Midnight in Chernobyl: Helicopter heroes

Suggested reading for 9/11, in which I hope we remember those who ran towards the stricken towers rather than following instinct and running away: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster Kindle Edition, by Adam Higginbotham. This follows my general rule that the only good popular books on science and engineering are written by British authors, who tend to assume that their audience is actually capable of comprehending some of the technical and scientific points.

The heroism in the book is inspiring. I was partway through this book when a scheduled flight to Upstate New York came up. There was a 40-knot headwind which would, I knew, combine with the mountains and hills to form turbulence. The FAA had issued a warning for moderate turbulence below 10,000′. The trip was a favor to friends who wanted to look at an antique wooden boat for sale. I thought about wimping out on two hours of bumps, but then said “If the Soviet firefighters and nuclear plant ran toward Chernobyl Reactor 4 rather than away, I can handle a bit of discomfort.”

A lot of the workers in the plant behaved heroically, trying to resupply what they thought was left of the exploded reactor with cooling water. They knew that they were going to receive lethal doses of radiation, but they strove to reach manual valves and controls in hopes of saving fellow citizens. About 60 of these men died within a month (Wikipedia).

Although there was no shortage of heroes following this explosion, I had never realized the heroic actions of Soviet helicopter crews. They flew directly into the worst of the radioactive cloud to drop, by hand, bags of boron-containing sand, straight down into the ruined core. “Historians estimate that about 600 Soviet pilots risked dangerous levels of radiation to fly the thousands of flights needed to cover reactor No. 4 in this attempt to seal off radiation.” (Wikipedia, which also notes that the efforts might not have yielded significant results; as with coronaplague, when the guy running the helicopter operation was told that it was futile, he said “we have to be seen to be doing something”)

From chernobylgallery.com:

It is a good book. I haven’t seen the HBO series. What do folks think of it?

Circling back to 9/11, the New Yorker ran a good article on Rick Rescorla, who went into the World Trade Center to get people out.

Related:

  • the cause of the accident (Chernobyl Gallery)
  • “How HBO Got It Wrong On Chernobyl” (Forbes): 2 immediate, non-radiation deaths; 29 early fatalities from radiation (ARS) within 4 months from radiation, burns and smoke inhalation, 19 late adult fatalities presumably from radiation over the next 20 years, although this number is within the normal incidence of cancer mortality in this group, which is about 1% per year, and 9 late child fatalities resulting in thyroid cancer, presumably from radiation.
  • Wikipedia: There is consensus that a total of approximately 30 men died from immediate blast trauma and acute radiation syndrome (ARS) in the seconds to months after the disaster, respectively, with 60 in total in the decades hence, inclusive of later radiation induced cancer.[2][3][4] However, there is considerable debate concerning the accurate number of projected deaths due to the disaster’s long-term health effects; long-term death estimates range from up to 4,000 (per the 2005 and 2006 conclusions of a joint consortium of the United Nations) for the most exposed people of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, to 16,000 in total for all those exposed on the entire continent of Europe, with figures as high as 60,000 when including the relatively minor effects around the globe
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Solar electricity at 1.35 cents/kWh in Abu Dhabi

I haven’t been getting a good supply of climate change alarmism and panic due to coronapanic dominating the media. Here’s an item that I missed: the next big solar project in Abu Dhabi will deliver power for 1.35 cents/kWH (cleantechnica).

Related:

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Saving lives with traffic circles

Back in March, I wondered “Why do we care about COVID-19 deaths more than driving-related deaths?” and closed with

What is the answer? Why do we accept that hundreds of thousands of Americans will die in the next 10-20 years because of our failure to invest in engineering and infrastructure today, but we can’t accept that up to hundreds of thousands of Americans will die in the next year because we didn’t do a sufficiently thorough shutdown?

Is it too soon to start asking what we could do to save lives if we invested coronapanic-scale money on something other than coronapanic?

“For Traffic Safety, Roundabouts Run Circles Around Stoplights” (Strxur):

Jim Brainard, the city’s mayor since 1996, has made roundabouts Carmel’s most characteristic feature. Within the 48-square-mile city of 100,000, located just northwest of the state’s capital of Indianapolis, Brainard has built 132 roundabouts. He’s also become America’s—and perhaps the world’s—most adamant cheerleader for roundabout adoption.

“Roundabouts have reduced traffic fatalities by 90% in Carmel,” said Brainard, a lawyer by training. “The U.S. average fatality rate per 100,000 people is 14. It tends to be higher in suburban areas because the roads are built wider for faster speeds. Indianapolis has done a little bit better than normal—11.7 per 100,000. The average in Carmel is two.”

Now that the U.S. will have to give up on public transport #BecauseCorona, is there hope for getting more flow through our existing road network to accommodate the existing 330 million plus the next 100 million immigrants?

The smaller the circles are, the safer they become. “We have higher crash rates in our double lane roundabouts then our single lane roundabouts,” Brainard said. “But they’re still a vast improvement over stoplights. We can move 50% more cars per hour through roundabouts than we could through stoplights. If you have constant flow, you don’t have to add more lanes.”

These can’t be retrofit easily to cities, but if the future of America is suburban (#BecauseCorona), maybe this is part of the answer!

From the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 2019, evidence of a bad traffic light encounter?

The exhibits on the bad shape that the world was in, circa June 2019.

Do we credit these artists for prescience? The “Vague Anxiety” is no longer vague! “Acts of Mourning” is no longer a metaphor, as only 99.965 percent of the Irish people remain alive, the remaining 0.0035 percent having been killed by Covid-19.

From the bookstore, is it possible this would be considered insulting by those who call themselves “feminist”?

The rest of the bookstore was unobjectionable, except to those who had faith that public-key encryption would enable a secure Internet.

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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”?

Related:

  • 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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