State of Innovation

Patents and Innovation Economics

Charles Brush and Ice Dynamos

This is an excellent post on the inventor Charles Brush from the excellent blog Ice Dynamo.

Charles Francis Brush was born March 17, 1849 on his family’s farm – a farm not so different from those sprinkled across Bainbridge. You can imagine the bemusement of his parents – both farmers – when seemingly from infancy Charles showed an insatiable interest in electricity. He was a mere twelve when he built his first static electric machine.

He graduated college when he was twenty, and immediately went to work repaying his student loan, granted to him by his uncle. Charles spent his days selling iron ore and his nights devising a new dynamo – an early version of the electric generator. He was twenty-eight when his tireless efforts earned him his first patent.

As abundant and reliable as electricity is for us today, it’s hard to imagine what Brush’s dynamo meant for nineteenth century Americans. At the time, electricity was so inefficient and uneconomical that it little more than a novelty; what lighting existed was almost exclusively in the form of kerosene lamps.

The dynamo was a great achievement, but for Charles Brush, it was just a stepping stone. He envisioned a world lit by arc lights (a technology similar to light bulbs). That vision required not only economical electricity, but efficient and reliable arc lights. Once he’d completed his dynamo, he turned his focus to arc lights, and received his first of four patents in 1878.

Charles Brush loved his own life too much to relegate himself to thankless toil in an obscure lab. He was eager for the world to benefit from his genius, and wanted to be remunerated for his effort. Thus, in 1880 he established the Brush Electric Company. It was a herculean undertaking; he competed directly with Thomas Edison’s titan of a company, General Electric. Nevertheless, in a few short years Brush’s arc lights illuminated the streets of cities such as San Francisco, Montreal, Boston and New York. His hydroelectric power plant in Minneapolis was one of the first in the United States to generate electricity from water.

When Brush was 42, he merged his company with General Electric and retired to the mansion he’d built in Cleveland. His home included a private laboratory in the basement and the world’s first automatic wind turbine generator. Even in retirement, he never stopped investigating scientific phenomena.

Charles Brush’s inventions – such as his dynamo – were incredible machines, but they were so much more. Those inventions were the product of a child who was born with a singular purpose, and never let being an iconoclast stop him from pursuing that purpose. They are the result of a young man’s inexhaustible dedication to his work, and an industrialist’s fearless determination to bring light to the world.

Which brings us to the article’s title. My favorite author described machines as “the frozen form of a living intelligence.”

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July 19, 2014 - Posted by | -History |

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