraordinary. It completely changed a way of life, starting with the simple fact that people could stay up later and do things in the light, which began to change sleep patterns, etc. Freeburg said people's sleeping patterns changed, so that eventually we began less to lose touch with our dreams and nature (ie the stars and moonlight patterns), and the world around us.

Edison, of course, said that the lightbulb improved societal aspects such as literacy rate, since people read more, and that it encouraged economic activity. His invention, as many have, also invited excitement, fear, and anxiety in the public. At one point, the lampshade was invented in order to save people's eyes from the dangers of the light.

Freeburg stated that inventions are only a link in a chain of many more to come. But, they always come at a price. The environment took a hit from the electricity, and socially people had to adapt. But, also, with every new invention an old one must be sacrificed.

The most important comment Freeburg made was that we shape every invention socially. There are creative minds out there, but only the public can make their ideas successful.

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