All around us, we have the newest technology either at our fingertips or close enough to be able to access it. There is the computer, the handheld electronic device, smart phones and other gadgets that would have been hard to imagine a mere 20 years ago. A touch of the button or a key stroke and you have nearly everything that you could ask for right in front of you.
It is little wonder that kids look at museum pieces and other artifacts with a glazed look. This is simply not of their world.
I have taken my sons to any number of wonderful exhibits at the Lake County Visitors Center in Hammond. The world of the past was staring them in the face, but there was no staring back.
Some of this we can chalk up to lack of perspective. Who among us looked at the portraits of George Washington and John Adams in our history textbooks and saw anything more than a powdered wig?
Would we have understood that the wig was only for formal portraits? Would we have known that the world they lived in was a world lit by fire? The candle and the open hearth were as common as the hand plow and the horse.
Today, you can see that world at Buckley Homestead County Park in Lowell, Deep River County Park in Hobart or the Munster History Museum at Ridge Road and Columbia Avenue.
Real change started to occur 134 years ago this week, in Menlo Park, New Jersey.
Thomas Edison and his team were racing (some would say even cheating) to invent a light bulb that could bring man into a new era.
In the lab, Edison’s team experimented with a variety of filaments to find one that would last longer than a lit wick. The discovery of a sealed vacuum tube along with a carbonized filament made it possible for the bulb to last for 13 hours.
Arguments still exist among historians, and we love a good argument, as to whether others had beaten Edison to the incandescent bulb. That misses the larger point; this invention became the cornerstone, the foundation of our modern world. Where others may have stopped with the light bulb, Edison’s team worked on the power grid that was necessary to accompany it.
Today, a flick of the switch or push of the button lights a room because his team created power systems that turn night into day. The image of a young Abraham Lincoln reading by the fireplace is now as remote to our children as the image of George Washington swinging the axe that chopped down a cherry tree.
Lincoln could now read by Kindle with earphones, and Washington would use a chain saw to get the job done quicker and easier. Because of technology, you can read this column online in Arizona or Florida.
When you visit historic sites all across the region, try to imagine staying the night in that little cabin, in the dead of winter with only a pile of wood available as warmth against that biting north wind. Edison, and his generation, knew that cold and dark. They found a way to extend daylight and change the world forever.
It all happened in that lab on a late October day.