Posts tagged with: nikola tesla

Earlier this month, I spoke at the commencement of Trinity School at Meadow View, a truly impressive private high school school in Falls Church, Va. Most impressive was the valedictory address given by the graduating senior Beau Lovdahl, who is on his way to Princeton in the fall. The story he relates here underscores the philosophy of the Acton Institute in many ways and I wanted to share it with PowerBlog readers. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Beau Lovdahl
Valedictory Address
06/11/11

Mr. Zwerneman; Father Sirico; Trinity faculty; parents, family and friends of the Class of 2011; I thank you for making this day a reality. I would like to congratulate my fellow classmates for finally completing six years of hard work in the classrooms and on the athletic fields. I would especially like to thank our loving and supportive parents for helping us and holding us accountable to get through our schooling. Finally, I would like to thank our faculty for giving us an excellent education. Now I would like to give a brief history lesson on a man that has inspired me the past seven months of my life.

On June 6th, 1884, a talented electrical engineer by the name of Nikola Tesla arrived in New York City from Serbia. All he had was a letter of recommendation from his former boss to Thomas Edison, with the words: “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.” So Tesla began to work for Edison Machine Works company. He quickly rose from working on simple engineering matters to working on the company’s biggest problems. Edison offered Tesla 50,000 dollars to redesign the company’s inefficient direct current generators. This sum was worth 1.1 million dollars in today’s money. The very next year Tesla had redesigned the generators and asked Edison for his bonus. To this Edison replied, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor,” thus refusing the promised payment.

Having been refused a raise in pay, Tesla resigned his position and left the company. Tesla was forced to dig ditches to make ends meet. Yet while he was doing this he began planning a new system of power distribution, one that was based on alternating current, not Edison’s direct current. In 1888 Tesla showcased an alternating current induction motor to the American Institute for Electrical Engineering. This device would be the answer to the world’s energy needs. Tesla subsequently was hired by the industrialist George Westinghouse. Westinghouse saw great potential in Tesla’s alternating current technology for long distance power distribution. Once Tesla and Westinghouse began work, a “War of the Currents” erupted between Westinghouse and alternating current on the one hand, and Edison and direct current on the other.

Despite being slandered in a propaganda campaign by Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse proved victorious when they won the competition to power the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 with alternating current. Then Tesla designed and built an alternating current power plant at Niagara Falls that successfully powered the city of Buffalo over 15 miles away. Tesla’s alternating current proved far more efficient than Edison’s direct current, and it allowed power to be sent over long distances. This system of power is still used to this day. The way it works is that alternating current electricity is generated by a power plant. The electricity is then stepped up to a very high voltage that allows it to be carried long distances with very little power loss. Then local transformers stepped the voltage down where it can be used to light lamps or heat homes. Thus power is efficiently distributed from the power plant to the common man.

The victory of the War of the Currents cost Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company a great deal since they had to overcome Edison’s propaganda campaign. By 1897 the company was near bankruptcy. So Tesla tore up his royalties contract, freeing Westinghouse from having to pay Tesla for the use of his technology. Had Tesla not done this, he could have been the world’s first billionaire. Yet for the good of the Westinghouse Company and his vision of free energy for the world, Tesla sacrificed this fortune.

Tesla then moved to Colorado Springs where he began research on the wireless transmission of energy. In the 2006 movie The Prestige, Tesla’s assistant shows Hugh Jackman’s character a field of light bulbs that are not connected to any wires. The light bulbs are then illuminated, being powered wirelessly by a generator 15 miles away! This event actually occurred in 1899. After much research in Colorado, Tesla moved back to the east coast to Long Island, where he would test his theories of wireless energy on a larger scale. With $150,000 of funding from the industrialist J.P. Morgan, Tesla constructed Wardenclyffe Tower. Here Tesla hoped to transmit energy across the Atlantic to Paris. Yet four years later, Guglielmo Marconi made a radio transmission across the Atlantic and was credited with the invention of radio using 17 of Tesla’s patents. As a result, J.P. Morgan saw no need to continue funding Tesla’s work, since he believed Marconi had achieved what Tesla was trying to do. Tesla failed to convince Morgan that his research was for something much greater than radio. So in 1905 Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower project died and his dream of a large scale test of the wireless transmission of energy was shattered.

Tesla spent the rest of his life doing research in the fields of radio, remote control and electro-mechanically powered aircraft. He was also reported to have been working with the British government on a “Death Ray” but he never completed a prototype. The Death Ray would have been some sort of particle beam that would charge particles to a very high voltage and then shoot them at enemy armies or airplanes. Tesla hoped that this weapon would be a deterrent to war.

Tesla lived the last 10 years of his life alone in the New Yorker Hotel. He lived on a small pension from his homeland in Yugoslavia and worked on his research. Many thought he was insane. He was reclusive and was probably afflicted by an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The modern world that he helped build had forgotten him. He died alone in 1934 in his hotel room. His belongings were seized by the federal government, and his remains were sent back to Serbia.

This was an ignominious end to such a remarkable life. Yet by no means should we consider his life a tragedy. Tesla’s legacy was tremendous. All electricity from power plants today is generated and brought to us by Tesla’s innovations. After his death, the Supreme Court upheld Tesla as the true inventor of radio. He invented the spark plug device in car engines, and Tesla’s work in the wireless transmission of power brought us inventions such as the Tesla coil, which is used today to generate artificial lightning, and tuned circuits which form the basis of wireless communications today. He exemplified the indomitable nature of the human spirit.
Tesla also can show us how we should view the world and the life that we graduates are about to enter. First, Tesla demonstrated us how we should view money. Second, he showed us how we should pursue our goals and interests. Thirdly, he showed us why we should pursue our goals and interests.

Tesla never saw money as an intrinsic good. He did not work for the sake of money but he used the money earned to further his work. He once said,

Money does not represent such a value as men have placed upon it. All my money has been invested into experiments with which I have made new discoveries enabling mankind to have a little easier life.

He used money as a means to the end of advancing his research. He did not use his research as a means to the end of gaining money. Money was of course necessary to all his work and it was the lack of money that prevented him from bringing many of his ideas to fruition. Tesla could have been the world’s first billionaire had he not sacrificed his fortune for the good of his company’s success and the furthering of his technology throughout the world. Rather, he sought greater things than money, and only used money as a means to pursuing greater goods.

Tesla pursued his ideas and interests tirelessly despite being criticized or forgotten. After resigning from Edison’s company, Tesla conceived of today’s power distribution system while he was digging ditches in New York. Before working for Westinghouse, Tesla tried to start his own company, but his investors would not fund research in his idea of an alternating current system. So instead of giving in, Tesla went back to digging ditches. In his later years, Tesla was forgotten and deemed a mad scientist. He continued his research despite this. He did not work solely for the recognition of others. Instead he worked with resolve for something greater. As the Gospel of Mark says, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life.”

Tesla wanted men to live better lives through the use of his technology. Tesla’s goal in the long distance distribution of his electricity and the wireless transmission of energy was to bring men closer together in friendly international relations. Even the goal of his Death Ray was to make a weapon so potent that wars would be put to an end. While these goals may sound cliché, they were what drove Tesla to take part in the creation of the modern world. Tesla showed us that a genuine pursuit of one’s interests for that sake of interest itself and for the sake of the betterment of mankind will lead to great things. He also showed that one should be ready to sacrifice things such as financial success and fame in order to achieve one’s goals. As we go off to start our independent lives we should ask ourselves two things. First, what truly interests us? And second, why pursue that interest? The answer to these questions should provide us with the motivation to pursue our interests with resolve. Tesla has showed us that pursuing one’s interest for a great good will lead one to complete a meaningful life. He found his answer in the pursuit of happiness for the betterment of mankind. The question is, where will we find ours?

May God be with us as we enter upon our life long pursuit.

I watched the 2006 film The Prestige (based on the 1995 book of the same name) over the weekend. The film does an excellent job of portraying the complex relationship between the two main characters, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).

These two men are stage illusionists or magicians (the name of the movie derives from the terms that the author gives the three essential part of any magic trick: the setup (pledge), the performance (turn) and the effect (prestige). Their interaction over the course of the years is characterized by rivalry and obsessive vengeance-seeking. The film does well to show the admirable and dishonorable elements of both men, thereby giving a realistic and relevant portrayal of the fallen human condition.

There’s certainly a great deal of morality to be learned from the film’s tale of revenge, but one of the more interesting subplots involves a different kind of obsession. At one point Angier seeks out the famed inventor Nikola Tesla (ably played by David Bowie) to help him get the upper hand on Borden.

The device that Tesla builds for Angier ends up being a critically important element of the developing plot (it gives a whole new ironic meaning to the term deus ex machina), but what I want to examine briefly here is Tesla’s view of technological development.

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Tesla and Thomas Edison have developed an antagonistic rivalry similar to that of Angier and Borden. While the latter pair’s relationship is focused on stage magic, the former two men are vying for preeminence in the field of technological innovation.

Tesla is a rather tragic figure, a brilliant scientist who knows he is captivated by an obsession to push his mastery over nature to ever greater scope. He also knows that such a burning obsession must needs eventually destroy him. When Angier approaches Tesla asking for a radically powerful device, Tesla says confidently, “Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive.”

Nikola Tesla: “Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.”

In this way, Tesla’s faith is in technological progress: “You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie: man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.” The first quote can be taken to mean that man’s technological capabilities outstrip his abilities to make sound moral judgments about the use and abuse of innovative technology. But whereas Tesla determines that this maxim is a “lie,” there’s a great deal of contemporary evidence that the statement is indeed true.

This is perhaps nowhere more clearly evident than in the field of biotechnology, especially with respect to the research and science related to fertility and embryology. When writing about the moral challenge of in vitro fertilization, Acton scholar Stephen Grabill states, “Technology, it seems, has outpaced our understanding of the fundamental legal, political, theological, and moral issues in the creation and management of human embryos.”

I have written a great deal on the phenomenon of animal-human hybrids, known as chimeras, and there is a recent piece on NRO from Rev. Thomas Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, and member of the ethics committee of New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board. Berg concludes that “Biomedical science fails humanity when it deliberately destroys human life in the pursuit of trying to cure it.”

The Prestige is a great film on a number of levels. As a morality play it has many things to teach us. One of these is the stark contemporary relevance of a cultural obsession with technological progress divorced from a firm and reliable theological and moral grounding.