Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age: Book Review.

j9941A search on Amazon of “Nikola Tesla in books” will repaint your browser with 1,872 choices. A Viemo search on Nikola Tesla will yield 552 videos across 56 pages. That’s too much content for me to absorb with my busy schedule so I did what I always do when faced with so many choices. I chose carefully.

My choice was Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson. I selected this book because the author is a professor of science, technology and society and has a long history of being published and well regarded in the technology field. It was a bonus that his three areas of interest, science, technology and society are closely connected to my interests of society, media and technology.

Mr. Carlson is an academic with a strong research ethic and that seemed most appropriate to unpack some of the mysteries of Tesla. I wanted to read through the eyes of a historian who understands technology. I got that in this book.

The book is big at 500 pages including a thorough index. A good index is always a sign of a serious writer. If there is no index in a work of non-fiction then we have been given the right to label him or her as lazy.

I’ve come to realize through the reading of this book and the sampling many others, that Tesla had a magician’s flair trapped inside a brilliant, visionary mind of a meta-physical scientist. I’ll stop short of sorcerer, but part of me thinks he would have liked being placed in that category.

Tesla worked very hard his entire life, tirelessly pursuing his dream to bring wireless power to the world. He was his biggest fan, always looking for just a one more round of funding that would finally close the very narrow gap between his desire and reality. It’s been said that he was ahead of his time. Perhaps he even felt that way.

The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter – for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.

He had a rare condition known as Synesthesia. Synesthesia is a perceptual condition of mixed sensations: a stimulus in one sensory modality (hearing) involuntarily elicits a sensation/experience in another sense (vision). Likewise, perception of a shape (number or letter) may cause an unusual perception in the same sense (color). This allowed him to fully design all the details of an invention in his mind and actually run the test or experiment. Since he was completely clear in his mind he often did not fully document his designs, and so the Tesla archive is not as complete as it is with other inventors.

It was an amazing life for sure, but not one any of us would likely want to lead. He made perhaps the biggest contributions to the world we share today with our indispensable soul mate, electricity. As I read through the book I jotted down a list of Tesla’s major accomplishments.

  • Mastering Alternating Current (AC). Tesla’s inventions drew interest from the likes of George Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan toward him for investment purposes. Edison was not a fan of AC after seeing men electrocuted by its power. Today’s world is electrified by alternating current.
  • Tesla’s input into the Niagara Falls power project led to that team adopting AC as their power choice to send large amounts of power over long distances.
  • Invented the photographic process for producing X-rays (X for unknown) weeks ahead of Wilhelm Roentgen who is officially credited with the invention. Tesla discovered X-ray photography, but failed to realize it at the time.
  • Tesla was the first investigator of electromagnetic waves which was then furthered by Marconi and resulted in the invention of the Radio. Tesla devised circuits using capacitors and coils that improved Marconi’s invention.
  • Other inventions: Induction motor, rotary transformers, high frequency alternators, the Tesla coil, the Tesla oscillator.

The writing of this book is thorough, but dense. The material is very well organized and written in a consistent style throughout, which for a book of this length and a life this diverse is quite an accomplishment. It’s not an breezy read. One must be determined to learn about Tesla to make it through to the end.

Tesla in France
Tesla lecturing at the French Physical Society and International Society of Electricians (Paris, March 1892)

Mr. Carlson takes us back to Tesla’s earliest years. He recounts a difficult childhood that included the tragic loss of a brother and a challenging sickness. Later Tesla began to blossom while attending Joanneum Polytechnic School in Graz, and his first introduction to electricity and motors. One of his professors said of Tesla.

Tesla was peculiar; it was said of him that he wore the same coat for twenty years. But what he lacked in personal magnetism he made up in the perfection of his exposition. I never saw him miss a word or gesture, and his demonstrations and experiments came off with clocklike precision.

From there Tesla never stopped studying and experimenting. It was the age of the dawning of the magician and he fit right in. He would organize elaborate stage productions to showcase his latest inventions, captivating the crowd with his prestidigitation skills and the magic of electricity. He was viewed as a showman. People didn’t fear him but they did consider him a genius which carries with it a certain amount of eccentricity.

Tesla Receiver
Receiver used by Tesla to detect electromagnetic waves (1890)

To the end, Tesla always believed that wireless power was possible. His work at a Colorado Springs laboratory brought him as close as he would ever be to achieving his dream. But he was not a particularly good businessman and despite his abilities for showmanship, it did not translate well into a cogent story or proposal. His genius just wasn’t taken serious.

He was never rich, but his inventions over the years meant he had ongoing but modest royalties that kept him going through the last decade of his life. Sadly he died nearly penniless in room 3327 of The New Yorker Hotel at the age of 86 in 1943. He never married and there is almost no record of his being involved with a woman at any point in his life.

It’s fitting that Tesla Motors, maker of the pre-eminent electric sedan is named for Nikola Tesla. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, is following in the footsteps of Tesla, but doing so with business smarts and Silicon Valley speed. If you want to know more about Nikola Tesla and have some time. I would recommend Mr. Carlson’s book.

Check out my experience as a Tesla Model S Driver here.

Hybrid War Heating Up

2010 Honda Insight

Toyota won the first hybrid car battle with the Prius, having beaten out Honda’s Insight at the turn of this century. But Honda’s back for their next at bat, and strangely enough it’s called the Insight again. Quite frankly I completely forgot about the Insight, so Honda’s probably thinking that most people are like me, and don’t see any brand baggage connected with that oops. I think Toyota’s and Honda’s approach of radically changing the design of their hybrids so they are immediately recognized as a different kind of car is very smart. Other manufacturers have simply added an H or slapped a badge on the fender and back bumper. It doesn’t give them or the driver credit for having made a more responsible, forward-looking choice.

The Insight will be officially unveiled next month and will be available for purchase sometime in 2009. This is great news; the more the better. Hopefully the big three U.S. automakers will raise their game. We will be watching closely as Chevy brings their electric car Volt to the marketplace.

Companies as well as government should do more to encourage the makers and consumers. At my company they just announced preferred parking spots for employees who drive a green car to work. Very cool. What if we gave free parking anywhere to all electric vehicles? How do you think that would shake things up?

Asleep at the Wheel – Why Consumers Forgot About American Cars

This post is in response to George Colony’s CounterIntuitive blog challenge, why can’t America build great cars?

George, in a way it’s not their fault. Like many things America has done so well over the last 100 years, we find ourselves with some pretty smart competition these days. It used to be said, “They make airplanes in Everett, Washington (Boeing’s primary assembly point), every one else only tries.” The same could have been said about automobiles and Detroit

GM HQ - 3044 W Grand Blvd, Detroit, MI - Historic Landmark
GM HQ - Detroit, MI - Historic Landmark

First, a little personal background. Growing up I had two uncles who were mechanics and one who drove race cars on the super modified circuit. I went to watch these open-wheeled cars dash around a dirt, high-banked, quarter mile oval track every Sunday night. When a back injury forced my race driving uncle to retire, guess what he did, he sold cars. First Chevrolet where he would say that Ford meant “found on road dead.” Then he got a better offer from the Ford dealership and suddenly it stood for “first on race day.” Cars are most definitely part of my heritage. As soon as the new car models were in the showroom, my dad would drive us from dealership to dealership looking under the hood, in the trunk, inspecting the interiors. It was kind of like a sacred pilgrimage.

GM was the only way to go in our family. Once my dad bought an MG Roadster for fun and it literally fell apart before our eyes. Needless to say I was influenced by him and was a charter member of the GM fan club when it came time for me to choose a car.

I gravitated to Chevrolet with a Nova followed by two Monte Carlos, then a Buick Century. But over time there were a lot of annoying problems. Some place along the way GM changed the trunk mechanism from mechanical to hydraulic which would fail a year into ownership. Why make that change? The old design worked well and never needed attention no matter how long you kept the car. I was young and didn’t have the money to repair all these things, so I just bumped my head every time I put something in the trunk. There were many other problems with seals, transmissions, air conditioning, starting in cold or wet weather, flooding, starters and overheating.

Now, back on point. I believe you can boil down American’s car problems to the following; arrogance, inertia, lack of understanding customer need states, and a personal favorite, the ivory tower syndrome.

Arrogance is the easiest to understand, ”We believe America makes the best cars in the world.” End of conversation. If you don’t recognize there is a problem, you will have trouble solving one.

Inertia is a bit more subtle. The assembly line to showroom chain was a finely honed process for American car makers. One of my uncles lived in Lansing, Michigan where there was an Oldsmobile assembly line. As a child he took me on a plant tour and I marveled at how all the parts came together like a well choreographed production number. They got them off the line and onto the dealer lots efficiently.

Even though cars were a significant expense for the average family, they were still relatively affordable. My father didn’t make a lot of money as an electrical engineer, but he paid cash for every car he ever bought, trading up to a new GM model every couple of years. Here’s the bill of sale from his purchase of a 1961 Pontiac Tempest Safari station wagon (last generation’s version of the SUV). Total price $3,249.35

The boomers were coming of driving age. The Eisenhower Interstate Highway system was in place connecting this vast country. The family car was how you saw America, it was the vacation transportation. Women began to enter the workforce and so a second family car was needed. The price of gas was under .50 per gallon. Ride the wave American car barons. All these factors that led to meteoric growth also conspired against them as they pushed the supply chain thinking to the max. This has made it very difficult to rethink or re-imagine a complicated business.

America definitely made cars safer and more comfortable, but it’s hard to see how they thought beyond the next model. It’s as if some guy said, “Let’s try this.” And everyone did it at the same time. It was a look alike game. Styling, colors, options, even the names. Oh yeah, there was one stand out on the name front, Gremlin. Oddly enough, American Motors didn’t survive. There was a brief attempt by Preston Tucker of Ypsilanti, Michigan in the late 1940’s to create “The Car of Tomorrow.” It was successfully stopped.

That brings us to lack of understanding customer needs. Remember the trunk story? When Japanese automakers found a part or design that worked well, they kept it. As a result the quality of their products improved over the years, allowing them to focus more on who would be driving their cars. Honda and Toyota pulled off an amazing marketing feat. They used their management and production methods to raise quality, and their vision and research to gain a yet to be relinquished foothold in the U.S. They gave boomers the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla as they entered their 20’s. Reliable, efficient, low maintenance and long lasting cars. Once the boomers became established in careers and began to accumulate disposable income, they gave us Lexus, Acura and Infiniti, just as we were looking for more luxury and prestige. Brilliant.

Meanwhile America was trying to manage brand strategy and find the quality recipe. The boomer’s parents (at least the dads) pretty much stuck to one brand, but everyone ended up in the repair shop just as frequently with all those annoying problems. Oh by the way, they cost more and didn’t last as long. American car companies were on an internal corporate life-cycle and it was out of synch with consumer need states (customers anyone?). When you give consumers choice they will expand their thinking. It didn’t hurt to see all those Japanese cars on the road. It took a while for Toyota, Honda and others to get noticed, but once they did it was all over.

The “Buy American” anthem was hatched to try and hold off the outsiders. Buying American is great but it would have been much better if it was “Buy American because it’s better,” and actually true.

Now the oldie, but goodie, the ivory tower syndrome. American car execs drove their own car brands and models to work each day and never had any problems with them. “What are all these people complaining about? These cars are fantastic.” Well first of all they always drive new cars. American cars will get you down the road pretty pain free for the first year (12 month or 12,000 mile warranty). Second, when they parked in the headquarters garage a team of mechanics would swarm their vehicles and make sure all was in perfect working order. Hmmm, maybe that had something to do with why the cars seemed in tip top shape. The execs should have given themselves 3-5 year old models to drive and forced to maintain them the way everyone else had to, by making an appointment with a dealer and finding an alternate means of getting to work.

I swore off American cars and bought a new 1994 Toyota Camry. I had it seven years, drove it 118,000 miles and never once opened the hood myself to check the oil or troubleshoot a problem. It was never in the shop for anything except normal maintenance. It never, ever failed to start, even in the harsh Chicago winters. I was converted. I now drive a 2003 Acura TL and love it.

1994 Toyota Camry Instrument Panel
My 1994 Toyota Camry instrument panel the day it was traded

The 1970’s oil embargo and energy crisis helped downsize cars and improve mileage. But America quickly forgot about that, wanting bigger and faster, so on came the SUV, the rebirth of the V8 engine and the era of monster cars and trucks. When looking at the profit margins on those vehicles vs. the other models, it made great business sense to the U.S. car makers. Wall Street liked it too. The quality has come up nicely, the reviews are better and reported incidents of problems has improved.

This success simply sharpened the short sightedness. They completely missed the fact that someday the price of oil would rise as the rest of the world grew and drove, and we would need alternatives to fossil fuel. American car makers have been looking at battery and hydrogen cell technology, but that is a long, expensive cycle, not a strength of the big three.

Now the big American cars and trucks sit idle while consumers are waiting in line to pay full price for the Toyota Prius. The car companies have approached Congress to ask for help in retooling their factories for the next generation of cars. Excuse me, isn’t that what a visionary business plan is for? And by the way, you’re ten years too late. Try competing with your competition before they have won.

Americans over the years haven’t tried very hard to conserve energy, in fact quite the opposite. Fortunately that is changing and has some urgency behind it. You can’t blame the U.S. car makers for giving people what they wanted to buy, but you can hold them to task for not developing a parallel strategy to protect their business for the long haul.

Like so many massive and long-standing communities, airlines and government being two others, it takes outside thinking to change the inside direction. When great things are created, and they are, it’s too late to get the credit.

So George, it’s not that America doesn’t build great cars, it’s just that people feel stupid buying them.