Marginalizing Tesla A Commentary on W. Bernard Carlson's Article for
Scientific American, entitled "Inventor of Dreams"
by James Jaeger
W. Bernard Carlson's article about Nikola Tesla entitled "Inventor of Dreams" in the March 2005 issue of Scientific American magazine contains numerous inaccuracies, inconsistency of premise, twisted facts and omitted data.
Starting with his premise that Tesla's "profound idealism" somehow preempted his ability to commercialize his inventions, Carlson states, in reference to Tesla, "His failure to [develop his inventions to commercial viability] is emblematic of a larger theme that permeated his life--a profound idealism that only occasionally reached practical reality." Then, in the same paragraph, Carlson states, "Sadly, as his career progressed the famous inventor found it increasingly difficult to convince prospective backers to help with the messy process of commercialization."
This makes it sound as though it was Tesla's job to commercialize his inventions. But where is it written in the inventor's job description that the inventor must also be a businessman and a financier? An inventor is a technologist, an engineer, a scientist--not a money-man, a fund-raiser or a marketing genius. Thus it's unfair of Carlson to fault Tesla for desiring to simply do his job. It's remarkable that Tesla was able to not only invent, but market himself as well (i.e., become famous), not to mention raise his own money (i.e., wear the "hat" of financier) in some cases. I often hear people say, "Oh, well, Tesla was a genius, but he didn't have much business sense." But he wasn't supposed to have any business sense. That isn't the inventor's "hat."
In the same paragraph, Carlson goes on to state false causality: He says of Tesla, "As a result [of not being able to convince investors to commercialize his inventions], he grew ever more disappointed with and disconnected from the world." What Carlson conveniently fails to mention is that J.P. Morgan, the most powerful financier of the day, exacted revenge on Tesla for making obsolete his investments in DC and thwarting his daughter's love by withdrawing financial support of Wardenclyffe and then blackballing him on Wall Street by investing in one of Tesla's illegal competitors, Marconi. Enron criminals, move over. None of this was Tesla's fault, so he couldn't help but grow "ever more disappointed with and disconnected from the world."
Carlson further invalidates his own premise (that Tesla was too much of a dreamer to promote or commercialize his inventions) by stating: "When it became clear that Tesla's AC motor had real promise, his backers [Peck and Brown] began pondering how to promote it." Here, Carlson acknowledges that Tesla's inventions had real promise, and the investors--the businessmen--were involved in promoting them, as they should be. So where is Tesla at fault? He dreams up inventions, tries this and that, creates the prototype invention, passes it on to the moneymen, manufacturing men and marketing men, and then starts dreaming up new inventions. Tesla was simply wearing his inventor "hat" and trying to create viable products. So why does Carlson insist upon accusing Tesla of being merely a dreamer? Why use the snippy title of "Inventor of Dreams" when dreaming is the first and most important element of the creative process of invention. (And let's not forget the fact that one of Tesla's so-called dreams was the rotating magnetic field principle. This dream is now the rock foundation of our worldwide system of power generation/distribution and a.c. motor design.)
Invention is a creative process. It's creating in physical reality that which has only been dreamed of before. Agents for the Establishment (that abused Tesla) and critics who try and paint Tesla as a dreamer are way off base, because that's what an inventor is supposed to do--dream! An inventor--like a painter or an actor or a writer--is not supposed to be a manufacturer, a marketing executive, a publicist or a banker. An inventor is supposed to invent. And inventing starts with dreaming. Again, I don't see that Tesla was doing anything other than his job, and those who attempt to discredit him by implying that he was a failure because he wasn't also wearing other "hats" are seriously misinformed. Carlson's article is a perfect example of such twisted "logic."
Carlson goes on to subtly discredit Tesla some more. By taking one isolated, alleged quote from Tesla, Carlson implies that Edison hardly knew Tesla or his proposals. He says: "Tesla transferred to the Edison Machine Works in New York City. Unfortunately, he had almost no personal contact with the renowned inventor. While there, the Serbian inventor nearly told Edison about his motor idea. 'It was on Coney Island,' he recalled, 'and just as I was going to explain it to him, someone came and shook hands with Edison....'" This is unlikely considering that Tesla had a letter of introduction from one of Edison's managers in the Paris facility and Tesla accomplished some upgrades that saved Edison considerable money. It appears to me as though Carlson is attempting to distance Edison from Tesla so as to minimize the allegation that Edison had something to do with the fire in Tesla's lab, a fire that "coincidentally" happened right after Tesla's AC invention cost Edison a million-dollar contract to outfit the Columbian Exhibition at the World's Fair and set the world ablaze with AC instead of DC.
Also, by distancing Edison from Tesla, Carlson minimizes the fact that Edison reneged on payment of a bet that Tesla couldn't crack a tough engineering problem--improving the operation of his DC motors. Tesla solved the problem, but Edison didn't pay up. Carlson says that Edison's manager reneged on a bonus. This is false. In truth, it was a wager that Edison reneged on and the manager offered Tesla a bonus that was much smaller than he expected. Here are the details of what actually happened: As Tesla's accomplishments mounted, his confidence soared to the point where he wagered Edison $50,000 that he could completely redesign and upgrade his sputtering, dangerous DC generators within a year. Confident that Tesla was just dreaming, Edison took him up on the bet. But when Tesla actually delivered, an incredulous Edison reneged on payment and dismissed the matter as a joke, saying, "Tesla, unfortunately you don't yet understand our American humor." Insulted at being cheated and ridiculed, Tesla quit on the spot. Edison warned him that future engineering jobs could be scarce, but Tesla took his chances and walked out the door.
Elsewhere, Carlson gets his facts wrong again. He states, "In July 1888 Westinghouse offered the group [meaning Tesla, Peck and Brown, I suppose] $25,000 in cash, plus $50,000 in notes and a royalty of $2.50 per horsepower for each motor manufactured. Tesla generously gave five ninths of the proceeds to his two supporters while retaining the rest for himself." But Carlson fails to cite any source for this. Other historians, such as the well-known Margaret Cheney and Robert Uth, in their book Tesla Master Of Lightning, say, "Tesla received $60,000 of which $5,000 was cash and the balance was 150 shares of Westinghouse stock." They also say that Tesla received a royalty agreement of $2.50 "for each horsepower of electric capacity sold." Note how drastically different this is from "a royalty of $2.50 per horsepower for each motor manufactured." According to Carlson's statement, Tesla's royalty agreement would today be worth (hundreds of) billions of dollars whereas, according to the Cheney/Uth statement, it would "only" be worth (hundreds of) millions of dollars.
In substantiation, the PBS web site states "An adventurous Pittsburgh industrialist named George Westinghouse, inventor of railroad air brakes, heard about Tesla's invention and thought it could be the missing link in long-distance power transmission. He came to Tesla's lab and made an offer, purchasing the patents for $60,000, which included $5,000 in cash and 150 shares of stock in the Westinghouse Corporation. He also agreed to pay royalties of $2.50 per horsepower of electrical capacity sold." See http://www.pbs.org/tesla/ll/ll_warcur.html
Lastly, Ron Kurtus says, "Westinghouse then purchased the patent rights for Tesla's polyphase system for $1,000,000. [Other sources say $216,000.] He agreed to completely fund Tesla's research and offered a generous royalty agreement on future profits. This certainly was a big jump from digging ditches for a living." He also says, "Westinghouse explained that his company would not survive if it had to pay Tesla his full royalties, so he persuaded Tesla to accept a buyout of his patents for $216,000. This was much less than the $12 million the patents were worth at the time." See http://www.school-for-champions.com/biographies/tesla.htm
Carlson further states: "Tesla imagined that it should be possible for a transmitting station to pump electrostatic energy into the earth's crust until the planet's electrical resonance frequency was reached, then, with the whole globe pulsing with energy, it could be tapped by receiving stations all over the world. Tesla assembled several large magnifying transmitters at Colorado Springs to test his theory and convinced himself that they had successfully broadcast power around the world. (Tesla also believed that his signals had reached Mars and that he had received a return message from Martians!)"
Again, the entire passage above has been designed to covertly discredit Tesla. Let's take a closer look at it: In the first sentence, Carlson uses words such as "imagined" to imply that Tesla's ideas were mere flights of crackpot fancy instead of a legitimate step in the invention process. But the very first step in all invention is imagination. I challenge Carlson to invent anything without first imagining it. In his second sentence, Carlson implies that Tesla was some lone nut out in Colorado who couldn't convince anyone but himself that they had successfully broadcast power around the world; and in his parenthetical expression, he uses the word "also" to equate the Colorado project to belief in Martians. Yet, to this day, no one has presented any evidence to suggest that the concept Tesla was testing in Colorado is not feasible.
The facts are, firstly, Tesla's radio signals probably did reach Mars. In fact, understanding today that radio signals from Earth travel out into space indefinitely, Tesla's signals are probably some 100 light years out in the galaxy. Secondly, no one at the time knew whether Mars was populated by sentient beings or not. Even the serious astronomer Percival Lowell was convinced that the canals he had examined (through his personally financed telescope) were created by intelligent beings. But instead of factoring in the generally accepted speculations of the day, Carlson uses our modern understanding of Mars to paint Tesla as less than scientifically sober. Plus, Carlson conveniently omits the fact that Tesla's research indicates that he was able to transmit electricity at a distance and light up a vacuum tube.
Lastly there is the issue of J.P. Morgan, whose culpability Carlson misleadingly obfuscates. Carlson says: "[I]n 1901 tycoon, J. Piermont Morgan invested $150,000 in Tesla's wireless-power scheme. Tesla rapidly spent his advance, sparing no expense in outfitting a new laboratory in Wardenclyffe, on the north shore of Long Island, N.Y. Despite Morgan's refusal to provide more cash and Tesla's failure to produce positive technical results, the inventor none the less built a 187 foot antenna tower in Wardenclyffe. Even with his connections to New York's moneyed elite, however, Tesla could not secure the funds he needed to complete his project and thereupon suffered a nervous breakdown."
The problem with this statement is that Carlson has omitted or misrepresented documented facts. In truth, Tesla needed well in excess of $1,000,000 for Wardenclyffe and the $150,000 Morgan advanced him was to be just a down payment. Further, Morgan did not invest in a "wireless-power scheme," he invested in a plan to send wireless messages (i.e., radio) to his business interests around the world. Also, Carlson's description of Tesla's use of his funding makes Tesla look like a foolish spendthrift. Not so. Tesla was building his dream project, his World System, so he was simply doing everything properly, with the highest level of quality. So well built was the Wardenclyffe tower, in fact, that they had to dynamite it repeatedly it to topple it.
Likewise, Carlson completely misrepresents the transaction between Morgan and Tesla. Morgan reneged on his financial support of Tesla because he never planned on seeing the project through to completion in the first place. The ridiculously insufficient sum of $150,000 was simply bate to get Tesla dependent on his money so that Tesla could be abandoned at a later date when Morgan's business cartel was able to bring to fruition the radio scheme of European nobleman Marconi, a scheme based on pirated Tesla patents. Thus Morgan, Edison, Marconi and Carnegie were ultimately in collusion against Tesla for personal- and business-related reasons. History doesn't remember Morgan as a "robber baron" for nothing. This is a characterization that Establishment and Morgan agents/apologists, such as Carlson, are feverishly trying to write out of the history books. It is no surprise that Carlson is coming out with a book about Tesla soon!
Carlson also conveniently ignores all of this background, invoking the popular scare tactic of labeling it a "conspiracy theory." This card is often played by those who attempt to obfuscate events in history. To them, all of history is accidental; things "just" happen; no one has any dominance or control; nothing can be planned; power doesn't corrupt or make possible nefarious ambitions; Hitler never existed. The idea that powerful individuals can possibly get together and form cartels, monopolies, predatory trusts, oligopolies, or discriminatory business practices that conspire to consolidate and/or wield power is characterized as ridiculous. Of course, one can go overboard with paranoia and become a "conspiracy nut." One can go to extremes on anything. But that doesn't make all claims of conspiracy invalid. A healthy regard for the elements of conspiracy and a realization that such are practiced in yesterday's business world as much as today's must be kept in mind. All of the facts and evidence show that indeed Tesla was subjected to cartel-like, monopolistic, predatory and discriminatory business practices that conspired to suppress his dreams and viable inventions--and thus forced him into insolvency and later depression, death and obscurity. It is a very tragic story that the Establishment and Carlson do not want the world to know.
For an article such as "Inventor of Dreams" to be published in what many (including myself) consider a preeminent and reliable magazine, Scientific American, was probably not the wisest choice. Professor Carlson may consider himself an academic, but this does not give him license to display his obvious bias in a national magazine whose readership is significantly important. I assume Scientific American does not share such bias against Nikola Tesla, however with each passing month I see no rebuttals published, my doubts mount. This is unfortunate because Tesla, after all, stands alongside such giants as Gilbert, Coulomb, Watt, Volta, Oersted, Ampere, Ohm, Faraday, Henry, Gauss, Weber, Maxwell, Siemens, and Hertz. He is one of only two Americans in this pantheon of just fifteen men worldwide honored by having his name represent a unit of electrical/magnetic measurement. Such distinction does not, and should not, merit publishing the narrow-minded opinion of a lone professor possibly seeking to enhance the sale of his upcoming book on Tesla. Perhaps Tesla, and those who respect and have come to understand what happened to him, are owed an apology.
17 May 2005
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