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.”
August 31, 2012
When inventor Thomas Edison first began toying with the idea of improving upon moving image technology, he filed a note with the patents office in 1888, expressing his intent. He wrote that he hoped to invent a device that would, “do for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear.” When he finally invented (with considerable help from his assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson) and patented his single-camera device 115 years ago today, August 31, 1897, Edison was well on his way to launching the American film industry and even predicting America’s fascination with cats doing things on film (above).
Though Edison had received a visit from one of the early pioneers of moving pictures, Eadweard Muybridge, he turned down the opportunity to work with him, according to the Library of Congress and research from historians Charles Musser, David Robinson and Eileen Bowser. Sure, Muybridge had developed a way to use multiple cameras to capture a series of movements and then project is as a choppy but recognizable motion. But Edison didn’t think there was much potential in the multi-camera approach. Instead he labored (well, supervised others laboring) for three years to invent a single camera, the Kinetograph and single-user viewing device, the Kinetoscope, to record and view moving image in 1892.
Other than being a talented inventor, Edison also had the resources to attract other great talent, including Dickson, who moved his entire family from France to Edison’s research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Smithsonian curator Ryan Lintelman explained in a 2010 podcast, “By the 1880s Edison became known as “the Wizard of Menlo Park” because these inventions that he was coming up with were so transformative that it was as if magic was involved.”
It wasn’t long after the kinetoscope’s invention that he began producing movies under his own studio, nicknamed the Black Maria because the structure that housed it resembled a police patrol car. Ever the businessman, Edison oversaw the production of star-studded shorts to help popularize his invention, including films with Annie Oakley, acts from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Spanish dancer Carmencita. His subjects tended toward the sexy or the strong, proving the adage that sex sells. But one short titled The Boxing Cats (Professor Welton’s) also shows Edison’s ability to predict the insatiable market for watching cats do things, like fight each other in a tiny boxing ring.
“These first films they made for audiences were just short, simple subjects like women dancing or body builders flexing or a man sneezing or a famous couple kissing, and these early films have been called “the cinema of attractions” because they were shown as sort of these amazing glimpses of new technology rather then narrative plays on film,” explained Lintelman.
Unfortunately, the earliest surviving film from his studio is a little less titillating than the late 19th century equivalent of Brangelina kissing. Titled Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894, or Fred Ott’s Sneeze, the film simply shows an employee hamming it up for the camera with a dramatized sneeze.
But if a man sneezes and no one hears it, is it really a sneeze? That was the dilemma Edison tried to solve as competitors began eating into his profits. In an attempt to synch sound and image, Edison added piped-in music via a phonograph to accompany the film. But the sound and image remained separate and often out of step, making it a less than enticing solution. Meanwhile, the allure of projected films that could finally entertain more than one person at a time called to businessmen in the industry. Another inventor, Thomas Armat, beat Edison to the punch. But Edison negotiated and bought the invention, changing its name from the Phantoscope to the Vitascope.
Filming news events, performances and tourism videos proved a profitable mix. But when audiences began to tire of the novelty, Edison turned to fiction-filmmaker Edwin S. Porter to create entertaining movies to be featured in the new storefront theaters known as nickelodeons.
As the popularity of these diverting films took off, Edison scrambled to own as much of the market as possible and protect his many related patents. After squaring off with a resistant competitor, Edison eventually negotiated a deal in 1908, according to the Library of Congress, that joined his company with Biograph and established a monopoly. His rise to the top, however, was short lived. Better technologies and more intriguing narratives were coming out of competing studios and though Edison continued to try to synch sound and image, his solutions were still imperfect. In 1918, Edison sold the studio and retired from his film career.
Though Hollywood is now synonymous with movie stars and big-name producers, it was actually Edison’s Black Maria in West Orange–the world’s first movie studio–that started the American film industry. Lintelman joked in his 2010 interview, “Most people can’t think of a place farther from Hollywood than New Jersey, right?” But Lintelman continued, “The American film industry was concentrated in that New Jersey, New York area from the 1890s until the 1920s. That’s when Hollywood became the movie capital of the world. Prior to that time, the most important factors were to be close to those manufacturing centers and investors in the markets. ”
Writing in an email, Lintelman, says, however, that he finds more similarities between online video culture than with Hollywood’s feature-length films. “It was a direct and democratic form of visual expression.” Viewers simply had to offer up their nickel to enjoy a brief diversion. Without audio or dialogue, the silent films could reach anyone, regardless of language. Though the subject matter could include spectacular news events or travel shots, most dealt with the daily experiences of man. “The filmmakers found humor in technological changes, transportation innovation, shifting demographics and social mores and the experience of city life,” writes Lintelman.
And viewers watched voraciously. After enjoying a kinetoscope film, people would mingle in the parlor space, discussing their favorites. With a variety of quick options in one place, viewers could create their own movie lineup and experience. “When you think about it,” Lintelman adds, “this is how we use the internet to view visual content today!”
July 30, 2009
In today’s world, multi-tasking is almost fundamental to living a functional life. But sometimes it seems that the list of tasks is so overwhelming it causes more stress, rather than a sense of accomplishment. With Simplify Your Life Week (August 1-7) right around the corner, we took a look at the collections at the National Museum of American History to see what inventions have helped to create a simpler life.
The Sewing Machine: Invented in 1846, Elias Howe, Jr., patented the first sewing machine and ever since, hands have suffered fewer needle pricks. Howe’s machine faded out the mechanical process of sewing and reduced the amount of time it took to create clothing. Following his lead, Isaac M. Singer created the first domestic sewing machine in 1854, paving the way for the ready-made clothing industry. With this invention it was now possible to run to the store and grab whatever clothing necessity was needed, rather than taking the time to stitch a garment by hand. So, despite what many members of the opposite-sex might argue with, thank you Isaac Singer for inspiring that stress-reliever known as shopping. (If only he had invented some way to reduce credit card bills too).
The Blackberry: While it may be overwhelming to be connected to the world 24/7, it’s nice to have those daily reminders and list of contacts right at your fingertips. The blackberry simplifies life by combining every form of communication into one, as well as, providing a place to write tasks or check a calender when planning for future events. Even functioning as a grocery shopping list, versus carrying around hundreds of sticky-notes, the Blackberry is the perfect, modern-day organizational tool. But do remember to set the ‘crack’-berry aside every once in a while and take some alone time to unwind.
The Measuring Cup: Trying to figure out how many ounces are in a cup or how many cups are in a quart? Perhaps not the most grandiose of inventions, it certainly makes life simple for all the non-mathematicians who just want to cook. Most famously remembered at the Smithsonian as a staple item in Julia Child’s kitchen, the measuring cup was invented by Fannie Farmer. Before her invention, many recipes would list the quantity of ingredients as “some,” “a bit,” “a pinch” or “a little.” Farmer simplified the process of cooking and made recipes precise and repeatable by becoming the first to create a standardized set of measuring devices. The measuring cup can be viewed in Julia Child’s Kitchen, in the Science and Innovation wing of the NMAH.
The Light Bulb: Let’s face it, this list wouldn’t be complete without Thomas Edison’s illuminating invention. Simple tasks would take twice as long if we were still carrying around candles, not to mention the painful burn marks we’d have to endure. Although not the first to create the light bulb (there are several who were in competition at the same time), Edison invented the first practical light bulb in 1879. The reason Edison survived his competitors is partly due to the materials he used and partly due to to the fact that he developed an entire electric power system that generated and distributed electricity. Definitely a man with a good business plan, Edison paved the way for future inventions that would let us live a simpler life. See the lightbulb and other electrical innovations, in the Transportation and Technology wing of the NMAH.
What simplifies your life? Tell us in the comments area below?