History Column

IEEE REACH Program Asks Kids: How would your life be different without electric lighting?

By Kelly McKenna, REACH Program Manager, IEEE History Center

Pictured: High school history students at Townsend Harris High School, New York City, review IEEE REACH documents. Photo courtesy of the IEEE History Center.

When was the last time you lived without electric lights? Maybe a thunderstorm, hurricane, or blizzard caused a power outage in your neighborhood. Many of us feel so uncomfortable without electricity that we keep gasoline-powered generators on hand to minimize the effects of such an unexpected loss of power. Nevertheless, just 150 years ago, most of the world lived their normal lives without electricity and the dependable light that it supplies. One hundred years before that, and ‘normal’ life was almost what it had been for perhaps 5,000 years – only fire (torch, candle, etc.) to “light the night.”

The above “compelling question” and accompanying paragraph is part of the eighth and newest inquiry unit (lesson plan) of the IEEE REACH Program. Managed by the IEEE History Center, IEEE REACH produces free online educational resources to enable pre-university teachers to introduce history of technology and engineering into the classroom, thus enhancing students’ technological literacy and their understanding of the relationship between technology and society.

This inquiry unit focuses on the evolution of modern lighting, beginning in the 1700s with the introduction of improved oil lamps, which allowed for brighter and steadier light than candles. It includes the inventions and innovations that resulted from the introduction of gas illumination, continues to the era of Thomas Edison and the soon-to-be-practical alternative – the electric light – and finishes with the current advances in LED technology. The lesson plan takes students through a narrative journey that not only highlights the evolution of the technology, but also interweaves the complex interconnections between the advancement of the electric light, the social context of the time, and the significant impact that electric lighting had on economics and politics. The lesson ends with a civic action element, where students are given an assignment to research an alternative energy, assess the ways in which this alternative energy could benefit humanity, and  then create an online social media campaign that highlights their position. This type of civic action makes what has been learned about the history and social context of the technology relevant to students’ lives today. In addition, students gain valuable skill sets in research, problem solving, analyzing and critical thinking.

In addition to questions to spark student interest and research and background essays necessary to tackle the inquiry, the REACH Program provides teachers with primary sources. Primary sources are original sources or evidence, such as an artifact, document, or recording that was created at the time of study.  For example, as part of this inquiry, one of the primary sources is Thomas A. Edison’s October 1881 patent for “Fitting and Fixture for Electric Lamps” and an advertisement for gas lighting from 1885 (pictured at right).  Other resources associated with all of the IEEE REACH inquiries are short, engaging videos and hands-on activities.  For the Electric Light inquiry, students make an electric light using batteries, cardboard, a carbon pencil lead, alligator clips and a glass jar as the hands-on activity.  Soon,  the videos for this unit will posted on the IEEE REACH website, as the REACH team just wrapped up film shoots, which took place at both the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park located in Edison, N.J., and at the Latimer House located in Queens, New York.

In today’s day and age, it is clear that technology influences every aspect of our lives. But, in fact, this is no different from the impact that the electric light had on the society of the past.  In order to participate wholly and self-assuredly in the world, citizens must be able to make intelligent and thoughtful decisions on issues that affect, or are affected by, technology.  This is the premise of technological literacy, and history provides a superb pathway for students to understand the complex social interactions among technology and other aspects of society.  With close to 900 subscribers from over 42 countries, IEEE REACH continues to aid in the quest for technologically literate global citizenship.  IEEE REACH is a partnership of the IEEE History Center and the IEEE Foundation, which raises philanthropic funds on its behalf.  IEEE-USA members can help IEEE REACH by bringing it to the attention of their local school districts, and also by personally investing their philanthropic dollars.  If you wish to donate to the IEEE REACH Program, please visit:  https://www.ieeefoundation.org/support_REACH. Your contribution, no matter the amount, will help sustain the IEEE REACH program, which is advancing technological literacy of students, thereby enhancing global citizenship.

Kelly McKenna is REACH Program Manager at the IEEE History Center at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. For more articles by the History Center staff, visit their publications page at: https://ethw.org/Archives:Books_and_Archival_Publications or visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page at: https://www.ieee.org/about/history_center/index.html. The IEEE History Center is partially funded by donations to the History Fund of the IEEE Foundation


Kelly McKenna

Kelly McKenna is program manager for the IEEE REACH program.

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