Friday, May 20, 2011

The Story of How Thomas Edison Derailed America and The Auto Industry

While we here in America exude God-like reverence for Thomas Edison, bestowing upon him fortune and fame during his lifetime, and infamy after his passing, the greatest inventor of the era was a lesser known man, one who's inventions would have likely propelled us well into a Buck Rogers-style future by the 1930's.  Croatians know the real story well, being the country of his birth, and he is accorded well deserved superstar status in his homeland and they know how he pioneered every invention from the short wave radio, to radio controlled ships and torpedoes, vertical take off and landing (VTOL) aircraft to so-called "death rays" for the military, to wireless electricity, but for the greed of the US Government at the time, and the power companies even greater thirst for cash, were the eventual undoing of this greatest of all minds, and even more shockingly, the future of the planet as we know it.

Nicola Tesla invented the device known commonly today as the Tesla Coil, once a promising and enigmatic device that would have provided wireless electrical power to everything from homes to automobiles to personal electronic devices.  While Edison was working hard on ways to propel the magical little electrons that we know as electricity through copper wires, Tesla had greater ideas.  His device would sit atop a high point, often a hill or tower, within each city or neighborhood and would radiate this power to receivers within electronic devices, thus making the need for cumbersome and costly wires an unnecessary one.  Think of the possibilities if Tesla's technology, which he is said to have successfully demonstrated one summer evening in 1931, if it had become the mainstream.  On that day, Tesla installed a small box that received this transient energy and used it to power a contemporary Pierce-Arrow at speeds "up to 90mph" and for as long as a week without the need for refueling of any type.  Not only would this have been a revolution in automobile history, allowing for faster, lighter, cleaner vehicles unencumbered by the traditional technology of the time, which has remained virtually unchanged for over 100-years, but also for the home.

Residences would have been fitted with individual "converter boxes" of the same sort that would draw all the home's energy needs, and miniaturized versions would also allow these devices to operate in a totally wireless manner within the home.  Imagine what life today would be like if we had done away with the need for electrical wires back in the 1930's.  The countrysides would be more pristine without massive rows of high-voltage steel towers and cables stretching in all directions, TV's, lamps, refrigerators, and for that matter anything that has a wire today, would be fundamentally different.  We would have had wireless telephones that would be portable perhaps 50-years earlier.  The implications truly are endless.

So why did this technology never take off?  I'd suggest you watch a film that touches on the rivalry between Edison and Tesla, called The Prestige and quite capably directed by Christopher Nolan (who also helmed Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Inception) but the short version is essentially that Edison was in the pocket of the US Government and the power companies would have no way to meter and thus charge for the power output by Tesla's systems.  Edison sent goons to destroy Tesla's labs and discredit him, and some suggest he even helped to overturn patents that had been granted to Tesla earlier in an effort to ruin him financially, thus depriving us all of these incredible technologies.  As has happened time and time again, greed undid what should have been the greatest period of invention and advancement in human history.  Even today, we still plug in out toasters, try to manage myriad cables hidden behind big screen TV's and under computer desks.  It is appropriate that the new leader in electric vehicle technology is named "Tesla" and the clever roadsters and upcoming sedans promise to begin delivering on the promises made to us so many decades ago of a future that we not only want, but well and truly deserve.

Multiple exposure photograph of Tesla in his laboratory.

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