Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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U.Va. Engineering Professor Unravels Enigma of Nikola Tesla

W. Bernard Carlson has scaled the Mount Everest of biography subjects – Nikola Tesla.

Carlson, chair of the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, has just published “Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age,” focusing on the enigmatic inventor’s life from 1884 to 1905. The book, published by Princeton University Press, was released May 29.

As an historian, Carlson has been studying inventors and innovation for 30 years. Tesla, who was revered in his lifetime for his accomplishments, but who died bankrupt and relatively forgotten at the age of 87, was a challenge for Carlson.  While there have been other biographies of Telsa, Carlson focused on the most productive period of his life and profiled inventions as much as the inventor.

“When I started, there were two views of Tesla,” Carlson said. “He was either considered a genius second only to da Vinci or he was a crackpot. For a biographer, he was the Mount Everest of inventors.”

As a biographer, he wanted to be fair to the subject, to present the virtues and the failings – though he admitted he initially started with a rather critical perspective of Tesla. By the time he was done, he had a more nuanced appreciation of Tesla and his accomplishments.

“He was undeniably talented,” Carlson said.

Carlson breaks innovations into two categories. “There are small innovations,  like better pens and sunscreens, and these improvements keep people buying new things and factories working to capacity,” he said, “and then there are disruptive innovations – innovations that change the way we do business and that live our  lives. Most people will tell you that disruptive innovations are  a combination of genius and luck.”

Tesla’s career was all about disruptive innovation. He was the man who developed alternating current; the Tesla Coil, which produced high-voltage, high-frequency alternating current; and improved electric motors and generators. His work radically altered the electrical industry and formed the foundation of Tesla’s reputation.

Tesla had a business partner, Charles Peck, a lawyer and financier, who helped him stay grounded, Carlson said. Peck ensured that Tesla got strong patents on his inventions, set up interviews and demonstrations for Tesla, and then helped sell the rights to George Westinghouse in 1889. Peck died in 1890, just as Tesla was switching from working on electric motors to researching radio waves.

Tesla and Peck operated on the principle of “patent, promote and sell,” and were successful, Carlson said.

“The idea was to get a buzz going about a new invention and then sell the patent rights at the height of the buzz,” he explained. “Tesla would do incredible demonstrations. It is a highly rational strategy that is still practiced today in high-tech fields.”

Tesla, raised in Croatia on the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his father and uncles were priests in the Serbian Orthodox Church. From them, Tesla absorbed the understanding that everything in creation has an underlying principle. He believed this ideal was a reflection of the will of God and he sought out this ideal, or core, in each of his inventions, such as the rotating magnetic field that was the ideal for his AC motor. But concerned that most people could not understand the ideals behind his inventions, Tesla knew he needed a degree of showmanship and illusion to get people excited about his breakthroughs.

Many of Tesla’s achievements were overshadowed by others. Guglielmo Marconi, working with some of Tesla’s ideas and former colleagues, sent the first wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean in 1901.  After he withdrew from the radio field, Tesla designed a new kind of steam turbine, but couldn’t find backers or manufacturers willing to shift from piston engines. He had ideas and illusion on his side, but seemed unable to create a practical or marketable machine.

“When he was at the height of his power as an inventor, Tesla concentrated more on creating illusions than converting his ideals into working machines,” Carlson wrote.

Tesla lured financier J.P. Morgan as an investor, but Morgan did not mentor Tesla the way Peck had done earlier in Tesla’s career. When Tesla the showman tried to bridge the gap between the ideal and the illusion, things started to unravel.

“The ideal did not meet the reality,” Carlson said.

Tesla suffered a breakdown in 1905, while trying to promote his idea of transmitting electric power  through the ground. Morgan withdrew his support forthis project because he did not see how it would generate revenue; Tesla’s idea was to make the electricity free and then sell the devices needed to receive it. One newspaper story about Tesla’s scheme featured a woman holding a parasol in the air, receiving radio waves that brought her information, presaging today’s wireless networks.

“These were devices no bigger than a pocket watch,” Carlson said. “Some say Tesla invented the 20th century, and he certainly was one of the first to understand a consumer society, everybody with their own little device, in 1902.”

After Tesla’s breakdown, he still worked, trying new ventures like an improved steam turbine and modifications to automobile speedometers. In the 1930s, he said he was working on a particle beam weapon that could shoot down enemy airplanes. “To get a significant result, he would have required a tremendous amount of power,” Carlson said.

Eventually, Tesla’s financial supporters pulled away and he forfeited his labs to pay debts. He died in 1943, broke. “At the end of his life, he was impoverished, bankrupt, moving from hotel to hotel, spinning out versions of the life to come,” Carlson said.

Tesla’s papers initially went to his nephew – he had no immediate family – but worried that the papers might include the secrets to a particle beam weapon, the FBI seized them and had them reviewed by a researcher from  the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who determined that Tesla had not developed such a weapon. The state of New York, where Tesla resided when he died, then seized the records, claiming an unpaid state tax bill. Years later, the papers were shipped to a museum in Belgrade.

“Tesla had money from J.P Morgan, a laboratory designed by Stanford White, but the ideal did not match the reality,” said Carlson, who spent 15 years on the Tesla book, researching it through Tesla’s papers, patent records and contemporary press accounts of the inventor’s exploits.

“Historians have an obligation for a truthful interpretation,” which he said will disappoint some but which will also introduce Tesla to a new audience.

Carlson was raised in New Jersey, the son of a New York City attorney, and had  assumed he would be an attorney, leading him to major in history.  But early on he took a course in physics. “I found I could do as well in physics as the kids majoring in science,” he said, with the result that he wound up taking more courses in physics than history.

He graduated summa cum laude from College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., with a bachelor of arts in history, followed by a masters’ degree a Ph.D. in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the faculty of U.Va.’s Engineering School in 1986.

He is the recipient of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Life Members Prize in Electrical History. His work includes a multi-volume “Technology in World History,” which was awarded the Sally Hacker Prizze for the best popular book on technology by the Society for the History of Technology.

Carlson is now researching partnerships between inventors and entrepreneurs, and “how these partnerships come together and what information they share with each other,” he said. “If we want to stimulate invention and creativity in the next generation, then we need to understand these partnerships which are at the heart of so many disruptive technologies.”

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