What if Thomas Edison were alive today?

Edison by Edmund Morris, gives us some hints as to how Thomas Edison might have dealt with our society’s challenges today. (Below, Edison’s workshop, transported to Michigan by Henry Ford and now part of Greenfield Village.)

Although he was an early enthusiast for aviation, trying to build a helicopter in the 1880s, Edison (1847-1931) actually lived (and continued to work hard and effectively) through the period of the most rapid advances in aviation. He seems not to have contributed anything significant to the development of flying machines.

One thing that I learned from the book is that Edison loved huge projects and was not afraid of doing things at scale. He put about $2 million and years of work into trying to mine iron ore in New Jersey and then mill it profitably. From the early 1890s:

A party of inspectors sent by Engineering and Mining Journal toured the plant early in the fall. Although some sections were idled for refurbishment and Edison was coy about showing any of his new machines, they could see that he already excelled at quarrying and magnetic separation, if not yet in the difficult processes of crushing and refinement. They were particularly impressed with his cableway system, every suspended “skip” delivering four tons of rock to the crushers at only twelve cents a load. But they predicted that in view of the low iron content of local ore, Edison would still have to spend a fortune and deploy “the utmost resources of engineering skill” to compete with Mesabi ore at 64 percent iron. “With his surpassing genius [and] capacity for taking infinite pains, it cannot be doubted that he will ultimately achieve success.”

In July Edison learned that his mining venture had so far cost him $850,000, including some $100,000 that could not be accounted for. A profit-killing amount of money was being lavished on labor that simply loaded and unloaded rock at either end of the conveyors. The jaw crushers took too long to do their work and often broke down, necessitating expensive repairs. The magnetic separators, plagued by screening problems, were concentrating only 47 percent iron—far less than the 66 or 70 percent he needed to match the richness of Great Lakes ore. He was still digesting this information when a stockhouse under construction at Ogden collapsed, killing five men and injuring twelve. Lawsuits alleging negligence were filed by bereaved families.106 A newspaper clipping he carried in his wallet read, “Thomas Edison is a happy and healthy man. He does not worry.” As usual he countered the pull of bad news by pushing forward harder. Rather than continue to “improve” Ogden with ad hoc adjustments, he increased the capital of its parent company to $1.25 million, then shut the plant for a tear-down rebuild that would expand it enormously and make it a showpiece of automated design. No sooner had a new separator house gone up than he decided it needed some screening towers, and should be constructed all over again.

Given what we now know about the ore near Lake Superior (ore in the water of Tahquamenon Falls, below, from Travels with Samantha), the idea seems laughable today and, indeed, it was a complete failure. Nonetheless, it was amazing how many problems Edison was able to solve.

My theory about what he would be working on today, therefore, is geoengineering. He would take complaints about a warming planet as inspiration to work in the lab and then build infrastructure on the scale of the largest mines and power plants.

How about coronaplague? Edison did like to jump into solving problems that society perceived as urgent. But what kind of machine would be useful for fighting the plague? Big shade structures to move activities outdoors? Edison did put a lot of effort into “tornado-proof concrete houses”:

Last May’s catastrophic earthquake in San Francisco revived an idea he had had when the cement mill was first ready to roll. He saw low-cost, molded concrete houses replacing the fragile wooden boxes in which most Americans lived—houses that contractors would mix from cement (with a colloidal additive for grit suspension) and spill on the spot into prefabricated forms. A three-story house could be poured in six hours and set in less than a week.

He had to admit that the individual kits, consisting of nickel-plated cast iron parts, would be expensive, at around $25,000 apiece. But they would pay for themselves in frequency of use and universality of detail, molding mantelpieces, banisters, dormer windows, conduits for wiring, “and even bathtubs.” Having made the investment, a contractor could pour a new house every four days. Each could be sold for $500 or $600, enabling millions of low-income Americans to become homeowners for the first time, with no need to worry about earthquakes, hurricanes, or fire. “I will see this innovation a commonplace fact,” Edison promised, “even though I am in my sixtieth year.”

What about a wearable device that would deflect the evil coronavirus away from a person’s mouth and nose, but without obstructing breathing the way that a mask does?

Where would Edison have stood on this year’s Presidential campaign? “Edison had always been a loyal Republican,” writes Morris, but quotes Edison explaining why he voted for Teddy Roosevelt whose statue was just toppled in Manhattan: “I’m a Progressive, because I’m young at sixty-five,” he said. “And this is a young man’s movement. There are a lot of people who die in the head before they are fifty. They’re the ones who get shocked if you propose anything that wasn’t going when they were boys.” Morris says that “Edison had come to despise government bureaucrats, seeing them as a blight on democracy,” but perhaps Edison’s Progressive streak would have led him to support Bernie nonetheless!

On the third hand, Edison would probably not have been able to hold a job in the present-day U.S.:

Relations between him and [son] Charles warmed to the extent they could resume their old exchange of “negro jokes.”

Wikipedia points out that Edison married a subordinate whom we would today call “underage”:

On December 25, 1871, at the age of 24, Edison married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell (1855–1884), whom he had met two months earlier; she was an employee at one of his shops.

Mary likely died, only 28 years old, in the modern American manner. The author quotes from a contemporary source:

At the request of Mr. Edison she took a trip to Florida last winter. Instead of obtaining relief she fell victim to gastritis, due to the peculiar atmosphere or perhaps the long acquaintance with morphine. She returned to Menlo Park in a more troubled condition. Her pain intensified, and at times she was almost frantic. Morphia was the only remedy, and naturally she tried to increase the quantity prescribed by the doctors. From the careless word dropped by [a] friend of the family it was more than intimated that an overdose of morphine swallowed in a moment of frenzy caused by pain greater than she could bear brought on her untimely death. The doctor in attendance said she died of congestion of the brain. When a reporter put the question to him he positively asserted that it was the immediate cause, but about the more remote causes he preferred to remain silent.

(1.5 years later, Edison was 39 and married Mina, age 20.)

What about shutting down schools, society, and the economy for three months so as to end up with the same death rate from Covid-19 as Sweden?

as Edison lay dying [in 1931, age 84], it was suggested to President Hoover that the entire electrical system of the United States should be shut off for one minute on the night of his interment. But Hoover realized that such a gesture would immobilize the nation and quite possibly kill countless people.

Readers: Fun speculation for today… suppose that Thomas Edison were alive today, age 40, and had $1 billion available to invest. What problem would he attack?

More: Read Edison by Edmund Morris.

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“promotion from mathematician to engineer”

“NASA Names Headquarters After ‘Hidden Figure’ Mary W. Jackson” (nasa.gov):

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Wednesday the agency’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C., will be named after Mary W. Jackson, the first African American female engineer at NASA.

“Mary W. Jackson was part of a group of very important women who helped NASA succeed in getting American astronauts into space. Mary never accepted the status quo, she helped break barriers and open opportunities for African Americans and women in the field of engineering and technology,” said Bridenstine. “Today, we proudly announce the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building. It appropriately sits on ‘Hidden Figures Way,’ a reminder that Mary is one of many incredible and talented professionals in NASA’s history who contributed to this agency’s success. Hidden no more, we will continue to recognize the contributions of women, African Americans, and people of all backgrounds who have made NASA’s successful history of exploration possible.”

After two years in the computing pool, Jackson received an offer to work in the 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound. There, she received hands-on experience conducting experiments. Her supervisor eventually suggested she enter a training program that would allow Jackson to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer. Because the classes were held at then-segregated Hampton High School, Jackson needed special permission to join her white peers in the classroom.

Jackson completed the courses, earned the promotion, and in 1958 became NASA’s first Black female engineer. For nearly two decades during her engineering career, she authored or co-authored research numerous reports, most focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. In 1979, she joined Langley’s Federal Women’s Program, where she worked hard to address the hiring and promotion of the next generation of female mathematicians, engineers and scientists. Mary retired from Langley in 1985.

As a math undergrad who learned that an SB in mathematics does not make one a “mathematician” and who later studied EECS, I am thrilled to see “a promotion from mathematician to engineer”! I don’t expect to see this again in my lifetime, though.

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The Boeing 737 MAX uses 16-bit computers

“The Ancient Computers in the Boeing 737 Max are Holding Up a Fix”:

A brand-new Boeing 737 Max gets built in just nine days. In that time, a team of 12,000 people turns a loose assemblage of parts into a finished $120 million airplane with some truly cutting-edge technology: winglets based on ones designed by NASA, engines that feature the world’s first one-piece carbon-fiber fan blades, and computers with the same processing power as, uh, the Super Nintendo.

The Max has been grounded since March 2019, after some badly written software caused two crashes that killed 346 people. And while Boeing has received plenty of scrutiny for its bad code, it’s the Max’s computing power — or lack thereof — that has kept it on the ground since then.

Boeing took [the ethos of proven tech] to heart for the Max, sticking with the Collins Aerospace FCC-730 series, first built in 1996. Each computer features a pair of single-core, 16-bit processors that run independently of each other, which reduces computing power but also keeps a faulty processor from taking down the entire system.

Even by late-’90s consumer tech standards, the FCC-730s were behind the curve. By the time they went to market, Nintendo had already replaced its 16-bit SNES console with the Nintendo 64 (the first game console to use — you guessed it — a 64-bit CPU), and IBM had created the world’s first dual-core processor.

In other words, your washing machine or dishwasher from 2006 may have a more powerful processor than the B737 MAX (“Fujitsu Introduces New 32-bit Microcontroller for Home Appliances”).

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Thomas Edison and electronic voting

Another day, another batch of primary elections. (How are the candidates doing? Is it obvious at this point that Biden (“the senile puppet,” as an immigrant friend puts it) will win everything?)

I recently finished Edison by Edmund Morris. It turned out that, like the Iowa Democrats, Thomas Edison thought that tabulating votes was a problem in search of a tech solution:

Working nights at Western Union, and by day literally under Williams’s roof in a third-floor attic, Edison invented and made half a dozen devices, including a stock ticker, a fire alarm, and a facsimile telegraph printer (“which I intend to use for Transmitting Chinese Characters”). He executed his first successful patent application on 13 October [1868; age 21] for an electrochemical vote recorder, whittling the submission model himself from pieces of hardwood. “To become a good inventor, you must first know how to use a jackknife.” It was a clever device—too clever to be commercial, as he soon found out. Designed to speed up the laborious process of vote counting in legislative bodies, it took signals of “aye” or “nay” from electric switches on every desk and imprinted them on a roll of chemically prepared paper, in each case identifying the signal with the legislator’s name. At the same time it separately tabulated the votes on an indicator dial. Edison’s dream of seeing his “recordograph” clicking and spinning in the chambers of Congress dissolved when he heard that speedy voting was the last thing politicos wanted in the passage of bills. They needed time to lobby one another in medias res. Edison resolved that hereafter he would invent only things that people wanted to use.

Since at least 1868, then, we have been inventing better machines for counting American votes, but nobody has worked on inventing better Americans!

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Integrate ADS-B and AIS information for safer overwater flights?

While flying between the Bahamas and Florida at 8,000′, we were mostly outside of gliding range from land. However, we were often within gliding range of a ship (but we wouldn’t have known this if we’d been flying in or over clouds). Since 2002, ships have been broadcasting their location via the Automatic identification system (AIS). Aviation caught up in 2020 with the similar ADS-B system. For safer overwater flights in light aircraft, why not combine these two? Given the AIS information, onboard avionics could plot a path that keeps the aircraft within gliding range of at least one ship whenever possible. Given the ADS-B information, augmented with a distress button (not built into the current system, sadly), a ship’s crew would know when to start a rescue effort.

What’s the best case for modern electronics and communications currently? The people in an aircraft would to make it out of the aircraft, get their hands on an EPIRB, activate the EPIRB. The centralized group of people looking at the EPIRB signal would have to find the closest ship via AIS, then succeed in contacting the ship, etc.

Would integrating AIS and ADS-B be a good idea? I can’t find anything on the Web to suggest that it has been done or contemplated.

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Boeing dispels rumors that the SLS rocket will be overpriced…

… with a $40 T-shirt celebrating the Space Launch System (SLS):

If the project comes in on budget, it will be nearly $1 billion per launch with roughly 15 percent more thrust than the 50-year-old Saturn V.

The entire program, including the Orion capsule, appears similar to Apollo and, in fact, is named “Artemis,” after Apollo’s twin sister. I asked an astronaut why NASA would do this, 60 years after Apollo. Why not just wait for Blue Origin to have their inexpensive rockets ready at roughly the same time? “It’s what they know how to do,” he responded. My mole inside the scientific side of NASA, responding to “Unless Blue Origin fails it seems as though they will be far cheaper per pound”:

That question has been the hot topic for the last two years or so. Congress keeps pushing SLS so until there is something flying that is obviously better value, SLS will keep going. It’s a jobs program that employs all the same people that Shuttle did. And NASA has a PR push about first woman on the moon for Artemis.

If taxpayers are concerned that the true cost will be more than the $1 billion/launch planned, would it make sense for Boeing to limit the shirt prices to $25? Also, if they’re going to spend $10+ billion on a new-ish rocket, shouldn’t they be able to come up with a more original name than “Space Launch System”?


  • in the early part of this century, NASA spent at least $9 billion on the Ares I and V rockets that proved to be a dead-en (NBC)
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Tesla III

The Tesla II post started looking at the material in Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, by Bernard Carlson. Summary: Tesla made bank with his AC motor and then Tesla got famous as a showman in the pre-TV age.

The book goes on to explain that Tesla was never successful after that. He never understood Katherine Clerk Maxwell’s equations and therefore kept trying to run everything through the Earth (which turns out to be quite effective at grounding out signals!):

Of course, in many modern applications of radio—such as FM or communicating with aircraft—the transmitter and receiver circuits do not need to be grounded. In insisting on a complete circuit through the Earth and returning through the atmosphere, Tesla reveals here that his thinking was based more on nineteenth-century practices in power and telegraphic engineering (which emphasized complete circuits) and not on the electromagnetic theory then being developed by the Maxwellians (see Chapter 6) that is widely accepted today. Thinking like a maverick has advantages and disadvantages.

Tesla believed that he would not need to pump huge amounts of electrical energy into the earth; only a small amount was needed, at the right frequency, to serve as the trigger, and resonance would do the rest. With the whole Earth pulsing like his metaphorical football, Tesla was confident that he could annihilate distance and send power and messages around the world.

He not only believed this, he acted on his belief:

Leaving Chicago by train, Tesla arrived in Colorado Springs on 18 May 1899. At his hotel, the Alta Vista, he was immediately accosted by a reporter who asked him about his plans. “I propose to send a message from Pike’s Peak to Paris,” Tesla boldly replied.

… he devised a telescoping mast that could hoist a thirty-inch copper-covered ball to a height of 142 feet. To stabilize the mast, Tesla added a twenty-five-foot tower to the roof of the station.

Under Tesla’s direction, Lowenstein and Gregg built an enormous magnifying transmitter. In the station’s main room, they constructed a circular wooden wall about six feet high and 49.25 feet in diameter. Around the top of this wall they wound two turns of thick cable in order to create the primary winding of the transmitter. In the center of the room they built the secondary coil using a hundred turns of finer wire.9 One end of this secondary coil could be connected to either a spherical terminal inside the laboratory or the copper ball atop the mast while the other end was grounded. To provide AC to the transmitter, Tesla tapped into the streetcar line that stopped just at the edge of the Knob Hill prairie. He stepped up this 500-volt current by employing a 50-kilowatt Westinghouse transformer that he rewound so that it converted the incoming current to 20,000 or 40,000 volts. The transformer was connected to a large bank of capacitors that were automatically interrupted (and hence discharged) by a motorized breakwheel. Rounding out the equipment were several large coils that could be moved around the space between the secondary and the primary.

Tesla was able to detect signals from his high-voltage high-power apparatus from a short distance away. He did not bother to check whether the signal would be attenuated with distance.

Over the next few months, Tesla conducted additional tests to verify that his magnifying transmitter was sending currents into the ground and that they could be detected. In August he tried “arrangements for telegraphy,” finding that “[t]he apparatus responded freely to [a] small pocket coil at a distance of several feet with no capacity attached and no adjusted circuit. Consequently will go at great distance.” A few weeks later, he took a receiver outside and connected it to an underground water pipe; at 250 feet from the station, he drew one-inch sparks, and at 400 feet he got half-inch sparks. On 11 September 1900, Tesla carried a receiver a mile away from the station, to nearby Prospect Lake, where he was able to measure that the magnifying transmitter was operating with a wavelength of about 4,000 feet.

This lack of witnessed distance tests can be explained on two levels: the theoretical and the personal. From a theoretical standpoint, Tesla did not believe that such tests were necessary. Tesla had decided that stationary waves in the earth, unlike ordinary Hertzian or light waves, did not lose energy as they propagated; consequently, if they could be detected a short distance from the transmitter, these waves could be detected at any distance. Likewise, Tesla also thought that in the return circuit through the atmosphere the process of conduction was extremely efficient and that there would be minimal losses. If there were no losses as the waves traveled from the transmitter to the receiver and back again, then any test detecting the waves—no matter how short the distance—was sufficient for Tesla. Hence he concluded that “communication without wires to any point of the globe is practicable … [and] would need no demonstration.”

Tesla conceived impractical ideas for radio-controlled military attack boats that earned scorn.

Tesla might have done well in San Francisco: “Though we may never know exactly why Tesla never married, the existing sources suggest several possible explanations. The first is, quite simply, that Tesla was more attracted to men than women.”

Why didn’t he invent the rainbow flag, then? “… since sexual degeneracy, like poverty, was viewed as proof that the poor were inferior, middle-class individuals were careful not to reveal anything that could be construed as unusual about their sexual conduct.”

How about mental health?

Tesla’s way through the mountain was electrotherapy. During his earliest work with high-frequency AC, Tesla had noted how such currents affected the body, and during his spectacular demonstrations, he may have observed how shocks altered his mood. Moreover, there was a tradition in popular medicine in mid-nineteenth-century America of using electric shocks from Ruhmkorff coils to treat a variety of ailments; Elihu Thomson’s father, for instance, took shocks in the 1860s as a medical treatment. Over the next few months Tesla gave himself regular shocks, probably using one of his oscillating coils, in order to keep “from sinking into a state of melancholia.” “I was so blue and discouraged in those days,” he later told a reporter, “that I don’t believe I could have borne up but for the regular electric treatment which I administered to myself. You see, electricity puts into the tired body just what it most needs—life force, nerve force. It’s a great doctor, I can tell you, perhaps the greatest of all doctors.”

In other health news, Tesla experimented with X-rays and exposed himself to what would be criminal levels of radiation: “both he and his assistants soon experienced eyestrain, headaches, and burns on the skin of their hands.” Yet he lived to 86!

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Tesla, as others saw him

Yesterday’s post was about Nikola Tesla as he saw himself. I also read Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, by Bernard Carlson, a professor with a “Ph.D. in the history and sociology of science”.

The book is weak on explaining science and engineering. The figures are cut and pasted from patent applications of the late 19th century and they are not great for learning Electricity and Magnetism.

The publishers also gave the book a title that the body text contradicts. It seems to have been European scientists who invented the electrical age, not Tesla!

Among these scientists was Hans Christian Oersted, who in 1820 discovered a relationship between electricity and magnetism. Oersted connected a wire to a Voltaic pile and then placed a magnetic compass under the wire. To Oersted’s amazement, the compass needle was deflected only when he connected or disconnected the wire from the pile. Oersted’s experiments were repeated by André-Marie Ampere, who established that it was a flow of charge—a current—that was interacting with the magnetism of the needle and causing motion.

In 1831, Michael Faraday answered this question. Using a donut-shaped coil of wire and a bar magnet, Faraday demonstrated the laws of electromagnetic induction.

Faraday further realized the significance of Oersted’s observation that the compass needle was deflected only when the current was turned on or off; when the current was passing steadily through the wire, there was no deflection. Faraday hypothesized that both the magnet and the electric coil were each surrounded by an electromagnetic field (often depicted as a series of force lines) and that current or motion was produced when one of these fields was changing. When one turned the current on or off in Oersted’s wire, one energized or de-energized the field surrounding the wire, and this change interacted with the magnetic field surrounding the compass needle, causing the needle to swing. As we shall see, this realization that a changing field can induce a current or produce motion was essential for Tesla’s work on motors.

The author also credits Heinrich Hertz with the fundamentals behind radio communication.

What if we had to rely on the work of European engineers?

In Europe, though, AC was not forgotten, and inventors there improved the transformer; by winding two different coils on a single iron core, they found they could raise or lower the voltage of alternating current, and they quickly started using this new device in a variety of ways. For instance, in London in 1883, Lucien Gaulard and John Gibbs used one of the first transformers to connect both arc and different incandescent lights in series to a single large generator.29 About the same time in Budapest, the engineers Tesla had met at Ganz and Company—Zipernowski, Bláthy, and Déri (ZBD)—saw AC as a way of developing an incandescent lighting system that could serve a wider area. By having their generator produce high-voltage AC, they found they could distribute power over longer distances using small copper wires. To protect customers from the high voltage, they used a transformer to step down the voltage before the current came into homes and shops. Within a few years, the ZBD system was being used to light several European cities. Both the Gaulard and Gibbs and ZBD systems employed single-phase AC since that was all that was needed to secure the desired voltage change.

In other words, if no Americans had ever tinkered in this area, we’d have exactly the same system delivering power to our homes and offices.

How about the AC motor itself?

This brings us to Tesla’s third insight in the park. Based on his extensive mental engineering, Tesla had a hunch that somehow one or more alternating currents could be used to create a rotating magnetic field. If so, his thinking would have paralleled that of an English physicist, Walter Baily, who reported in 1879 how he had used two electric currents to cause Arago’s wheel to rotate. Instead of a horseshoe magnet, Baily placed four electromagnets underneath his copper disk (see Figure 2.9). Baily linked the coils in series, joining one with the other diagonally across from it. He then connected each pair of electromagnets to a rotating switch that controlled the current delivered from two separate batteries to the pairs of electromagnets. As Baily rotated his switch, the electromagnets were sequentially energized to become either north or south magnetic poles, with the effect that the magnetic field underneath the copper disk rotated. As a scientist, Baily seems to have been satisfied to know that electric currents could be used to turn Arago’s wheel, and he regarded his motor as a scientific toy.

1884 was a year in which no human being was illegal and Tesla emigrated to the U.S.:

Years later he recalled that process of formally entering the United States consisted of a clerk barking at him, “Kiss the Bible. Twenty cents!”32 Having lived in the cosmopolitan cities of Prague, Budapest, and Paris, Tesla was initially shocked by the crudeness and vulgarity of America. As he wrote in his autobiography, “What I had left was beautiful, artistic, and fascinating in every way; what I saw here was machined, rough, and unattractive. A burly policeman was twirling his stick which looked to me as big as a log. I approached him politely, with the request to direct me [to an address]. ‘Six blocks down, then to the left,’ he said, with murder in his eyes. ‘Is this America?’ I asked myself in painful surprise. ‘It is a century behind Europe in civilization.’

Tesla was quickly successful, selling patents on AC motors to Westinghouse in 1888 and earning roughly $90,000 for himself. What would $90k have been worth?

In late September, Tesla switched from the Astor House to the Gerlach Hotel on 27th Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. Built in 1888 at a cost of $1 million, the Gerlach was an imposing eleven-story fireproof building that featured elevators, electric lights, and several sumptuous dining rooms.

I.e., Tesla earned enough to fund construction of one entire floor of a massive hotel in Manhattan.

He was a fantastic showman:

To help the audience appreciate the full potential of high-frequency AC for electric lighting, Tesla offered a breathtaking demonstration (Figure 7.2). Two large zinc sheets were suspended from the ceiling about fifteen feet from each other and connected to the oscillating transformer. With the auditorium lights dimmed, Tesla took a long gas-filled tube in each hand and stepped between the two sheets. As he waved the slender tubes, they glowed, charged by an electrostatic field set up between the plates. As Tesla explained, high-frequency current now made it possible to have electric lighting without wires, to have lamps that could be moved freely around a room.

From London, Tesla traveled on to Paris and booked a room in the Hotel de la Paix. On 19 February he gave a lecture before the Société de Physique and the Société International des Electriciens (Figure 8.3). Finding his demonstrations highly persuasive, the French electrician Édouard Hospitalier observed, “The young scientist is … almost as a prophet. He introduces so much warmth and sincerity into his explanations and experiments that faith wins us, and despite ourselves, we believe that we are witnesses of the dawn of a nearby revolution in the present processes of illumination.” Just as in London, Tesla’s performance generated a great deal of excitement and praise. “The French papers this week are full of Mr. Tesla and his brilliant experiments,” reported the Electrical Review. “No man in our age has achieved such a universal scientific reputation in a single stride as this gifted young electrical engineer.”

What did it cost to attend?

In St. Louis, Tesla lectured in the Exhibition Theater, which seated four thousand, but the hall was packed to suffocation as another several thousand people crowded in, most of whom came hoping to see Tesla’s spectacular demonstrations. The demand for seats was so great that tickets were being scalped outside the hall for three to five dollars.

We forget how unstable the U.S. economy was back then. The Panic of 1893 nearly put the new electric companies out of business and certainly wiped out a lot of shareholders even when the companies continued to operate.

The next post will talk about Tesla’s attempts to come up with a Second Act.

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Why would anyone name a car company after a guy famous for delusional overpromising?

One doesn’t learn much history in Electrical Engineering skool. I had a dim perception of Nikola Tesla as someone who turn Katherine Clerk Maxwell‘s equations into practical AC generators and AC motors. So it seemed to make sense that an electric car company would be named after Mr. Tesla.

During my recent trip to China, I decided to read up on the pioneers of the technology that has made China the modern industrial powerhouse (so to speak) that it is.

I started with My Inventions, The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla. Tesla wrote the book in 1919 at the age of 63 (he would die in 1943, in poverty and debt, in the New Yorker Hotel at age 86). He is enthusiastic about invention:

The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention. It is the most important product of his creative brain. Its ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of the forces of nature to human needs.

Tesla implied that his personality was inherited:

My mother was an inventor of the first order and would, I believe, have achieved great things had she not been so remote from modern life and its multi fold opportunities. She invented and constructed all kinds of tools and devices and wove the finest designs from thread which was spun by her. She even planted seeds, raised the plants and separated the fibbers herself. She worked indefatigably, from break of day till late at night, and most of the wearing apparel and furnishings of the home were the product of her hands. When

Very quickly the delusions begin

My sight and hearing were always extraordinary. I could clearly discern objects in the distance when others saw no trace of them. Several times in my boyhood I saved the houses of our neighbors from fire by hearing the faint crackling sounds which did not disturb their sleep, and calling for help. In 1899, when I was past forty and carrying on my experiments in Colorado, I could hear very distinctly thunderclaps at a distance of 550 miles.

In Budapest I could hear the ticking of a watch with three rooms between me and the timepiece. A fly alighting on a table in the room would cause a dull thud in my ear. A carriage passing at a distance of a few miles fairly shook my whole body.

Isn’t it a good working definition of “delusional” to hear things that nobody else hears?

Bad news for Tesla shareholders:

If my memory serves me right, it was in November, 1890, that I performed a laboratory experiment which was one of the most extraordinary and spectacular ever recorded in the annals of Science. In investigating the behavior of high frequency currents, I had satisfied myself that an electric field of sufficient intensity could be produced in a room to light up electrode less vacuum tubes. Accordingly, a transformer was built to test the theory and the first trial proved a marvelous success. It is difficult to appreciate what those strange phenomena meant at the time. We crave for new sensations, but soon be come indifferent to them. The wonders of yesterday are today common occurrences.

(I still like Dog Mode, though, having asked for it back in 2003!)

Speaking of Dog, Tesla wanted to compete with God:

One day, as I was roaming the mountains, I sought shelter from an approaching storm. The sky became overhung with heavy clouds, but somehow the rain was delayed until, all of a sudden, there was a lightening flash and a few moments after, a deluge. This observation set me thinking. It was manifest that the two phenomena were closely related, as cause and effect, and a little reflection led me to the conclusion that the electrical energy involved in the precipitation of the water was inconsiderable, the function of the lightening being much like that of a sensitive trigger. Here was a stupendous possibility of achievement. If we could produce electric effects of the required quality, this whole planet and the conditions of existence on it could be transformed. The sun raises the water of the oceans and winds drive it to distant regions where it remains in a state of most delicate balance. If it were in our power to upset it when and wherever desired, this might life sustaining stream could be at will controlled. We could irrigate arid deserts, create lakes and rivers, and provide motive power in unlimited amounts. This would be the most efficient way of harnessing the sun to the uses of man. The consummation depended on our ability to develop electric forces of the order of those in nature.

Though he also believed in God:

[World] Peace can only come as a natural consequence of universal enlightenment and merging of races, and we are still far from this blissful realization, because few indeed, will admit the reality that God made man in His image in which case all earth men are alike. There is in fact but one race, of many colors. Christ is but one person, yet he is of all people, so why do some people think themselves better than some other people?

Tesla was not daunted by failure:

I have refrained from publicly expressing myself on this subject before, as it seemed improper to dwell on personal matters while all the world was in dire trouble. I would add further, in view of various rumors which have reached me, that Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan did not interest himself with me in a business way, but in the same large spirit in which he has assisted many other pioneers. He carried out his generous promise to the letter and it would have been most unreasonable to expect from him anything more. He had the highest regard for my attainments and gave me every evidence of his complete faith in my ability to ultimately achieve what I had set out to do. I am unwilling to accord to some small-minded and jealous individuals the satisfaction of having thwarted my efforts. These men are to me nothing more than microbes of a nasty disease. My project was retarded by laws of nature. The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time, but the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.

Tesla was an isolationist and would have to agree to disagree with Greta Thunberg:

As I view the world of today, in the light of the gigantic struggle we have witnessed, I am filled with conviction that the interests of humanity would be best served if the United States remained true to its traditions, true to God whom it pretends to believe, and kept out of “entangling alliances.” Situated as it is, geographically remote from the theaters of impending conflicts, without incentive to territorial aggrandizement, with inexhaustible resources and immense population thoroughly imbued with the spirit of liberty and right, this country is placed in a unique and privileged position. It is thus able to exert, independently, its colossal strength and moral force to the benefit of all, more judiciously and effectively, than as a member of a league.

He was interested in aviation:

As stated on a previous occasion, when I was a student at college I conceived a flying machine quite unlike the present ones. The underlying principle was sound, but could not be carried into practice for want of a prime-mover of sufficiently great activity. In recent years, I have successfully solved this problem and am now planning aerial machines devoid of sustaining planes, ailerons, propellers, and other external attachments, which will be capable of immense speeds and are very likely to furnish powerful arguments for peace in the near future. Such a machine, sustained and propelled “entirely by reaction,” is shown on one of the pages of my lectures, and is supposed to be controlled either mechanically, or by wireless energy. By installing proper plants, it will be practicable to “project a missile of this kind into the air and drop it” almost on the very spot designated, which may be thousands of miles away.

He also wanted to do AI and self-driving cars!

But we are not going to stop at this. Telautomats will be ultimately produced, capable of acting as if possessed of their own intelligence, and their advent will create a revolution. As early as 1898, I proposed to representatives of a large manufacturing concern the construction and public exhibition of an automobile carriage which, left to itself, would perform a great variety of operations involving something akin to judgment. But my proposal was deemed chimerical at the time and nothing came of it.

That’s Tesla in his own words. The next post will have some links from a biography.

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Who earned an old-style Nobel Prize in 2019?

One of the (many) interesting angles in Brian Keating’s Losing the Nobel Prize (see previous post 1; also previous post 2) was that the Nobel in Physics was previously awarded for recently-developed stuff that had obvious near-term practical value for humans.

Marconi and Braun won in 1909 for the prize in “Physics” for their work in radio, which I think today we would call “engineering.” Nils Gustaf Dalén won in 1912 for improving lighthouses with a gas regulator.

What if the Nobel prize system still worked this way? They couldn’t reach back five decades, as they did with the Higgs boson (postulated 1964; confirmed 2012; Nobel Prize 2013). Who would have earned the prize for an advancement made in 2019?

My nomination: the team behind Garmin Autoland. It seems doubtful that the headline use will be common, but the technology could be adapted to yield huge safety improvements even for healthy two-pilot crews. The weather-avoidance system, for example, could suggest to pilots “Are you sure that you don’t want to adopt the following flight path?” The flap and gear extension systems could say “Would you like to add flaps and gear now that you’re lined up on final?”

Why it is important for humanity: a lot of people ride as passengers in airplanes. It is upsetting when airplanes crash (but, to judge by relative media coverage, hardly anyone cares about automobile crashes).

Reader: What are your picks? I guess you could also go back a couple of years (but not 49!) to things that proved themselves useful in 2019.


  • this Cirrus video, in which the presumed wife-mother does not seem too concerned about the expiration of the pilot (presumed husband-father) as she activates Garmin Autoland and looks forward to the next stage of her life journey
  • TIME magazine’s best inventions of 2019 (potential candidates from the folks who remind us that Greta Thunberg is #1 out of 8 billion)
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