Isaac Newton and the Plague of 1665/66: Perhaps the Greatest Year in Science!

Today, we have the Covid-19 virus pandemic which threatens America – indeed the entire globe. Many of us are just now emerging from weeks of “sheltering-in-place” while avoiding the virus and its risks. Virtually overnight, we found ourselves confined to home with copious spare time on our hands, time to do all those “other things” which prove to be so elusive in normal times. Many are the voices which have expressed this as a surprise blessing! Indeed, what have you been able to accomplish using this unexpected windfall of extra time at home?

Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire

The all-time poster-child for shelter-in-place achievers happens also to be the greatest scientist who ever lived, Isaac Newton (yes, even greater than Albert Einstein who holds second position – in my humble estimation!).

As a young, unknown student, Newton had just completed his undergraduate work at Cambridge University in the year 1665 when the fearsome bubonic plague, the “black death” as it was called, swept through London and regions of England. Armed only with the most rudimentary medical knowledge, Londoners and folks in the countryside resorted to the only option available to them: sheltering-in-place to avoid exposure. Sounds familiar, does it not?

 In 1665, despite centuries of recorded plagues and millions of deaths, the origin and transmission of such deadly pandemics were to remain unknown for a surprisingly long time. It was not until 1894 that Alexandre Yersin identified the bacterium responsible for such a horrible affliction. In 1898, Jean-Paul Simond revealed that the bacterium was spread through flea bites. Rodents were identified as the principal hosts and transmission vehicle for these fleas. Although largely treatable and well-controlled, today, “the black death” surprisingly still stalks the earth and its human populations!

The year 1666 is known as Newton’s “annus mirabilis,” the “miracle year” in science due to thought processes and experiments that took place in a tiny manor house in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, near Cambridge. It was there, in his mother’s rustic farm-house, the place where he was born, that young Newton secluded himself from the plague for more than a year of intense contemplation, investigation, and writing.

At Woolsthorpe, Newton formulated three fundamental cornerstones of science and mathematics: first, the foundation of modern calculus, known then as Newton’s theory of fluxions; second, experiments with prisms and light which led to his second masterwork book in 1704, the Optics; and finally, his thoughts on the strange nature of gravitational attraction which led to his ultimate masterwork of 1687, Philosophie Naturalis Principia Mathematica which translates from Latin as: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

The Principia is universally regarded as the greatest scientific book ever published, being the product of perhaps the most fertile mind in the recorded history of mankind. In the book, Newton combined his prodigious knowledge of Euclidean geometry with fledgling elements of his new calculus to describe mathematically, for the first time, no less than the motion of the planets through the heavens. Also revealed are Newton’s three laws of motion, the basis of modern physics/mechanics, and his notion of universal gravitational attraction.

Newton’s prodigious output during that year-plus of sheltering-in-place at Woolsthorpe is legendary because his investigative conclusions at that time led directly to his later, refined publications and their great advancement of scientific knowledge and method.

In stark contrast to Newton, this writer will be happy to further organize his den, write a few blog posts (such as this one), and clean-out the garage over the next several months. Oh…and I hope to give myself a much-needed haircut, soon! Like Newton, we can all strive, in our own way, to make the best of a terrible situation.

The Corona Virus Pandemic of 2019/2020

We are living through a life-changing experience. The ultimate outcome of the current Corona Virus pandemic can hardly be imagined at this time.

 To draw upon an aviation metaphor, this experience feels akin to piloting a small, vulnerable airplane while entering a thick and very extensive bank of high clouds and ground-hugging fog – visibility zero. Flying into such a complete white-out, one becomes dis-oriented at the controls. Familiar landmarks on the ground are no longer visible, and the proximity of threatening mountain peaks in the region becomes a frightening conjecture.

Climbing for altitude to 10,000 feet would provide margin against the higher mountains in the area, but our little craft and its human pilot are not engineered to operate efficiently at that altitude, so we drone-on into the vast unseen before us. We hope and we wonder how long it will take to emerge from this cloud into the light of day. Will we find ourselves flying comfortably toward a bright horizon, or will events portend something more calamitous for us and our little craft before we emerge back into visual flight rules and safely land?

A virus pandemic with fatal overtones such as Covid-19 constitutes a perfect storm capable of threatening our way of life not only in these United States, but simultaneously around the entire planet. What with the threat of climate-warming looming close behind, this planet’s human species seems to be arriving at a critical juncture along its time-line on this earth. What does the future hold?

We are, of course, still largely at the mercy of nature and whatever god operates behind the scene. This is true despite the enormous scientific and technical progress made over the last century or two, progress which has enabled a marvelous degree of understanding and a significant semblance of control over nature and our near-term fate.

Nature does have her “bag of tricks” which seems diabolically designed to regulate this planet, its animal life, and its human inhabitants using a number of “checks and balances.”

One aspect of the Covid-19 virus that is especially apparent is its disastrous effect on densely populated areas such as New York City. My wife and I will often mutter to ourselves when stuck in our own, local California traffic jams: “Too many people here, now.” The population density in Northern California is nothing like that in New York, Los Angeles, and other great metropolitan areas of the country, however. Could it be that mother nature is trying to tell us something by turning loose this highly contagious virus and zeroing-in on densely populated regions? Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned.

Trader Joe’s with “senior line” (including my wife) forming at 7:45 am!

It is instructive to consider the responses of countries around the globe to this virus and its pandemic. Germany and South Korea are two regions which seem to have been well-prepared to harness a well-disciplined approach to managing the threat. Others like Italy and Spain have suffered disastrous casualties because they were not as prepared and disciplined in the beginning. It seems clear that the smaller, well-contained societies would predictably have an advantage over larger, more diverse populations. It also seems excruciatingly and embarrassing clear that the United States of America was not well prepared for what it now faces, nor is the country uniformly heeding the advice of our finest scientific minds.

The world populations are, all of us, living through history-in-the-making. When the story is finally written, this pandemic will occupy a prominent place in the overall history of this planet and its inhabitants. Clearly, we had better embrace scientific fact and research more closely than ever before in the biological fields of virology, epidemiology and immunology. On the heels of polio, AIDS, E-Bola, and H1N1, we now face the most challenging virus of them all, and who knows at this moment what the outcome will be?

Already, many heroes have surfaced in response to the threat. The first-responders and the medical staffs who are working to the limits of human endurance with personal risk and a spirit of sacrifice are heroes already…and will continue to be. Most state governors and their staffs are grappling tirelessly while carrying immense burdens of responsibility on their backs. By and large, we ordinary citizens understand the game plan and have sacrificed much while using the only tool we have at our immediate disposal with which to fight this virus: social isolation. It seems to clear to me that staying the course of social distancing and implementing mass testing/contact tracing are the requisite answers to stave-off disaster in the short term. But eradication of this threat will require something else: tools from our medical researchers which will rid us of the virus.

The names of the inevitable heroes of this ongoing saga will soon be entering the history books. These will be the lead-players within small teams of scientists and researchers who, daily, are burning the midnight oil in medical laboratories around the world in the race to stop Covid-19. Like Pasteur, Darwin, Mendel, Salk, Watson and Crick – like all those who poked and prodded nature to understand her secrets and thus harness medicine in order to ward-off nature’s challenges, a tiny group of current researchers will soon write their names large in history’s log.

I say it will be soon, because it can be soon and it must be soon. At stake for those who succeed in thwarting this ugly virus are scientific immortality as well as large financial and professional rewards. Satisfaction in knowing of their service to humanity will closely contend for top honor. Never has there been such a golden ring waiting to be plucked by riders on the medical carousel, and never has there been such pressure. Who will they be? The prize is huge, not to mention the importance to humanity of a vaccine or effective therapeutic. Never has there been a world-wide audience so tuned-in to events as is the case right now, because we are all at risk. Our very way of life is threatened, right now. Unlike certain influential people in this country, I believe wholeheartedly in the sciences which attempt to understand and explain the physical universe in which we live, and that gives reassurance at this uncertain time.

As a student of science and science history, I am very familiar with the exploits of legendary monster-minds who have miraculously shaped man’s understanding of his world – names like Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. I am extremely confident that today’s researchers and scientists will – and very soon – announce some exciting and welcome news to the world community. We will then exit this enveloping cloud of despair and fly straight toward a bright horizon and a safe landing. We are all waiting, hoping, and we are ready.

One last observation:  Here is a commodity which has been elevated to “rare and collectible” status by the folly of our natures. While not quite in the same category (yet) as gold and diamonds, one must smile at the fact that demand has soared and availability has plunged from day one of this crisis. But this is really not so surprising because shit does happen, and this is our front line of defense. Be well!

Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind!

Fifty Years ago, yesterday, a Saturn 5 rocket lifted off its launch pad at Cape Kennedy, Florida, on one of the most audacious adventures in the history of mankind. On board were three “spacemen” adventurers who carried the hopes and aspirations of people the world over on their shoulders.

The goal: to land a man on the moon’s surface and bring him safely back to mother earth. The odds of success? In 1961, when President Kennedy pronounced his determination for the nation to accomplish this before the end of the decade, many of the engineers with experience on the program which had not yet even sent Mercury astronaut John Glenn into local earth orbit thought Kennedy’s goal… “nuts.”

By the sheer force of national will fueled by an open checkbook for NASA from Washington, Kennedy’s daring commitment was realized. With over five months to spare before the decade’s end, astronauts Neal Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. The confirmation came as Armstrong beamed back to earth, the message, “…the Eagle has landed.”

July 16, 1969 dawned bright and mostly clear over the Florida Cape. On that momentous day, the mighty Saturn 5 rocket with its crew of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins, ponderously lifted from earth on a thundering plume of fire and smoke. The spectacle and the sound of it mesmerized the thousands who came to watch the launch for themselves. Even at the more distant viewing points from the launch pad, the rolling, rumbling thunder emanating from the engines of the Saturn 5 was sufficient to rattle windows and elicit speculations regarding the power and fury of whatever powers might ultimately bring about the end of the earth, itself.

Speaking less from a poetic standpoint and strictly from that of the rocket engineers who designed her, the mighty Saturn 5 at lift-off was developing 7.5 million pounds of upward thrust by expelling 15 tons per second of combustion materials from its five engine nozzles! These are incredible numbers.















     Wernher Von Braun and the business end of the Saturn 5 rocket

This was Isaac Newton’s third law of motion on full and mighty display:
    For every action, there results an equal and opposite reaction.

In full accordance with Newton’s third law, the forces within the combustion chambers, required to violently expel fifteen tons per second of combustion products from the rocket’s nozzles in a downward direction gave rise to equal and opposite reaction forces on the upper, closed walls of the combustion chambers. It is this reaction force which provides the requisite upward thrust to the Saturn 5. One can appreciate the rolling, earth-shaking thunder which was experienced far and wide during a Saturn 5 launch when the violence taking place within its combustion chambers is fully appreciated.

It is poetic justice that the fundamental principle behind rocket propulsion should stem from the fertile mind of Isaac Newton as first revealed in his Principia of 1687, the greatest scientific book ever published!

We celebrate, today, not only the complete success of Apollo 11 as a mission, but the spirit and can-do attitudes of NASA, President Kennedy, Congress, and the American people who were all-in with their support and enthusiasm for the Apollo 11 program. Those several days when space was truly opened for exploration will stand in the record of this nation as among the best of times for America, notwithstanding the array of “other” concerns which faced us then.

The cold war with the Soviets was one of those concerns, and anyone who has paid attention to America’s many triumphs in space will appreciate that a major impetus for Kennedy to issue his man-on-the-moon challenge in 1961 was the realization that space exploration meant rocket technology and rocket technology was key to our nuclear missile defenses and our national security. Despite the need for such gnawing pragmatism in the space program, the altruistic legacy of man’s exploration of outer space remains first and foremost in the consciousness of the American people.

Like Pearl Harbor, VE-day in World War II, President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and 9/11 in 2001, Apollo 11 was one of those generational events which remain a life-long memory for those who lived through them. I remember clearly where I was and what I was doing fifty years ago. Linda and I were living in Santa Barbara, California, and I was half-way through my Masters Degree in electrical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We were renting half of a wonderful hillside duplex which overlooked that beautiful city with a line of sight toward the city harbor and west to the Pacific Ocean. As we intently watched all aspects of the Apollo launch on our little 19-inch black-and-white television during those several days, I recall countless time-outs to our front terrace-porch with coffee cup in-hand where I could enjoy the city view spread out below me while reflectively musing about the wonder of all that was happening on man’s remarkable journey to the moon and back. The few years we lived there encompassed some of the happiest times and circumstances of our young married lives; the triumphal success of Apollo 11 in July of 1969 played no small part in those special times for us and continues to provide joy in recollecting.

I have just finished watching the newly released DVD movie, Apollo 11, with my two young grandsons. The movie rates five-stars plus and does full justice to the drama and excitement of the event. As the movie ended, I counseled Matthew, my older grandson, that the times, the attitudes, and the circumstances which combined to make made Apollo 11 possible will represent a marker in humanity’s timeline, a marker which will always be remembered as “One giant leap for mankind.”

As a retired electrical engineer, I take time to reflect upon the countless scientific and technical people who made the moon landing possible:

-The physicists like Galileo, Newton, and Einstein who first unmasked the nature of gravity and the laws of motion.
-The electrical engineers/physicists who tamed electricity: men like Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.
-The metallurgists who, over many decades, came to understand the nature and strength of materials – titanium, for example, found in the rocket nozzles of Saturn.
-The “ordinary” electrical and mechanical engineers and computer programmers who designed the immense support platform of equipment needed to support a mission like Apollo 11.
-The countless, faceless, folks who are so large in number, but nevertheless provided critical skills and support in management and mission control.
-The technician who was called upon when a leaky valve on the rocket halted the countdown before launch. With, virtually, the eyes of the world upon him, he entered the rocket assembly some two-hundred feet above the pad to tighten some bolts in order to mitigate the situation. I can only imagine the pressures on this fellow who remains faceless and nameless. He has lived with quite a memory of that time and his role in it, I am certain.

And, finally, there were the dreamers, the ancient astronomers (natural philosophers) who looked to the heavens in wonderment centuries ago and asked, “How and why is this?”



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