"Three Employees Walk Into A Lab" - An unMetered Story

"Three Employees Walk Into A Lab" - An unMetered Story

This week's unMetered Story is about Alex, and how his passion for helping the hearing impaired community resulted in the advancement of energy technology.

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Have you heard of the Volta Laboratory and Bureau? I doubt you have because it's no longer known by that name by anyone living today. So let me tell you how a man named Alex changed the energy industry while attempting to help the hearing impaired through the Volta Laboratory and Bureau.

Alex was born in Scotland to a very interesting family. His father and grandfather were experts in the field of vocal mechanics and elocution while his mother was a deaf, yet very accomplished, pianist in the town of Edinburgh. It was because of his mother that he developed a passion and inspiration for working with the deaf community during his lifetime.

At an early age, Alex was groomed and trained to take over the family business from his father. He was a very curious and stubborn boy and had no interest in taking over the family business. So in 1862, Alex volunteered to take care of his grandfather who had fallen ill. His grandfather continued to encourage Alex’s intellectual pursuits and curiosities. By the age of 16, Alex was inspired by his grandfather to work with his father on improving the lives of the deaf.

Health conditions were not ideal in the United Kingdom in the late 1860s, resulting in Alex’s two brothers dying from tuberculosis. So Alex’s father moved the family to Ontario, Canada in 1870, and Alex set up shop in Boston a year later to continue his work to improve the lives of the deaf.

It was in Boston that Alex began working on a harmonic telegraph, a device to transmit messages at different frequencies. The idea had great potential, but Alex became distracted by sending sound over wires. So Alex’s benefactor hired Tom, a skilled electrician who could bring Alex’s ideas to life and get bring his attention back to the harmonic telegraph, which is what he was being paid to create.

Alex and Tom had a great partnership and they worked on Alex’s harmonic telegraph and voice transmitting device during 1874 and 1875. The real break for Alex happened in 1876 however.

In a fit of frustration one night, Alex knocked over a container of transmitting fluid and shouted, “Tom, come here. I want you!” Tom heard the voice over the wire of their voice transmitting device and the rest is history.

And that is how the legend is told about how Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone with Thomas Watson. But our story doesn’t end there because I’ve not explained how Volta Laboratory and Bureau changed the energy industry.

In 1880, the French government awarded Bell the Volta Prize, which was around $10,000 at that time, or the equivalent to $260,000 today, for his invention of the telephone. He used this money to fund the creation of the Volta Laboratory and Bureau, which specialized in the analysis, recording, and transmission of sound. Alexander used the profits from his laboratory to fund further research and education into the improvement of deaf people’s lives.

The Volta Laboratory was consolidated into a research division between two companies in 1925 and was renamed to Bell Labs. Bell Labs expanded over the years to have multiple locations and thousands of employees.

One of those labs and three of those employees worked in Murray Hill, New Jersey. It was in 1954 that a physicist, chemist, and electrical engineer produced the world’s first photovoltaic battery while looking for a way to power telecommunications devices in remote areas without access to electric lines.

The photovoltaic battery was created while attempting to improve the selenium battery using single cell silicone, and on August 26, 1954, they announced to the world their new electric generation technology.

Although Bell had died in 1922, his pursuit to improve the lives of deaf people led him to create the telephone along with 30 other patents bearing his name. This drive for innovation allowed him to found the Volta Laboratory and Bureau that would one day be home to the men who created the first photovoltaic battery, or as the rest of us now call it, the solar cell.

And that’s the unMetered Story of the Solar Cell, the technology behind the solar panels used every day around the world and the technology behind our Cooperative Solar field.

Middle Tennessee Electric's Cooperative Solar program in College Grove, TN utilizes solar cell technology in the solar panels at our 1-megawatt facility. Next week we'll be discussing the program with Mandy Pinion and Avery Ashby. They will give us a breakdown of Cooperative Solar since it's launch last year.

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