As a complex technological system evolves, it is rarely able to free itself of its past. Hidden inside it are the vestiges of all its former states, a ghostwork of progress.
America’s original electric grid, built by Thomas Edison in Manhattan in 1882 and soon replicated in many other cities, was a direct current system. But the DC grid, doomed by its inefficiency, proved shortlived. When it became feasible to send power as alternating current, the new AC system quickly displaced the DC system, much to Edison’s dismay.
Yet Edison’s legacy lives on. Traces of the old DC system remain, in Manhattan and elsewhere. In fact, as Jennifer 8. Lee reports, it’s only today – 125 years after Edison constructed his original grid – that New York City’s electric utility, Con Edison, is finally shutting it down:
The last snip of Con Ed’s direct current system will take place at 10 East 40th Street, near the Mid-Manhattan Library. That building, like the thousands of other direct current users that have been transitioned over the last several years, now has a converter installed on the premises that can take alternating electricity from the Con Ed power grid and adapt it on premises. Until now, Con Edison had been converting alternating to direct current for the customers who needed it — old buildings on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side that used direct current for their elevators for example. The subway, which has its own converters, also provides direct current through its third rail, in large part because direct current electricity was the dominant system in New York City when the subway first developed out of the early trolley cars.
It’s no different with information technology. Whatever computers look like a century from now, they will, somewhere, still be running today’s code.