July 10, 2013
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.
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.”
June 21, 2013
Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen are skateboarding giants. Both turned pro in their early teens more than 30 years ago, and spent the 1980s and 1990s pioneering modern skating’s two most prevalent styles: Hawk, “the Birdman,” took to the skies to invent many of the sport’s iconic gravity-defying aerials, including the 900; Mullen, “the Godfather of Street Skating,” hit the pavement to make up flips, grinds and balancing maneuvers that don’t seem humanly possible even after you’ve watched them.
Combined, the two have come up with close to 100 tricks.
The pair will be at the National Museum of American History this weekend for Innoskate, a public festival that celebrates skateboarding’s culture of innovation, from tricks to skateboard design to skate shoes and fashion. After Hawk donates his very first skateboard to the museum’s collection on Saturday, he will sit down with Mullen for a panel discussion specifically about trick innovation, during which the two legends will reflect on the challenges and rewards of imagining the big moves that launched their sport from a small, alternative subculture to a mainstream sensation.
In anticipation of this discussion, we asked Hawk and Mullen separately what it takes to invent a killer skateboard trick. Here are the four golden rules we took away from their responses:
1. Respect the Past
“When I came up with most of my tricks, it wasn’t like I was trying to figure out the next move that was impossibly difficult and had never been tried on any level.,” Hawk says. “A lot of the things I’ve created, especially throughout the ’80s, combined existing tricks.”
He invented his first trick, the backside varial, at about age 12. The trick wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was new, and gave Hawk an original move to begin to establish his credibility at such a young age.
“For me, skating wasn’t always about the chase of being the inventor,” he says. “I just wanted to keep improving my skills, and if I could take inspiration from others to do that, I was happy to.”
Mullen had a similar experience in creating one of his most significant early-career tricks, the casper. The move was a slight alteration of what was already known as the 50-50 casper, in which the skater flips the board upside down and balances it with only the tail touching the ground.
“In many ways, that move opened up so many variations,” he says. “But at the time, it was a very, very simple variation itself of what already existed—so much so that it just dropped the 50-50 and used the same name.
“Everything is a variation of a variation, to some degree” he adds. “You can’t expect to come up with something and say, ‘that’s entirely new.’ ”
2. Stay Simple
Great tricks don’t need to be complicated, Hawk and Mullen agree. Instead, the best tricks combine technical proficiency with an element of grace—a certain harmony of imagination and function.
Hawk says that many of his tricks have been “born out of necessity,” the accidental result of trying to accomplish one move and realizing there was a different way to approach things. He came up with the backside varial, for instance, because he was bad at frontside rotations.
“Sometimes I would be trying to learn something that had already been created and my board would keep getting away from me or I felt like I was turning too far, and I’d think, oh, maybe I could do something new here,” he says.
Mullen jokes that “the greatest skaters are the laziest skaters.” For a lot of the tricks he has invented, he says, “my line of reasoning has been it’s going to be 10 percent harder, 20 percent harder, 30 percent harder to do at first, so it costs more upfront to get there, but in the end, if I can count on it more, then it will be easier. That is what has driven a lot of my thinking in terms of what got me to do things a little differently.”
3. Keep an Open Mind
“Usually skaters are stubborn, because they don’t like to be defeated, but that’s something you really have to let go of sometimes,” Mullen says. “If you approach a hard new trick with a mindset of ‘I’m going to overcome this, just turn on the camera,’ you’re probably not going to hit the trick because it’s going to be an uphill battle. Put away the camera and say, ‘I’m just going to tinker with this. I’m a little bit at sea, and I’m going to go with the tides and see where they take me.’ ”
And letting go doesn’t mean settling for anything less. “Open your mind to doing something even harder, too,” he says. “If your environment spins you in a certain direction or gives you a certain torque that works against you in one way, it may work for you in another. Even if a trick is 20 percent harder, if it flows better with the environment you’re skating in, it might actually be easier to do. So just go with it. Play with it. Maybe you won’t get what were dreaming of, but you might be able to get something better.”
Hawk likes to go back to the basics whenever he hits a rough patch.
“I would do tricks that felt good but weren’t necessarily as hard, and tinker with them,” he says. “With grinds, for example, I would think, all right, what’s the limit of these types of grinds? What can we do with them, instead of trying to figure out the next super crazy flip spin. I created a lot tricks by going back to the drawing board, because people don’t always think in those terms.”
4. Be Authentic
“I can do the exact same trick somebody else does and it will look completely different, because I have my own my own flair,” Hawk says. “Skating is about sharing ideas, but at the same time making it your own. It is equally creative as it is athletic, as much an art form as it is a sport.”
“Authenticity is everything in the community,” Mullen agrees, and adds that skateboarding culture is unique in its lack of metrics to define what is good skating and bad skating, proper and improper form; rather than conforming to standards, individuals contribute to the community by developing their own style.
“Be yourself,” he says. “If you have this kind of spastic way of doing something, even if it looks goofy, the fact is that it can look cool, because it’s you. Go with that. Be different. Don’t just try be different and concoct it, because you’re going to be sniffed out.”
“Do what you love, even if it’s not established,” says Hawk. “And keep doing it, because you might be the pioneer of a whole movement.”
April 19, 2013
In the spirit of Mark Twain who famously said he never let his schooling interfere with his education, Bill Drayton grew up enthusiastic at school, but not so much about school. He enjoyed a few subjects, but he admits, his energies were in things like, starting a series of newspapers or being an active member of the NAACP. Now, Drayton, who is credited with having coined the phrase “social entrepreneur,” hopes to create a network of global changemakers (empowered with skills embracing empathy, teamwork, leadership and problem-solving) with his organization Ashoka: Innovators for the Public to reshape education all together.
For more than a decade, Ashoka has partnered with young people with its Youth Venture program, but it’s only in the past year that it began partnering with schools to introduce the concept of empathy into the curriculum. Dozens of schools in the U.S. are already on board and, according to Drayton, “Last week, Scotland said, this is going to be in all of our schools and even though the Irish Ministry is cutting back, they’ve just made a huge commitment.”
Ashoka’s network of changemakers includes 3,000 fellows working more than 70 countries, who place a high premium on supporting those bringing about change in their communities. Among others, they’ve supported a Japanese girl, who founded a website to connect with other children whose parents were going through a divorce, and an activist in Calcutta, who helped to found a school for the children of factory workers. Drayton’s hope is that by teaching empathy in elementary schools we can create a generation of changemakers.
We talked with Drayton about how to teach empathy and why he thinks top-down solutions aren’t the answer.
How has the landscape of social change evolved since you founded Ashoka in 1980?
If you go to Harvard Business School you will now find more people in the social enterprise group than in the marketing or finance group, which is wildly different from even ten years ago or five years ago. That’s very satisfying. We are at a different stage.
The world really has to go through this transition from being organized around efficiency and repetition, think assembly line, to a world where the real value comes from contributing to change. That requires a different way of organizing—fluid, open teams of teams. And it requires a different set of skills—empathy, teamwork, a very different type of leadership and changemaking.
How do you implement that new paradigm?
Any child who has not mastered cognitive empathy at a high level will be marginalized. Why? Because, as the rate of change accelerates and it’s an exponential curve, that means every year there is a smaller and smaller part of your life covered by “the rules.” They haven’t been invented or they’re in conflict, they’re changing. You’re going to hurt people if you don’t have this skill and you’re going to disrupt groups. You cannot be a good person, just by diligently following the rules, it’s not possible anymore.
That’s the first step in a reformulated paradigm for success in growing up. We have 700 Ashoka fellows, leading social entrepreneurs around the world, focused on young people, and so we have many different ways of doing this. I was just talking with a Canadian fellow, I was on her board actually, Roots of Empathy.
She’s able to take children, first through third grade, who did not get empathy in their schools or on the street, or in their family and if she’s given three hours a month for eight months, all the kids will have advanced empathy. Bullying rates come down and stay down. We know what to do with 8th grade girls, who lose their self confidence and become mean girls, we know how to have kids practice and play at recess and in the classroom.
How many elementary school principals do you know who have ever even thought about this? It’s not on their agenda. They are measured by information transfer on tests. And you can’t have mayhem in the hallways. Well this is perfectly designed for a world in which you’re training people to master a body of knowledge, or a set of rules. And you’re defined as a baker, or a banker, or whatever it is. And you’ll repeat that for the rest of your life. Fine, but it just is not relevant now.
So what does she do to teach empathy?
She brings an infant, two to four months old from the neighborhood at the beginning of the year. The infant wears a T-shirt labeled “The Professor.” The Professor resides on a green blanket and there’s a trainer. The teacher sits at the back and does not really engage that much. The first graders or third graders or whatever have the responsibility of figuring out; what is the professor saying, what is he or she feeling. Of course, they’re absorbing a very high empathy level.
How does this foundation of empathy inform the work that you do internationally?
They have exactly the same problem in India and in Japan, here and in Nigeria.
Any country that falls behind has just bought a one-way ticket to Detroit. It’s hard to realize that 50 years ago, Detroit was the top of our technology. Now it’s bottomed-out, in informal bankruptcy, has lost 25 percent of its population in the last ten years. Well that took 50 years. With an exponential curve, you don’t have 50 years. If India does this right and we don’t, we’re Detroit. That’s true for a family, a city, a community, a country. The key factor of success going forward is what percentage of your people are changemakers.
This is like the new literacy.
How did you learn these skills?
I didn’t realize what was going on then, but in retrospect, I’m very grateful. I had parents who had this skill. They knew it was important. And they took the trouble, not just to enforce skills, but to ask, how do you think it made him feel when you did that? I was really lucky.
I’m not particularly well-suited for football. I couldn’t imagine why I was being tortured by Latin and math and things that had no relevance at that point. I love history and geography. My energies went into starting things, which was fine for me. I had a principal, who advised my parents not to be worried, and not to show that they were worried when I was not where I was supposed to be. Because I was busy doing these other things. What a gift.
Ashoka has something called Ashoka’s Youth Venture, which is designed to do precisely this for young people. I would like to have every young person grow up in that sort of a school, community environment. We have a summit ever summer. Last summer it was at American University, four or five days.
What about huge resource inequities and people like Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University who advocate the idea of a Big Push to get countries out of poverty?
You tell me whenever you can find a place that you have sustainable development if it isn’t led by people who have this sort of power. The central lesson of development is that it’s in people’s heads. As Gandhi said, India will be independent when it’s independent in our heads. There’s a classic Harvard Business Review article in the context of big American corporations: you want a change? You think the chairman’s idea is going to fly by itself? Forget it, it’s never going to happen. It has to be a team of people.
You don’t put people on it because of their position: that’s a committee and committees never get anything done. It has to be a team where everyone on the team wants it and then, you know, it’s a good thing that the chairman is with you.