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

Toulouse Nuts: Flying the Collings Foundation P-51D Mustang (Post-Script)

This post-script to my Reason and Reflection blog post of June 1, 2018 is intended to add some additional details regarding my flight on the Collings Foundation P-51 Mustang, Toulouse Nuts, on May 28, 2018 – Memorial Day.
Flying a P-51 had long topped my personal “bucket-list.” I begin by briefly reconstructing parts of two older blog posts to provide some background.

On July 6, 2016, I posted this on my blog:

The Iconic P-51 Mustang: The Fighter That Destroyed
Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Won the War

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Last month, I had yet another opportunity to ride in and fly one of the most iconic military aircraft of all time, the North American P-51 Mustang. Sadly, it did not happen. Maybe next year!

I ended that post with the following:

Perhaps next year, when the Collings Foundation tour returns, I will have an extra $2200 to go up in Betty Jane as well as the requisite moxie to do so. I cannot think of a greater, more meaningful thrill.

Sadly, “next year” came and hurtled by without even a visit to nearby Moffett Airfield to see the annual visit of the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom tour.

Back in March of this year, with “P-51” still in my mind’s eye and at the top of my bucket-list, I visited the Collings Foundation website and discovered that the venerable Betty Jane, their P-51C Mustang, was undergoing a ground-up restoration/upgrade. That was the bad news. The good news: the foundation’s new P-51D, Toulouse Nuts was coming with the tour to Moffett in late May.

Toulouse Nuts_3The “D” version of the P-51 became the iconic manifestation of the storied fighter. Like the Betty Jane, Toulouse Nuts is one of the world’s handful of flying, dual-control Mustangs that enable the passenger to control the airplane from the rear seat. For me, a tremendous advantage of the “D” over the earlier “A” thru “C” versions is the bubble canopy which offers unobstructed, panoramic views fore, aft, sideways and up from the cockpit.

There is a saying among pilots that “an airplane that looks good, generally flies good!” The P-51 Mustang lends full credence to that contention. Its war record and the loyalty earned from the thousands who flew her in air-to-air combat with the Germans and came back alive provide ample testimony. And she is just plain good-looking… on the ground and in the air!

On March 23, 2018, I posted this:

My Father’s Enduring Legacy: A Love of Aviation…
And a Prized Painting on Glass

My father was a most remarkable man. Today, at seventy-seven years of age, I have surpassed his longevity by one year. Even at this advanced age, my appreciation of him and his legacy continues to grow with passing time. There is much I could say about my father’s innate personal honesty, integrity, ambition, and commitment to excellence in all things, but I choose to dedicate this post to one particular aspect of his life and passion: His love of aviation and airplanes.

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Here is the most important, early manifestation of that legacy for me, personally: a painting of his which is prominent in my earliest recollections of childhood.

I can still visualize this painting hanging on my bedroom wall in Chicago, Illinois when I was a youngster of six or seven. Today, this brilliantly created image hangs proudly in my den, high on the wall. Often, when in a pensive mood, I look upward and turn toward this painting for reflection, inspiration, and a renewed sense of longevity and permanence, qualities so absent in today’s peripatetic world. Few memories of mine go further back in time than this depiction of a furious World War I dogfight painted by my teen-age father around 1934/35. Correspondingly, few “things” in my life have been with me for as long as this little gem, painted on the back of glass using ordinary house-paints! My father’s family had no money for artist’s materials, so he did the best he could with what he had. His life-long ability to produce exceptional results in any endeavor is already evident in the clean, precise lines and brilliant images he produced while painting on the back of glass – a very difficult medium, indeed.

I concluded that post as follows:

Prey for Mercy Print Display

The Legacy Continues!

My enthusiasm for aviation is hardly satisfied at this late date; there are still so many books on my shelves and stories waiting in the wings. Most significantly, both my curiosity about and my fascination with this life-long legacy of aviation gifted to me by my Father, Alfred Chester Kubitz, are still running strong. Time is running short, now, but the skies still beckon!

That last sentence, “Time is running short, now, but the skies still beckon!” soon proved to be a catalyst for me. My perusal of that statement after the post was published served to rejuvenate my quest for “the P-51 experience” which would become a reality in the cloudless, cobalt-blue sky over Livermore Municipal Airport on May 28, 2018 – Memorial Day.

Now, there were only two obstacles: the $2200 ticket-to-ride and the requisite moxie “to just go for it!”

The paraphrased quote from Mark Twain mentioned in my original post proved the antidote to cogitating any further about item number one on my bucket-list of things to do before I leave this world:

“You will regret most the things in life you did not do, not the things you did.”

Amen. Damn the torpedos: go for it!

I dialed-up the Collings Foundation in late March to assure myself that I had plenty of time to reserve my half-hour, adventure-of-a-lifetime on Toulouse Nuts. I was quite certain that reserving a week ahead of time would suffice. We had planned a trip to Irvine, California to visit our daughter for a few days about a week and a half before the Wings of Freedom tour was arriving at Moffett Field; there would be plenty of time to reserve a flight.

Who Invited Back Spasms to the Party?

Not in my plans, however, were the back spasms that suddenly hit me one morning while on the road – the result of abandoning my daily exercise regimen while traveling. This bout was worse than most I had in the past, and I spent the remainder of the trip barely able to move about. Back at home, I thought a few days rest there would solve my problem, but such was not the case. There was simply no way I was going to be able to clamber up onto the wing and into the cramped cockpit of a P-51 with a bad back. Finally, after a few more days passed, my back improved, but it was still questionable. And then the weather was cloudy and overcast for yet a few more days, hardly ideal for such a milestone flight. As my back condition and the weather were both finally improving, the tour and Toulouse Nuts were ready to move on to their next tour stop – Livermore, California, some fifty miles north of here. I called Collings in the hope that they might have a last-minute flight-time open prior to packing-up at Moffett and heading for Livermore, but, alas, it was not to be. Apparently, my P-51 flight experience was not happening this year, either, despite my determined decision to actually do it and my best efforts to make it happen! It was more than disappointing. Depressing was a more apt description given the vagaries of the variables involved: me not getting any younger, and the ever-present uncertainties regarding vintage aircraft. Despite the fine track record of the Collings Foundation, there was no guarantee that Toulouse Nuts would be available and ready to fly the tour next year. And there certainly was no guarantee that I would be present and ready to fly! I resigned myself to the realization that the top item on my personal bucket-list would remain in-place for at least another year.

Livermore Municipal Airport – The Tour’s Next Stop

As luck would have it, Linda and I had planned to drive north to the town of Pleasanton on Sunday, May 27th, the day before Memorial Day. The main street of the quaint town would play host to dozens of antique and collectibles dealers, stretching for blocks through town – all part of the annual antique fair held there and an event we had enjoyed in the past. By that time, my back was feeling much better. The evening before heading to Pleasanton, I recalled the fact that the Collings tour’s next stop after Moffett Field was Livermore Municipal Airport. Knowing that Livermore was somewhere in the general vicinity of Pleasanton, I checked the map. Indeed, the airport at Livermore was no more than a fifteen-minute drive from where we would be. Linda agreed that, after spending the morning antiquing in Pleasanton, we should head over to catch the Wings of Freedom tour at Livermore.

After getting a bit lost on the way over, we arrived at Livermore Municipal Airport, a beautiful, small-scale layout located amid picturesque hills and grassy plains – an almost pastoral scene as opposed to the huge concrete expanses of Moffett Field. Sure enough, there were our old friends, the vintage B-17 bomber Nine ‘O Nines, and the venerable B-24 Liberator, Witchcraft, the last one of its genre still flying (18,500 built in total). Linda and I first attended the tour back in 2013 at Moffett Field, and we clambered at our leisure though every nook and cranny of both airplanes – a delightful and eye-opening experience! We purposely went early on a weekday morning when we had the airplanes to ourselves. An added attraction at Livermore this year was a B-25 Mitchell medium-range, twin-engine bomber also owned by the Collings Foundation.

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As we walked up to the entrance to pay the nominal admission charge, a very large big-band ensemble of young musicians struck-up Glenn Miller’s timeless hit from the early 40’s, In the Mood. That was a total surprise which immediately put us “in the mood” for the whole afternoon. There were flags, music, hot dogs, and all things requisite for a memorable Memorial Day holiday. Linda and I decided right then and there that we loved the atmosphere and that this was the way to see the Wings of Freedom tour!

And there, on the tarmac, was Toulouse Nuts, the P-51D that remained stubbornly stuck in the recesses of my mind. She was obviously busy taking lucky folks with a flight appointment and $2200 up for a ride and the thrill of a lifetime.

I decided then and there that it was now or never for me. We went over to the flight desk and asked if there were any openings for that afternoon. Alas, the answer was no. “How about tomorrow – Memorial Day?” I asked. The girl at the desk said she had an opening at 11:00 am and late in the day at 5:00. I looked at Linda: “Would you like to drive back here, tomorrow?” We decided we would, and I jumped at the 11:00 slot.

Memorial Day, May 28, 2018

The next morning dawned bright and warm across the entire San Francisco Bay Area. The temperature would be in the low 90’s that afternoon at Livermore. After a fifty-minute drive north, we pulled into the friendly airport grounds, easily parked the car, and headed for the tarmac and the planes parked there. At 10:15 am, the holiday crowd was beginning to grow. The cloudless sky was a brilliant cobalt blue: a perfect day for flying if ever there was one! As we passed through the entry gates, I noticed Toulouse Nuts pulling away from its parking spot on the tarmac and heading for the taxi-way and runway. I could discern a passenger in the rear seat – apparently the 10:00 appointment which preceded mine. I felt a rush of excitement in anticipation of soon going up and flying that iconic P-51 warbird. In less than two minutes, my heart fell, almost with a thud, as I spotted Toulouse Nuts working its way back up the taxi-way to its parking spot on the tarmac.

I knew immediately that something serious was wrong, and that my opportunity to fly that afternoon was surely in jeopardy. I could only hope that, perhaps, the passenger had second thoughts after being securely strapped in the cramped cockpit and experiencing, first-hand, the sights, the sounds, and the exhaust smell of that powerful Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin engine. Alas, that was not the case. The passenger was soon out of the plane standing patiently nearby while the pilot, and a few extra hands conferred. In short order, the pilot and two others began removing aluminum panels from the nose of the airplane. From outside the roped-off security area, Linda and I could only guess as to what the problem might be. A half-hour went by and then an hour…and the sun was heating up the tarmac as work continued on the airplane. We sought relief in the shade provided by the huge wing of the B-24, Witchcraft, parked nearby. Finally, I went back to the roped perimeter and motioned for the “stranded” passenger to come over and tell me what he knows. He introduced himself as “John,” an older man in his seventies (like me), I would guess. He did not know the nature of the problem, except that it would likely take a while if a solution is even possible. I asked if he intended to “wait it out” as the scenario played itself out well into the second hour. His response: “Yes, I’ll wait. For me, it’s now or never.”

Linda and I would wait as well, harboring much the same feelings expressed by John. By the third hour, the pilot (and apparently chief mechanic for the day) came over to us and explained there was a problem with the indicated fuel pressure to the engine. They were not sure whether the problem was with the fuel pump and its system or with the dashboard gauge-indicator, but they were working to determine the exact cause. During that brief conversation, I was very impressed with this pilot and his demeanor, but, given the circumstances, my hopes for flying in that warbird on Memorial Day, 2018, sunk to a new low at that moment. “What are the odds that this handful of folks and the pilot would be able to fix this crippled bird anytime soon?” I thought to myself. It seemed that a mechanic familiar with this warbird and possibly some replacement part would be mandatory for any realistic chance.

Just to satisfy my curiosity, I asked the pilot whether he travels with the Collings tour and what credentials are generally required to fly a warbird like the P-51. His response: “I live in the area and I own a Mustang!” My response: “That will work!” I am well aware that the significant brotherhood of people who own Mustangs not only fly them, but know them quite intimately from an operational/maintenance standpoint. Furthermore, many of these owners, scattered across the U.S., know each other personally and each other’s airplanes, as well. The brotherhood of Mustang owners is quite exclusive given the reality that purchasing a P-51 in flying condition carries a price tag of at least 1.2 million dollars, not to mention the expense required to house and maintain a warbird like that in top condition! The fact that this pilot owned his own Mustang would explain why he, his grown son (also flying that day as an alternate), and a few others felt confident in attacking the fuel pressure problem. Fairly quickly, they had several aluminum covers removed from the nose area exposing the engine; these were carefully laid-out on the tarmac. There was even an attractive lady in nice clothing out there helping by moving ladders and passing tools up to the men at work. She later told us that she was a friend of the pilot. All the while, this proud warbird sat forlornly on the tarmac like a bird with clipped wings, unable to fly!

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Despite the long odds, I had this vague feeling deep inside that Linda and I should wait this out – that this might all work out…somehow! Fueling those vague hopes was the confidence conveyed by the pilot’s demeanor and the image of father, son, and lady friend working with a couple of others so diligently out there on the tarmac under a blazing sun. That tableau represented “complete dedication and commitment” as far as I was concerned.

Another hour passed, and the pilot informed us that he believed the low fuel pressure indication was due to a faulty gauge, not a fuel system problem. He went on to add that they were trying to find a replacement gauge! Although my immediate thought could have been, “The local P-51 parts store is not open on Memorial Day,” my gut-feel told me to wait and see: keep the faith. Linda and I decided to pass more of our waiting time by having a Coke and a hot-dog (grilled by the local Knights of Columbus – another very nice touch at Livermore). We ventured over to a picnic table situated away from the airplanes and the tarmac, ate our “lunch” and passed some time talking with some folks.

It was now about 2:45 pm and our time was running short. We were scheduled to bring dinner to our daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons in time to see the tip-off of a key NBA playoff game involving the Golden State Warriors (who ultimately won the title). The problem: the nice dinner prepared by Linda was at home in the refrigerator; we would have to run home, pick up the dinner, and retrace our steps back north to my daughter’s home in San Mateo. Another hour at Livermore and that would not be possible, time-wise.

As the time approached 3:00, I decided now is the time to go over to the flight desk and just cancel the flight reservation which was beginning to look futile, anyway. Besides, there was John, the 10:00 passenger who was in line before me with a one-hour flight scheduled and equally determined, so it seemed, to “wait it out.” As we turned the corner and approached the flight desk, I heard a voice exclaim, “There he is!” Our P-51 pilot was standing there with a cardboard box in his hand. “We’ve got the gauge,” he said. When I inquired about the 10:00 passenger, they replied, “You are up-next! Apparently, John had given up earlier and left after canceling. “How long will it take to put in the gauge?” I asked. “About fifteen minutes,” was the reply. Without hesitation, my response was, “Well, let’s go then!”

The reality was more like one-half hour before being informed that the gauge was installed and the problem was, indeed, verified to be a faulty fuel pressure gauge. All looked good to go with the replacement! I gave Linda a hug and a kiss, ducked inside the roped security perimeter and clambered up the wing and into the cockpit. Once both legs are in the cockpit, one settles one’s behind on a parachute pack which doubles as the seat pad between you and the harsh steel “chair” bolted to the airframe. You are then helped with fastening the leg and shoulder straps on the chute prior to strapping into the military-strength harness restraint which affixes you to the seat and airframe. In case of emergency, the red canopy release lever on the lower right side is identified and exiting the plane is explained. To bail-out, you are instructed to unfasten the restraint harness straps (not those of the parachute!), release the canopy, and dive, head down, toward the back of the wing. Last and not least, one must pull the steel rip-cord handle, prominent, there, on your chest in order to deploy the ‘chute!

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I thought to myself, “Unlike what so often happens with commercial aviation passengers, anyone with an attention-span problem during this ‘safety briefing’ really has no business going up in a warbird.”

At this point, I need to comment on the pilot and his son. It was the son who would be taking me up in Toulouse Nuts. I believe the dad’s name is Steve, and his son is Nicholas, or “Nick.” I asked the dad’s name earlier, and I believe he told me, “Steve.” I regret that, in the midst of such excitement and activity, I cannot be more confident of names, here. I will go with my best recollection from here on in the story!

An intercom headset is handed you with instructions for communicating with the pilot, and the big moment arrives. Nick, the son, volunteered to take me up so that his dad could relax and cool down after his strenuous efforts to get the P-51 flying again. His dad said to me, “He’ll take you up: he’s better than me.”

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Nick went through his check-list and finally looked to verify all was clear of the propeller. The big four-bladed prop slowly turned, once, twice, and then three times before the big Merlin engine came to life, coughing and belching smoke a bit as the whole canopy shook. That was a magical moment for me, because I fully understand the legendary mystique between this iconic airplane and the Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin V-12 inline engine which enabled this airframe to reach its full wartime potential as a deadly fighter plane. People who really know say there is nothing like the sound of that engine, whether on the ground or in the air.

As the engine of Toulouse Nuts settled into what should be a steady, raspy purr, I could detect that something was not right. The engine seemed to run slightly unevenly even to my untrained ears. Soon, Nick cut the ignition and the prop came to a stop. There was a brief comment exchanged with his dad, Steve, and others standing off to the side. Then a restart with essentially the same results. Once again, Nick killed the ignition. At this point, I really began to worry, thinking that, perhaps, there was something wrong with the fuel pump or the fuel system. I reckoned it would be a devastating disappointment should this warbird be grounded today after all my efforts. Even worse, of course, would be any engine malfunction once off the ground.

I mentioned my concern to Nick over the intercom. He told me his dad felt that the only issue is air in the fuel line stemming from the gauge replacement. I have seen this effect often in my home plumbing after turning off the water for a while and turning it back on. The water will spurt and splash from open faucets as captured air is gradually bled from the system. Nick and his dad felt confident that running up the engine for a few minutes on the tarmac should clear the fuel system of trapped air. As we sat there with engine running, I could readily discern the rough spots soon smooth out and disappear as the big Merlin began to purr, accompanied by the characteristic raspy crackle.

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Heading out for the taxi-way

A thumbs-up between Nick and Steve and we were off onto the taxiway, heading for the runway and the hard-earned realization of my fondest wish. Within a minute or two we were poised at the end of the runway as Nick revved up the engine. I liked everything I heard, and so did Nick. At that, the brakes came off and Toulouse Nuts “took off” down the runway, literally and figuratively. The insistent pull of that big four-bladed propeller was impressive. Quickly, the tail lifted, then there was a slight lift-off sensation followed by a momentary hesitation in momentum (likely the landing gear retracting) followed immediately by a steep climb and sharp bank to the right, reminiscent of a roller coaster ride. It was as if Toulouse Nuts were telling me, “I am going to show you what I can do – right off the bat!” Impressive it was, indeed. Now we are heading parallel to the runway, high and off to the side, high-tailing it back past our starting point on the runway, then settling back down while banking hard right before lining up and executing a high-speed, low altitude pass directly over the runway for the benefit of the crowd (and me) before heading sharply up into that cobalt-blue sky and my thrill-of-a-lifetime – the opportunity to fly a P-51D warbird.

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A low-pass over the runway!

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Nick and me, post-flight!

My half-hour in Toulouse Nuts was worth the ticket-to-ride and all the considerable effort it took on my part to make it happen. After landing and taxiing back to the tarmac, I realized how lucky I had been. I offered my heartfelt thanks to Nick and his dad Steve for the ride and the experience, yes. I also made clear my tremendous gratitude for “saving the day” through their determined efforts not only to diagnose and fix the faulty fuel pressure gauge, but also to somehow come up with the appropriate replacement part, seemingly out of thin air – a miracle! After all, the P-51 stores are all closed on Memorial Day! As Steve walked off toward the airplane with the replacement gauge in-hand, I questioned out loud at the flight desk just how Steve found a replacement gauge under such unlikely circumstances. The girl at the flight desk remarked of Steve, “He knows a lot of people.” Apparently, he was able to telephone a fellow Mustang owner in the area who thought he had a spare fuel pressure gauge in his parts inventory. Somehow, it was located and delivered to the field just in the nick of time to salvage my dream. Indeed, the owner of a beautiful, polished aluminum P-51 had flown his airplane earlier in the day. Could that be the same fellow?

In closing, my wife, Linda, related afterward how worried she became when it was clear that the big Merlin engine was not running properly at the very beginning of the start-up sequence. Why was Nick stopping and restarting the engine accompanied by consultations with his dad, Steve? It so happened that Linda was standing next to the aforementioned lady friend of Steve’s as they watched the proceedings. She leaned over to Linda and said, “Don’t worry, he’s in good hands!” And, indeed I was.

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“Toulouse Nuts” : Flying the Collings Foundation P-51 Mustang

To celebrate Memorial Day last Monday, I was fortunate enough to fly an iconic World War II warbird, the P-51D Mustang owned by the Collings Foundation. The Foundation’s nation-wide Wings of Freedom tour and its airplanes had landed at Livermore Municipal Airport, in California, for a three-day stay before moving on.


Photo: Collings Foundation

The experience was not only unforgettable, but very meaningful for me. As a student of aviation history, particularly in the World War II time-frame, going up in a P-51 was something I always wanted to do: more accurately, something I had to do!
What finally moved me to act was a quote by the author Mark Twain which I recently heard and (loosely) paraphrase here: You will regret most the things in life you did not do, not the things you did.

Many are the accounts of young farm boys in middle America scrounging a quarter and going up for the first time in the rickety biplanes of traveling “barnstormers” back in the mid-nineteen-thirties. For many of those boys, that experience led ultimately to flight training in the Army Air Force during the prelude to war. This adventure of mine felt somewhat like my own, personal, modern-day version of the barnstormer ride, but more costly and with no future flight training likely!

That’s me (bluejeans) with the father of my young pilot (he also flies)

The P-51 Mustang was the greatest fighter plane in World War II, bar-none. For that, and for so many other reasons, it is the one airplane I wanted to fly and experience. It is often claimed that the P-51 won the war for us. Most certainly, without its introduction to combat in 1943, many more B-17 and B-24 bomber crews would have lost their lives to enemy fighters which flew up to intercept the “heavies” on their bomb runs over hostile territory. The P-51 was the first fighter with the fuel-range capable of escorting our bombers all the way to their targets in Germany and back to their bases in England and Italy.

P-51s also proved their air superiority over the best the Germans had to offer. When enemy fighters came up to attack our bombers, the P-51s excelled in the oft-times, close-quarter aerial dogfights with their German Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 counterparts. The Mustang quickly won the hearts and gratitude of the brave men who flew her and survived the war along with their indelible memories of combat. As for the bomber crews who were such vulnerable targets, they universally referred to the P-51 escorts as their “little friends.”

Heading out to the taxi-way prior to take-off

Toulouse Nuts is a rare variant of the Mustang which features not merely a seat behind the pilot, but a second full set of instrumentation and controls like the pilot’s. For a good portion of my half-hour flight, I was in control of the airplane from my rear seat vantage point. For the rest of the flight, my young pilot performed some textbook aerobatics per my request: wingovers, aileron rolls, etc. He began by pointing the nose of the airplane up a bit and then partially rolling the airplane into a dive while 90 degrees to the horizon. After a few warm-ups (for my benefit), we nosed up, “came over the top” while rolling into a fully inverted flying position while diving and leveling out. That uneasy feeling one gets when a Southwest Airlines 737 banks into a steep turn with “wing way down” is but prelude to the feeling of doing wingovers in a P-51! I now have some inkling of what combat maneuvers in a life and death dogfight with a German Me 109 must have felt like to our pilots.

Steep climb and sharp bank at take-off (runway in the background)

I have read many memoirs of World War II aces who survived, thanks to luck and skill, to tell their stories. In recent years, much of my time and library acquisitions have been devoted to learning more about the histories of the men and machines who defeated Hitler’s Luftwaffe. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I cannot conceive of more daring and dangerous, yet adventurous endeavors than those experienced by the bomber and fighter crews of World War II. A quote from one of the best, Clarence “Bud” Anderson, a triple Mustang ace (16.25 air victories) who flew 116 combat missions out of England, is embedded in my consciousness:

Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.

I wanted to experience, as best I could, what it must have felt like to ride out to the flight-line in a far-away place on a cold, early dawn, to greet your crew-chief who got up even earlier to prepare your plane, and then to clamber into the cockpit for yet another mission over Germany. Your crew chief helps you strap-in and briefs you on the status of your airplane. You look at him and he looks at you, briefly, each realizing that you might not come back from today’s mission. Then you close the canopy to form an eerie silence, and your crew-chief slides off the wing to the ground – perhaps the last human you will see…at least for several hours. At your touch of the starter, the big four-bladed propeller slowly turns, and turns some more, and turns some more, and finally the powerful, twelve-cylinder Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin engine coughs and belches its way to life, shaking the cockpit in the process. In a matter of seconds, the big Merlin engine settles into a smooth, steady cadence and you are set to face the great unknowns that await all pilots on such missions.

To capture some essence of that scenario in a real P-51 Mustang is what drove me to do what I did last Monday. What better way to pay tribute to the memory of our flyers than to take to the skies over Livermore in a vintage airplane on an absolutely gorgeous, cloud-free day like Monday, May 28, 2018. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. I will never forget the experience.

I was supposed to fly at 11:00 am on Monday. I did not get airborne until 3:00 that afternoon. A problem with the fuel pressure gauge surfaced on the flight before mine. As Linda and I arrived at the field, I saw the airplane head off to the taxi-way for the 10:00 flight scheduled before mine. In less than two minutes, my heart fell as I saw the airplane taxi back to its parking position on the apron. I knew there must be some problem. Soon, pilot and passenger were out of the plane and the engine covers were off the nose of the airplane. The pilot and several others were all over the front portion of the plane. The previous flyer, an older fellow like me named John, stood around for at least three hours as did Linda and I. He indicated he would wait it out because, for him, the experience was “now or never.” By the time the crew had the airplane ready to go after heroic efforts on their part, John had given up, cancelled at the desk, and gone. The flight crew told me, “You are next-up,” to which I retorted, “Let’s go, then!” The fellow who flew after me was also older – at least my age. I sense that there are many older guys like me who feel the significance surrounding this airplane and its historic role while confronting the approaching decision point for themselves: to go do it or not.

I had written an earlier post on the Collings Foundation and their older P-51C, Betty Jane. She is currently undergoing a ground-up restoration/overhaul. The tour introduction of their newly restored P-51D Toulouse Nuts occurred in 2016. Technically, she is known as a TF-51D, being a rare, two seat, dual-control airplane. “T” for trainer and “F” for fighter, I believe, is the way it works. The “P” in P-51 is an outmoded reference for “pursuit,” nomenclature which was commonly used early in World War II and prior. Toulouse Nuts represents the “D” evolution of the airplane’s design, its ultimate configuration during the war. For pilots and would-be flyers/passengers like me, the bubble canopy of the “D” offers a superior visual experience compared to the birdcage structure of the earlier “C” models like Betty Jane.

An amazing, unforgettable experience!

Toulouse Nuts is one of three original TF-51Ds remaining in the world. She is painted in her original markings of the West Virginia Air Guard, 167th fighter squadron.

B-24 Liberator Bomber, Witchcraft – the last one flying of over 18,000 built!

The Rolls-Royce Merlin Aircraft Engine: P-51 Mustang Power Defeated the Luftwaffe

The North American P-51 Mustang was the best fighter airplane in World War II. It became available to the U.S. fighter command as a potent package in enough time to tilt the air war with Germany in the Allies’ favor. I wrote about the justly-famous P-51 in a previous post (July 6, 2016). That post can be found in my home page archives. In it, I referred to the Merlin V-12 power plant which, when finally coupled with the great airframe platform from California-based North American Aviation, turned a decent performer into an iconic fighting airplane.

While “Rolls-Royce” on this engine clearly denotes an English heritage, the same can, surprisingly, be said of the P-51 itself. Designed and built by North American Aviation in Los Angeles, California, the airplane’s genesis actually emanated from England. The P-51 began as a specification provided to North American by the British Purchasing Commission early in 1940. Incredibly, the first prototype appeared on September 9, 1940, a mere 102 days after the contract with North American was signed. The NA-73X airframe first flew on October 26, 1940.

Originally designed for the British Allison V-1710 engine, the Mustang prototypes demonstrated disappointing performance at altitudes above 15,000 feet. The B-17 and B-24 bombers of the Eighth U.S. Air Force typically cruised over 20,000 feet on their bombing missions into Germany from bases in England. During the Battle of Britain in mid-1940, the German Luftwaffe was already flying their front-line fighter, the Messerschmidt 109. The Me 109 and the Focke-Wulf 190 would both prove to be a significant threat to Allied bombers in the skies over Germany throughout the war. Despite Britain’s just-in-time introduction in 1940 of their own top-line fighter, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Me 109 still had advantages over it and the older Hawker Hurricane by way of its firepower and its fuel-injected engine. The Messerschmidt had, in addition to 50 caliber machine guns, a 20 mm cannon firing through the spinner of its propeller. That deadly weapon coupled with the much longer firing-burst capability of its guns gave the Me 109 a significant advantage. The Hurricane and the Spitfire had carbureted engines with a typical float-chamber in the fuel system which caused the airplanes to hesitate when abruptly put into an evasive dive maneuver. The fuel-injected 109s had no such problem and could easily overtake their prey on the way down.

The major problem faced by the U.S. Eighth Air Force bomber command by 1942 was the vulnerability of its B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers after leaving their bases in the English countryside and entering German air space. The B-17 “Flying Fortress” was aptly named given the eventual array of thirteen 50 caliber machine guns in eight strategic locations around the aircraft. Early in the war, it was believed that bomber formations of aircraft with that degree of armament would be quite capable of protecting themselves from German fighter interceptors who came up to meet them over German territory. That assumption quickly proved very erroneous as losses mounted.

The solution? Provide fighter escorts for the bombers. Prior to the introduction of the P-51 in late 1943, that assignment was handed to fighter wings typically flying the Republic Aviation P-47 Thunderbolt. The P-47 had two major problems. To begin with, the airplane had a short fuel-limited range which forced it to turn back and abandon its escort duties soon after entering German airspace. That, of course, was precisely when the bomber formations would most likely encounter German fighter resistance. Besides, the chunky P-47 suffered severe disadvantages in aerial combat with the more agile and faster Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 German fighters. Bomber losses were severe from the combination of aerial flak guns and German interceptors, culminating in the disastrous bombing raid on Regensburg, Germany, where sixty bombers were lost in one day – some 600 men.

Enter the P-51 Mustang in late 1943 whose horsepower, speed, agility, and high-altitude performance provided a palpable advantage over German counterparts thanks to its supercharged Merlin engine which had replaced the original Allison V17-10 powerplant. With the airplane’s inherently large fuel capacity and an added pair of drop-tanks beneath its wings, the P-51 could go all the way to the target and back with the “heavies.” The bomber crews fondly referred to the Mustang escorts as their “little friends.”

Most of the eventual Mustang production of some 15,000 planes was powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin built under license by the Packard Motor Car company in Detroit. The Merlin engine was also widely used in other notable wartime aircraft including England’s top fighter, the Spitfire. Nothing in the air during the war could match the powerfully effective Merlin/Mustang combination, however.

I recently watched a wartime documentary on the momentous effort to design and ramp up production of the Merlin engine in England during the early phases of WW II. This was a huge wartime effort on the part of the English who faced the possible invasion of their country and the subjugation of Europe at the hand of Hitler’s Germany. The film was totally enlightening and engrossing – so many history and social lessons to be derived from the can-do spirit of the English.

My wife and I recently saw the movie, The Darkest Hour, which portrayed Winston Churchill’s lonely desperation in 1939/1940 as the destiny of England and, indeed, all of Europe became increasingly problematic. Fact is always stranger and more dramatic than fiction, and this fine movie drives home the point. So much hung in the balance, a balance which finally tilted favorably to the Allies on the knife-edge of numerous pivotal decisions and efforts. The Merlin engine and the P-51 Mustang airframe from North American Aviation were two of those very decisive factors which ultimately doomed Hitler – especially as combined together in the final P-51 designs. In 1945, many of Germany’s major cities had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombers based in England which, thanks to the Mustangs and their intrepid pilots, could now reach their targets.

I will close by calling upon a recollection from my earlier post on the iconic P-51 Mustang when the Collings Foundation brought their Wings of Freedom touring air show to nearby Moffett Field. My two young grandsons and I stood close by on the tarmac as their P-51, Betty Jane, prepared to fly.

Firing-Up the Big Merlin-Packard Engine of Betty Jane

As my grandsons and I stood outside the roped area, a mere 50 feet from Betty Jane, the pilot fired up the big Packard-built twelve-cylinder engine sporting a large, four-bladed propeller. The pilot yelled “clear” from the cockpit, the big prop started to turn, and the engine came to life after belching smoke and the usual series of backfires. The engine sounded a throaty roar as Betty Jane moved out toward the taxi-way. My grandsons held their ears…I did not and drank it all in. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the emotions of a pilot on the flight line at Leiston, England, bringing that big engine to life en-route to yet another bomber escort mission over Germany in 1944/45. Despite the huge war effort and all the backing provided by the allies for combat flight operations, out there on the flight line, as the engine coughed, sputtered, roared to life, and the canopy closed, it was one man in one machine – very far from home. The pilot was about to face the uncertainties of weather, navigation, and his enemy counterparts who would be out there, somewhere, waiting for him and the opportunity to shoot him and his machine out of the sky.

For me, it is difficult to conjure up a more daring and exhilarating human experience than that encountered by those flyers in World War II. For them at the time, there surely seemed nothing “romantic” about the deadly task they faced – only a sense of high adventure and “what the hell, I hope I come back from this one!” I have read the late-life accounts of some who flew Mustangs against the German Luftwaffe and lived to tell about it. Despite some surely ugly recollections of killing and death which stubbornly remain, time dulls many of the sharp edges – as it always does – for these men. These flyers are revered by the public for their courage, daring, and skill during wartime, and that is appropriate. Despite old age and the challenges of settling down after flying, these warriors possess indelible and precious memories of that time in their young lives when they and their machines defied the great odds stacked against them. Those who flew the P-51 Mustang, to a man, relate their admiration of and gratitude to the airplane that saw them through.

J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb: Triumph and Tragedy

J. Robert Oppenheimer: Along with Albert Einstein, one of the most interesting and important figures in modern history. Although very different in world-view and personality, the names of these two men are both linked to arguably the most significant human endeavor and resultant “success” in recorded history. The effort in question was the monumental task of the United States government to harness the energy of the atom in a new and devastating weapon of war, the atomic bomb. The super-secret Manhattan Project was a crash program formally authorized by president Franklin Roosevelt on Dec. 6, 1941. The program’s goal: In a time-frame of less than four years and against all odds, to capitalize on very recent scientific discoveries and rapidly develop an operational military weapon of staggering destructive power.

Albert Einstein and the Atomic Bomb

Albert Einstein, whose scientific resume ranks just behind that of Isaac Newton, had virtually no role in this weapons program save for two notable exceptions. First and foremost, it was Einstein’s follow-up paper to his milestone theory of special relativity in 1905 which showed that, contrary to long-standing belief, mass and energy are one and the same, theoretically convertible from one to another. That relationship is expressed by the most famous equation in science, e = mc2, where e is the energy inherent in mass, m is the mass in question, and c is the constant speed of light. One careful look at this relationship reveals its profoundness. Since the speed of light is a very large number (300 million meters per second), a tiny bit of mass (material) converted into its energy equivalent yields a phenomenal amount of energy. Note that Einstein had proposed a theoretical, nonetheless real, relationship in his equation. The big question: Would it ever be possible to produce that predicted yield of energy in practice? In 1938, two chemists in Hitler’s Germany, Hahn and Strassman, demonstrated nuclear fission in the laboratory, on a tiny scale. That news spread quickly throughout the world physics community – like ripples on a giant pond. It now appeared feasible to harness the nuclear power inherent in the atom as expressed by Einstein’s equation.

In August of 1939, alarmed by the recent news from Germany, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard asked his colleague, Albert Einstein, to affix his signature to a letter addressed to President Roosevelt. The letter warned of recent German scientific advances and Germany’s sudden interest in uranium deposits in the Belgian Congo of Africa. Einstein, a German Jew who fled his homeland in 1932 for fear of Hitler’s growing influence, dutifully but reluctantly signed his name to the letter. Einstein’s imprimatur on the letter was Szilard’s best hope of affixing Roosevelt’s attention on the growing feasibility of an atomic bomb. Einstein and many other European scientists were, from personal experience, justifiably terrified at the prospect of Hitler’s Germany acquiring such a weapon, and the Germans had first-class scientific talent available to tackle such a challenge.

Einstein, one of history’s great pacifists, was thus ironically tied to the atomic bomb program, but his involvement went no further. Einstein never worked on the project and, after the war when Germany was shown to have made no real progress toward a weapon, he stated: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Stranger Than Fiction: The High Desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico

By early 1943, peculiar “invitations” from Washington were being received by many of this country’s finest scientific/engineering minds. A significant number of these ranked among the world’s top physicists including Nobel Prize winners who had emigrated from Europe. These shadowy “requests” from the government called for the best and the brightest to head (with their families in many cases) to the wide-open high desert country of New Mexico. Upon arrival, they would be further informed (to a limited extent) of the very important, secret work to be undertaken there. I have always believed that fact is stranger than fiction, and much more interesting and applicable. What transpired at Los Alamos over the next three years under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Army General Leslie Groves is scarcely believable, and yet it truly happened, and it has changed our lives unalterably.

One of my favorite narratives from Jon Else’s wonderful documentary film on the atomic bomb, The Day After Trinity, beautifully describes the ludicrous situation: “Oppenheimer had brought scientists and their families fresh from distinguished campuses all over the country – ivied halls, soaring campaniles, vaulted chapels. Los Alamos was a boom town – hastily constructed wooden buildings, dirt streets, coal stoves, and [at one point] only five bathtubs / There were no sidewalks. The streets were all dirt. The water situation was always bad / It was not at all unusual to open your faucet and have worms come out.” Los Alamos was like a California gold-rush boom town, constructed in a jiffy with the greatest assemblage of world-class scientific talent that will ever be gathered in one location. General Groves once irreverently quipped (with humor and perhaps some frustration) that Los Alamos had the greatest assemblage of “crack-pots” the world has ever known.

As improbable as the situation and the task at hand appeared – even given an open check-book from Roosevelt and Congress – Groves and Oppenheimer made it happen. I cannot think of any human endeavor in history so complex, so unlikely…and so “successful.” The triumph of NASA in space comes in a close second, but even realizing JFK’s promise of a man on the moon by 1969 cannot top the extraordinary scenario which unfolded at Los Alamos, New Mexico – all largely shielded from view.

The initial (and only) test of the atomic bomb took place on July 16, 1945, on the wide expanse of the New Mexico desert near Los Alamos. The test was code-named “Trinity.” The accompanying picture shows Oppenheimer and General Groves at ground zero of the blast, the site of the high tower from which the bomb was detonated. Evidence of desert sand fused into glass by the intense heat abounds. The test was a complete technical success – vindication for the huge government outlay and the dedication on the part of so many who put their lives on hold by moving to the high desert of New Mexico and literally “willing” their work to success for fear of the Germans. By July of 1945, however, Germany was vanquished without having made any real progress toward an atomic bomb.

The World Would Never Be the Same

That first nuclear detonation signaled a necessary reset for much of human thought and behavior. Many events quickly followed that demonstrated the power of that statement. Of immediate impact was the abrupt termination of World War II, brought about by two atomic bombs successfully dropped on Japan just weeks after the first and only test of the device (Hiroshima, August 6, 1945; Nagasaki, August 9, 1945). The resulting destruction of these two cities accomplished what many thousands of invading U.S. troops might have taken months to complete – with terrible losses. The horrific effect of these two bombs on the people of Japan has been well documented since 1945. Many, including a significant number of those who worked on the development of these weapons protested that such weapons should never be used again. Once the initial flush of “success” passed, the man most responsible for converting scientific theory into a practical weapon of mass destruction quickly realized that the “nuclear genie” was irretrievably out of the bottle, never to be predictably and reliably restrained. Indeed, Russia shocked the world by detonating its first atomic bomb in 1949. The inevitable arms race that Oppenheimer foresaw had already begun… the day after Trinity.

The Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Man

J. Robert Oppenheimer had been under tremendous pressure as technical leader of the super-secret Manhattan project since being appointed by the military man in charge of the entire project, Army general Leslie Groves. Groves was a military man through and through, accustomed to the disciplined hierarchy of the service, yet he hand-picked as technical lead for the whole program the brilliant physicist and mercurial liberal intellectual, J. Robert Oppenheimer – the most unlikely of candidates. Oppenheimer’s communist wife and brother prompted the FBI to vigorously protest the choice. Groves got his way, however.

Groves’ choice of J. Robert Oppenheimer for the challenging and consuming task of technical leader on the project proved to be a stroke of genius on his part; virtually everyone who worked on the Manhattan Project agreed there was no-one but Oppenheimer who could have made it happen as it did.

“Oppie,” as he was known and referred to by many on the Manhattan Project, directed the efforts of hundreds of the finest scientific and engineering minds on the planet. Foreign-born Nobel prize winners in physics were very much in evidence at Los Alamos. Despite the formidable scientific credentials of such luminaries as Hans Bethe, I.I. Rabi, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, and Freeman Dyson, Oppenheimer proved to be their intellectual equal. Oppenheimer either already knew and understood the nuclear physics, the chemistry, and the metallurgy involved at Los Alamos, or he very quickly learned it from the others. His intellect was lightning-quick and very deep. His interests extended well beyond physics as evidenced by his great interest in French metaphysical poetry and his multi-lingual capability. Almost more incredible than his technical grasp of all the work underway at Los Alamos was his unanticipated ability to manage all aspects of this, the most daring, ambitious, and important scientific/engineering endeavor ever undertaken. People who knew well his scientific brilliance from earlier years were amazed at the overnight evolution of “Oppie, the brilliant physicist and academic” into “Oppie, the effective, efficient manager” and co-leader of the project with General Groves.

Indelibly imprinted upon my mind is the interview scene with famous Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe conducted by Jon Else, producer of The Day After Trinity. Bethe was Oppie’s pick to be group leader for all physics on the project. The following comments of Bethe, himself a giant in theoretical physics, cast a penetrating light on the intellectual brilliance of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his successful role in this, the most daring and difficult scientific project ever attempted:

– “He was a tremendous intellect. I don’t believe I have known another person who was quite so quick in comprehending both scientific and general knowledge.”
– “He knew and understood everything that went on in the laboratory, whether it was chemistry, theoretical physics, or machine-shop. He could keep it all in his head and coordinate it. It was clear also at Los Alamos, that he was intellectually superior to us.”

The work was long, hard, and often late into the night at Los Alamos for its two thousand residents, but there was a social life at Los Alamos, and, according to reports, Robert Oppenheimer was invariably the center of attention. He could and often did lead discussions given his wide-ranging knowledge …on most everything! Dorothy McKibben (seated on Oppenheimer’s right in the following picture) was the “Gatekeeper of Los Alamos” according to all who (necessarily) passed through her tiny Manhattan Project Office at 109 East Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, they checked-in and collected the credentials and maps required to reach the highly secured desert site of Los Alamos. Ms. McKibben was affluent in her praise of Oppenheimer: “If you were in a large hall, and you saw several groups of people, the largest groups would be hovering around Oppenheimer. He was great at a party, and women simply loved him and still do.”

The Nuclear Weapons Advantage Proves to be Short-Lived

What was believed in 1945 to represent a long term, decided military advantage for the United States turned out to be an illusion, much as Oppenheimer likely suspected. With the help of spies Klaus Fuchs at Los Alamos, Julius Rosenberg, and others, Russia detonated their first atomic bomb only four years later.

Oppenheimer knew better, because he understood the physics involved and that, once demonstrated, nuclear weapons would rapidly pose a problem for the world community. When interviewed years later at Princeton where he had been head of the Institute for Advanced Studies (and Albert Einstein’s “boss”) he is shown in The Day After Trinity responding to the question, “[Can you tell us] what your thoughts are about the proposal of Senator Robert Kennedy that President Johnson initiate talks with the view to halt the spread of nuclear weapons?” Oppenheimer replied rather impatiently, “It’s twenty years too late. It should have been done the day after Trinity.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer fully appreciated, on July 16, 1945, the dangers inherent in the nuclear genie let loose from the bottle. His fears were well founded. Within a few years after Los Alamos, talk surfaced of a new, more powerful bomb based on nuclear fusion rather than fission, nevertheless still in accordance with e = mc2. This became popularly known as the “hydrogen bomb.” Physicist Edward Teller now stepped forward to promote its development in opposition to Oppenheimer’s stated wish to curtail the further use and development of nuclear weapons.

Arguments raged over the “Super” bomb as it was designated, and Teller prevailed. The first device was detonated by the U.S. in 1952. A complex and toxic cocktail of Oppenheimer’s reticence toward development of the Super combined with the past communist leanings of his wife, brother Frank, and other friends led to the Atomic Energy Commission, under President Eisenhower, revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954. That action ended any opportunity for Oppenheimer to even continue advising Washington on nuclear weapons policy. The Oppenheimer file was thick, and the ultimate security hearings were dramatic and difficult for all involved. As for the effect on J. Robert Oppenheimer, we have the observations of Hans Bethe and I.I. Rabi, both participants at Los Alamos and Nobel prize winners in physics:

– I.I. Rabi: “I think to a certain extent it actually almost killed him, spiritually, yes. It achieved just what his opponents wanted to achieve. It destroyed him.”
– Hans Bethe: “He had very much the feeling that he was giving the best to the United States in the years during the war and after the war. In my opinion, he did. But others did not agree. And in 1954, he was hauled before a tribunal and accused of being a security risk – a risk to the United States. A risk to betray secrets.”

Later, in 1964, attitudes softened and Edward Teller nominated Oppenheimer for the prestigious Enrico Fermi award which was presented by President Johnson. As I.I. Rabi observed, however, the preceding events had, for all intents and purposes, already destroyed him. Oppenheimer was a conflicted man with a brilliant wide-ranging intellect. While one might readily agree with Hans Bethe’s assessment that Oppenheimer felt he was “giving the best to the United States in the years during and after the war,” there is perhaps more to the story than a significantly patriotic motivation. Oppenheimer was a supremely competent and confident individual whose impatient nature was tinged with a palpable arrogance. These characteristics often worked to his disadvantage with adversaries and co-workers.
Then there was the suggestion that, in addition to his patriotic motives, Oppenheimer was seized by “the glitter and the power of nuclear weapons” and the unprecedented opportunity to do physics on a grand scale at Los Alamos, and those were also major motivations. Other colleagues on the project later confessed to feeling the glitter and power of nuclear weapons, themselves. A brilliant man of many contradictions was Oppenheimer – that much is certain. Also certain is the likelihood that the man was haunted afterward by misgivings concerning his pivotal role, whatever his motivations, in letting loose the nuclear genie. The sadness in his eyes late in life practically confirms the suspicion. That is the tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Triumph has a way of extracting its penalty, its pound of flesh. I can think of no better example than Oppenheimer.

Immediately upon hearing of the bombing of Hiroshima, Hans Bethe recalled, “The first reaction which we had was one of fulfillment. Now it has been done. Now the work which we have been engaged in has contributed to the war. The second reaction, of course, was one of shock and horror. What have we done? What have we done? And the third reaction: It shouldn’t be done again.”

Nuclear Weapons: The Current State and Future Outlook

In the headlines of today’s news broadcasts as I write this is the looming threat of North Korean nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. The North Koreans have developed and tested nuclear warheads and are currently test-launching long-range missiles which could reach the U.S. mainland, as far east as Chicago. Likewise, Iran is close to having both nuclear weapons and targetable intermediate-range missiles. Nuclear proliferation is alive and well on this earth.

To illustrate the present situation, consider one staple of the U.S. nuclear arsenal -the one megaton thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb with the explosive equivalent of just over one million tons of TNT. That explosive energy is fifty times that of the plutonium fission bomb which destroyed the city of Nagasaki, Japan (twenty-two thousand tons of TNT). The number of such powerful weapons in today’s U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles is truly staggering, especially when one considers that a single one megaton weapon could essentially flatten and incinerate the core of Manhattan, New York. Such a threat is no longer limited to a device dropped from an aircraft. Nuclear-tipped ICBMs present an even more ominous threat.

The surprise success of the first Russian earth-orbiting satellite, “Sputnik,” in 1957 had far more significance than the loss of prestige in space for the United States. Accordingly, the second monumental and historic U.S. government program – on the very heels of the Manhattan Project – was heralded by the creation of NASA in 1958 and its role in the race to the moon. President John F. Kennedy issued his audacious challenge in 1963 for NASA to regain lost technical ground in rocketry by being first to put a man on the moon …in the decade of the sixties – in less than seven years! Many in the technical community thought the challenge was simply “nuts” given the state of U.S. rocket technology in 1963. As with the then very-recent, incredibly difficult and urgent program to build an atomic bomb, the nation once again accomplished the near-impossible by landing Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969 – well ahead of the Russians. And it was important that we surpassed Russia in rocket technology, for our ICBMs, which are the key delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons and thus crucial to most of the U.S. strategic defense, were born of this country’s efforts in space.

“Fat Man,” the bomb used on Nagasaki – 22 kilotons of TNT

Photo: Paul Shambroom

B83 1 megaton hydrogen bombs…compact and deadly

The above picture of a man casually sweeping the warehouse floor in front of nearly ten megatons of explosive, destructive power, enough to level the ten largest cities in America gives one pause to reflect. On our visit to Los Alamos in 2003, I recall the uneasy emotions I felt merely standing next to a dummy casing of this bomb in the visitor’s center and reflecting on the awesome power of the “live” device. Minus their huge development and high “delivery” costs, such bombs are, in fact, very “cheap” weapons from a military point of view.

One conclusion: Unlike the man with the broom in the above picture, we must never casually accept the presence of these weapons in our midst. One mistake, one miscalculation, and nuclear Armageddon may be upon us. The collective angels of man’s better nature had better soon decide on a way to render such weapons unnecessary on this planet. Albert Einstein expressed the situation elegantly and succinctly:

“The unleashing of [the] power of the atom has changed everything but our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”

Under a brilliant New Mexico sky on October 16, 1945, the residents of the Los Alamos mesa gathered for a ceremony on J. Robert Oppenheimer’s last day as director of the laboratory. The occasion: The receipt of a certificate of appreciation from the Secretary of War honoring the contributions of Oppenheimer and Los Alamos.

In his remarks, Oppenheimer stated: “It is our hope that in years to come we may look at this scroll, and all that it signifies, with pride. Today, that pride must be tempered with a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The peoples of the world must unite, or they will perish.”

In today’s world, each step along the path of nuclear proliferation brings humanity ever closer to the ultimate fear shared by J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. The world had best heed their warnings.