Smil’s Brief List of the Pioneering Creators of Electric Systems

Michael Giberson

In the process of explaining why Steve Jobs, though talented, is no Thomas Edison, Vaclav Smil name-drops a “brief list of the pioneering creators of electric systems”:

This fundamental innovation [the electric power system] was created during a remarkably short period of time—most of it between the late 1870s and the beginning of the 20th century—by a surprisingly small number of inventors, engineers, and scientists. In order to avoid the most obvious exclusionary injustice, even a brief list of the pioneering creators of electric systems must include the names of Charles Clarke, Sebastian Ferranti, Lucien Gaulard, John Gibbs, Zénobe-Théophile Gramme, Edward Johnson, Irving Langmuir, Charles Parsons, Emil Rathenau, Werner Siemens, William Stanley, Charles Steinmetz, Joseph Swan, Nikola Tesla, Elihu Thomson, Francis Upton, and George Westinghouse. But, justly, one name stands above them all, that of Thomas Alva Edison.

I thought I knew a bit about this period, but I credit myself for recognizing only 6 of the 18 names mentioned (Siemens, Swan, Tesla, Thomson, Westinghouse, and Edison).

How well do you know your early electric power industry history?

3 thoughts on “Smil’s Brief List of the Pioneering Creators of Electric Systems

  1. I got 7, but Irving Langmuir was one of them. The reason I had heard of him was that my high school chemistry teacher loved to talk about Langmuir’s theory of chemical bonds.

    No one other than historians of science is interested in Langmuir’s theory of chemical bonds, because it was replaced by Pauling’s work on the subject which was grounded in quantum mechanics. Pauling’s magnum opus on the subject was published in 1939 — 25 years before I took chemistry. Of course, the then elderly chemistry teacher had gone to college long before Pauling.

    I suppose that the chemistry teacher was called “Coach” by everybody, is a sufficient explanation for his pedagogy, or lack thereof.

  2. Karl Steinmetz almost got tossed from Ellis Island as an undesirable immigrant. A sponsor vouched for him and he later Americanized his name as Charles Proteus Steinmetz. Interesting political history, and some of his work with high-power capacitors had the Schenectady clergy worried.

Comments are closed.