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Tesla or Edison? July 13, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben read an article yesterday wondering about who was the greater genius, Thomas Edison (inventor of DC current) or Nikola Tesla (inventor of AC current). The two were bitter rivals back in the day, and while Edison died a wealthy man, Tesla died poor, alone and obscure. Fortunately, thanks to Elon Musk and his ilk, Tesla is enjoying a revival in our time, a fitting renaissance for the man who said “The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine.”

I meant to ask my brilliant godson Rashu which inventor he preferred when he was here with his family yesterday, but unfortunately became so obsessed with eating and visiting that I forgot. I cast my vote with Tesla, and here’s why:

Tesla was a true genius, a great inventor who gave us the inventions on which modern communications (he invented the cell phone) and entertainment (radio, TV) were based, in addition to AC electricity. Tesla’s 300 patents were all his own inventions. Tesla’s memory was eidetic, enabling him to envision objects in 3D in his mind and then create them. He famously said, “We all make mistakes, and it is better to make them before we begin.” He was also a pleasant and witty person who practiced good hygiene and was generally a joy to be around.

Edison, by contrast, was a mean, filthy slob. He held more than a thousand patents, but most were invented by his employees. He developed his theories by tinkering with various parts until something worked out, like the incandescent lightbulb and motion pictures (an idea he got from the famed freeze-frame photographer Eadweard Muybridge).

He was, in short, the Henry Ford of the electric industry: a practical man who saw what people needed and mass-produced those goods affordably via factories, hiring smart men and milking them for their inventions. It can easily, and correctly, be argued that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison did more to transform life for the average U.S. citizen in the 20th Century than anyone else.* The only other thing that comes close is advances in the food industry: pasteurization, canning, freezing, refrigeration.

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison died rich, successful men, Tesla broke and forgotten. But that begs the question: Was Edison or Tesla the greater genius? Let me leave you with another prescient Tesla quote before you draw your own conclusions: “The scientists of today think deeply but not clearly.”

* Oops, I forgot Alexander Graham Bell. The telephone also transformed everyday life in much the same way as the internet has for us.


The greatest inventions. October 31, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. The November issue of The Atlantic featured the 50 greatest inventions since the wheel. Or so they claimed. Sure, there were the printing press, paper, the moldboard plow (thank you, Jethro Tull!), the combustion engine, the internet, the personal computer, and so on. But they seem to have forgotten the real boons that enabled us all to flourish.

I’m referring, of course, to plumbing, toilet paper, soap, and deodorant. Toilets and an ample supply of hot and cold water on demand date back to ancient Rome; feudal Japan under the Shoguns had toilet paper and hot-water baths. I can’t imagine anything that changed society more and made living more pleasurable. Except, perhaps, soap, shampoo, combs, antipersperant, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and body lotion.

The list did include air conditioning, that wonderful relief from hot, humid, agonizing weather. And it included electricity, which brought safe, bright, affordable illumination into our homes, and glasses, which enabled those with impaired vision to read and participate in society. But it left out glass windows, stoves (though it included refrigeration), and coinage and currency, which enabled society to move beyond the barter system and assign abstract values to everything (for better or worse). “I’ll give you this fish for that bunch of grapes” became “I’ll sell you this fish” and “I’ll sell you these grapes.”

Plenty of other great inventions failed to make the list of 50, which is a pretty small number if you’re counting down from the wheel. Which inventions do you feel changed society or human history for the better?

‘Til next time,


Progress on the home energy front. October 15, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Finally, there’s some good news about home energy generation that leads to self-sufficiency rather than global warming. A small step for our homes, but a giant leap forward for our climate and world.

Our friend Ben discovered this just this morning while reading a feature on MSN (http://msn.com/) called “10 Most Brilliant Products of 2009.” I had no idea what products they’d choose but couldn’t resist looking. And I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to see that both wind power and solar energy had taken great leaps forward in terms of both utility and affordability on a home scale.

The very first product listed was a home-scale wind turbine that works even at breeze rather than gale-force strength. The Honeywell Wind Turbine incorporates the generator into the blade wheel, so it produces power even when wind speeds are as low as 2 mph (opposed to 7-8 mph for standard turbines). At $5500 and 165 pounds, it’s the first wind turbine that seems feasible for real-life homeowners. (And yes, that is $5500 out of your pocket, but when we think of what we pay for fuel oil and electricity, it would probably pay for itself within a year.)

Also on the list is the Andalay AC Solar PV Panel. Our friend Ben has railed on this blog before about the expense and complication of home solar systems, which require DC-to-AC converters or all-DC home appliances (when standard appliances use AC), battery banks, and a degree in solar engineering to monitor and maintain. In the era of simple solar flashlights, solar traffic signs, solar stick-in-the-ground lights, and etc., this strikes our friend Ben as a ludicrous state of affairs.

But thanks to the Andalay panel, it looks like things are finally changing for the better. These panels incorporate microconverters, racks and wiring into the panels themselves, so they’ll power AC rather than DC appliances without the high-tech song and dance. As the article says, it’s “a big step toward true plug-and-play solar power for the home.” Unfortunately, they didn’t list a price for this one, but our friend Ben is still applauding.

The article lists a couple of other environmentally friendly inventions as well; I highly recommend it. But it’s these two that make my heart beat faster. Reading about them, our friend Ben can see a future where homes are self-powered in ways that don’t pollute our air and our world, that don’t require non-renewable fuels, that have no climatic impact. And finally, it looks like this future will arrive in my lifetime—maybe even in the next decade. In other words, in time to save us all.