Thursday, May 5, 2011

Common Sense

Thomas Paine is one of the best-known among the Founding Fathers of the USA even though he never held a political position. His main claims to fame are Common Sense, Rights of Man and Crisis, booklets that helped to incite colonists into overthrowing the British Government and starting a new civilization. I remember reading about this booklet in school, but we didn't actually read it. Had we done so, it would've been most illuminating, I think, to hear that the seeds of the American Revolution had proto-capitalistic motives even then:

"What have we to do with setting the world at defiance? Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe; because, it is the interest of all Europe to have America a FREE PORT."

There are a lot of aspects of Paine that didn't make it into my high school civics class, in fact. Our textbook by Daniel Boorstin didn't mention that after helping to found America, Paine high-tailed it to France, palled around with Napoleon, and advised the French government on methods to conquer America. Eventually he ended up pissing off the French as well, and found himself in a cell awaiting the gullotine. He very narrowly escaped being beheaded and got a reprieve.

He published a diatribe against Christianity and religion in general, called The Age of Reason. In so doing, he turned almost all of his former friends and allies against him. When he died in 1809, only six people attended his funeral.

His contradictions and excesses must be taken with the giant grain of salt necessitated when assessing any truly great man; he ping-ponged around the globe like a pirate philosopher, doing whatever he needed to do to survive, and for his ideas of free-thinking to survive. Somehow, in the midst of all his revolutionary activities, he found time to be editor of Pennsylvania Magazine, architect of bridges (one of which was unique enough that he received a patent on its design), developed a smokeless candle, and worked with John Fitch in inventing steam engines. What have you done lately?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Nernst Lamp

The more I hear well-meaning but misguided souls blather about the "carbon footprint" of incandescent bulbs and how it will "obviously" help save the Earth if we switch to pet-killing toxic Mercury-filled CFL bulbs, the more I think it's time somebody went back into the Nernst Lamp business.

The Nernst Lamp, invented in 1897 by the German physicist Walther Nernst, was twice as efficient as carbon filament bulbs and emitted a superior natural-color light. Unlike tungsten-filament bulbs, it did not require a vacuum to function, which means anyone could make one in their garage if they knew how. The only reason they're enclosed in a bulb at all is to protect users from touching the workings.

They operated by way of a ceramic rod that is superheated until it glows, giving off a more effective light source than you might expect. The device has an elegant and ingenious built-in heating element, which gets the ceramic hot enough to begin conducting electricity on its own.

George Westinghouse saw the potential for Nernst's invention, obtained the U.S. rights to the patent, and set about manufacturing them himself, from his newly-formed Nernst Lamp Co. based in Philadelphia. To obtain sufficient quantities of the best Gadolinite to manufacture the ceramic rods, he ended up in a competition with his (and everyone's) evil arch-enemy Thomas Edison for a place in Texas called Barringer Hill. This was an amazing treasure trove of rich mineralogical specimens, which was tragically and stupidly flooded permanently when the construction of the Buchanan Dam in 1939 turned the area into what is now Lake Buchanan.

By then, Westinghouse had given up on the Nernst bulb anyway, and had fallen in line with everyone else moving toward vacuum-sealed tungsten-filament lighting anyway. Nernst's magic lamp, which had been used for everything from microscopes to early fax machines to dazzling crowds at the Paris Exposition of 1900, was all but forgotten, except for a few lab-coated monks of research who continued to invoke the term "Nernst Glower" to describe other applications of the glowing-ceramic-rod concept.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Cairo, Illinois

The Victorian author Anthony Trollope, writing in his non-fiction travelogue North America, 1863, devoted a chapter to his ill-fated visit to Cairo, Illinois.

Trollope did not have a good time in Cairo, and he didn't have much nice to say about the population: "Fever and ague universally prevail. Men and women grow up with their lantern faces like spectres. The children are prematurely old; and the Earth, which is so fruitful, is hideous in its fertility... No faces looked out at the windows of the houses, no forms stood in the doorways. A few shops were open, but only in the drinking-shops did I see customers. In these, silent muddy men were sitting, not with drink before them, as men sit with us, but with the cud within their jaws, ruminating. Their drinking is always done on foot. They stand silent at a bar, with two small glasses before them. Out of one they swallow the whisky, and from the other they take a gulp of water, as though to rinse their mouths. After that, they again sit down and ruminate."

Curiously, he notes that the area called Cairo lay in a broader general area popularly known as "Egypt". What was the purpose for the Egyptian motif in the region's nomenclature? No one seems to know now, nor did they then. As Trollope notes: "Who were the founders of Cairo I have never ascertained. They are probably buried fathoms deep in the mud, and their names will no doubt remain a mystery to the latest ages."

The truth is somewhat less flowery. Cairo was founded in 1818 by a fellow named John G. Comegys of Baltimore, Maryland, but it wasn't until 1837 that it really amounted to anything, under the leadership of a Bostonian named Darius B. Holbrook. Prior to Mssrs. Holbrook and Comegys, the area had a few false starts. Lewis & Clark had explored it in November, 1803. Before that, a Frenchman named Charles Juchereau de St. Denys had operated a tannery here in 1702 but soon his enterprise was wiped out by Cherokee. And before that, a French Catholic Priest named Father Louis Hennepin camped here in the Spring of 1660. Seems like only yesterday.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Hear me well, the gauntlet is now laid down: if you're using CFL bulbs in your home, I won't be coming over for tea anymore.

No, I'm not excessively paranoid about the toxic mercury that resides inside said bulbs, although that certainly is an important consideration for the sake of the environment. Then again, the recent disastrous release of highly radioactive material from Fukushima has rendered that point a bit moot at this time. (Most citizens are apparently too dense to even wrap their head around the implications of that, let alone CFL-mercury in landfills.)

It's a matter of mythic resonance, of aesthetic principles. As devotees of the innovations developed during mankind's true golden age, we must fight the future - especially when evil men are trying so hard to make these annoying CFL bulbs part of that future. Ask yourself why it is so important to President Obama and others to phase out the incandescent bulb. Of all the battles worth fighting, why pick this one?

And yet people are laughing at Rand Paul for opposing the ban (and yes, it does amount to what is practically a ban). God forbid I should be on the same side as Rand Paul on something, but his particular Aspergian adamance for his cause serves us well on this one. At least give the public a choice about how they light their home, rather than strong-arming the world into acceptance of a toxic and inferior light source that no one really wants (that is, except morons. I apologize if you are a moron, dear reader - I do have acquaintances that are - and I pray for you to regain your senses and sensibilities in the coming radioactive days ahead.)

Of course, as far as we're concerned, the incandescent light bulb (which, media to the contrary, was NOT invented by Thomas Edison!) is actually a lightsource-come-lately to the big picture. What about gaslight? What about oil lamps? What about candles? Hell, what about just going to bed when it gets dark, like real people used to do in agrarian times?

The battle against creeping technocracy starts with yourself. I will no longer tolerate CFL or other fluorescent lighting any more than I can get away with avoiding. It's enough that I must tolerate it when shopping in excessively-lit stores like Target, but if you've made your choice and sided with the enemy in your own home, I will not darken your doorstep, good sirs and madams.

You're welcome to come over to my plantation, however, to remember what it looked like to live amongst incandescence before the migraine-inducing, false-color-giving and toxic-for-pets advent of the new world order's CFL bulb.

Make it quick, though: I'm about to start an investigatory pilot project to assess returning completely to oil lanterns and candlepower in my home, in solidarity with our allies in the Dark Sky Movement. Seriously.