Thomas Edison, argued to be one of the greatest inventors in history, would be 170-years-old if he were alive today. Born Feb. 11, 1847, Edison spent his life interested in technology, business and innovations—contributing to some of technology’s greatest advancements and acquiring more than 1,000 patents for his work.
While Edison is most commonly recognized for his 1879 invention of the first practical and long-lived incandescent lightbulb, he is also responsible for the earliest designs of underground electrical cables and conduits that would feed power directly into homes and businesses.
While electrical cables have advanced over the years, the basic foundation of his design is still in use today —conductible material insulated with multiple layers of non-conductive materials.
In fact, Edison’s legacy can be found in our very own streets. During the initial construction phases of the Q-Line in Detroit, Woodward Avenue was dug up, revealing many unexpected time capsules – including leftover underground cables that matched Edison’s 1881 underground conductor patent.
A cable joint, a point in which two cables are connected, was discovered by Michael Butler, a senior technician for the underground system, history-enthusiast and inventor on the side.
“When I first found the cable, I was not entirely sure what it was,” said Butler. “But, being that I am a cable splicer by trade, I noticed the piece to be pretty similar in theory to modern day ‘cable splices’ or ‘joints’ but very simplistic.
“I then went on an in-depth search of Thomas Edison’s inventions and patents. This is when I found the patent for his underground cable design. After finding the patent I then, through some of my contacts, acquired copies of hand sketches from 1882 of men installing and working on this style of cable. Lastly, I was able to also obtain a copy of a spec book from the 1900’s that talked about this style of cable and gave information on its installation.”
Edison’s innovative designs laid the foundation for the underground electrical system we rely on today. And for the historical piece of cable? That is still in the safe hands of Butler until he finds a museum to display this unique piece of history.
Ways to celebrate Thomas Edison’s birthday:
- Join in on the 170th Birthday Bash at the Thomas Edison Depot Museum in Port Huron, MI
- Walk through the lab at the Edison at Work Exhibit at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI
- Take a short road trip to the Edison Birthplace Museum in Milan, Ohio