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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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