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!” 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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Hybrid cruise ship: not as dumb as it sounds

We recently made it through the Northwest Passage on the MS Roald Amundsen, a diesel-hybrid cruise ship.

What could be dumber than putting a huge bank of batteries into a machine that needs to be generating power constantly, e.g., to run lights, water desalination, air conditioning, sewage treatment, etc.?

At a talk by the ship’s chief engineer, Jonny Johnsen, we learned that this may make good engineering sense. The key insight is that it is most efficient to run any of the four diesel engines at 80 percent power. Although the ship can sail for 30 minutes at 14 knots on the battery alone, that’s not the point of the batteries. The idea is to have a power reserve that does not require keeping an extra engine at idle. If the ship needs a sudden burst of power for maneuvering, the power comes from the battery while perhaps just a single engine is running. After the demand is gone, the engine keeps running at 80 percent to recharge the batteries.

The batteries enable the crew to run just one engine without fearing a blackout (though maybe California-based passengers would feel right at home in such an event?).

The engines are reasonably efficient to begin with, over 50 percent before heat recovery, which is used to heat water, heat the cabins, heat the pool/hot tubs, and help with desalinization. But having a big bank of batteries makes the overall trip more efficient. The engineer said that he expected we would use 300,000 liters of diesel for the trip from Greenland to Nome, Alaska. Divided by the 472 passengers who were on board, that’s only 169 gallons in a three-week period. An SUV-owning American who liked to drive a lot might consume more!

More engineering facts:

  • the ship produces 156 cubic meters/day of fresh water via two RO systems (force seawater through a membrane and dump the brine overboard); 300,000 liters per day
  • the ship does not anchor; computers, GPS, swiveling propellers (2) and bow thrusters (2) maintain station (as in https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2019/08/21/movie-the-last-breath/ )
  • for NOx emissions control, the engines use the same “add blue” urea as European diesel cars
  • the ship has a conventional anti-roll stabilizer system
  • the ship is rated Polar Class 6, which means we could go through 70 cm of level ice
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Why don’t airplanes have parking sensors for the wingtips?

At a recent aviation gathering, the topic of the Boeing 737 MAX came up. I gave my usual spiel about how TI was able to make the Speak & Spell in 1978. Why couldn’t a B737 have had a $1 voice synthesis chip saying “trimming forward” when MCAS was running, potentially prompting pilots to hit the trim interrupt switches much earlier. And why couldn’t the rest of our aircraft have voice warnings instead of simply beeping with different tones for different kinds of problems, e.g., gear not down, approaching a stall, etc.

An airline pilot responded “We lose millions of dollars every year from minor collisions on the ramp. If I buy a car for $20,000 it will come with parking sensors. Why doesn’t a $50 million jet have sensors in the wingtips to warn of a collision?”

I would love to know the answer to this question! It does not seem as though FAA certification would be a huge hassle given that the system won’t be used in flight. The sensors are commercially available from Bosch (parking ultrasonic; rear radar).

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What is the point of 5G in a country that has coverage problems?

People are complaining that the latest iPhones can’t support 5G, a high-speed cellular data standard that uses high frequencies and therefore will presumably require new antenna and radio circuits.

I am not sure what the point of 5G is in the US, though. The range and ability to transmit through walls, rain, etc. is inferior with 5G. The problem with the US is not that the 30-50 Mbit speeds in areas with good LTE (4G, sort of) coverage are not fast enough. It is that the speed in a lot of places is 0 Mbps (i.e., there is no coverage).

Readers: What will be the practical advantage of 5G over LTE?

Separately, if 5G does prove useful, will 5G make our traffic-choked suburbs even less attractive compared to cities? If carriers didn’t want to invest in good LTE coverage for American suburbs why would they build 5G towers every 1,500’ in medium-density environments?

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Scale under the floor of a cruise ship cabin to reduce buffet consumption?

The biggest and best helicopter tour operators have scales hidden underneath the floor at the customer service counter. Thus they’re able to quickly capture passenger weights, oftentimes without the customers being aware.

What about the same technology for cruise ship cabins? Put a scale near the door and a display so that the passenger can see his or her current weight. This could reduce costs since a passenger who realized that he or she was gaining 0.5 lbs. per day could cut back at the buffet.

(On our recent Northwest Passage cruise on Hurtigruten, there was no scale in the room and also none in the (small) gym. Due to the challenges of resupplying in the High Arctic combined presumably with people pigging out, the ship ran out of a bunch of items prior to the end of the trip. The poor crew had to go 10 days without fresh fruit. The Germans were not happy that the yogurt had run out.)

Some of our food temptations:

(The French chef, Julien, cannot be held responsible for the poutine. I was the one who pointed out that we needed to celebrate Canada’s greatest culinary achievement and the kitchen crew raided a supermarket in Nunavut for cheese curds.)

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Why is it difficult to make a reliable refrigerator?

We had a 7-year-old GE refrigerator that would fail every couple of years, requiring $400-500 in service. We got tired of throwing out spoiled food and living out of coolers for 3-4 days so we invested $2,600 in a KitchenAid (one of the few with the same dimensions as the old GE, which fit into a kitchen recess that an architect thought was a good idea).

The KitchenAid failed after three weeks, unable to keep the refrigerator side cooler than 50 degrees. (It has a separate evaporator on the freezer side, so we can live on microwave pizza.)

Given decades of experience and continuous improvements in electronics, why is it difficult to engineer and build a working refrigerator? A modern Honda or Toyota may run for three years and 36,000 miles without anything failing, despite being exposed to hot and cold temperatures and vibration. The car has myriad systems, each of which could fail independently, and yet generally these all soldier on for 5-7 years before the first failure of any kind.

“Owner Satisfaction” is terrible with all refrigerators, according to Consumer Reports. LG is the only brand that achieves a 5/10. Whirlpool and KitchenAid are down at 3/10. Compare to 9/10 for Bosch or Miele dishwashers or 9/10 for LG washing machines.

What’s the challenge with an apparently simple fridge, sitting in a kitchen that is kept within +/- 5 degrees of 72?

[We discovered during this process why modern McMansions are always built with at least two refrigerators. BestBuy refused to accept a return on the unit, citing that it was purchased more than 15 days previously. Whirlpool/KitchenAid wouldn’t answer the phone on a Sunday, but when I got hold of them on Monday morning they cheerfully described their full warranty. They would be happy to come look at the fridge and begin the process of diagnosing the failure… in October. Was that normal? “Oh yes,” said the agent on September 17, “In a lot of areas I’m scheduling the second or third week of October as the first available visit.”]

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Ten years since Deepwater Horizon set a depth record

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Deepwater Horizon setting a record by drilling a 35,000′-deep hole (a few months later, of course, we got to see the unfortunate flip side of the edge of engineering success).

I’ll use the occasion to relate some notes from reading The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea, a book that isn’t a single narrative story, but contains some interesting facts across a range of domains.

The Gulf is the origin of the Gulf Stream:

The Stream builds from a vigorous loop current in the Gulf, formed from the heat and energy of the Yucatán and Caribbean currents and the sun. … “Christopher Columbus found the way to the New World, but Ponce de León found the way back.”

Florida is named for a Spanish “feast of flowers”:

Present-day Floridians prefer to think of the Spaniard as coming upon a land that spoke to him with the colors, fragrance, and, indeed, flowers of subtropical exuberance. It’s a quaint notion that says less about a conquistador’s inclinations than about a contemporary people who use the orderly landscaping around their homes and in their parks to picture early Florida, and know little of the harsh wildness that the Spanish often engaged in North America. Ponce de León’s view of the shore would have taken in dune grass, vine-tangled forests, and long stretches of scrubland of virtually impassable saw palmettos. There would have been few flowers. As devout Roman Catholics, the Spanish often named a place for the religious day on which they discovered it. If the expedition had made landfall farther north, then Delaware or New Jersey, still waiting for spring flowers, might be known today as Florida.

Native Americans knew about the invaders, but apparently could not get organized to stop them, even though the Spanish were generally clueless (they did not find the mouth of the Mississippi River for many decades after one would have expected them to).

Thousands of natives lived on the Gulf coast at the time, with strong defenses and effective communication networks that reached great distances across land and water. Seafaring people, they did not live in primitive isolation, as the Spanish assumed. Their world reached beyond horizons. Indeed, they knew of the Spanish before the Spanish knew of them. They were aware of the enslaving and killing of Indians in the Bahamas, Hispaniola, and Cuba. Shipwrecks, too, so common in the age, gave away the presence of others. Flotsam had been washing onto Indian shores around the Gulf since the early days of European exploration, and the “gear of foreign dead men,” to quote T. S. Eliot, sometimes included dead men themselves, their faces oddly covered with hair and their bodies weighted with clothing. On occasion, a live one crawled onto the beach, revealing even more about the foreigners. The first time Ponce de León met the Calusa, whom he knew nothing about, a native greeted his expedition with Spanish words.

The natives, fed on oysters, were taller and healthier than the Spanish, who initially starved on the Gulf coast due to their inability to harvest the resources. (Watermelon was among the crops being grown by Indians.) Industrial fishing by Europeans peaked circa 1900 and the fish population has never recovered. Rich men and women (no other gender IDs are mentioned) came down from the Northeast on the new railroads and hunted for 200+ lb. tarpon in the Gulf. These fish were becoming “scarce and shy” by 1895.

Between 1880 and 1933, Louisiana surrendered 3.5 million alligators to the market; Florida, twice as many. The alligator and egret populations went into tailspins simultaneously. The difference was that hardly anyone cared about the welfare of alligators; their one salvation was the plume market. … The Great War between nations redirected resources away from civilian markets and fashion. Women’s outfits shed several yards of cloth, and hats grew smaller, in part to complement the latest bobbed hairstyle and accommodate new enclosed automobile designs. When women working the red-light districts, which were booming around military installations, took a fancy to feather-wear, women of proper society boxed up their plume hats for fear of mistaken identity. Vanity once again succeeded where moral persuasion had not.

The origins of modern beachfront high-rise development on the Gulf dates to the 1928 opening of the Don CeSar Hotel on “deep-set concrete pyramid footings” in St. Pete Beach, Florida. The wind-filled enemies of these buildings are named after the Mayan god Huracan. (Hurricane Ike did $50 billion of damage to Galveston and surrounding areas in 2008.) Despite the hurricanes, the population of Florida has grown from 3 million in 1950 to more than 20 million today. The author says that mosquito control, notably from DDT, was critical for this expansion.

How did the practice of flying into hurricanes originate?

Airborne weather chasers were invaluable for tracking hurricanes. The first storm cowboy in history lifted off from Bryan Field in Texas during World War II. His name was Joseph Duckworth, a flight instructor in the US Army Air Corps. The storm that earned him recognition as the original hurricane hunter was another Gulf native. It organized on a July day in 1943, one hundred miles south of the Mississippi coast. At the time, Duckworth was training British airmen in instrument flight using the AT-6 Texan single-engine trainer. Experienced combat pilots, the Brits hated the Texan, a decrepit airplane beneath their expertise. When the July hurricane prompted an order to evacuate the planes from Bryan Field, their disdain for the aircraft deepened. The AT-6 wasn’t worth saving at the risk of British lives, the trainees said. Coming to its defense, Duckworth set out to prove both the plane’s sturdiness and the merits of instrument navigation. He wagered a highball with the Brits that he could fly the AT-6 into the hurricane and live to tell about it. Without official permission, he and a navigator, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph O’Hair, belted in, took off, and bored into the black wall of the storm, where, O’Hair later said, they were “tossed about like a stick in a dog’s mouth.” They discovered the eye—calm and quiet, ten miles across—and saw the ground below. After circling inside, they plunged back through the wild darkness.

It was Lyndon Johnson who transferred responsibility for dealing with the Mississippi and the New Orleans levees from the state to the Federal government:

When Katrina hurled its way through New Orleans forty years from the day Betsy was identified as a hurricane, bureaucracy, scandals, and insufficient funds had left the Corps’s levee project a work still in progress.

Shipwreck was a constant hazard:

The Coast Survey’s Ferdinand Gerdes reported bitterly that within fifteen minutes of a ship’s running up on a reef, “five or six vessels under the denomination of wreckers” would converge on it like ants at a June picnic. In turn, making navigation safer jeopardized the wreckers’ lucrative vocation. Legend has it that these “honest-looking men” tore down the Survey’s beacons and markers, and lit phony lighthouse signals to abet disaster.

Thanks to the miracle of immigration (from other U.S. states as well as from foreign countries), Floridians today live in Puerto Ricans of the 1950s:

As buildings, modern-day condominiums became attractive in places where the population had outgrown the availability of land, … Puerto Rico, where condominiums had served the crowded island commonwealth since the 1950s, exported its building ideas to south Florida. When Congress allowed the Federal Housing Administration to insure mortgages on condominiums, construction took off. By the late 1960s, so-called supertowers were stacking humanity as high as fifty stories. To Florida developers, condominiums were an ingenious way to sell a single waterfront lot to fifty, a hundred, or more buyers. … At the millennium, Cape Coral was the fastest growing US city, with a population of 100,000 or more. Pricey Sanibel had an untaxing population density of 356 people per square mile, allowing the coexistence of human and wildlife habitation. Affordable Fort Myers had 2,065 people per square mile and Sarasota 3,540, allowing little more than the coexistence of humans and concrete.

I had hoped to get a definitive explanation of the red tide phenomenon that renders Gulf Coast beaches noxious for quite a few weeks per year. Red tide seems to be fueled by human discharges, but the precise mechanism does not seem to be understood.

A map in the 1954 Gulf study conducted by the US Public Health Service uses building-shaped icons to show the placement of wastewater treatment plants in the region. They’re all on bays and rivers. Black icons indicate plants dumping poorly treated waste, and from Corpus Christi to Naples, they are bunched up like flies on an outhouse.17 The study also mentions red tides, natural warm-water algal blooms that discolor the surface with a veneer of red, brown, or green. In that pivotal decade of the 1950s, scientists were noticing more of these noxious events in the Gulf. Red tides irritate people’s eyes and lungs and leave heaps of dead sea life on the beach. Manatees are especially hard-hit. Cabeza de Vaca may have seen outbreaks in Texas, and Diego Lopez de Collogudo, a Franciscan monk, chronicled what was likely a red tide striking Yucatán in 1648: a “foul odor” and “mountain of dead fish.” Experts regard an 1844 event on the Florida panhandle, near where Leonard Destin fished, as the first documented red tide, although no one knew what it was. “Poison water,” people called the events. A 1935 outbreak off South Padre Island that killed two-inch mullet, eight-foot tarpon, and everything in between left researchers flummoxed.18 Then, after a 1947 red tide devastated most of the sponge beds, from which Tarpon Springs never fully recovered, microscope-peering scientists determined that the malicious rafts of algae discharge a toxin that paralyzes the respiratory system of marine life. But they didn’t know how or why, or from where exactly the red tides originate. To control red tides, scientists tried dousing a few with copper sulfate. This only killed more fish. In the 1980s and ’90s, off the south Florida and south Texas coasts, red tides bloomed in higher numbers. As it happened, ranchers in Texas were raising more cattle than ever, and slaughterhouse capacity doubled. In Florida, the exploding residential population ignited a chain reaction in lawn fertilizer use, facilitated by ambrosial garden centers at big-box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Wal-Mart and monthly lawn treatment service provided by companies like TruGreen and Scotts. Some scientists were connecting the intensity of red tides to green grass, purgative cows, and gushing sewer pipes, vexing some of their colleagues, who claimed that evidence didn’t exist to confirm the connections. The press reported algal blooms as one of nature’s cruel mysteries, and sometimes falsely identified pollution-induced fish kills as red tide, incriminating nature instead of the actual offender.

The author characterizes humans as generally trashing the Gulf. The author says that a Proctor & Gamble (owners of Gillette!) diaper factory in Florida has done far more damage to the Gulf than Deepwater Horizon, but nobody seems to care. In addition to the obvious pollution, agricultural runoff from the Midwest creates massive dead zones within the gulf.

TIME’S 1988 “FILTHY SEAS” cover story noted what it called dead zones. There were a few in nearshore waters around the US, all modest in size compared with one, which was three hundred miles long and ten wide and “adrift in the Gulf of Mexico.” Over the next few years, this lifeless region, fronting the coast of Louisiana, reaching to eastern Texas in one direction and to Alabama in the other, would grow to the size of New Jersey. It lingered as more or less a giant underwater vacuum chamber sucked clean of dissolved oxygen.

All manner of sea life that didn’t get out when conditions turned stale met the same suffocating fate. The bottom was littered with the dead—a tragic wasteland of crab, mollusk, and sea worm remains. It was

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How to get a free tie and wristwatch

Day 2 of EAA AirVenture and the air is filled with fast jets.

Martin-Baker, the family-run English company that makes ejection seats, won the Aero Club of New England’s Cabot Award this year. The British executive accepting the award failed to adhere to American Facebook standards. He said “it is an honor and a pleasure,” not “we’re honored and humbled.”

Thinking of taking politicians’ advice to go into STEM? One engineer in the early days ejected 18 times. Those first devices required the pilot to pull a parachute rip chord after being rocketed out of a plane (the company still operates two Gloster Meteor World War II jet fighters plus a Wile E. Coyote-style rocket test track near Belfast (for which expired air-to-air missile rockets are used)).

Roughly 80,000 seats have been made and 7,600 used (latest). The company refrained from offering a “Mk 13” version of the seat. Martin-Baker is managed by engineers and the product is far more complex than one would expect. Numerous airbags deploy in precise sequence to try to prevent a pilot from being injured during the ejection. (John McCain is the most famous pilot to have been injured by the process; the injuries that some people imagine he sustained as a POW were actually inflicted by not being positioned properly during ejection. The latest and greatest Martin-Baker seats require less of the pilot.)

The highlight of the award lunch was meeting Col. Joe Kittinger, who has used a Martin-Baker seat twice. He wore the tie that the company gives to everyone who ejects and the watch that Martin-Baker gives to pilots who shoot down an enemy plane and then are forced to eject. (Apologies for the iPhone photos taken in dim light; where’s the Google Pixel when you need it?)

As with the B-17 bomber crews who went out to Germany in 1943, I am not surprised that someone would go out on that first mission, but it is tough to imagine going out for the second.

Here’s to the guys like Joe Kittinger II whose bravery took most of the risk out of the flying that we do today and thereby enabled a mass aviation celebration like AirVenture (“Oshkosh”).

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