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John J. Carty, "New Developments in Electricity Are Enormous"



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In the early 1890s, the American Press Association put together a feature series of writings in preparation for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They commissioned 74 notable Americans to make predictions about American life in the 1990s, in the process producing an interesting commentary on life in the 1890s. The variety of essays reflected the diversity of the contributors, including a senator (John J. Ingalls), an electrical engineer (John J. Carty), a poet (Elizabeth Akers Allen), and a minister (Thomas De Witt Talmage). The segments ran in newspapers across the country from March through May 1893, in time for the World's Fair opening.

The probable developments in electricity in the Twentieth Century are almost inconceivable. We cannot tell what the next century may develop. If progress is as swift as it has been since Professor [Alexander Graham] Bell demonstrated that the human voice can be conveyed over a wire charged with electricity [1876], we are likely to see, early in the next century, some developments that will be simply revolutionary. Without suggesting any that may be regarded as merely the dream of a visionary or as the fanciful flight of imagination, I think perhaps I can indicate some developments that may be reasonably expected from present conditions.

In the first place, there is the use of electricity in domestic economy. I am inclined to think that not many years hence it will be found serving the household exactly as gas, steam, and coal now serve it. It will be possible for the cook, for instance, by simply turning on the electric current, to procure heat sufficient for all cooking purposes. When the cooking is done the electric current will be turned off. Thus there will be no wastage, as is the case now in the use of coal. Already there are electric cooking ranges in existence. I presume that these will be so highly developed that they will serve the most exactly requirements of a $10,000 chef.

Then, too, we may reasonably expect to see, at least in the cities, electricity used generally for heating purposes. That will also be an economy. There will be no wastage of coal. A single room may be heated by turning on the current, or a whole house, or a great building if that be the desire. It will also be used for lighting, I think, very generally. Its convenience and safety are now demonstrated. While it may not entirely supplant gas, it is certainly bound to be quite as widely used in private families as gas is now.

I think that the most important development, however -- so far as domestic economy is concerned -- will be found in a change in the manner of utilization of coal. In the larger towns, I presume that there will be no delivery of coal at the houses, as is now the case. Coal will be taken to a central station and there converted into electric energy, exactly as is the case now in the manufacture of gas. This central agency will furnish the electric current for heating, lighting, and cooking purposes. The economy will be very great. The wastage of coal is enormous, even in private houses. Since this is for the most part unavoidable, the general use of electricity for domestic purposes will be found to be an economy.

It is possible (although I do not want to be quoted as saying that it is probable) that, during the next century, the secret of the extraction of energy which is in coal direct may be discovered. If that is done, it will simply revolutionize civilization. It will vastly cheapen not only the cost of living, but the cost of all commercial enterprises. A very great percentage of the energy store up in coal is now wasted. It goes forth through chimneys; it is lost in heat which is not utilized. The warmth which you feel when you go into boiler room or into a kitchen is simply dead waste.

It has been estimated that, if the energy which is in coal could all be utilized, one ton would serve the purpose for which five tons are now required. This might give us possibly a solution of aerial navigation. It certainly would vastly cheapen traffic. It is almost impossible to estimate the consequences to civilization which might follow this discovery. I do not want to give the impression that I think the discovery will be made in the next century, but I am entirely willing to say that it is possible that we may hear of it at any time.

The remarkable discoveries of Nicola Tesla are going to play an important part, I think, in the commercial development of the next century. Tesla has discovered that an electric current (generated in a certain manner too technical here to explain) may be passed from one conductor to another, without any intermediary connection, like a wire. It will go through a stone wall precisely as light goes through glass.

The possibilities which lie in this discovery are simply enormous. And they may revolutionize some forms of development For instance, it may have a powerful influence in the conduct of the wars that break out in the Twentieth Century, if any do. If it is possible to convey the electric current from one disk to another in a room without any medium, then it might be possible to direct it from a proper motor upon shore to the iron sides of a great war vessel. This might be done with such intensity as instantly to melt the iron or steel plates, as though they had been struck by lightning.

The use of the flashlight and the great electric reflectors is sure to be very general in military operations in the next century. And some of my acquaintances have sometimes suggested -- not wholly in a flippant spirit -- that electricity itself may be the great destructive agent employed in military operations in the Twentieth Century.

But more practical than this suggestion is another which is perfectly reasonable. I am inclined to think that the development of the trolley railway is going to be one of he mightiest factors in the urban civilization of the next century. The indications now are that it may solve some of the problems of overcrowding which have vexed the social economists. And, on the other hand, it may give to those who live in rural districts just that relief and recreation of which they are now deprived and which they so greatly desire.

I suspect that the trolley railway will be found extending from the hearts of our great cities far out into the country districts and over the highways. It then would be possible for a man to step from his front yard -- or a farmer to go from his driveway -- directly into one of these cars and, at the rate of 20 miles an hour or thereabouts, be conveyed to the city.

The passenger will not be obliged to bother about timetables. The cars will run with frequency and at trifling expense. They are simply going to annihilate distance and to make the man who lives in the country, to all intents and purposes, an inhabitant of the nearest city. It is easy to see what an important effect this will have upon the problems of great municipalities.


Consider This Question



1. How does Carty foreshadow the development of suburbia?

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