My Visit to the FREEDM Systems Center (part 1)

My Visit to the FREEDM Systems Center (part 1) and the answer to our Identify It Challenge from 7-7-2010

On July 7th 2010 I was the guest of the FREEDM Systems Center at North Carolina State University where I gave a presentation to a group of high school students and teachers about “Engineering, Energy, and Edison.” The presentation included a demonstration of my Reinventing Edison: Build your own Light Bulb kit that was very well received. After the presentation I was treated to a guided tour behind the scenes at the center.

The Keystone Science Center (NCSU) home to the FREEDM Systems Center

The Keystone Science Center, home to the FREEDM Systems Center

This is the first of a two part article about my visit focusing on my educational presentation. It will also reveal the answer to my “Identify It Challenge” from 7-7-10 that by design was integrated into my presentation. The second part of this article will be posted soon and will focus on my tour of the FREEDM center.

Light Socket Electrical Adapters (Circa 1930's/1940's)

Light Socket Electrical Adapters (Circa 1930's/1940's)

The above picture was the “Identify It Challenge” from our fan page on Facebook ( from 7-7-2010. After introducing myself, sumarizing what I was going to be talking about in the presentation, and teasing the audience with a few vocabulary words to look out for I passed these objects around the room and asked everyone to think about what they were, what they were made of, how old they might be, and what they were used for.

The items are (from left to right):

1) A light socket adapter (with standard Edison style screw base and two non polarized non grounded electrical outlets) This adapter allows a bulb to be used simultaneously while other electrical items are plugged into the adapter.

2) A light socket adapter (with standard Edison style screw base and one non polarized non grounded electrical outlet) This adapter does not allow for the simultaneous use of a bulb while an electrical item is plugged in.

3) An electrical outlet multiplier (makes one plug into three) non polarized and non grounded.

All three of these items are made of Bakelite plastic and were manufactured at some point in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. Bakelite was one of the first natural plastics and was used to replace wood, paper, and other less suitable materials as an electrical insulator in early electrical devices.

So why did I include these items as the opening of my presentation about energy and Edison and why did I also choose them as the Identify It item for the same week? The answer lies in the use for these items and the circumstances that lead to the need for that use. That need also exists today, simply in a different form.

So why were these items needed? Edison created a demand for electricity to be brought into homes because his light bulbs demanded a D.C. Supply from HIS electrical power stations. Before the light bulb there were no electrical appliances or devices in peoples homes. So houses and buildings were retrofit for wiring. Later, after A.C. Power won out over D.C. in the “War of the Currents” homes were still being retrofit.

The first wiring was simply for electrical lighting, the only electrical device you could buy for a home. Each room may have had a single light switch leading to an overhead light fixture and no other connections. Soon the commercialization of electric motors and heating elements spawned hundreds of devices that people wanted to use. Later in the 1930’s and 1940’s people added electronic devices like radios to the growing list of electrical items they needed to plug in.

So a home owner found themselves with a hand full of gadgets and only one electrical outlet in a room, and that was taken up by a light bulb! As a result these adapters were invented. With them you could plug a device into the overhead light fixture and the miracles of modern conveniences were at peoples fingertips. Miracle at least until many home owners suffered from electrical fires by plugging in too many items and drawing much more current than the simple lighting circuits were designed for!

There are two points to be made here (the reason for my picking these items, including them in the lecture and in the Identify It)…

The first point is one of infrastructure. Edison is not actually the inventor of the incandescent light bulb. He’s credited with the invention but he was not the first. He did make it to the patent office faster than most (even before he had working examples) which is one reason he is hailed as the inventor of the bulb. But the real reason he is considered the father of electrical lighting is because he didn’t just make the bulbs, he created the entire infrastructure needed to manufacture, market, supply, add wiring, supply electricity, and bill for that electricity. He wasn’t selling bulbs, he was selling devices that used electricity. The profit was in selling electricity! In the process he (and his muckers) created fuses, junction boxes, conduits, the light bulb’s screw base, switches, dynamos, power meters and hundreds of other items needed before you could ever see white light stream out of a heated cotton thread.

The second point is about being able to foresee the future and forecast future demand. Edison created a need for electricity and the addition of electrical wiring to homes and buildings. His business model was similar to that of gas lighting companies (early light fixtures were even made of brass and mimicked the gas light fixtures). Edison for all his brilliance did not really foresee the hundreds of electrical devices that people would also want to buy and use. As a result wiring went from a single bulb fixture mounted to the ceiling of a room, to a bulb adapter crowded with cords hanging from that fixture posing a fire hazard, to expanded more modern wiring and the addition of more circuits. Even so we still use power strips (more modern safer ones) to keep all of our stuff going. But with every new device we add more load to the system.

The folks at the FREEDM center that asked me to give the presentation wanted me to focus on energy and on innovation and this is where things all tie together. If you buy a home today that was built in the 1960’s or early 1970’s its not uncommon for a room to have one electrical outlet on each wall (or perhaps not even on each wall). Designers and code makers then assumed you might have a lamp or two, maybe a TV or Radio, and may plug and unplug other gadgets as needed. Today it would be great to have six outlets on every wall because of all of our gadgets. Computers, cell phones, mp3 players, fax machines, phones all the things that need power. Most devices actually run on D.C. power converted from A.C. by an internal power supply or a power brick plugged into the wall. All of this was not foreseen in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Flash forward and ask yourself… what will electricity supply and use look like in the future? If we do move away from gasoline powered vehicles to electrically powered vehicles then we’ll need to recharge those vehicles (another kind of electrical supply, more outlets… how many? 1? 2? what will the plug look like? Will it be D.C. or A.C.? Will folks have dangerous Y-adapters to split their charging output so that they can charge their own two cars and then also Juniors new car at the same time?)

Its impossible for anyone to fully predict the future. Changes in technology, availability of resources, and millions of other factors make futurism impossible to get right. But the high school students sitting in my demonstration and lecture are going to be the next wave of electricity consumers, inventors and engineers, technicians and educators and so its important for them to try to foresee the implications of their ideas and be prepared for the future in order to prevent the need for things like quick/cheap/possibly unsafe adapters like those pictured above or their equivalent in future technology.

The electrical grid we use today is the legacy of over 100 years of almost organic growth and expansion. Its not to say that reasoning and planning did not go into the design of the components of that grid because in reality it represents a monumental engineering feat that most of the time we can take for granted as we switch on our latest gadget and have that gadget “just work”. But its important to think about energy related issues in our day to day lives. How can we cut down on energy use. How can we stop energy waste? How can we safely and economically expand and create a new smart grid that will adjust to demand. How can we comfortably switch from non renewable centralized generation of energy by burning coal and fossil fuels and move to a distributed system where every home or device might produce as well as consume electricity. All of these questions are being researched at the FREEDM center, and the curriculum taught to students in their program on innovation reflects these questions.

A copy of the presentation slides used for our presentation can be found at our page on Scribd at:

Stay Tuned for Part II and keep an eye out for future Identify It Challenges. (thanks to everyone who attended my presentation at the FREEDM center, and thanks to everyone who played Identify It).


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