Wednesday 17 January 2024

Three 1870 inventions


Edison and his phonograph

In the 1870s three revolutionary technologies shook the world and changed it forever :

1876 : telephone

1877 : phonograph

1879: electric light bulb

All were basically leap-frog innovations, but based on existing science and technology.

The contrasting impact of the three were fascinating.

Phonographs which earned Edison the moniker Wizard of Menlo Park, completely stalled, because amplifiers were bad, duplication was not possible, etc. That problem was solved 20 years later by invention of the triode (ironically inspired by Edison’s electric bulb).

Telephones revolutioninzed business, government, industry, banking and military, but took nearly forty years to become consumer goods.

The electric light was utterly transformational across every facet of society. Until Edison’s light bulb, electricity was also mainly industrial or business oriented. Heavy magnets at harbours and factories, and the telegraph were the only public benefits of electricity until then.

Edisons light bulb changed all this. It brought electricity into every urban home and office within 20 years in most of the West.

It became a platform for a whole horde of technologies as transformational as the steam engine earlier, and transparent glass even earlier.

Electricity’s impact was rivalled only by the arrival of petrol/diesel engine cars, also invented in the 1870s but which had no or very low impact for nearly 25 years.

Electric cars, trains, buses all came into use, around this era, but were of poor quality and not very widespread. They were all overtaken by petrol based vehicles by 1920 or so and electric vehicles did not challenge petrol/diesel vehicles until Elon Musk’s Tesla transformed the industry in the 2010s. Henry Ford actually worked in Edison’s electric companies, rising quickly to Chief Engineer, before quitting to revolutionise petrol based cars and make them widespread.

Edison's telephone: Picture from Internet

The triode, born out of the diode, invented by Ambrose Fleming (more famous for Fleming’s left hand rule), was discovered to be an amplifier of current, which became very useful for radios, invented shortly afterwards. Then the triode amplifier became useful to amplify the sound in phonographs. Edison’s original tin drum phonograph did not take off, but Zenophile Gramme invented the flat disk version, now popularly called gramophones. By 1910 mass manufacturing of gramophones combined with amplification to make the sound output of gramophone, made them explode in popuarity – nearly two decades after Edison and Gramme’s inventions. I suspect Edison himself had switched over to focusing his efforts on the light bulb – and after it the development of the entire electrical system, primarily because the phonograph evoked more wonder than sales.

The telephone itself, was also improved by Edison, especially by addition of  a battery, providing a stable current rather than using a windup mechanism to power the transmission of electricity across telephone lines. Alexander Graham Bell’s company AT&T, bought Edison’s phones to sell to their customers – became more the telephone exchange rather than equipment manufacturer.

Ironically phonographs/gramophones succeded in the one field Edison did not imagine at all – recorded music. Again ironically, Edison worked on the cinematograph and movie making, but again failed to understand what entertainment would be popular. The movie making world ran away from New York, where Edison was based, to California – too far even by train – to escape Edison’s attempts to monopolize the field.

It is fascinating how the three inventions panned out. Rarely is their comparative history narrated together.

But the phonograph, lightbulb, electrification, (and also triode, radio, airplane etc.) were inventions that did not come from the learned halls of brilliant academics with doctorates in philosophy or from the wise poets and artists who bore on their shoulders the learning of a hundred previous generations, but basically the most uneducated/ self-educated, hyper motivated, relentless, incredibly ingenious people like Edison, Ford, Benz, Daimler, Westinghouse, Lee de forest, Fessenden, etc.

Thorstein Veblen, the economist, predicted in 1899 that engineers would run the world , because they were the only people who understood how everything worked.

He was wrong, IMHO. Most engineers don't understand people or money.

Inventors and Discoverers

Sunday 7 January 2024

Hindu temples of Bali

I attended a lecture by Prof Wayan Dibia, a scholar and choreographer from Bali, Indonesia, at the CP Ramaswamy Iyer art gallery on Saturday January 6, 2024. He gave a very brief introduction on Balines temples, their layout and dances at the temples. Dance is a very important part of the ritual worship in Bali it seems. Bali is an island in Indonesia with nearly 95% Hindu population. Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, but is fairly cosmopolitan and celebrates its Hindu past.

These are notes from Prof Dibia’s lecture.


Balinese Hindus greet each other with the phrase “Svasti Astu”,  a Sanskrit phrase which means “May you be well”. Rather than namaste or namaskaram, the common Hindu greeting in India.

A typical Bali temple

Bali is refered to as Island of the gods. Every house has a family shrine. People pray at these family shrines every day and visit the temples on important occasions.

There are four types of temples in Bali:

1. khayangan jagat,. Worhsipped by all Hindus.

2. Khayangan Desha , three main temples in each village(desha) worhsipped by villagers

3. Pura Swagina, worhsipped by people of same profession

4. Pura dadia or Pura kawitan worhsipped my members of same clan

Each temple has three shrines - one each for Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva. Only if all three temples are present can a settlement be called a village. Brahma and Vishnu temples are in middle of villages. Siva temples near graveyard.

Temples usually have three sections, uttama mandala, madhya mandala and jaba mandala. Basically there are three courtyards in the temple.

Odalan is a Bali tradition; it involves rituals requiring sacrifices and offerings of many types at temples. The entire group of villages wearing tradition attire, goes in procession to a temple carrying fruits, flowers and other offerings. Musicians and dancers usually follow at the tail end of the procession.

A 1971 seminar was conducted by Bali Provincial government to categorise dances as sacred vs tourist entertainment.

The seminar declared that the three major types of Balinese dances are:

·        Wali dance, which is performed in main courtyard of a temple.

·        Babali dance, performed in second courtyard

·        Balih balihan dance, which may only be performed outside the temple.

There are Rejang dances performed by women and baris dances performed by men

Babali dances usually tell a story and are dramatic. They have selected dancers. The story is usually Ramayana or Mahabharata.

There is custom called Sidhakarya with a history. A priest from Kalinga (Odisha state in India) came to Bali, in 16th century. The king ignored him, but then several aspects went wrong with ceremony. The king then recalled the priest, regretting his rudeness. Since then a priest is always involved in ceremony called  Topeng Sidhakarya.

Some temple dances are declining. Some are extinct or very commercialized. Most temples don't have vigrahas of the murthys because they are kept in the house of the priests. Only during odalan ceremony is the vigraha brought out and kept in the temple.

Icons in temples

The above photos were snapped by me from the slides on the screen during the lecture.

Audience Q&A

Smt Nandita Krishna, who runs the CPR center, said she was not allowed into a Bali temple with salwar kameez or saree, the two popular costumes among Hindus in India. They expected her to wear the Balinese costume which she said she didn't have. Ravishankar Thiyagarajan, of Tamil Heritage Trust, said they were given some sarong and costume to enter the temple on their recent Bali visit.

Mohan Krishnamurthy of Gandhi Center, T Nagar, and THT, asked whether Bali temples had agamas. Nandita Krishna replied that they basically follow Indian agamas and traditions only, but Prof Dibia didn’t comment.

Sri Mohan also asked about rice given to devotees at temples. Prof Dibia said rices is sacred was offered as prasad. Their troupe will perform a Balinese dance at the Music Academy, Madras, on January 15, 2024, on the this very theme Arisi (Rice)

Sri Sowndarrajan, also of THT, asked why some gates have just two pillars. This is just an architectural affectation, was the reply.

To a question about what kind of music and songs were played, a friend and colleague of the speaker said that they start music with nattai ragam and end with surutti ragam. But they mainly play instrumental music. Bali unlike India, Bali didn't have bhakti movement, which produced a lot of poetry set to music. So in Balinese dances, there was no sahitya (words and poetry) for the music, only melody. 

Other Lecture Notes

Essays on Art