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    The history of light (classic)

    enJune 05, 2024

    Podcast Summary

    • History of Light Production and AccessFrom animal fat candles to unlimited electricity, the history of light production and access has led to improved living standards, increased productivity, and new industries, emphasizing the importance of continuous innovation and investment in technology.

      The evolution of how we produce and access light has significantly impacted human progress, enabling us to work longer hours, travel farther distances, and develop new industries. From using animal fat for candles in the past to having unlimited access to electricity today, this technological advancement has led to improved living standards, increased productivity, and the ability to support various professions and industries. This story of light also highlights the importance of continuous innovation and investment in technology to meet the changing needs of society and contribute to a sustainable future.

    • Cost of Light in HistoryThe cost of producing light throughout history was substantial due to labor-intensive methods and limited resources, making it a valuable commodity.

      Throughout history, access to light was a significant challenge and required considerable effort and resources. From making candles out of animal fat to using oily seabirds as lamps, various civilizations went to great lengths to produce light after the sun went down. Harriet Beecher Stowe noted that making candles was a labor-intensive process that involved raising and killing a cow. Economist Bill Nordhaus aimed to quantify the cost of light throughout history by calculating how much it cost to produce it in ancient Babylon using an ancient lamp. He measured the lamp's brightness with a light meter and discovered that the cost of light was substantial, making it a valuable commodity. This historical perspective highlights the importance of light and the significant advancements that have been made to make it more accessible and affordable over time.

    • Discovery of KeroseneThe discovery of kerosene in the late 1800s revolutionized the world by providing a cheaper, brighter, and more efficient source of light, leading to significant economic progress

      Before the 1800s, productivity was low and resources, including light, were scarce and expensive. In ancient Babylon, an entire day's wages could only buy 10 minutes of dim light. People's lives were dominated by the sun and the dark, with little progress in technology or the economy for thousands of years. However, around 1800, there was a significant shift in the pace of improvement, marked by the discovery of kerosene, which was much cheaper, brighter, and more efficient than previous sources of light. This breakthrough revolutionized the world, saving the whales and leading to a more efficient and prosperous economy. The discovery of kerosene was a turning point in history, made possible by the emergence of professional scientists and a culture of experimentation.

    • Edison's investorsEdison's ability to secure funding from investors like JPMorgan was crucial in bringing electricity to the masses and revolutionizing the world.

      While Thomas Edison is known for inventing the light bulb, the real game-changer was his ability to secure the funding to build the first power plant and bring electricity to the masses. This advancement, made possible by investors like JPMorgan, revolutionized the world and paved the way for affordable and widespread electric lighting. Today, companies like Redfin and Whole Foods offer innovative solutions to make our lives more convenient and enjoyable, but they also require significant financial backing to bring their services to the public.

    • Economic structures and systemsEconomic growth requires financial systems, patents, investors, and power plants, enabling individuals to access resources and improve quality of life, while also presenting challenges like pollution and environmental impact

      Economic growth is not just about individual inventions and discoveries, but also the economic structures and systems that support and enable them. Thomas Edison, for instance, recognized the importance of economics in his inventions, constantly comparing the costs of his innovations to the gas system. To bring electricity to lower Manhattan, Edison needed a financial system, including patents, investors, and a power plant. Economic growth allows us to access more resources, like light, which was once a luxury only available for a few minutes a day. However, growth also comes with consequences, such as pollution and environmental impact. Despite these challenges, the drive to make things faster, cheaper, and more efficient continues, with innovations like LED light bulbs improving our access to resources and enhancing our quality of life. Every year, the economy grows due to countless improvements and discoveries made by individuals, contributing to a cycle of progress that has continued for over a century.

    • Physical limits of growthGrowth and productivity improvement have physical limits, and it's important to consider the end points of various technologies and industries

      While constant economic growth and productivity improvement are desirable goals, there are physical limits to what can be achieved. The example given was the potential limitations of technological advancements in areas like light bulbs. The idea that growth will continue indefinitely, such as a car going a million miles per hour, is not realistic. It's important to consider the physical constraints and potential end points of various technologies and industries. This discussion also touched on the idea that while we may continue to make things better, we may not be able to triple or quadruple our progress. Instead, we may be approaching the end of certain advancements. It's a reminder to appreciate the progress we've made and to be mindful of the limitations we face as we strive for continued improvement.

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    For thousands of years, getting light was a huge hassle. You had to make candles from scratch. This is not as romantic as it sounds. You had to get a cow, raise the cow, feed the cow, kill the cow, get the fat out of the cow, cook the fat, dip wicks into the fat. All that--for not very much light. Now, if we want to light a whole room, we just flip a switch.

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