What Did They Know? A Look Back at Technological Blunders

In the 19th century, the first commercially used light bulb was invented. Thomas Edison is widely credited with its inception, in 1879. The success of bulb was followed by the founding of Edison Electric Company. Initially Edison was dominating the American market, supplying electricity to the public to power the bulbs. However, Edison was generating direct current electricity (DC) which was limited by the fact that it was difficult to transmit over long distances, and it could not be converted into higher or lower voltages.

2016 Proposed Change to NFPA 72

Enter Nikola Tesla. Nikola was a Serbian mathematician and engineer who worked for Edison for a time. He encouraged Edison to abandon the DC current in favor of alternating current (AC). Edison rejected the idea of using alternating current. At the time, Edison held a monopoly in terms of generating and supplying direct current and he preferred to continue to develop that method of generation. However, stubbornly clinging to DC proved to be an error.

Nikola Tesla eventually teamed up with American industrialist George Westinghouse at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. Westinghouse was a believer in AC power and began constructing his own generating stations so that he could service the rural areas that Edison could not reach with DC power. By 1887, after only a year in the business, Westinghouse had already more than half as many generating stations as Edison, and had already begun to cut into his business in larger cities as well as on the outskirts.

"The Times They Are A-Changing"

This turn of events was obviously problematic for Edison. In an effort to protect his corporate interests, Edison staged a series of publicity stunts to demonstrate the dangers of AC current. Edison’s propaganda campaign aimed to convince the public that AC current would be lethal to homeowners. Edison went to great lengths to discredit his opponent. He set up public demonstrations where he executed stray animals, and even one elephant in an effort to convince the public that AC current was lethal. Edison even funded and facilitated the invention of the electric chair that used AC current for use in public executions. In the first trial of a morbid execution, the accused William Kemmler did not initially die from the current. It took several trials before he was pronounced dead.

Despite Edison’s best efforts, AC electricity prevailed. The current was more economical to produce, could reach farther distances, and the voltage could be modified. The benefits to the consumer could not be denied and while Edison had benefitted in the short term, alternating current has become the most prevalent form of generation used today.

So, What’s The Point?


At Mircom, we’ve been thinking a lot about light bulbs lately. Advancements in technology have brought us a long way from the incandescent bulbs of the 1900s. Today our choices have expanded to include energy saving, green, and LED technologies. And these new forms of lighting have come to be used in everything from traffic lights, vehicular headlights, internal and external airplane emergency lighting, air traffic control towers, and much more. Recently, a very important NFPA standard amending motion has been raised to overturn a vote passed in the autumn of 2014 by the NFPA SIG-NAS subcommittee. The SIG-NAS 2014 vote would limit the light pulse duration of notification appliances to 20 milliseconds during a single flash cycle, a factor of 10 decrease from the current allowance of 200 milliseconds according to NFPA 72 2013. The 2014 SIG-NAS decision would effectively disallow new LED based notification appliances to serve the needs of the life-safety market. We believe that there is insufficient data to support restricting the flash pulse width to 20 milliseconds. Such a radical change will impact further innovation in this field and possibly have unintended consequences.

Like Nikolas Tesla, we see potential for further development in this field. At Mircom we have partnered with the National Research Council of Canada and commissioned independent research and review on the experiments cited on the subject, to ensure that NFPA membership has a solid technical background on this issue. Unfortunately we have found that, like Mr. Edison’s scare tactics of old, the conclusions that were drawn from previous experiments are somewhat unsubstantiated and unsupported by the evidence.

For the details of the NRC’s findings, and to learn more about this issue please visit our blog at http://www.mircomgroup.com/incaseoffire/item/481-led-technology-important-technical-briefing-for-nfpa-members

*some content was adapted from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/edison-vs-westinghouse-a-shocking-rivalry-102146036/?no-ist
*photo illustration credited to Shotopop http://www.shotopop.com/

2016 Proposed Change to NFPA 72