July 11, 2013
For her newest piece, Indian-born artist Rina Banerjee’s site-specific installation, which opens July 13 at the Sackler Gallery, depicts the river as a site of cultural exchange and communication. The sculpture incorporates ostrich eggs, shells and other natural and synthetic materials. Work on the project began Tuesday and visitors were invited to witness the progress Wednesday before the grand opening. Curator Carol Huh says, “Banerjee weaves a fairytale encounter with a place at once playful, dangerous, and endangered—like the river itself.”
The full title of the piece hints at some of these elements: “A world Lost: after the original island, single land mass fractured, after populations migrated, after pollution revealed itself and as cultural locations once separated merged, after the splitting of Adam and Eve, of race black and white, of culture East and West, after animals diminished, after the seas’ corals did exterminate, after this and at last imagine water evaporated…this after Columbus found it we lost it imagine this.”
July 10, 2013
Known for the long sentences–93 years on average–its residents serve, the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola has many different meanings, according to New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen, including as a symbol of “one of the most brutal and corrupt institutions in the post-Civil War South, the nearest kin to slavery that could legally exist.” After negotiations with the prison, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will now include this history in its collections, highlighting the enduring legacy of slavery in post-Civil War incarceration practices, with an early 20th-century concrete guard tower from the Angola prison. The museum also acquired a cell from another section of the prison that was built on former slave quarters.
The prison officially opened in 1901, but the site of it had long been used as plantations which drew some of its labor directly from the state’s prisons in a common post-Civil War penal labor practice known as convict-leasing that allowed private individuals to “lease” prisoners.
Curator Paul Gardullo told the New York Times, he credits the prison for its willingness to donate the items, allowing the museum “to portray a history that gets into some of these dark corners of American history” from a “place that still carries the legacy of slavery with it.”
The Serbian inventor was born 157 years ago today, July 10, in what is now Croatia. To honor that genius that helped bring us alternating current as well as countless other inventions, we’re offering an excerpt from a new biography, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, by W. Bernard Carlson. A former fellow at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, Carlson stopped by the American History Museum in June to discuss Tesla’s many innovations, including some on display at the museum. Tesla’s popularity has received a boost recently with everything from comedy sketches, operas and car companies made in his honor. In the following excerpt from Carlson’s new biography, read up on Tesla’s experiments with automatons and radio controlled boats.
Tesla’s interest in automata dates back to his childhood. As a boy, he suffered from nightmares that he overcame by developing his willpower. Struck by the fact that the frightening visions were often the result of some external stimuli that he could identify, Tesla concluded that all thoughts and emotions were the result of outside factors and that the human organism was no more than a “self-propelling machine, the motions of which are governed by impressions received through the eye.” His efforts to understand and control his intense visions, as he explained in his autobiography, “led me finally to recognise that I was but an automaton devoid of free will in thought and action and merely responsible to the forces of the environment.” But if he were merely an automaton, wondered Tesla, why not build one as well?
Excerpted from TESLA: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson. Copyright (c) 2013 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
July 1, 2013
Hungarian dancing, hair braiding and banjo picking–yep, it’s Folklife Festival time. With the first weekend done, we know everyone is just resting up for part two, which begins July 3. In a given day during the festival you can expect to find interactive programs, workshops and catwalks that span the globe. Check out photos from the first weekend while you prep for the next.
June 27, 2013
When editor Arthur Brisbane first observed the Wizard, the man sworn to be greater an inventor than Edison himself, Brisbane was as impressed by what he saw as what he had heard. The Wizard, otherwise known as Nikola Tesla, had already earned a reputation for his daring experiments by the time the two met at a restaurant in Manhattan in 1894. His most shocking performance had been in an effort to demonstrate how safe his alternating currents were when Tesla allowed 250,000-volt shocks to course through his body before a disbelieving public. Noting his slim frame and tall stature, Brisbane noted, “He has big hands. Many able men do–Lincoln is one instance.” Better still were his even more prominent thumbs, after all, “the thumb is the intellectual part of the hand.” Little of Tesla was left unremarked upon, including his pale eyes, which Tesla told Brisbane had once been darker but through years of mental concentration, Tesla had lightened at his will.
“In writing about Tesla,” explains W. Bernard Carlson, author of a new biography on the inventor, “one must navigate between unfair criticism and excessive enthusiasm.” In his new book, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, Carlson examines Tesla’s many achievements and his tumultuous life that earned him the reputation of mad scientist.
In recent years, Tesla has come back into vogue. A Drunk History episode had John C. Reilly portray him as a man constantly frustrated and eclipsed by bigger names. The flashiest of futurist car companies, Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors, borrowed the inventor’s name for its high-tech models. He’s even getting his own opera, created by Jim Jarmusch and commissioned by Dartmouth College. When Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal published a comic titled “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived,” Forbes came to the defense of Thomas Edison–slammed by Inman as a CEO, rather than a geek–and fueled a debate that is still going strong. Inman found plenty of pro-Tesla allies and helped crowd-fund the purchase of Tesla’s Long Island laboratory by the non-profit Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe group, with plans to turn it into a museum.
Born to Serbian parents in 1856 on the outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian empire in what is today Croatia, Tesla showed an early interest in math and mechanics. After surviving a bout of cholera, he enrolled in a polytechnic school in Austria, where he instantly stood out for his achievements. But the success was short-lived. He developed a gambling problem, dropped out of school and suffered a nervous breakdown, eventually moving to Budapest to work at a telegraph company. After working at Thomas Edison’s company in France, Tesla relocated to New York City to work more closely with Edison. He arrived in the United States with just four cents in his pocket. Once in New York, Tesla took up the challenge of improving Edison’s direct current motors and generators but received none of the $50,000 Edison had promised him to do so. Edison claimed it was a joke and gave him a slight raise instead. Tesla quit and formed his own company.
He would go on to earn some 300 patents around the world, help cement the technologies that formed modern AC electricity as well as radio and television. He experimented with what he called “atmospheric electricity” and claimed he invented a particle-beam weapon at one of his annual birthday celebrations. His genius also had a dark side, as Matt Novak writes for Paleofture:
Like any man, Tesla was far from perfect and sometimes had very warped ideas about how the world should operate. One of Tesla’s most disturbing ideas was his belief in using eugenics to purify the human race. In the 1930s, Tesla expressed his belief that the forced sterilization of criminals and the mentally ill — which was occurring in some European countries (most disturbingly Nazi Germany) and in many states in the U.S. — wasn’t going far enough.
As a celebrity scientist, his enigmatic personality often received and receives still more attention than his many inventions and the processes behind them. Carlson’s book seeks to correct this with a technical breakdown of Tesla’s most notable achievements. “It’s all too easy to associate invention with imponderables such as genius, mystery, and luck,” writes Carlson. “In contrast, I view invention as a process that we can analyze and understand.”
Explaining the method himself, Tesla told a crowd gathered for his Edison Medal award ceremony in 1917:
I do not rush into constructive work. When I get an idea, I start right away to build it up in my mind. I change the structure, I make improvements, I experiment, I run the device in my mind. It is absolutely the same to me whether I operate my turbine in thought or test it actually in my shop. It makes no difference, the results are the same. In this way, you see, I can rapidly develop and perfect an invention, without touching anything.
Carlson points out that this approach is quite different from that of Thomas Edison, who was known to want either the plans or the device in front of him to manipulate. To create a portrait of an inventor and his inventions, Carlson relies on schematics, letters and original documents from Tesla’s life to map out his creativity. A former fellow at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, Carlson also called upon resources in the National Museum of American History’s collections to complete his research.
Though many of Tesla’s creations were destroyed in a lab fire in 1895, the American History museum still has a small collection of valuable items, including four motors–two of which are currently on display–that rely on Tesla’s alternating current, a generator and nameplate from the 1895 Niagara Falls hydroelectric power station and a recently acquired stock share from Tesla’s failed Electric Light and Manufacturing Company made out to Robert Lane, the company’s treasurer. Tesla received his own stock shares when the company decided to fire him and move away from invention and into the utilities business.
“It was a very tumultuous industry,” explains Carlson. Companies struggled to figure out how to make electricity profitable, particularly with inadequate means of measuring consumption. Wall Street bankers were uninterested in the Tesla’s idea of wireless power because they could see no way to commodify it. But Tesla recognized that the money would come from the receivers, rather than the sale of the power. When his own company cut him loose, Tesla was devastated.
“He arrives in America in 1884 and this happens within basically two years of his arrival, so Tesla’s heartbroken and he doesn’t know what to do,” explains Carlson, “He basically drifts and winds up digging ditches in downtown Manhattan.”
But in what would prove to be just one of many twists of fate, Tesla’s foreman at the Western Union Telegraph Company showed an interest in the patents Tesla was hard at work on each night and introduced him to a higher-up looking to invest in new inventors. “That’s how he gets the business partners that lead to great success with the motors,” explains Carlson.
Where Edison was an adept businessman, Tesla was less so. In 1888, when Tesla is hired as a consultant at Westinghouse Electric, he finds the support of George Westinghouse.
“The relationship between Tesla, the imaginative inventor and Westinghouse, the entrepreneur and capitalist, is a really good fit,” says Hal Wallace, curator of electricity at the National Museum of American History. Westinghouse bought the patents for Tesla’s polyphase AC motors and agreed to pay him $2.50 per horsepower of electrical capacity sold. Later, when Westinghouse was at the brink of demise after a costly battle for market share, Tesla tore up the contract, sacrificing his plentiful royalties so the patents would remain with Westinghouse.
Both in business and in science, Tesla proved a maverick. But Carlson cautions that this should not dissuade people from studying how exactly he came to his inventions. “Tesla always claimed that he could think through the entire invention in his head and then go and build it and it would work first time, every time,” says Carlson.
Carlson, who spent time with the American History Museum’s Kenneth Swezey Papers, which include letters, photographs and patent testimony, found that even Tesla’s genius can be analyzed and taught to future generations. “There are aspects of the creative process that remain true to this day,” says Carlson. “The number of parallels between Tesla, and say Steve Jobs, are significant and significant enough to say there are indeed patterns and things that we can learn from understanding the creative mind of somebody like Nikola Tesla.”