There Is Nothing New Under the Sun

Carl Weinschenk

This piece in The New York Times about the remnants of Nikola Tesla's dream is a poignant reminder that technology initiatives, like all others, can come crashing down if the entrepreneur doesn't carefully consider the real world. It is a reminder that shouldn't be disregarded.

 

Tesla, one of the most fascinating and brilliant characters in American history, deserves some of the notoriety given to rival Thomas Edison. Indeed, Tesla's alternating current (AC) approach to electrical distribution, which still is in use today, proved superior and beat Edison's direct current (DC) in the marketplace, at least in part because it was less likely to start fires. The piece quotes Wikipedia estimates that the Serbian-born Tesla held "at least" 700 patents. Much of his work was dramatic and much still is shrouded in mystery. The most common comment by engineers and scientists is that perhaps Tesla's biggest problem was that he was too far ahead of his time.

 

The Times' piece focuses on the fate of Wardenclyffe, a 16-acre site on the north shore of Long Island, NY, where Tesla's greatest dream briefly came to life. At the turn of the last century, the hottest race-as it is today-involved wireless. Tesla claimed that he could transmit power as well as data wirelessly and, via a series of huge antennas, do so around the globe. Construction of a prototype began in 1901 at the site, in the town of Shoreham. Late that year, Guglielmo Marconi sent the Morse Code signal for the letter "S" across the Atlantic Ocean. The race -- which would eventually produce the iPhone, WiMax and other technologies of which even Tesla could not have dreamed -- was on.

 

Tesla eventually finished a 187-foot tall transmission tower, which was partially financed by J. Pierpont Morgan. The project failed, however, and Morgan's investments stopped. Tesla never recovered, and died a poor man in 1943. Wardenclyffe is now owned by the Agfa Corp., which wants to sell it. Tesla afficionados want the remains of the project, which include the tower and lab, to be turned into a museum and teaching center along the lines of The Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, N.J.

 

There always are lessons in history for those who care to recognize them. In this case, of course, there is the obvious parallel between today's wireless race and what was going on a bit more than a century ago. Beyond that, there is the idea that it is good to respond to competition, but not necessarily to unrealistically heighten expectations. It also is important to think things through: The Times' story, at least, implies that Tesla may have added the power distribution element to impress investors. If so, it wasn't a good idea. The writer quotes Tesla biographer Margaret Cheney as saying that Morgan pulled away because he was not motivated to provide free power to the world.



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May 7, 2009 5:45 AM William C. Hopkins III William C. Hopkins III  says:

I think your sequence is wrong.  J.P. Morgan stopped his financing .  THEN his dream failed.  It was never fully completed.  Don't you think it is high time for someone to complete his vision?  With out his contributions our world today would be vastly different.  What if he was right?  Free power to the world? 

It is worth investigating.  We have trillions for bail outs... but very little to pursue a dream of the brightest mind to grace our tiny planet.

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May 8, 2009 1:09 AM Carl Weinschenk Carl Weinschenk  says: in response to Tea Fougner

Thanks for the clarification and the link. I thought the tower was still up. In any case, I recommend Cheney's biography.

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May 8, 2009 12:59 PM Tea Fougner Tea Fougner  says: in response to William C. Hopkins III

Yes, this.  The project didn't fail-- Morgan pulled out and therefore Tesla had no funding to complete the project.

You link to the Edison park but not to the Tesla Science Center, the folks who are trying to save the building.

Also, the tower was demolished in 1918.  They are trying to save the laboratory.

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May 11, 2009 12:48 PM Joseph De Bellis Joseph De Bellis  says:

Your post makes an excellent point.  The biggest mistake an inventor can make is believing that a disruptive technology, no matter how promising, can overcome the forces that keep IT as a whole in equilibrium.  Le Chatelier's Principle of IT if you will.  Often the addition of the innovation has unintended and deleterious effects on the inventors fate.  If you build a better mousetrap, be prepared to endure the ridicule, disdain and ultimately the wrath of the mousetrap builders, exterminators and wholesalers and retailers of mousetraps of the world.  The consumer may never hear of it until its written about in your blog or more likely an obituary.

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