Monday, November 19, 2012

Nikola Tesla

The second time a game ever got me to go to the library and start reading a book, was Red Alert 2, which featured a defensive structure that zapped incoming opponents with a burst of electricity called a Tesla Tower. (The first was Gabriel Knight II and King Ludwig II of Bavaria.)

I actually meant to pick-up a book about Nikola Tesla ages ago, but when I saw "Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla : Biography of a Genius" on the new arrivals shelf at the library I finally had the topic thrust toward me. I'm interested in the topic and it was free. A perfect storm.

Besides examining Tesla, what I find so fascinating about the book is how well it situates Tesla in the larger world around him and the kind of profound technological changes that were happening at the turn of the last century.

People didn't have electricity, even in the cities and this was a time without radio. Books, newspapers, and magazines were the principle purveyors of information and news. And at that same time in different parts of the world there's the onset of wireless communication, electricity (Tesla's AC current winning out over the DC advocated by people like Thomas Edison), and flight technology. All of this would bring profound social, commercial, and economic changes to the entire planet, but the author, Marc Seifer, argues convincingly, I think, that Tesla -- a single person -- had more impact on those three than anyone else.

Besides all that, he was on the verge of almost single-handedly leaping technology about 300 years into the future. (100 by Tesla's figuring.) The fascinating aspect of "Why didn't it happen?" is quite simple: Money.

More specifically, J. P. Morgan's money. And his choice not to invest any more of it into Tesla's Wardenclyffe site.

Tesla's vision of the future was wireless technology for everything. It was his figuring that electricity and information could be sent and received from anywhere on the planet completely wirelessly provided one had the correct receiver, using natural condition present in the atmosphere and something to do with harmonics -- some of the explanations in the book kind of confused me, but I think I got the gist of it. It seems as though he was on the aforementioned verge at Wardenclyffe (pictured below, with embellishments).

How would our lives have been different now, more than a 100 years after Wardenclyffe was essentially abandoned to the elements and creditors? If we didn't need fossil fuels to drive our cars but instead just "tuned in" an electric signal and never have to stop for gas? The same for aircraft? How would industry have developed if anyone could tap into free electricity? What other incredible electrical and engineering feats would Tesla have gone on to realize had Wardenclyffe succeeded?

Tesla made some horrible missteps when it cam to dealing with J.P. Morgan, but he also wasn't very good at maintaining ownership of his patents or commercially exploiting them properly. He was broke most of the time, even if he lived a good chunk of his life at the Hotel Astor in New York. He should have been rolling in cash. However, if JP Morgan had decided that he didn't care so much about his holdings in coal, oil, steel, copper -- you know, all those things that in some way were directly tied to producing and delivering electricity and gas/oil -- and hadn't warned off other big investors, Tesla just might have succeeded. The "What ifs....?" are enormous.

The reliance on oil and gas continues to this day. Why haven't Tesla's ideas been resurrected, even completed? In the intervening 100 years, why hasn't that happened?

It's multi-faceted, but I think the principle reason is that oil and gas companies have been reaping billions of dollars of profit and have managed to bury Tesla's ideas of free electricity to ensure those profits continue. If suddenly there was free electricity and the Internet was everywhere and cell phones didn't need cell towers any more and oil and gas values plunged, what kind of massive shock would that be to the economic system of the world?

Boggles the mind.

I'm not quite finished the book, but so far it's making me think. One, about the impact Tesla's vision of the future might have come to pass, but two, about who the modern day version of Tesla is. Who's out there right now with the vision and technical skill that might be on the verge of rocking the foundation of the globe? And is he (or she) being adequately funded?

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