What We Don’t Learn in School About Electricity

The Story of Electricity

BBC (2018)

Film Review

My initial reaction on watching this fascinating documentary was sadness (and anger) that there is no effort to teach the history of science in high school. Some of this history revolves around genius and creativity. However much of it revolves around capitalist greed (eg Marconi, who wasn’t a physicist, received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1905 for patenting someone else’s discovery).

Instead of learning the simple steps early scientists and inventors followed to harness electrical energy, we’re led to believe electrical science is far too complex for ordinary people to understand. In this way most of us are compelled to rely on the scientists and technicians employed by corporate monopolies to get our basic needs met.

This 3-hour documentary consists of three 1-hour episodes:

Hour 1 is devoted to the the discovery of static electricity (by the ancient Greeks) and the widespread use of static electricity generators in the 18th century by magicians and street vendors. It covers Ben Franklyn’s mythical experiments with lightening (which were actually carried out by his French admirers), the development of the world’s first batteries (used in a sensational experiment to make a corpse sit up), and the the influence of similar popular spectacles on Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein’s Monster in 1818.

Hour 2 covers Oestad’s and Faraday’s experiments to pass electrical current through a wire, their near simultaneous discovery of their link between electrical current and magnetism, and Faraday’s use of this knowledge to create the first primitive electric motor in 1821. It also covers the international battle to create the first incandescent electric light bulb and the battle between Edison and Tesla (backed by industrialist George Westinghouse) to win monopoly control of New York’s first electrical grid. Edison’s DC (direct current) grid could only carry transmit current a mile from the power station, whereas Tesla’s AC (alternating current) grid could transmit current for hundreds of miles. Finally it covers Oliver Lodge’s invention (employing silicon crystals) to transmit and receive electromagnetic waves (aka radio waves), which Marconi coopted to use in his wireless telegraph.

Hour 3 examines how silicon crystals were abandoned in favor of vacuum tubes (aka “valves”) in the early radio, TV, and computer technology and how after World War II; Bell Labs and subsequently Silicon Valley revisited the “semiconducting”* properties of crystals in the development of ever faster, cheaper and smaller radios computers and cellphones.

*This is totally untrue. I still recall my father teaching me how to make a crystal radio receiver from the quartz crystal I got as a prize from a cereal box.

**By definition, a semiconductor can only transmit electrical current one way. When a light photon strikes a semiconductor, it releases an electron (the basic principle enabling solar photovoltaic panels to create electricity.


Going Off the Grid

off the grid

Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for more Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America

by Nick Rosen

Penguin Books (2010)

Book Review

Off the Grid is an exploration of the diverse permutations of the US off-the-grid movement. According to British journalist and documentary filmmaker Nick Rosen, living “off the grid” can have a variety of meanings. For some it means living self-sufficiently without the higher cost and carbon emissions of electric, gas, water and sewage connections. For others, it means living incommunicado without the daily intrusion of cellphones or email. In a few cases, involving political dissidents or those with criminal records, it means escaping the prying eyes of the surveillance society.

The movement includes liberal-leaning environmentalists, who Rosen describes as the “foot soldiers of the eco-revolution,” right wing civil libertarians and survivalists, the homeless and urban homesteaders who capture rainwater and produce their own electricity despite living within city limits.

In 2007, there were 300,000 off the grid households in the US. By 2010, the number had reached 520,000 and was growing by 10-15% annually.

Obama’s Smart Grid

Rosen is clearly a strong supporter – and part time practitioner – of off the grid living. He also strongly opposes Obama’s push to build a multibillion dollar “Smart Grid.”  With the latter, power companies use Smart Meters to continuously monitor users’ electricity consumption. Power companies (and Obama) are bending the truth when they claim a government subsidized smart grid is essential to respond to big growth in future electricity demand. Electricity demand is decreasing, due to the economic downturn and big improvements in efficiency.

The real reason power companies want Obama to build them a Smart Grid is to facilitate long distance trading in wholesale electricity. This is where they make their big money (Anyone remember Enron?).

The History of the Grid

The most interesting section of the book explores the historical development of the electrical grid. According to Rosen, it part of a deliberate scheme by Edison and GE (the company he founded) to increase electricity consumption. Both GE and Westinghouse launched massive propaganda campaigns to get people to sign up for the grid and purchase more electrical appliances to increase their consumption.

Although far less profitable for power companies, there’s no question that smaller, decentralized energy supply networks would have been more efficient* and cheaper for consumers.

Intentional Community

The bulk of the book focuses on groups and individuals who have created off-the-grid communities to recapture the social engagement that has disappeared from modern society. People who join them make an intentional decision to rely on one another, rather than technology, to meet their needs.

One prominent example includes the Earthship community architect Mike Reynolds started in New Mexico.  An Earthship is an ecologically sustainable home built out of used tires filled with earth or sand and other recycled items. Dennis Weaver’s documentary Garbage Warrior, celebrates Reynold’s creation of the Earthship concept. Another highlight is Rosen’s fascinating visit to an Amish old order Mennonite community in Kentucky.

Belittling 911 Truthers

One part of the book that really irritated me was the chapter belittling civil libertarians who decided to live off-the-grid after discovering the 9-11 attacks were an “inside job.” Rosen makes it appear as if people who reject the Bush administration version of the Twin Tower attacks (as I do) are mentally ill and deluded.

Support for the 9-11 truth movement is in no way limited to paranoid right wing libertarians, as Rosen suggests. Globally the movement has millions of adherents and they represent the entire political spectrum.

*Our current electrical power system loses approximately 8-15% of the electricity it creates between the power plant and the consumer.