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My electric journey


It all started during lunch at La Mediterranee last year. I had written the rough draft of a novel about the crazy, particular, sometimes heroic and sometimes downright despicable people who discovered electricity, but I was stumped on what to do next. Should I try to get a publisher? Start a blog? Hire an editor?

Luckily, I was having lunch with my friend Kim Nalley. Kim has been the headliner at the Fillmore Jazz Festival almost every year for the last 15 years, so she knows about entertaining. I was lucky enough to meet her through parenting. Our older kids went to the Sherith Israel’s preschool on California Street, and now our younger kids go there together.

Kim immediately knew what to do: “Kathy, you like to talk. Start a vlog, a video series.”

That started a quest to transform my ideas onto the screen, albeit a small one. Luckily, my book is composed of a series of vignettes about one remarkable person or idea, each leading to the next. So I learned how to edit video and started recording in my house on Washington Street. Kim helped me out by recording an original version of “Electricity” from a “Schoolhouse Rock” video for my theme song.

I have now filmed 37 videos of these strange stories and am planning another 40 or so. I often try to include a fun experiment related to the history I’m telling, such as lighting an LED with pennies or using a spark to make a radio beep. The highlight so far was when I mimicked an 18th century wizard’s flamboyant demonstration by electrifying myself and then using a spark from my bare hand to set alcohol on fire.

I’m often asked if there is a San Francisco connection, and of course there is. In 1920, when Philo Farnsworth was 14 years old, he was looking at rows of wheat and came up with the idea of creating moving pictures with bright and dark spots in lines on a cathode ray tube. He invented television. But it took the poor farm boy several more years to convince anyone to back him. One of the backers was from San Francisco, and he convinced a local banker to finance Farnsworth’s mad scheme.

Soon Philo, his wife Pem and her brother Cliff Garner moved into a warehouse at 202 Green Street, where everyone taught themselves how to solder wire, blow glass and create chemical films used to cobble together a system. Within two years, they managed to transmit an image across a screen.

By May of the following year, they invited their impatient banker for a demonstration and waited until he issued his common complaint: “When are we going to see some dollars in this thing, Farnsworth?” With a flourish, they turned on the television and projected a clear image of … a dollar sign. Six more years passed before it began to resemble modern television, and much of Farnsworth’s creation was stolen by

But, for good or ill, television started on September 7, 1927, when Farnsworth sent a telegram that said simply: “The damn thing works!”

A little about me: I moved into the neighborhood when I was 8 years old, then went to Hamlin School and University High School. After moving away for college and other adventures, I am happy to be back near Fillmore raising my kids (Alicia, 5, and Alex, 2) in this exciting and vibrant neighborhood. Even though I’ve lived here for many years, most people know me because of my husband Mike. Pehaps that is because he is 6-foot-6 and has a tendency to walk down the street while throwing the kids in the air and singing a song. It’s hard to compete with that.

If you see me at Peet’s Coffee, or walking down Fillmore with Mike conducting stupid human tricks, please ask me about the videos and whatever strange story I am telling then.

Or check out my videos on YouTube: “Kathy Loves Physics.”