Tag Archives: Hoffmann On History

99% Invisible – The Grand Dame of Broad Street

I have long struggled with what to do with this blog. On one hand, I want to make it a picture of my historical acumen, but on the other hand I want to make sure that I have been functioning website. This is a struggle because I do a lot, like most academics, and sometimes self-aggrandizement is difficult because it comes in the way of actual work. So in order to make sure that I keep updating this site, I am going to start doing an idea that I learned from fivethirtyeight.com’s political podcast. The statistics based website and podcast starts with what they call their “good use of polling and bad use of polling.” In that vein I think I will begin my good use of history to value some history where at least once a week I will make an effort to publish a small thing that I think it’s a good historical document or use of history. With that in mind, here’s my first submission

99% Invisible is an amazing podcast starring Roman Mars and a cadre of reporters. It dabbles in a fascinating aspect of history which is the built environment. Mars himself refers to it as a podcast on design, but it is so fundamental at times that it really becomes a podcast about everything. It is truly impressive. So why did this particular episode motivate me to write for the first time on such topic, Well, it has to do with the fact that this is effectively my field. I do epidemiological and medical history. This story not only tells a fascinating yarn about the CDC and a beautiful building, but how we find where diseases come from. This tracks the fantastic story of Legionnaires’ disease and how disease detectives were able to track it down. Worth a listen.

99% Invisible – Episode 211 – The Grand Dame of Broad Street





Casting Magic Missile into the Darkness

This morning was disorienting. I know as a historian, especially one that is working on his PhD, talking about such personal stuff is bizarre. However, I woke up disoriented. Last night, after a series of thunderstorms, the power had gone out. This is all the more unusual for my neighborhood since our power lines are underground, so even during the snow-tastro-pacalypse we didn’t lose power. Yet there I was this morning, groggily turning off my cellphone alarm (had I not had my alarm on my cellphone, I would still be asleep and, frankly, grateful), then absently flicking at the light switch to no avail. Sighing and realizing what this meant for my morning coffee consumption, I showered by iPhone light and moved on.

This is all the more appropriate with my in class lectures yesterday. In my first period AP US class, we talked briefly about Thomas Edison, yes, that Edison. The magic he produced is not just the glowing orb of the light bulb, but so much more than that. The colorful image you have of Edison holding a glowing sphere is a perfect representation of the man, but not the machine, so to speak. Technically, Edison was not the inventor of electric light even. Humphrey Davy created electric light when he developed a modern battery in 1802. Even the modern incandescent light was invented by Sir Joseph Swan in 1860, 18 years before Edison modernized the design. What made Edison different? Longevity. Edison’s lights could list 1200 hours (so he claimed), but there is still more than that.

The idea of buying bulbs from Home Depot and replacing the burnt one is a very common idea now, but that was not always the case. To put it in context, we need to think about electricity on the whole. Impressed with his designs, J. P. Morgan starts to give substantial money to Thomas Edison for electricity research. Power plants (on a small scale) were not uncommon, but the potential for electricity was just being realized. To find investors for his growing company that would become General Electric, J. P. Morgan had Edison electrify his house so he could demonstrate the magical electric lights. In his basement, Edison and co. built a power plant (coal stoked) and ran wires, so, dramatically Morgan could blow out traditional lamps, but the room would still be aglow. Drunk on power and success, Morgan and Edison agreed to electrify a block on Pearl Street, giving electricity to 59 customers.

However, for a moment, let’s think about the technological matter at hand before we get to the cultural one. A bulb is nothing, but a pretty glass sphere without electricity (duh, I know, but follow me). Outside a lab setting, Edison needs to develop a socket to standardize the bulb. He needs to build and standardize gauges of wire. He needs to develop transistors and circuit breakers. He needs to create a current that is consistent. Hundreds of hours, dozens of patents, for a city block. When the job is done, it is so standard in fact, that before wall jacks or wall sockets were standardized, people had light socket adapters for toasters and the like for the ceiling socket in their house. The cultural part of all this? Edison helps to defeat the dark. Yes there were candles, but they were dangerous, expensive and short. Night falling and day breaking were your time limits, but electric lights allowed work to go on, streets to become safer at night and the world changed.

But right now, all I want is my coffee.

High School Historiography Wiki

Dear All!

If you tried to access the High School Historiography wiki lately, I apologize that it went down due to hacker jerks. However, the issue is fixed. The only change to the site is that you have to be a logged in account now that I have verified. Please continue your help and thanks!

Nicolas Hoffmann