Thomas Edison’s Biggest Mistake and Nikola Tesla’s Greatest Triumph: AC vs. DC Power for America’s Power Grid

Thomas Edison, America’s homegrown inventive genius, and Nicola Tesla, an immigrant from Serbia who arrived with four cents in his pocket at Castle Garden, New York, in 1884, were as different as day and night. Both men are remembered, today, as inventors with “genius” insights, and they each set out to tackle one of history’s great engineering challenges and commercial opportunities at the close of the nineteenth century. Their technological approaches to the challenge were diametrically opposed: one of these men was destined to win and the other to lose and lose big.

Thomas Edison, whose triumphantly successful electric lightbulb began to light the nation’s darkness in 1879, was to fail miserably in his efforts to provide the nation with sufficient electrical power to light the millions of his bulbs which rapidly materialized in homes and businesses across America.
Edison’s encore to his triumph with the light bulb was nothing short of designing and installing a series of prototype electric power stations which, if successful, would serve as a prototype for America’s first true power “grid.” Whoever first established a foothold in electric power would reap immense financial rewards.

On our recent vacation trip to Michigan, we spent a full day at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village (see my previous blog post) and toured the recreation of an early Edison electric power station. Inside the brick building, a remarkable collection of Edison artifacts included one of the original steam-powered dynamos (electrical generators) used by Edison in one of America’s earliest power stations. That “Pearl Street station,” located in the heart of New York, was used from 1882 to 1890 to illuminate and power several square blocks of buildings which had installed Mr. Edison’s recently perfected lightbulbs. A fire destroyed the station in 1890 along with five of the six identical generators installed therein. The sixth and surviving unit was the very one on display at Greenfield Village.

This machine delivered low-voltage, direct current (referred to as “DC”) to its electrical load within the Pearl Street neighborhood – presumably a large array of electric light bulbs as well as small electric motors and electric appliances. A dynamo, when appropriately configured, can also generate alternating voltage, thus delivering alternating current (referred to as “AC”) to an electrical load. The reality is that a DC dynamo is slightly more complex electro-mechanically than is an AC dynamo. A DC machine is an AC machine with an electrical polarity-switching device called a commutator installed on the rotor.

Why Did Edison Choose a DC Based System? GOOD QUESTION!

First, a little elementary background: no formal math/science required!

The simplest version of rotating dynamo inherently generates alternating voltages in its individual rotating coils. The term “alternating” implies that the voltage generated is not constant in value and polarity over time: instead, the amplitude of the voltage varies while the voltage polarity reverses between “positive” and “negative” and back again some sixty times each second (in the North American, 60 cycle, AC system). This polarity reversal can be visualized as alternately a push then a pull on electrons whose resulting mobility/response constitutes electrical current in the connecting wire.

A garden hose analogy will help to visualize AC/DC current behavior!

Think of a DC electrical circuit as a garden hose (the wire) through which water (electrical current) flows at a constant rate in one direction into a basin/receptacle (the electrical load) in response to a steady water pressure (voltage) at the supply side of the hose.

Now imagine the same garden hose feeding the same basin of water (the hose output submerged in it), only now, the water pressure at the supply side alternates between positive and negative (akin to alternately blowing into and sucking out of the hose). In this case, water would alternately travel down the hose and into the basin and back up from the basin into the hose and into the negative (sucking) water pressure source during each repeating cycle.

As already noted, a rotating dynamo inherently develops an alternating, or AC, voltage across its rotating coils, not a DC, constant voltage. The DC voltage which appears at the output of a direct current machine is artificially produced by an electro-mechanical switching mechanism within the generator called a commutator which automatically reverses the polarity of the rotating coils on the armature as they rotate in such a way as to produce a voltage at the output terminals which is essentially “direct” (unipolar and roughly constant in value over time).

Can AC and DC each be used for electrical power?

Yes, AC as well as DC electrical current can deliver useful electrical energy to a compatible electrical load… like a light bulb or a toaster!

What would not constitute a “compatible” electrical load?

Here, is the crux of our story: In 1879, the year that Edison’s practical lightbulb materialized, the only electric motors in existence required DC power. While AC could be used to power Edison’s light bulbs, no electric motors existed which could run on AC power!

The absence of motor designs at the time that could run on AC power steered Edison and others in the direction of DC for power generation and transmission in their proposed central power stations; this decision proved to be extremely unfortunate for Mr. Edison!

Enter Nikola Tesla, Electrical Engineering Genius;
Tesla’s AC Electric Motor Is Developed in 1887

Oft-times, one is tempted to revert to the expression, “Fact is stranger than fiction: you just cannot make this stuff up!” Nikola Tesla illustrates the truthfulness of the contention. Often called, “the master of lightning,” Tesla displayed levels of imagination, creativity, personal eccentricities, and electrical genius never-before seen in the long history of technological progress.

Tesla sits amid extremely high voltage electric discharges in his laboratory!

Whereas Thomas Edison famously claimed that, “Inventive genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” Nikola Tesla’s greatest inventions came to him in meditative, “dream-like” states of consciousness while his mind was set free to roam. Striking, indeed, were the differences between the men, their methods, and their personalities. Tesla revealed that not only new ideas came to him in these mental states, but detailed implementations of these ideas materialized in his mind’s eye as well. There is one other striking contrast between the two men to be highlighted: although Edison ultimately lost big in the “AC/DC current wars” with Tesla and his industrial partner, George Westinghouse, Edison died a rich and very famous man. Tesla lived his last years in virtual poverty, penniless and forgotten by the general public, yet it was he who revolutionized electrical power engineering at the peak of his fame, and it was he who determined the future implementation of America’s power grid in partnership with industrialist and Edison competitor, George Westinghouse.

Tesla Arrives at Castle Garden, New York, in 1884 with a Letter of Introduction to Thomas Edison and Four Cents in His Pocket.

In spite of being an immigrant, “fresh off the boat,” Nikola Tesla was very familiar with the international reputation of his then-hero, Thomas Edison. Soon after arriving in New York, Tesla appeared before the great man in Edison’s offices at the Edison Electric Light Company, 65 5th Avenue. In hand, was a letter from one of Edison’s important associates in Paris, one Charles Batchelor. In the letter of introduction Batchelor had penned to Edison on Tesla’s behalf, he wrote: “I know two great men and you (Edison) are one of them; the other is this young man.” Most likely Edison viewed the young man standing before him with considerable skepticism: he undoubtedly thought Batchelor’s favorable comparison of this youngster to his accomplished self to be a rather large stretch, but Edison did need an engineer to help with myriad electrical problems he was dealing with at the time. Tesla was quickly employed by Mr. Edison, his hero, and was floating on cloud-nine.

It took barely one year before Tesla walked away from his position after some questionable re-negging on incentive bonus promises Edison had made to the young engineer who had performed superbly enough to earn them. Nor was it helpful to the relationship between the two men that Tesla was speaking forcefully about his visions for AC current electrical systems as opposed to DC systems in which Edison was already heavily invested. Also invested and looking over Edison’s shoulder was J.P. Morgan, the banker/financier who had an uncanny nose for financial opportunity. As one of Tesla’s biographers expressed the situation, when Morgan invested in a fledgling venture, the venture quickly became “Morganized,” meaning subject to very close scrutiny and a 51% controlling share for Morgan – considerable pressure for any entrepreneur!

The year 1887/88 found Tesla employed digging ditches – for Edison’s New York underground electrical transmission lines. The labor was hard…and demeaning for the proud young man who arrived from Serbia with such a solid technical education and such supreme confidence in his own abilities. During this trying period, he wondered if all his years of schooling were wasted when contemplating the practical, real-world financial successes of Edison, his former boss and hero, who had barely the semblance of a grade school education.

During this period, Tesla pursued his electrical visions and was issued seven patents; such accomplishments paired with his ever-active intellect began to attract attention and backing for the new Tesla Electric Company, located at 33-35 South 5th Avenue – literally just down the street from Edison’s offices. Quickly, Tesla began filing patent applications on no less than three complete AC power systems and their requisite electrical components: AC dynamos, AC motors, power transformers, and various automatic controls. Working feverishly day and night, it took Tesla but a matter of months to transfer his long-held mental images for these components into solid patent applications. The sudden blizzard of tremendously important patent filings was quite unlike anything the patent office had ever seen.

Wall Street and academics quickly became aware of these patent activities, and, soon, an invitation came for Tesla to address the prestigious American Institute of Electrical Engineers. On May 16, 1888, he delivered his presentation, “A New System of Alternate Current Motors and Transformers.” The lecture was received with widespread acclaim and was soon referred to as a “classic,” both in style and substance.

The Nikola Tesla/George Westinghouse Alliance Is Formed

At this time, there were several companies tinkering with the possibility of AC power. Most of these were small start-ups (or upstarts, shall we say). One of the serious players was The Westinghouse Electric Company founded by its namesake, George Westinghouse. Westinghouse immediately recognized the newly assembled technical mother lode of Tesla’s mind recently put to patent-paper. The industrialist made an offer to license the inventor’s patents. For his forty patents, Tesla received $60,000 – $5000 in cash and the remainder in Westinghouse stock. In addition, Westinghouse reportedly agreed to a mind-boggling offer of a $2.50 royalty to Tesla for every horsepower of electricity sold by the company. A few years later, when Westinghouse Electric found itself in financial straits due to market conditions and its heavy, up-front investment in AC electricity, Tesla supposedly agreed to help save the company by canceling the royalty agreement.

In less than a decade from that point, Tesla would have personally made millions of dollars in royalties which Westinghouse was at least morally obligated to pay per the original “agreement.” The reputed royalty situation may have literally been a “gentleman’s agreement,” originally. A modern Westinghouse historian states that there exists no written record of a legal, binding agreement and goes on to say that such royalties would, today, have been worth trillions of dollars to Mr. Tesla’s estate! The episode, whether true or not, does reflect Tesla’s disregard for money for money’s sake. The personal, intellectual satisfaction garnered from the success of his ideas was a far more valuable currency to Tesla than greenbacks!

George Westinghouse, the industrialist, was necessarily far more pragmatic about money matters than was his brilliant associate (discounting the aforementioned royalty “agreement”). Nonetheless, he was an honest broker with his Westinghouse employees and truly cared about them. Any patent granted within his company had the originator’s name on it. Patents granted to Edison’s companies based on the work of an individual employee invariably carried the name, “Thomas A. Edison.” George Westinghouse was not only the antithesis of the great industrial “robber barons” of the age, he was a dedicated husband and family man, as well – a decided distinction in such circles.

The Vicious AC/DC Current Wars:
Westinghouse Versus a Ruthless and Desperate Edison

The marketing battle waged between Westinghouse and Edison to win the favor of industries and public opinion was quite unlike anything ever seen before – and possibly since. The Tesla/Westinghouse alliance touted the logic and superior efficiency of the AC system as reasons why it should be the roadmap for America’s future power system. As events unfolded to his disadvantage, Edison proceeded to employ scare tactics through advertising in order to convince the public that the high AC voltages carried in the Westinghouse transmission lines posed a danger to the unwary public. Electricity seemed a mysterious entity to most of the public at the end of the nineteenth century, and fear of the unknown always sets a high bar. The fear of being electrocuted in one’s home while changing a lightbulb or making breakfast toast was palpable to much of the uninformed public, and Edison worked to capitalize on those fears.
Animals were electrocuted outside of Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory in staged, public executions using high-voltage AC current to emphasize the supposed danger inherent in the Westinghouse system. The concept of capital punishment using a high AC voltage “electric chair” was the by-product of another campaign waged by the low-voltage Edison capitalists.

Edison was fighting a losing battle all along, as he likely soon realized after Tesla began his one-year tenure with Edison after arriving in New York.

Here is a brief outline of the Tesla/Westinghouse system of AC power generation and transmission which won the day and doomed Edison’s DC system after the latter had blown much capital and waged his vicious, but losing campaign against the Tesla/Westinghouse system:

-A (typically) steam-powered AC dynamo generates a moderate to low AC voltage (let us say 115 volts) at 60 cycles per second.
-The dynamo feeds a step-up transformer which boosts the voltage by an arbitrary factor, say 50X, resulting in 115 volts times 50 = 5,750 volts!
-The resulting higher voltage/lower current equivalent power is fed to the transmission line which can now be constructed of lower current-capacity (smaller diameter) copper conductors, thus minimizing voltage-drop (and power loss) in the line.
-At the “load” end of the line, step-down transformers reduce the line voltage by the original factor of 50 which makes 115 volts AC safely available to homes and businesses. Note: the step-up/step-down process occurs with minimal power loss.

After his tremendous accomplishment of quite single-handedly visualizing, designing, and birthing hardware for the master template of America’s future power grids, Nikola Tesla moved on to what, for him, were still more interesting and challenging endeavors.

One of Tesla’s long-lived and stubborn visions involved the wireless transmission of significant levels of electric power over long distances using the earth’s ionosphere as a conductor/conduit. In middle age, he relocated to Colorado and carried on his investigations into ultra-high voltage and wireless transmission utilizing the tower-dome of a specially designed and constructed laboratory. Among the many inventions for which Tesla justifiably claimed at least partial success and credit was a “death-ray” which could immobilize and destroy most anything in its path. The so-called “star-wars initiative” which President Ronald Reagan touted during the cold war with the Soviet Union was based on a satellite system of laser/death-rays in space, reminiscent of Tesla’s vision.

Upon Tesla’s passing in 1943, the U.S. military classified some of his work, and portions of it quite possibly remain classified, to this day.

The Personal/Mystical Side of Nikola Tesla:
Writing This Post on the Man

Nikola Tesla was the quintessential loner – a man who never married and a man who traveled through life with few close friends. He was entirely immersed in and consumed by the gyrations of his imagination and the work necessary to implement his far-reaching visions. The more one learns about Tesla, the greater is the intrigue that settles-in. I began this post with the intent of profiling him and his importance to technology in several written pages; I soon found myself right here, already on page eleven of this document, yet with much left to say in my efforts to convey the uniqueness of the man and his impact on society.
Those who knew him well, and they were few, recalled an earnestness, an old-world gentility, and a sweetness in his persona that does not usually pair with the notion of an edgy, narcissistic loner. At the height of his considerable fame and powers after the resounding successes of the Westinghouse system at Chicago and Niagara Falls, he became quite the celebrity and did allow himself to enjoy the spotlight for a time. He was courted by the rich and famous, became friends with the Astors and the Vanderbilts and was pursued by society women. Although never married, he appears to have had a definite attraction to the feminine mystique; he certainly enjoyed female companionship at that time in his life, yet he related that any serious relationship would have been incompatible with his driving ambition and the need to devote full time to exploring and implementing his personal visions.

As a young man, Tesla viewed the proper role of women as life-partners to men, to be respected and cherished for their role in a collaboration which implements God’s plan for humans. In his youth, Tesla expressed doubt that he could be worthy enough for a young woman, but in later years he wrote against the trend in women’s liberation. In 1924 he wrote, “In place of the soft-voiced, gentle woman of my reverent worship, has come the woman who thinks that her chief success in life lies in making herself as much as possible like man – in dress, voice and actions. In sports and achievements of every kind…The tendency of woman to push aside man, supplanting the old spirit of cooperation with him in all affairs of life, is very disappointing to me.”
Despite his intense focus on technology and creative innovation, Tesla was very much a renaissance man, a philosopher with wide-ranging ideas on many fronts. Although he lived an ultimately isolated life, the image he projected was that of an extremely bright and informed man, impeccably groomed and dressed – fluent with a genteel personality and a noble, old-world bearing.

At the height of his fame, Tesla could be seen dining nightly at Delmonico’s, a fashionable and exclusive New York restaurant. He was there, at the same table every night, precisely at 8:00 pm, dining alone. He was indulged by the management with his own personal waiter and his required stack of freshly laundered napkins. Personal tidiness and cleanliness seemed rather an obsession with the man, to the extent of seemingly obsessive/compulsive behaviors.

Tesla’s Late Years – A Bittersweet Ending

Tesla’s passion to achieve the wireless transmission of electrical power levels (as opposed to weak radio signals, for example) led him astray beginning in mid-life. By his later years, potential investors lost faith in the halting progress and promise of his still-considerable efforts. The local establishments including hotels like the elegant Waldorf Astoria and, later, the New Yorker, catered to him initially as a steady, good customer. Later, when his money was gone, Tesla would be carried along with credit by some out of a charitable recognition of his earlier achievements and personal uniqueness. He became, in other words, a local fixture, a notable, easily recognizable, once-famous “character.” It appears that the Westinghouse Electric Company stepped in at one point and committed to help with Tesla’s support in recognition of his past importance to the company and his role in its history.

At the end, as Tesla’s mind dulled and his money was gone, his life and his passion became the simple, daily ritual of sitting in local parks and feeding his loyal friends, the pigeons.

Nikola Tesla died alone in his room at the New Yorker hotel on January 7, 1943, in New York City at eighty-six years of age.

There is a concluding section to this post which follows. If you have read this far and found the material interesting, I urge you to continue on, forsaking any natural fears of a few simple algebraic equations. Your reward: a layperson’s easy-to-digest understanding of the great Edison vs. Tesla/Westinghouse “current wars” and insight into the basic technology behind today’s vast electrical grid, a technological marvel not to be taken for granted. Let the primer begin:

Ohm’s Law: a fundamental precept of electrical science and engineering was central to the failure of Edison’s DC power distribution scheme; let us begin here to follow the logic of the Tesla/Edison “AC/DC current wars.” First stated by Georg Simon Ohm in 1827, Ohm’s law is taught on day-one in all beginning electrical engineering courses.

Ohms Law: V = I R

Easy digestible translation: Ohm’s Law declares that a voltage-drop, V, along a wire (or electrical transmission line) carrying an electric current, I, is equal to the current, I, times the electrical resistance, R, of the line. For any current conductor, the overall resistance of the line can be quantified and shown to become proportionally higher, the longer the conductor/wire (twice the length, twice the resistance). For long wires like electrical transmission lines which carry large current, the voltage-drop along the line can be significant, resulting in less voltage, hence less electrical power transmitted to the load at the far end of the line. Ohm’s law also tells us that for a given fixed source voltage (at the dynamo output, for instance), the voltage drop in any given line will be proportional to the current being supplied by the line to the load (twice the current, twice the voltage-drop).

Ramifications of Ohm’s Law on Edison’s proposed system of power stations:

-In order to minimize voltage-drop in the transmission lines between Edison’s proposed low-voltage DC generator stations and intended customers, Ohm’s law dictates that either the current to be transmitted and/or the line resistance must be kept low.
-A low current transmitted means lower available total power at the customer end. Therefore, fewer customers can be served by each power station/transmission line, and more power stations are required. This is not an economical system.
-A low resistance requirement for the transmission line (wires) would mean shorter runs between power station and customer (again, more stations required) and/or thicker, heavier wire which offers less resistance per unit length and proves to be more expensive and more difficult to install over long runs due to the greater weight. Note: twice the diameter of a given wire yields one-fourth the total resistance in the same length of line. Copper is among the best-known conductors of electricity, thus very desirable, but copper has become very expensive, today! Another comment: long runs of thicker, thus heavier, copper wire between power station and customer pose structural challenges and greater expense for the construction of transmission towers.

The simple equation for deliverable power (from station to consumer):

P = V I

which declares that the power delivered, P, equals the voltage supplied by the dynamo to the transmission line, V, times the current delivered to the load, I, (assuming zero power dissipated/lost in the transmission line resistance).

Note from the above simple equation that the same numerical power can be delivered at one-hundredth of a given current if the applied voltage is boosted by a factor of one-hundred times! Small-gauge transmission lines could then be used to save cost and to simplify their construction. There is a problem, however: dynamos (generators) that directly supply high voltages are difficult to implement and operate. A second problem: at the customer’s end, a high voltage at the wall outlets in one’s home would be very problematic from a safety standpoint!

What Is Needed? A “Magic Black Box”

If the inherently lower voltages generated by dynamos could be boosted by some arbitrary factor, say, 50X by passing them through a “magic black box” before being applied to the transmission line, half the problem would be solved. If another, “inverse magic black box” which reduces the voltage at the transmission line output by that same factor of 50 before being distributed to homes and businesses, such a system would be safe for the consumer, economical in operation, and a commercial winner with huge financial rewards.

Two key items had yet to appear in 1882 when the AC/DC current wars began and Edison had already fatally committed to DC power: practical designs for both AC powered motors and for high-power transformers.

An electrical transformer in its rudimentary form is simply a magnetically soft-iron core shaped like a doughnut with two electrically separate coils of wire wound around the core. One of these coils is the “primary winding,” and the other is the “secondary winding.” Although the two coils are electrically separate from one another, they are magnetically coupled together via changing magnetic fields in the doughnut core which are generated by voltage changes across the primary winding. If the voltage from an AC (alternating current) dynamo is connected across the primary winding, an AC output will appear across the secondary winding according to the following relationship:

secondary voltage = primary voltage multiplied by the ratio Ns/Np where

Ns is the number of coil-turns of the secondary winding and Np is the number of coil-turns of the primary winding.

The transformer and its magnetic induction principle were first demonstrated in 1831 at the Royal Institution of Great Britain by Michael Faraday, one of history’s greatest physicists and electrical experimenters. Faraday truly was the “father of the electrical age,” having built and demonstrated the first electric motor (DC, of course!), the first dynamo, and the first transformer. Faraday was first to envision electric and magnetic “lines of force,” paving the way for the foundational electromagnetic theories of James Clerk Maxwell. With less than a grade school education, Faraday ascended to the pinnacle of science. Only names like Einstein, Newton, and Galileo, rank higher. An interesting comparison comes to mind: what the barely-schooled Edison ultimately was to invention and technology, Faraday, with his minimal schooling was to research and science – only in spades!

 

 

 

 

 

 

       Faraday’s induction ring       Faraday’s diary entry: Aug. 29, 1831

Faraday’s diary entry of August 29, 1831 reveals the details of his discovery of the principle of electromagnetic induction. Faraday showed that a voltage could be induced in the secondary coil of wire by a changing voltage applied to the primary coil even though they are electrically insulated from one another. His critical observation was that an induced voltage in the secondary resulted only when the voltage across the primary coil was changing. An unchanging DC voltage applied to the primary coil produced no voltage across the secondary coil. It was not until decades later that transformer designs emerged which were capable of high-power operation at relatively low AC frequencies like 60 Hertz (cycles per second).

In Nikola Tesla’s eyes, the potential of a transformer design capable of high power operation was the green light for AC power stations and transmission systems. Such a device, in concert with his own AC motor patents, foretold the demise of Edison’s DC power schemes. Tesla not only had the foresight to see the complete big picture clearly, his detailed designs for the first practical AC motors and suitable power transformers led the AC power revolution. Tesla personally calculated the optimal AC line frequency of 60 Hz (cycles per second) which is used exclusively today in North America. The levels of insight, engineering, and formal mathematics required to visualize the ultimate system and to invent/perfect its necessary components all speak to Tesla’s genius and ability. Thomas Edison’s cleverness and his grade school education were no match for Tesla’s engineering credentials and genius in the AC/DC current wars. Mr. Edison was, sadly, way over his head in this arena.

George Westinghouse and the Westinghouse Electric Company had, by 1888, licensed Tesla’s AC motor, power transformer designs, and other auxiliary system components.

Here, once again to recap, is the short-form essence of the Tesla/Westinghouse system of AC power generation and transmission which won the day and doomed Edison’s DC system:

-A (typically) steam-powered AC dynamo generates a moderate to low AC voltage (let us say 115 volts) at 60 cycles per second.
-The dynamo feeds a step-up transformer which boosts the voltage by an arbitrary factor, say 50X, resulting in 115 volts times 50 = 5,750 volts!
-The resulting higher voltage/lower current equivalent power is fed to the transmission line which can now be constructed of lower current-capacity (smaller diameter) copper conductors, thus minimizing voltage-drop (and power loss) in the line.
-At the “load” end of the line, step-down transformers reduce the line voltage by the original factor of 50 which makes 115 volts AC safely available to homes and businesses. Note: the step-up/step-down process occurs with minimal power loss.

In the end, Edison had blown much of his own capital as well as investment money from the storied financier/banker, J.P. Morgan. What remained for Edison was the memory of both a failed system technology and a vicious, slanderous campaign against the Tesla/Westinghouse system.

Big “Wins” for the Tesla/Westinghouse AC Power System

Westinghouse outbid the Edison Electric Company for the rights to power the massive and important 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. A system of steam-powered AC dynamos was installed to power the Exposition and the thousands of lightbulbs supplied by the Westinghouse Electric Company. Westinghouse’s bid was far lower than Edison’s and, although perhaps not very profitable to Westinghouse, signaled a major triumph for the more efficient AC system over Edison’s DC proposal. Chicago proved to be a complete success for the AC system of Westinghouse Electric.

Westinghouse AC system exhibit at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition

George Westinghouse buys all of Nikola Tesla’s patents for $261,000
in 1897. The Westinghouse AC System harnesses Niagra Falls Hydro-power!

The success of the Westinghouse AC system in distributing power to the northeast sector of the United States from the newly harnessed hydro energy of Niagara Falls provided further and final credence to the early claims of Tesla and Westinghouse regarding the promise of AC power for the country.

The Final Strange Twist to This Story

As is often the case, technological innovation moves relentlessly forward and often changes the status-quo in strange ways. Recent decades and huge technological progress have produced electrical components and systems that now make the generation and transmission of extremely high-voltage DC currents feasible. Many selective portions of today’s power grid now transmit DC power over long runs using voltage levels of hundreds of thousands of volts. As pointed out in the preceding technical primer, high voltage and low current is the preferred balance for long distance power transmission. In the early decades, there was no way to accomplish this other than using AC, alternating current. Even so, the use of AC does impose secondary power losses in the system which can be minimized using today’s ultra-high-voltage DC transmission. So, in retrospect, Edison was accidentally prescient with his early DC proposals, yet he deserves no credit for his advocacy of DC in the “current wars” of his time. History has justly and amply rewarded Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse for their engineering expertise, efforts, and conviction.

In Conclusion (For Anyone Still Standing):

I now find myself on page 21 of this post (the longest and most challenging of my many efforts on this blog), yet my efforts to portray the full story of the brilliant, eccentric visionary that was Nikola Tesla necessarily fall far short. Tesla’s many other innovations, his name, and his story have been largely forgotten more than once by the public at-large. Today, the Tesla automobile and the engineering unit for magnetic flux density, the “Tesla,” have kept his name alive. That is as it should be!

Tesla demonstrating wireless electro-luminescence in a hand-held bulb

Greenfield Village, Michigan: Henry Ford’s Historic Legacy

Last month, Linda and I spent eight days vacationing in Michigan. We went there with two goals in mind: first, to see October’s fall colors minus busloads of New England tourists; second, to visit Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Greenfield Village can best be described as the personal passion and indulgence of one man, and that would be Henry Ford, one of history’s greatest industrialists and one of its richest men.

We stayed at Ford’s Dearborn Inn, a short walk from Greenfield Village and “The Henry Ford,” a vast and incredible museum – the indoor manifestation of Henry Ford’s personal desire to preserve the past and a reflection of his young world and the ideals he held dear. Henry Ford and his favorite motorcar, the ubiquitous Model T Ford, were driving forces behind the great mobilization of America at the turn of the twentieth century. Ford quickly became one of the country’s richest and most famous men. With both the means and a personal vision, Ford spent millions to create a living legacy to both the technology of his day and the way of life which invention and industrialization were busily changing… forever.

Greenfield Village is a concentrated restoration/recreation of many of America’s finest times and places. Thomas Edison’s famous research laboratory from Menlo Park, New Jersey, is faithfully recreated and, indeed, literally reassembled in the Village. The first viable electric light bulb was perfected in 1879…in this building!

Also present is the original bicycle shop brought from Dayton, Ohio, in which Orville and Wilbur Wright conceived and developed the first powered airplane. Their first successful heavier-than-air flight in 1903 ushered in the era of aviation.

A significant part of the Wright Brothers’ research into the controllability and sustainability of flight took place behind the storefront of the Wright Cycle Shop. Much of the activity and the equipment is beautifully displayed, here.

I was long skeptical, early-on, about the concept of Greenfield Village, visualizing it perhaps as a sort of historical Disneyland creation. Once there, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Henry Ford was maniacally dedicated to authenticity and to preserving as much of the original buildings and artifacts as humanly possible. The original buildings restored/recreated here were literally disassembled by teams of Ford workers on their original, distant sites, packed and crated, and shipped at great expense to Dearborn on the way to their final resting places at Greenfield Village. Greenfield represents Henry Ford’s fervent devotion to authentically preserving a way of life which, perhaps sorrowfully, he realized would be unalterably changed by the industrialization and modernization for which he, as much as anyone, was responsible.

Mr. Ford, it seems, realized early the undeniable fact that tangible property and historical sites, no matter how important, were doomed to succumb to “progress” unless privately owned, funded, and maintained. As Linda and I strolled from attraction to attraction and learned from the docents inside, I came to realize the wisdom in Ford’s contention. Yes, it would be wonderful if Edison’s famous research laboratory still sat beautifully preserved on its original site in Menlo Park, New Jersey; the same can be said of the Wright Cycle Shop in Dayton, Ohio. The odds against that being the case were always practically zero in a society which is ruled by money and which too often looks forward and, almost never, backward to absorb the lessons and wisdom inherent in historical perspective. To his great credit and our good fortune, Henry Ford understood and acted by leaving us the next best thing.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford: Kindred Spirits

The influence of Thomas Edison is seen throughout Greenfield Village. Like Edison, Henry Ford had little formal education. Ford also realized two facts at an
early age: one, that he could never be happy following his parents as farmers; two,
that he had both an interest in and an aptitude for things mechanical. In fact, as a young man, he went to work in Thomas Edison’s light bulb factory, becoming foreman in less than a year. Soon, Ford’s growing ambition to work on things strictly mechanical led him to begin pondering the possibility of building an automobile. Others had similar ideas, but no one else envisioned the automobile as anything other than a toy for the wealthy, let alone as a necessity for the average man. It was Ford’s vision and ingenuity which led him, quite literally, to “invent” both the notion and the process of mass production. His embodiment of that vision came with the Model T which was introduced in 1908. In a market where others sold their fancy automobiles for close to $2000, Ford was selling his down-to-earth, practical and reliable Model T for $650 – and you could get it in any color as long as it was black! Of course, the economics of the production line dictated a single color only at such a price, but Ford carried his analysis of production line realities far beyond the obvious. As one of the early practitioners of production line time-and-motion studies, Henry Ford had determined that black paint dried much more quickly than did other colors – a fact supported by scientific knowledge that explains the fact that black absorbs heat much more readily than lighter colors. One might counter that the difference would prove minimal, but one would be wrong given that multiple paint coats were applied. In fact, a light color such yellow or white would consume twelve times the total drying time in the Ford process than would black! I found that fact to be extremely interesting.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford both placed a premium on ingenuity, common sense, empirical testing, and hard work as the primary ingredients of success. They also displayed an inherent distrust of venturing too far into scientific research and theoretical speculation. This alienation from advanced learning and engineering was to cause them both problems along the way, especially Edison who utterly failed in his massive bid to supply direct current electricity to the many minions who had bought his light bulbs before the turn of the nineteenth century. My next blog post will deal with that dramatic and extremely important story.

The marker adds: “Henry Ford greatly admired Thomas Edison.” It goes on to say that Edison sat for the sculpture during the last months of his life.

Another Edison site in Greenfield Village that re-kindled my interest as a retired electrical engineer was the reconstructed Edison “electric power station” which contains one of the original six DC (direct current) dynamos (electrical generators) used by Edison to power and illuminate several square blocks around Pearl Street in downtown New York in 1882. This Edison enterprise was the first “electric power station” in America. Despite its potential importance and the great hoopla surrounding its success in lighting a small section of downtown New York for several years, the enterprise along with Edison’s plans to corner the imminent American electrical market was doomed to spectacular failure.

As already mentioned, my next blog post will explore Thomas Edison’s losing battle in the electrical current wars waged between direct and alternating current to supply the nation’s immense power grid-to-be.

And I promise that no technical expertise will be necessary for you, the reader!

Hermann Minkowski, Albert Einstein and Four-dimensional Space-time

Is the concept of free-will valid as it relates to humans? A mathematics lecture presented in September of 1908 in Cologne, Germany by Hermann Minkowski not only paved the way for the successful formulation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1916, it also forced us to completely revamp our intuitions regarding the notion of time and space while calling into question the concept of human free-will! Some brief and simplified background is in order.

Prior to Minkowski’s famous lecture concerning Raum Und Zeit (Space and Time), the fabric of our universe was characterized by three-dimensional space accompanied by the inexorable forward flow of time. The concept of time has long been a stubbornly elusive notion, both in philosophy and in physics. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, there had increasingly been problems with our conception of “time.” The difficulties surfaced with the work of James Clerk Maxwell and his mathematical characterization of electromagnetic waves (which include radio waves and even light) and their propagation through space. Maxwell revealed his milestone “Maxwell’s equations” to the world in 1865. His equations have stood the test of time and remain the technical basis for today’s vast communication networks. But there was a significant problem stemming from Maxwell’s work, and that was his prediction that the speed of light propagation (and that of all electromagnetic waves) is constant for all observers in the universe. Logically, that prediction appeared to be implausible when carefully examined. In fact, notice of that implausibility stirred a major crisis in physics during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Einstein, Poincare, Lorentz and many other eminent physicists and mathematicians devoted much of their time and attention to the seeming impasse during those years.

Enter Einstein’s special theory of relativity in 1906

In order to resolve the dilemma posed by Maxwell’s assertion of a constant propagation speed for light and all related electromagnetic phenomena, Albert Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity which he published in 1906. Special relativity resolved the impasse created by Maxwell by introducing one of the great upheavals in the history of science. Einstein posited three key stipulations for the new physics:

A new law of physics: The speed of light is constant as determined by all “observers” in the universe, no matter what their relative motion may be with respect to a light source. This, in concert with the theoretically-based dictate from Maxwell that the speed of light is constant for all observers. Einstein decreed this as a new fundamental law of physics. In order for this new law to reign supreme in physics, two radical concessions regarding space and time proved necessary.
Concession #1: There exists no absolute measure of position and distance in the universe. Stated another way, there exists no reference point in space and no absolute framework for determining distance coordinates. One result of this: consider two observers, each with his own yardstick, whose platforms (habitats, or “frames of reference,” as it were) are moving relatively to one another. At rest with respect to one another, each observer sees the other’s yardstick as identical in length to their own. As the relative velocity (speed) between the two observers and their platforms increases and approaches the constant speed of light (roughly 186,000 miles per second), the other observer’s “yardstick” will increasingly appear shorter to each observer, even though, when at relative rest, the two yardsticks appear identical in length.
Concession #2: There is no absolute time-keeper in the universe. The passage of time depends on one observer’s velocity with respect to another observer. One result of this: consider our same two observers, each with their own identical clocks. At rest with respect to one another, each observer sees the other’s clock as keeping perfect time with their own. As the relative velocity (speed) between the two observers and their platforms increases and approaches the constant speed of light, the other observer’s clock appears increasingly to slow down relative to their own clock which ticks merrily along at its constant rate.

Needless to say, the appearance in 1906 of Einstein’s paper on special relativity overturned many long-held assumptions regarding time and space. Einstein dissolved Isaac Newton’s assumptions of absolute space and absolute time.The new relativity physics of Einstein introduced a universe of shrinking yardsticks and slowing clocks. It took several years for Einstein’s new theory to gain acceptance. Even with all these upheavals, the resulting relativistic physics maintained the notion of (newly-relative) spatial frames defined by traditional coordinates in three mutually perpendicular directions: forward/backward, left/right, and up/down.

Also still remaining was the notion of time as a (newly-relative) measure which still flows inexorably forward in a continuous manner. As a result of the special theory, relativistic “correction factors” were required for space and time for observers and their frames of reference experiencing significant relative, velocities.

This framework of mathematical physics worked splendidly for platforms or “frames of reference” (and their resident observers) experiencing uniform relative motion (constant velocity) with respect to each other.

The added complications to the picture which result from including accelerated relative motions (the effect of gravity included) complicated Einstein’s task enormously and set the great man on the quest for a general theory of relativity which could also accommodate accelerated motion and gravity.

Einstein labored mightily on this new quest for almost ten years. By 1913, he had approached the central ideas necessary for general relativity, but the difficulties inherent in elegantly completing the task were seriously beginning to affect his health. In fact, the exertion nearly killed Einstein. The mathematics necessary for success was staggering, involving a complex “tensor calculus” which Einstein was insufficiently prepared to deal with. In desperation, he called his old friend from university days, Marcel Grossman, for help. Grossman was a mathematics major at the Zurich Polytechnic, and it was his set of class notes that saved the day for young Einstein on the frequent occasions when Einstein forsook mathematics lectures in favor of physics discussions at the local coffee houses. Grossman’s later assistance with the requisite mathematics provided a key turning point for Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Enter Hermann Minkowski with Raum Und Zeit

The initial 1909 publication of Raum Und Zeit

On September 8, 1908 in Cologne, Germany, the rising mathematics star, Hermann Minkowski, gave a symposium lecture which provided the elusive concepts and mathematics needed by Einstein to elegantly complete his general theory of relativity. Similar to Einstein’s 1906 special theory of relativity, the essence of Minkowski’s contribution involved yet another radical proposal regarding space and time. Minkowski took the notion of continuously flowing time and melded it together with the three-dimensional coordinates defining space to create a new continuum: four-dimensional space-time which relegated the time parameter to a fourth coordinate point in his newly proposed four-dimensional space-time.

Now, just as three coordinate points in space specify precisely one’s physical location, the four-dimensional space-time continuum is an infinite collection of all combinations of place and time expressed in four coordinates. Every personal memory we have of a specific place and time – each event-instant in our lives – is defined by a “point” in four-dimensional space-time. We can say we were present, in times past, at a particular event-instant because we “traversed-through” or “experienced” a specific four-dimensional coordinate point in space-time which characterizes that particular event-instant. That is very different from saying we were positioned in a specific three-dimensional location at a specific instant of time which flows irresistibly only forward.

What do Minkowski’s mathematics imply about human free-will?

By implication, the continuum of four-dimensional space-time includes not only sets of four coordinate points representing specific events in our past (place and “time”), the continuum must include points specifying the place and “time” for all future events. This subtly suggests a pre-determined universe, where places and “times” are already on record for each of us, and this implies the absence of free-will, the ability to make conscious decisions such as where we will be and when in the future. This is a very controversial aspect of Minkowki’s four-dimensional space-time with distinctly philosophical arguments.

For certain, however, is the great success Minkowski’s mathematics of space-time has enjoyed as a basis for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Most, if not all, aspects of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity have been subjected to extensive experimental verification over many decades. There is no instance of any validly conducted experiment ever registering disagreement with Einstein’s special or general theories. That is good news for Hermann Minkowski, as well.

Minkowski’s new reality takes us beyond the two-dimensional world of a flat piece of paper, through the recent universe of three-dimensional space plus time, and into the brave new world of not only four-dimensional space-time, but curved four-dimensional space-time. The nature of curved space-time serves to replace the Newtonian notion of a gravitational force of attraction which enables the celestial ballet of the heavens. For instance, the orbit of earth around the sun is now regarded as the “natural path” of the earth through the curvature of four-dimensional space-time and not due to any force of attraction the sun exerts on the earth. According to the general theory of relativity, the mass of the sun imposes a curvature on the four-dimensional space-time around it, and it is that curvature which determines the natural path of the earth around the sun. Minkowski and his mathematics provided the final, crucial insight Einstein needed to not only radically redefine the nature of gravity, but to also successfully complete his general theory of relativity in 1916. Einstein’s theory and its revelations are generally regarded as the most significant and sublime product ever to emanate from the human intellect. Take a bow, Albert and Hermann.

My eulogy to Hermann Minkowski

Albert Einstein is assuredly the most recognized individual in human history – both the name and the image, and that is very understandable and appropriate. Very few in the public realm not involved with mathematics and physics have ever even heard the name, “Hermann Minkowski,” and that is a shame, for he was a full participant in Einstein’s milestone achievement, general relativity. Minkowski’s initial 1907 work on Raum Und Zeit came to Einstein’s attention early-on, but its mathematics were well beyond Einstein’s comprehension in that earlier time frame. It was not until several years later, that Einstein and Marcel Grossman began to recognize Minkowski’s gift to general relativity in the form of his mathematics of four-dimensional curved space-time.

Hermann Minkowski delivered his by-then polished lecture on space-time at Cologne, Germany, in September, 1908. Tragically, he died suddenly in January, 1909, at the young age of forty-four – from a ruptured appendix. His latest findings as presented in the Cologne lecture were published in January, 1909, days after his death, sadly.

The “lazy dog” has the last bark

Albert Einstein and Hermann Minkowski first crossed paths during Einstein’s student days at the Zurich Polytechnic, where Minkowski was teaching mathematics to young Einstein. Noting Einstein’s afore-mentioned irregular attendance at lectures in mathematics, the professor reportedly labeled the student Einstein as, “a lazy dog.” Rarely in the annals of human history has such an unpromising prospect turned out so well! I noted with great interest while researching this post that Einstein long regarded mathematics as merely a necessary tool for the advancement of physics, whereas Minkowski and other fine mathematicians of the past tended to consider mathematics as a prime mover in the acquisition and advancement of knowledge, both theoretical and practical; they viewed physics as the fortunate beneficiary of insights that mathematics revealed.

In the late years, Einstein came to appreciate the supremely important role that mathematics plays in the general advancement of science. As proof, I will only add that the great physicist realized his dependence on the mathematicians Grossman and Minkowski in the nick of time to prevent his theory of general relativity from going off the rails, ending on the scrap heap, and leaving Albert Einstein a completely spent physicist.

Note: For a detailed tour and layperson’s explanation of Einstein’s relativity theories, click on the image of my book: The Elusive Notion of Motion – The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein – available on Amazon

THINK. Thinking is Hard Work

The history of IBM, the International Business Machine Corporation is as storied as any the world has seen. In recent times, Apple Computer had its iconic guru, Steve Jobs, to pave its pathway to fame and fortune. In earlier times, IBM’s Thomas J. Watson served much the same role in building his company into the tech giant it was to become. Watson coined the famous admonition, THINK – his way of spurring on the company’s workforce to bigger and brighter contributions. I recall as a youngster seeing his famous single-word motto displayed in such diverse places as banks, schools, and other institutions.

Photo: IBM Archives

IBM headquarters at Endicott, New York, 1935. Note the “THINK” motto emblazoned on the building. Pictured are 25 female college graduates, newly trained for three months as IBM system service women. Their role: after assignment to IBM branch offices, they assisted salesmen in assessing customer requirements and training customers on the use of IBM equipment. Their three male instructors are also pictured.

I find Watson’s admonition at once simple, yet profound. What does constitute the notion of “thinking,” and why is that a very non-trivial exercise? Critical thinking is important across all life-disciplines. I would venture, however, that science and engineering are more viable as gateways to understanding the process of critical thinking than most activities in which we humans are involved. Recall the oft-used phrase: “Its not exactly rocket science!”

My acquaintance with the subject derives from my educational and career background as an electrical engineer, here, in Silicon Valley, California. Anyone who has studied chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the college level can truly appreciate the notion of critical thinking. During my undergrad and graduate level years, I can recall, more than I care to admit, the long hours (even nights) spent on a concept or a homework problem that just would not submit to standard perusal.

Such incidents would call for sweeping aside the current method of attack in favor of a fresh new visualization of the problem. Often, this nasty situation occurred late at night while working under pressure to complete a homework assignment due the next day. The scenario just described demands what Thomas Watson so unabashedly promoted as his corporate motto: THINK. When persistence coupled with a fresh approach saved the day for me as a student, and later as working engineer, the joy of sudden insight and mastery of the issue at hand was sweet, indeed. That very joy and satisfaction serve to fuel the desire of science and engineering students to keep on studying and learning, despite the prospect of new and greater challenges ahead. One soon realizes that learning is primarily about harnessing the ability to think!

Thinking is hard, and most of us do not spend enough time doing it. At my advanced age and despite an active curiosity in earlier years, I still find myself formulating questions about all matter of things which I had never questioned before. Often my questions have to do with things financial. For instance: “Why is a rising stock price beneficial to the corporation involved since the corporation generally does not sell its stock directly to traders and investors? Ordinary folks outside the corporation who own shares as investors would seem to be the primary beneficiaries of such gains, and, yet, the mechanisms of corporate finance somehow bestow significant rewards to the corporation as well. How, exactly, does that work?” For a business major, that probably seems a naïve question, but, then again, how many business professionals have thought deeply about Einstein’s theory of special relativity? For us non-business types, it is quite easy to participate successfully as an investor in the complex equities market without really understanding what goes on “behind the curtain.” Ease of use leads to complacency, and complacency is ever the enemy of informative curiosity, it seems.

I worry about the younger generation, so many of whom seem to be satisfied with accumulating “factoids,” little isolated bits of information from the internet and social media. Thomas Watson understood that “to think” meant forming often non-obvious connections between seemingly isolated concepts and bits of information…and that is the hard part of thinking. The resulting “whole” of the picture which emerges by connecting the dots often proves the key to great scientific progress or profitable business opportunities.

Thinking was hard work even for history’s greatest minds. Isaac Newton stated the belief that his greatest personal asset was the ability to hold a particularly intractable problem clearly in his mind’s eye for days and weeks on-end while his conscious and sub-conscious mind churned toward a solution. Newton was clearly aware that such discipline and capability was not an attribute possessed by the rest of us. While attempting to apply his newly created laws of celestial mechanics to the complex motions of our own moon, Newton confessed to experiencing excruciating “headaches” over his difficulties with the moon’s motion. Thinking was hard, even for the greatest mind in recorded history! Certainly, the problems tackled by Newton were of a complexity far beyond our own everyday challenges. Albert Einstein attributed the essence of his genius to “merely” a combination of raging curiosity and the mule-like persistence which he brought to bear when uncovering nature’s most guarded secrets. Thinking and discovery were hard work for Einstein, as well.

The self-stated attributes of these two towering intellects have, as their common foundation, the willingness and the ability to THINK – to think long and hard about difficult problems and critical relationships in the physical world. I concur with Thomas J. Watson: although operating on a much lower plane than Newton and Einstein, we all need to THINK more deeply than ever about the world around us and about who we are. Consider the legacies left to us by Newton and Einstein – all the result of unbridled curiosity and the willingness to think deeply in search of answers to their own questions.

“Little Soldiers”: American Schools and Chinese Schools

Much has been written about the growing disparity between the test scores of Chinese and American students – especially in science and math. Yesterday’s San Jose Mercury News carried a preview of a new book titled Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart, so I naturally checked Amazon for the book. I was pleased to find that the book became available that very day. Based on the impressive newspaper review of the book and the author’s obvious writing ability, I ordered a copy and look forward to reading it, soon.

Why am I so interested in the general subject of students and their education? For two reasons: First, I was fortunate to be the first in my entire family tree to attend and graduate from college – many years ago (B.S. Electrical Engineering, Stanford University, 1963). Second, my wife and two grown daughters all taught/teach school. Accordingly, I have a great appreciation of the benefits from a good education as well as the difficulties teachers, today, encounter in school classrooms.

What are those difficulties in American schools? The core of the problems centers on poor student attitudes toward school and learning and too much leeway given to students, their parents, and school administrators – at the expense of teachers, classroom discipline, and effective education. I offer a concrete example.

My oldest daughter teaches in grades 1-3 in the public schools. In each of her classes for the last three years, she has been saddled with a different and singularly difficult student, one who sapped much of her time and energy each day in class and after class. Each of these youngsters would, in past years, have been cited as special education students – students with significant learning/attention/ behavior disabilities. Today’s educational philosophies embrace the policies of “mainstreaming,” or “inclusion” whereby such challenged students are placed in regular classes as opposed to special education classes where small classes of special needs students are capably handled by trained special-ed teachers. The thinking behind this recent policy of inclusion? Immersion in a regular class will benefit the disadvantaged student by minimizing stigma while conditioning the other students’ understanding and empathy toward those with problems.

The reality? A regular classroom which accommodates a special needs student with significant learning/attention/behavior problems is often a nightmare for the teacher and a detriment to the learning environment for the other students. One such student my daughter has encountered continually disrupted the class with unprovoked behaviors such as screaming, throwing objects at the other students (and the teacher), kicking other students and sometimes bolting from the classroom. Heeding directives from the teacher seemed void of priority.

The moral of that story: One child who should not be in a “regular” classroom, is accommodated by today’s educational system in America at the expense of all the other capable students in the classroom who suffer from continual distractions and lost teaching time during the school day. Even a full-time aide who can whisk the child from the classroom when that student “loses it” cannot prevent repeated and significant learning distractions for the rest of the class. The best hope for the teacher: After many weeks have passed and a bureaucratic battery of tests on the student indicates obvious severe learning/behavioral problems, the child might be removed from the classroom. In China, the teacher with such a behavior problem would have full discretion to immediately and permanently remove that student from class – no testing, no bureaucracy, no parental approval required. The teacher in China knows what is best for the class as a whole, and that is what counts in China. This is the “Chinese way” of education philosophy. It brings to mind an old Japanese proverb which states that “the nail that protrudes, gets hammered down.” Needless to say, that approach is a 180 degree departure from the current American way which would admonish that “the protruding nail be protected at all costs.”

The author of Little Soldiers, Lenora Chu is the American mother of two young boys whose family is residing in Shanghai, China; she experienced, first hand, the highly reported, high-achieving school system in Shanghai when one of her sons attended school, there. One experience she relates in the book supports the contentions I raise in this post concerning the authority vested in China’s schoolteachers. Ms. Chu’s son was struggling with winter asthma attacks which necessitated a rescue inhaler to deal with his attacks. When teacher Chen was approached by Ms. Chu who asked where her son could keep his inhaler in the classroom, the teacher responded that the inhaler and its use in class would create unwelcome distractions for the class and thus was not allowed. When Ms. Chu asked what she and her son’s options were, the teacher informed her that she could leave the school if not satisfied. Imagine that in America! Ms. Chu realized that “going to the principal” would not change matters given the authority the system grants to classroom teachers in China. Fortunately, the boy’s asthma problem was resolved thanks to a home-administered preventative steroid inhaler.

Here are my conclusions regarding the discussion so far:

-American schools have suffered greatly from the growing lack of teacher authority in the classroom. Most of us retired folks recall our parents going into requested teacher/parent conferences ready and willing to relegate top priority to the teacher’s remarks and to their side of the story. Today, too many parents enter into discussions prepared to defend their student’s version of events despite what the teacher has to say: The “Johnny can do no wrong” syndrome is alive and well in America, but certainly not in China.

-American schools must reverse the trend and put the interests of the majority of students ahead of those individual students who require special help. I am all for funding special education classes and teachers who can help those students with severe problems, but does it make any sense to try to “include” them in regular classrooms when, by definition, they will not be able to keep pace there and will detract from the learning experience of students ready, able, and willing to learn? In that respect, the Chinese have their priorities straight.

-My family’s combined educational experiences, here, in California’s tech-savvy “Silicon Valley,” have shown that Asian and Indian students tend to display greater focus and discipline in their approach to school and education than do other students. I believe this is the by-product of cultural influences which emphasize a respect for learning and knowledge. It is an attitude formed primarily by parental and peer example and it influences students positively, especially at an early age.

-My two granddaughters are currently students in high school and junior high. They are excellent students who work hard and spend many long hours on homework assignments each week. I know that for a fact. They attend good schools which have excellent achievement records. They DO experience self-imposed and peer-imposed pressure to do well in their studies, but even their experiences likely pale in comparison to those students in Shanghai, China who face extreme pressure from home and from society to excel in school.

-I favor taking the best of both worlds which define American and Chinese education. I believe teachers in America should have much more authority in their classrooms and more respect from students, parents, and administrators. Accordingly, better pay and greater prestige for teachers should serve to attract the best and brightest to the profession. Students should come to class with a “learning attitude” which can best be nurtured at home; often in America, this is not the case.

-The Chinese system is too demanding and disciplined, overall. The fallout rate (failure rate for life, essentially) of students is unacceptable. Regrettably, the extreme discipline and enforced learning of the Chinese system can easily strangle student curiosity and creative thought, and the presence of those two key factors is the real key to an optimal educational experience for students.

I have only begun to touch upon the issues important in any discussion of students, schools, and education. So much of successful learning by students emanates not from the schools and teachers, but from parents/guardians and the home environment. Unbridled curiosity is the key catalyst for success in school. My book, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning explores that concept in detail. As Albert Einstein once insisted, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” And he was.
My book is not only for parents whose students are underperforming in school, but also for new and prospective parents who wish to instill a “learning attitude” in their children. And, yes, for you parents who are wondering, I write at length about the student distractions of today – namely cell phones and social media!

Click on the link below to find my book on Amazon:

Alan’s book at Amazon

Sir Isaac Newton: “I Can Calculate the Motions of the Planets, but I Cannot Calculate the Madness of Men”

Isaac Newton, the most incisive mind in the history of science, reportedly uttered that sentiment about human nature. Why would he infer such negativity about his fellow humans? Newton’s scientific greatness stemmed from his ability to see well beyond human horizons. His brilliance was amply demonstrated in his great book, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in which he logically constructed his “system of the world,” using mathematics. The book’s title translates from Latin as Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, often shortened to “the Principia” for convenience.

The Principia is the greatest scientific book ever published. Its enduring fame reflects Newton’s ground-breaking application of mathematics, including aspects of his then-fledgling calculus, to the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of explaining motion physics. An overwhelming challenge for the best mathematicians and “natural philosophers” (scientists) in the year 1684 was to demonstrate mathematically that the planets in our solar system should revolve around the sun in elliptically shaped orbits as opposed to circles or some other geometric path. The fact that they do move in elliptical paths was carefully observed by Johann Kepler and noted in his 1609 masterwork, Astronomia Nova.

In 1687, Newton’s Principia was published after three intense years of effort by the young, relatively unknown Cambridge professor of mathematics. Using mathematics and his revolutionary new concept of universal gravitation, Newton provided precise justification of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion in the Principia. In the process, he revolutionized motion physics and our understanding of how and why bodies of mass, big and small (planets, cannonballs, etc.), move the way they do. Newton did, indeed, as he stated, show us in the Principia how to calculate the motion of heavenly bodies.

In his personal relationships, Newton found dealing with people and human nature to be even more challenging than the formidable problems of motion physics. As one might suspect, Newton did not easily tolerate fools and pretenders in the fields of science and mathematics – “little smatterers in mathematicks,” he called them. Nor did he tolerate much of basic human nature and its shortcomings.

 In the Year 1720, Newton Came Face-to-Face with
His Own Human Vulnerability… in the “Stock Market!”

 In 1720, Newton’s own human fallibility was clearly laid bare as he invested foolishly and lost a small fortune in one of investing’s all-time market collapses. Within our own recent history, we have had suffered through the stock market crash of 1929 and the housing market bubble of 2008/2009. In these more recent “adventures,” society and government had allowed human nature and its greed propensity to over-inflate Wall Street to a ridiculous extent, so much so that a collapse was quite inevitable to any sensible person…and still it continued.

Have you ever heard of the great South Sea Bubble in England? Investing in the South Sea Trading Company – a government sponsored banking endeavor out of London – became a favorite past-time of influential Londoners in the early eighteenth century. Can you guess who found himself caught-up in the glitter of potential investment returns only to end up losing a very large sum? Yes, Isaac Newton was that individual along with thousands of others.

It was this experience that occasioned the remark about his own inability to calculate the madness of men (including himself)!

Indeed, he should have known better than to re-enter the government sponsored South Sea enterprise after initially making a tidy profit from an earlier investment in the stock. As can be seen from the graph below, Newton re-invested (with a lot!) in the South Sea offering for the second time as the bubble neared its peak and just prior to its complete collapse. Newton lost 20,000 English pounds (three million dollars in today’s valuations) when the bubble suddenly burst.

Clearly, Newton’s comment, which is the theme of this post, reflects his view that human nature is vulnerable to fits of emotion (like greed, envy, ambition) which in turn provoke foolish, illogical behaviors. When Newton looked in the mirror after his ill-advised financial misadventure, he saw staring back at him the very madness of men which he then proceeded to rail against! Knowing Newton through the many accounts of his life that I have studied, I can well imagine that his financial fiasco must have been a very tough pill for him to swallow. Many are the times in his life that Newton “railed” to vent his anger against something or someone; his comment concerning the “madness of men” is typical of his outbursts. Certainly, he could disapprove of his fellow man for fueling such an obvious investment bubble. In the end, and most painful for him, was his realization that he paid a stiff price for foolishly ignoring the bloody obvious. For anyone who has risked and lost on the market of Wall Street, the mix of feelings is well understood. Even the great Newton had his human vulnerabilities – in spades, and greed was one of them. One might suspect that Newton, the absorbed scientist, was merely naïve when it came to money matters.

That would be a very erroneous assumption. Sir Isaac Newton held the top-level government position of Master of the Mint in England, during those later years of his scientific retirement – in charge of the entire coinage of the realm!

 

For more on Isaac Newton and the birth of the Principia click on the link: https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/the-most-important-scientific-book-ever-written-conceived-in-a-london-coffee-house/