No one is really sure why “juice” is a common slang term for electricity, but it’s a safe bet that it has no connection with the potential of grapefruit to generate current. Juice was used as a metaphor for life-force as far back as the 17th century, but it’s since been adopted by gossip, venture capital, power (influence, electric) and steroids, to name a few. If you’ve got juice, can raise juice, know the juice or are juicing you can claim a little piece of the life-force.
We all know that the right music can bring the juice to practically anything. Rock ‘n Roll was the soundtrack of my teenage years, which just happened to coincide with the Sixties. In 1964, while my friends and I were captivated by the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Young brothers - Malcolm, Angus, George and Alex - were busy pursuing musical interests and joining various bands of their own. Bass player Alex, along with a few other musicians, started a London-based group named after Yoko Ono’s book “Grapefruit.” In spite of the juicy name and support from folks like John Lennon and Brian Epstein, they enjoyed only modest, fleeting success.
Musicians come and go, bands band and disband, and eventually Malcolm and Angus ended up playing together. Their sister Margaret felt their band’s high-energy power performances were downright electric, and suggested the name “AC/DC”, after a plaque she had seen on a sewing machine. The music had juice, and high-voltage electricity became the motif that powered them into the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame.
The fact that a centuries-old metaphor could transform into modern slang for electricity might make sense when you look back at life in the mid-1800’s. The world of candles, oil lamps and gaslights was a very dark and often dangerous place. For thousands of years, the amount of illumination that one could muster was a prime indication of status. To have light was to have the juice.
The technology of burning stuff to get light evolved from fires (which also provided warmth), through candles and oil lamps, and eventually alighted on gas. The average room was now 20 times brighter. Suddenly books, magazines and newspapers took off in popularity. For the next 100+ years, people would get information and entertainment from printed media. Not only were folks more connected, but the combination of long-lasting open flames and combustible materials added an element of excitement to daily life.
Now that society was untethered from the daily cycle of the sun, a wave of profound change in how we work, play and live began. Still lacking was a practical, efficient means of distributing the light-producing energy. Putting an end to the frequent, random house fires would be a nice bonus.
Electricity seemed like a good contender, but there were a few technical hurdles to overcome first. Frederick Holmes patented an electric arc lamp which was blindingly bright, but also complicated and expensive. Sir William Grove, a lawyer and amateur scientist, invented an incandescent lamp that cost a lot to make, and only worked for a few hours. Interest was understandably absent. Early light bulbs featured filaments that would fail spectacularly (and quickly) until Hermann Sprengel came up with an economical mercury pump that could pull the air out of a glass chamber. Now if only someone could find a suitable material to put inside…
It was game on for the great filament race and in the end, Thomas Edison was the guy who had the juice. To this day, if you pause to contemplate a modern light bulb, two things will dawn on you; it is truly a powerful and wondrous thing, and it is utterly useless without a socket and a power source.
Although the name Edison is synonymous with inventor, Tom’s true genius was in the organization of systems. In short order, he set up hundreds of small electrical plants all over the world. Of course, there were a few glitches; horses became skittish around his underground cables due to leaking electricity, and several Edison engineers lost teeth from mercury poisoning due to Sprengel’s pump. Customers were also a bit uneasy with an invisible force that could quickly and silently kill people. Electricians were daredevils, and the now ubiquitous newspapers routinely published vivid accounts of electrocutions. As always, there is no free juice.
Still, widely available electric power is clearly on the short list of technologies that have had a profound and enduring impact on the human journey. In 1902, the annual use of electricity in the US was 79 KWH per capita – today it is well over 13,000 KWH. You’d have a hard time coming up with anything that is part of our daily lives that doesn’t somehow owe its existence to the juice. Among those enabled technologies that has had a phenomenal journey of its own is the electronic computer.
In the 1950’s, computers were cumbersome, expensive and the exclusive property of the geek squad. A decade later, they were starting to talk to one another (the computers, not the geeks) as the US Department of Defense was awarding contracts for packet network systems and funding the development of ARPANET. Fast forward yet another decade, and various separate networks were joining one another in a network of networks. Another ten years went by and money from the National Science Foundation allowed some computers to become super, and then made them available to other not-so-super ones through NSFNET.
Most of the basic building blocks were now in place, and a Brit known as TimBL (aka Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee) another skilled systems organizer, got two computers to talk on this network using Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Yet another profound shift in how we work, play and live was underway.
While the electric light freed us from the dictate of the sun, the Internet severed our tether to just about everything (at least until Social Media came along). Cellular networks, Wi-Fi, email, VoIP – as quickly as electric light enabled communication via printed media, the World Wide Web obsoleted it. In 1993, about 1% of two-way information flowed through the Internet - by 2007, it was 97%. There will soon be nearly 3 billion smartphone users worldwide, tethered only occasionally to their battery chargers. The juice now comes in information-rich packets that can convey anything, anywhere, anytime.
Electrons have come a long way since first squeezing through a piece of carbonized sewing thread in the 1800’s, and these days empowerment derives not just from escaping the darkness, but through education and economic opportunity that only Broadband Internet can provide. That centuries-old metaphor of juice for life-force is truer now than ever.
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.
Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.
Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.