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How did we get here? Part 12

Lead Summary
By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

(Continued from last week.)

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) is a figure of almost mythological proportions. He was a person of immense inventive gifts who came along at just the right time to turn many scientific concepts discovered by people with much more education into practical appliances we still use every day.

Holder of 1,093 patents, Edison still ranks quite high in frequency of mention in newspapers (We will obviously be helping that statistic here). Edison had a war with Nicola Tesla, which we will talk about later.

Edison was a proponent of direct current, Tesla of alternating current. With direct current, power plants would have needed to be built about every two miles. Tesla’s alternating current allowed the use of transformers, which allowed the current to be stepped up in voltage and transmitted long distances.

Had the world stayed with direct current, the solar panel location in New Market in Highland County would not have been possible. The solar panels would have to be near the point of use. Indirectly, then, one can attribute the location of the solar panels in New Market to Tesla, not Edison. Of course, the modern music industry, movie industry and many, many other conveniences of modern life we can lay at Edison’s feet.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was the first black man to eat in the White House that was not in the capacity of a servant. President Theodore Roosevelt had him over for dinner on Oct. 16, 1901, a few days before the official mourning period for assassinated President William McKinley (from Canton, Ohio) was over.

When news of this dinner made the papers the next day, there was an uproar all over the country. That indeed was systemic racism.

Washington was of the last generation of black political leaders born into slavery. Booker T. Washington founded The Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a traditional black college where he employed George Washington Carver (1864-1943), another leader who was born into slavery.

In Booker T. Washington’s book “Up from Slavery,” he recalls the first time he went to stay in a place where there were sheets on the bed. He had always slept in a pile of rags and did not know what to do with the sheets.

I have visited Washington’s birthplace in Hale’s Ford, Va., an out-of-the-way place I stumbled on one day while driving through southern Virginia.

George Washington Carver, when he came to Tuskegee found that his laboratory had no equipment. Nonplussed, he took his students to the local dump and they salvaged enough items to get started.

Famous for his discoveries of uses for the peanut, the real focus of this effort was to make the peanut into a cash crop. The southern soils were so depleted from season after season of cotton raising that Carver determined the peanut, a legume, could restore the soils.

Carver drove the accounting department at Tuskegee nuts (no pun intended), for he was known for not cashing his payroll checks. He kept them in a drawer in his laboratory, and when he needed money, he would take the oldest one and cash it. At one time, he had several years’ worth in that drawer.

We have jumped out of chronological sequence just a bit, pulling up George Washington Carver, inextricably linked to Booker T. Washington. We’ll pick up here next week.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at

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