Op-Ed Submission: The Greatest
Invention of All Time, by Timothy S. Carey
FOR RELEASE AT WILL
October 19, 2006
Some years ago, a national poll asked people what they
thought was the greatest invention of all time. Their overwhelming
response was electricity. And as I thought about it then – and even
more so now – I realized that electric power is a kind of axis
around which the modern world turns.
The 8-day-blackout in July in the New York City
borough of Queens underscored this notion. Nearly 100,000 residents
were forced to endure one of the hottest weeks on record without air
conditioning or refrigeration. Businesses, large and small closed.
The Red Cross was called in. The Fire Department distributed dry
ice. An army of police turned out to direct traffic as the
traffic lights were out, along with all the other lights.
Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg monitored the
situation closely as the city's emergency management officials got
into the trenches with utility workers to troubleshoot the
problems. When the problems persisted, Con Edison pledged to
reimburse residents up to $7,000 for spoiled food and other damage.
In the not-so-distant past, electricity was a novelty. In 1886, the
first appearance of electric lighting in a New York shop window was
described by a newspaper editor of the day as “a mere experiment,
the continuation of which would soon prove more trouble that it was
worth, and the neighboring stores took no stock in it.”
It took the better part of 40 years for American
business to fully integrate electricity into its operations. At the
start, businesses did little more than replace their steam engines
and water wheels with electric dynamos. But by the 1920s,
manufacturers were re-engineering their factories to accommodate the
vast quantity of work that could be performed with this new power
Electricity not only allowed for more accurate
energy controls, its mere availability determined, in large part,
what manufacturers made. In short order, tools as well as consumer
goods came equipped with a wire and a plug. The new electronic
gadgets fueled a still greater demand for power and the economy grew
as never before.
Certainly, there’s a parallel between the current
growth in productivity that’s being driven by the computer and the
Internet and the earlier boom that was also powered by electricity.
Still, it’s worth noting
that electricity generation represents less than two percent of the
nation's economy by way of revenues, smaller than almost any other
major sector. And yet the other 98 percent of the economy could not
operate without it.
We tend not to think
much about that until the lights go out, the computer shuts down,
the air conditioner fails, the food starts spoiling in the
refrigerator and disaster looms.
Timothy S. Carey is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the
New York Power Authority.
■ NYPA uses no tax money or
state credit. It finances its operations through the sale of
bonds and revenues earned in large part through sales of
electricity. ■ NYPA is a leader in promoting
energy-efficiency, new energy technologies and electric
transportation initiatives. ■ It is the
nation’s largest state-owned electric utility, with 18 generating
facilities in various parts of the state and more than 1,400
circuit-miles of transmission lines.
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