Light for Alfonso XII in the age of AI

In 1881, Barcelona businessman Tomàs Dalmau had an exhausting August.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
16 September 2023 Saturday 17:03
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Light for Alfonso XII in the age of AI

In 1881, Barcelona businessman Tomàs Dalmau had an exhausting August. At the end of April, with the engineer Narcís Xifra and other partners, he had founded the first Spanish company dedicated to the production and sale of electricity. They aspired to light up all of Barcelona. The Spanish Electricity Society made history, it arrived too soon and had a short life, but Dalmau didn't know that yet.

A newspaper born that same year, La Vanguardia, explained his intense summer. In a few weeks he brought electricity to Comillas so that its marquis could receive a visit from Alfonso XII, and he participated in the International Electricity Exhibition in Paris, where incredible inventions were brought together, such as Gramme's dynamo, the Edison and Swan's incandescent light bulbs, Graham Bell's telephone, Werner von Siemens' electric tram and Trouvé's electric car.

On August 10, La Vanguardia received two telegrams from the Spanish Electricity Society from Cantabria. In one, its founder explained that the tests were going well. In the other, the marquis explained that "the electric lighting installed by Mr. Dalmau has pleased their majesties and highnesses; I am extremely satisfied with him and very much recognized for the intelligence and activity that has filled his task". "We congratulate the mentioned gentleman again for the triumph obtained in Comillas", the newspaper published enthusiastically. Another telegram issued on the 29th at 18:20 in the afternoon confirmed that "the lighting by incandescent electric lights in the royal rooms and in Casa Güell" had worked.

On August 30, the columnist of La Vanguardia in Paris celebrated the success of the Spanish pavilion at the Expo and "the advantages of electric light and its indisputable usefulness for all kinds of uses and applications". About the thirteenth room, intended for the Dalmau electric plant, he wrote that "it was brilliant and deserved very flattering phrases for the Spanish industry".

From its birth, La Vanguardia covered the technological innovations of the second industrial revolution, an accelerated and optimistic era - unlike ours, which is equally dizzying, but pessimistic. Once the railway was established, it gave an account of the advances in the spread of electricity, just as it would do with telephony. Later came all the other things: the airplane, electronics, the tractor, the mass media, the conquest of space, the atomic bomb, computers, the internet, mobile phones. Even the way of consulting the newspaper would change.

When reviewing what has happened during these 142 years since the foundation of La Vanguardia, some axioms of technology are revealed. For example, that even if advances are concentrated in certain times and people, they never reach everyone at the same time, and their implementation is usually slower and uneven than it seems. If Alfonso XII already enjoyed the comfort of light in his rooms at the very beginning of the eighties of the 19th century, in the second half of the 20th many small Spanish towns were depopulated without ever having seen the arrival of light electrical

The dark side of development, so present in today's discourse, was also looming at the time. "Century of lights! Lots of steam, lots of electricity! And God, what is electricity and true steam?... The railway brings corruption to the most hidden valleys", Miguel de Unamuno wrote retrospectively in P . "The failure of the construction company of the railway line from Tudela to Bilbao had reached almost every corner of the town, the panic was great, and many mourned the loss of savings made by selling two quarters of parsley, or something that it was worth it One-hundred-duro stocks had dropped to five and soon, it was said, they would serve only to wrap jam,” he continued, in a paragraph that could describe the dotcom crisis of 2000 or the crypto crash of 2022.

Despite the passage of time, the press continues to try to balance enthusiasm and criticism of technology in order to describe its changes, focusing on its pioneers and those disinherited from progress. Conserving a newspaper archive where the history of modernity is followed from its first spectacular times to the present allows a unique perspective.

Now, 142 years after the birth of La Vanguardia, the world faces a new industrial revolution, with anxiety precipitated by the opening to the public of ChatGPT in November. "The age of artificial intelligence has arrived", proclaimed Bill Gates and collected this newspaper. Since then, journalists have rushed to narrate how the balance of power in the world is changing, who the protagonists are, what the risks are, what fabulous opportunities are opening up.

Experts predict radical changes in the world of work, in the economy and in every sector imaginable, from education to medicine, through communication or computing. McKinsey has calculated that generative AI could add between $2.6 and $4.4 trillion in annual productivity worldwide... Although it won't be today or tomorrow: they believe that half of today's work activities could be achieved to automate, but which will happen between the years 2030 and 2060. As with light, it will be necessary to continue explaining it.