America's Lost Tech Revolutions

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The Washington Post reports on the closing of America's last incandescent light bulb factory, which gives little encouragement to hopes that legislation effectively banning the technology would create new green jobs. It reminds us that the familiar spiral compact fluorescent bulb, the major replacement, was also invented here.

Following the 1973 energy crisis, a GE engineer named Ed Hammer and others at the company's famed Nela Park research laboratories were tinkering with different methods of saving electricity with fluorescent lights. . . .

The trouble facing Hammer was that fluorescents are most efficient in long tubes. But long, linear tubes don't fit into the same lamp fixtures that the standard incandescent bulbs do.

Working with a team of talented glass blowers, though, Hammer twisted the tubes into a spiral. The new lamps had length, but were also more compact.

"I knew it was a good lamp design," he recalled recently. In retrospect, in fact, it was a key innovation. The Smithsonian houses Hammer's original spiral CFL prototype.

At the time, however, the design had one big problem. Bending all that glass into the required shape was slow and required lots of manual labor.

"I used to say you would need 40,000 glass blowers to make the parts," Hammer said. "Without automation, it was economically unfeasible. It was a lamp before its time."

The company decided to make investments in other types of lighting then being developed.

Years passed. The next major innovator to try his hand at CFLs was Ellis Yan, a Chinese immigrant to the United States, who had started his own lighting business in China and then in the early '90s turned his attention to the possibilities of CFLs.

To make CFLs, he had workers in China sit beside furnaces and bend the glass by hand. Even with the low-wages there, the first attempts were very expensive, clunky and flickered when turned on, he said. But he persisted.

"Everybody [in the industry] stayed back and was watching me," he recalled. "No one else wanted to make the big investment for the next generation of technology."

The business prospered and Yan's factories in China employed as many as 14,000 - not so far off from the 40,000 glass blowers that Hammer had once imagined would be necessary. With new automation techniques, Yan is seeking to cut the number of his employees in China, where wages are rising, to 5,000 by year's end.

Today, about a quarter of the lights sold in the United States are CFLs, according to NEMA, an industry association. Of those, Yan says, he manufactures more than half.

Compact fluorescent lamps are not the only energy-saving technology invented here and made there. The Philadelphia Inquirer's series on high speed rail reminds Americans of one of their most glaring losses of leadership, reporting from La Rochelle, France:

The train factory here on the Bay of Biscay was created in 1918 by the masters of the industry - the Americans - to build troop transports during World War I.

Today, French engineers, welders, and electricians work in the same long sheds for the French manufacturer Alstom Transport, building the great-great-grandchildren of those early trains - sleek tubes of aluminum that travel at 225 m.p.h. They hope their new customers will include the old bosses, the Americans.

And my friend the journalist and railroad historian Mark Reutter has documented the astonishing and now-forgetten commercial success of American advanced trains in the Depression years:

American railroads and equipment suppliers had not only pioneered the diesel-electric locomotive in the 1930s - a quantum leap over from the old steam locomotive - but introduced lightweight cars with better wheel sets, couplers, braking systems and lower centers of gravity to negotiate curves at higher speeds,

The interiors of these streamliners abounded in creature comforts - wide double-paned windows, recessed fluorescent lighting, luxurious reclining seats and the first air-conditioning found in any commercial transport.

Streamliners attracted customers by the carload. In fact, they made money. Wall Street consultants Coverdale & Colpitts surveyed 58 streamliners in 1948 and found that they grossed $98 million and netted $48 million after out-of-pocket costs, for a return of 49 percent.

And as for the Federal role after World War Two, Reutter observes:

Remarkably, the U.S. government gave Japan foreign aid - money purportedly going to an underdeveloped country - to build a rail infrastructure far superior to our own. Opened in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the first Shinkansen train traveled at a maximum of 125 mph. The latest-generation Shinkansen runs at 188 mph, and its ancestor is in a museum.

In fact America had become a dominant industrial power in the first place by adapting European manufacturing ideas in the 19th century. In the 20th, the German chemical giant I.G. Farben regarded synthetic detergents as academic curiosities -- but Procter and Gamble invested in years of research to produce Tide. Our economic problems today come less from a shortage of ideas than from our inability to translate invention into U.S. jobs. Could part of the problem be too much rationality? The real challenge is not invention of principles but overcoming obstacles to profitable goods and services. It made sense at the time for GE not to pursue spiral fluorescents, just as Kodak left dry photocopying to its much smaller neighbor Haloid, which became the Xerox Corp. It took an almost romantic determination, not calculations, to overcome all the difficulties of the new process. Does American business have that spirit now?

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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