Nicola Tesla — Where Credit is Due

 

Born on this day, July 10,  electronics engineer Nicola Tesla is perhaps one of the most overlooked inventors. Although we credit Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison with the discovery and implementation of electricity, it was really Tesla who had the most innovative ideas and contributed the most to modern electronics.

Although he later became a US citizen, Tesla was born in 1856  in what is now Croatia. Some biographers claim  he was born — appropriately — in the middle of a lightening storm. He was educated at the Higher Real Gymnasium in Karlovac.  There he became interested in demonstrations of electricity by his physics professor.  He wrote that the demonstrations of this “mysterious phenomena” made him want “to know more of this wonderful force”.

As a child, Nicola reported having strange visions of light which he could reach out and touch.  He had a vivid imagination and was never sure whether these light visions were real or not. He had an unusual ability to visualize his inventions in his head, and even claimed to see, with his inner eye, the entire electromagnetic field of electricity.

In his early years, Tesla showed signs of mathematical genius. He was able to  perform integral calculus in his head. This prompted his teachers to believe that he was cheating.

 Tesla finished a four-year term in three years, graduating in 1873.

The most famous of Tesla’s inventions is the alternating-current (AC) electric system. This provides a fast current of electricity, able to travel long distances, as opposed to the  slower and weaker direct current( DC)  system. Without the AC system we would not be able to power modern cities and our landscape would be quite different — cluttered with small power plants and electric chambers on every corner.  In fact, AC is still the predominant electrical system used across the world today.  He also created the “Tesla coil” which is still used in radio technology, and several other inventions.

Nicola came to the United States in 1884. He briefly worked with Thomas Edison, whom he had greatly admired, until the two parted ways.  A case can be made for “good inventor/ bad inventor” with Edison in the latter role. While Tesla tried to develop his ideas for incorporating the AC system, Edison  — who was already using the DC system — jealously guarded his own interests through aggressive marketing and slanderous propaganda.

Edison convinced the public that Tesla’s AC electronics were dangerous and impractical.  He used underhanded and inhumane methods to prove this.  In his efforts to instill fear in people, Edison even electrocuted a few animals, including elephants!

Tesla abandoned Edison and went to work for George Westinghouse.

Westinghouse Electric  won the bid to light the Columbian Exposition of Chicago in 1893. They asked Tesla to participate. It would be a key event in the history of AC power.

At the Exposition, Tesla showed a series of electrical effects related to AC as well as his wireless lighting system, using  demonstrations he had previously performed throughout America and Europe.  These included using high-voltage, high-frequency alternating current to light a wireless gas-discharge lamp.  He demonstrated to the American public the safety, reliability, and efficiency of a fully integrated AC system,  thus proving that Edison was wrong. 

Throughout his lifetime, Tesla suffered from mad/ genius syndrome and all the impulsiveness that went along with it. He was known to gamble and accrued several exorbitant debts. Sadly, to pay his debts he ended up selling several of his patent rights to Westinghouse, including those to his AC machinery. The success of the Westinghouse Electric company was almost entirely based upon Tesla’s work, although Tesla never got monetary credit for it.

Having become obsessed with the wireless transmission of energy,  in around 1900, Nicola set to work on his boldest project yet: to build a global, wireless communication system — to be transmitted through a large electrical tower — for sharing information and providing free electricity throughout the world. Sounds familiar, right? But this was only 1900 🙂

With funding from a group of investors that included financial giant J. P. Morgan, in 1901 Tesla began work on the project in earnest, designing and building a lab with a power plant and a massive transmission tower on a site on Long Island, New York, that became known as Wardenclyffe.

However, doubts arose among his investors about the plausibility of Tesla’s system. As his rival, Guglielmo Marconi — with the financial support of Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison — continued to make great advances with his own radio technologies, Tesla had no choice but to abandon the project.

It’s too bad. Had investors believed in him, perhaps we would have had the Internet a lot sooner!

The closure of the project affected Tesla emotionally. He suffered a nervous breakdown. After that his work was mainly as a consultant. Radically ahead of his time, his interests after that were considered outlandish and a bit crazy. For example, he devoted much time to the care of wild pigeons in New York City’s parks. (Who knows what he had in mind — as carrier pigeons were a well known and reliable source of communication.)  Tesla even drew attention from the FBI for some of his so-called dangerous ideas.

Tesla died on January 7, 1943 at the age of 86. Like many eccentric geniuses, he was poor and virtually unknown. Sadly, American education does not incorporate him into the curriculum, so most kids learn very little about him. Recently however, more attention has been brought to his name by billionaire businessman Elon Musk, who named his electronic automobile company “Tesla”.  According to Musk, the mission of Tesla is “To accelerate the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future.”

The legacy of the work Tesla left behind him lives on to this day. Every time we turn on radio, watch a live stream, plug in a device or use wifi, we should remember who we have to thank!

Happy Birthday Nicola!

 

 

 

 

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A Mad Tea Party

 

Today, April 21 is “National Tea Day” in the UK.  It also happens to be the 92nd birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. It seems a day could not be more authentically British. In honor of this I am wishing all my friends in the UK (and tea drinkers everywhere) a Happy National Tea Day!

No tea celebration would be complete without stopping by what is perhaps the most famous tea drinking occasion in history – Alice’s Mad Tea Party.

After chasing the White Rabbit down his hole, Alice encounters the Cheshire Cat,  who tells her she will definitely be meeting up with mad people. It’s unavoidable.  ( “We’re all mad here,” the Cat assures Alice. “I’m mad, you’re mad.”) Alice  asks the Cat how he knows she is mad. “You must be,” he replies, “Or you would not have come here.”

Alice then wanders upon a tea table in the middle of the forest.

There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head. `Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice; `only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.’

*** We know right away there is going to be trouble. The March Hare is a wild animal, known for his crazy antics during mating season. The sleeping Dormouse seems pretty benign, but watch out for the Hatter, as they were known at the time to have some mental deficiencies due to mercury exposure involved in the process of making hats.

The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: `No room! No room!’ they cried out when they saw Alice coming. `There’s plenty of room!’ said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.

`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.

***  Alice is only seven years old. Good thing the Hare did not actually have any wine to offer her. Today he might be arrested for child endangerment.

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

*** Again, the mercury exposed Hatter is known to be wacky.

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

*** The study of “meaning what you say” and “saying what you mean” is an interesting one. Carroll shows us how just a few words of juxtaposition can give a completely different meaning. Try it yourself, just for fun! “I know who I am — I am who I know? I believe what I see — I see what I believe? We are what we eat — we eat what we are?” Yes, it should drive you a bit mad 🙂

`Have you guessed the riddle yet?’ the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

`No, I give it up,’ Alice replied: `what’s the answer?’

`I haven’t the slightest idea,’ said the Hatter.

`Nor I,’ said the March Hare.

*** The riddle is never actually solved, but I heard a possible answer: Why is a raven like a writing desk? Because Poe wrote on both.

What follows is a discussion of time in which the Alice states she must beat time in order to learn music. The Hatter insists that time is a ‘he’ not an ‘it’. Furthermore: ‘He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o’clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons: you’d only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!’

Finally Alice can take it no longer. She gets up and leaves.

`At any rate I’ll never go there again!’ said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. `It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!’

Contrary to Alice’s belief (and providing we don’t dine with Hatters) more tea drinking would probably be good for us. Tea is full of anti-oxidants and is known to boost our immune systems. According to sage wisdom, tea with honey is great for soothing sore throats. Besides that, many cultures celebrate tea drinking with particular rituals and ceremonies.

A tea ceremony is like a meditation — time set aside for rest and contemplation. In fact, tea drinking could probably bring about more civility, peace and sanity for us all.

Whatever you do today, take some time out to enjoy a nice cup of tea 🙂

a mad tea

 

 

 

 

 

Hans and the Scary Fairy Tales

 

He was a weaver of tales who brought us The Little Mermaid, The Wild Swans, The Emperor’s New Clothes and the Ugly Duckling.  In the course of his lifetime he wrote novels, travelogues, and over three thousand fairy tales which have been translated into 125 languages. His stories have universal appeal, transcending age and nationality. He created a unique mythology which continues to  haunt us and remains part of our collective consciousness.

Hans Christian Andersen was born on this day, April 2, 1805 in Odense, Denmark. His own life story is a classic rags to riches that could have been one of his fairy tales.

His father, also named Hans, was a struggling tradesman and his mother Anne Marie a washerwoman.  Hans Sr. died in 1816. Two years later Anne Marie remarried. It was then decided that  Hans Jr. should no longer remain in the house. At the tender age of eleven, Hans was sent away to a boarding school. (Evil stepfather, banishment. Do you see a pattern here?)  Although the family was poor, Hans was somehow allowed to study and receive a good education. (Fairy godmother perhaps?)

At boarding school Hans was expected to fend for himself and he earned money as a tailor’s apprentice. He showed a natural talent for singing and at age fourteen, he was accepted into the Royal Danish Theater.  However, as luck would have it, Hans hit puberty that year, experienced the voice change, and could no longer sing the soprano part he has been assigned.  But all was not lost — Jonas Colins, the theater director, saw something special in Hans and made arrangements that he could  attend prestigious schools in Slagalse and Elsinore. (Another fairy godmother?)

Young Hans might have been considered privileged, but his story goes a bit dark here. He was sent to live with a school master who routinely abused and bullied him and discouraged him from writing. Hans went into a deep depression. He later wrote that his days at Elsinore were the darkest of his life.

The story, however, has a happy ending. Hans graduated school in 1827 and almost immediately became successful writing short stories, plays and poetry. King Christian VIII of Denmark was so impressed with his work that he gave Andersen a grant to travel around Europe. Hans felt most comfortable on the road and later wrote, “To travel is to live.”

All these fairy godmothers may not have been an accident. There was a rumor that Hans was actually the illegitimate son of King Christian. This rumor, however, has not been substantiated by any reliable source. (If true it would make a great story!)

It was during his travels across Europe that Andersen began writing fairy tales. While his early stories were not greatly received, he continued. In 1838 he wrote Fairy Tales Told for Children. New Collection. First Booklet. This book earned him immense popularity when, in 1845 it was translated to English and other languages. It became a best seller.

Andersen’s tales were often dark and creepy. His heroes and heroines often go through enormous difficulties. Although the endings are usually happy, they pay great prices for that happiness, often undergoing physical, mental and spiritual changes. For example:

— Karen, the protagonist in The Red Shoes, loves to dance and wear her beautiful shoes. However, it gets to the point where she cannot stop dancing and eventually her feet must be cut off!

 

 

— The Little Mermaid trades her fish tail for human legs. In the process she undergoes excruciating physical pain,  is betrayed by  a handsome prince, and even commits suicide before she is freed to the Daughters of the Air.

 

— In The Wild Swans,  Eliza wants to free her brothers from a terrible curse, but to do so she must knit sweaters made of poisonous nettles that cause her fingers to bleed. During this time she is arrested for witchcraft and thrown in the dungeon.

And the list goes on. These stories remain popular because they entertain in a way that enables problem solving — while giving kids the scare of their lives! 🙂 The message is always that virtue will be rewarded.

Andersen never married, although he courted several women and wrote a few love letters to men as well. Some historians believe he was bisexual. He seems to have harbored terribly romantic ideas about love and often chose partners that were either unavailable or inappropriate.  At one point he proposed marriage to the Swedish singer Jenny Lind.

She turned him down, but this did not stop Hans from writing a fairy tale which was inspired by her. It was called The Nightingale, about (you guessed it) a precious and beautiful bird that serenades the emperor.  After that, Jenny Lind was given the nickname “The Swedish Nightingale.”

Andersen had a long and prosperous life. He died in Copenhagen on August 4, 1875,  His death is thought to be caused by complications of liver cancer and other injuries.

Andersen’s stories are still widely read. Many have been adapted as Disney features, including The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid and Frozen — adapted from The Snow Queen. In the original story the Snow Queen was an evil kidnapper, nowhere near as kind as Elsa!

Tribute statues to Andersen have been built all over the world, including New York’s Central Park, Solvang, California, Sydney, Australia and Rosenborg Castle Gardens in Copenhagen.

And of course, if you ever happen to be at the Langelinie promenade in Copenhagen, you can say hello to The Little Mermaid herself!

Happy Birthday Hans!

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Elizabeth of York

 

elizabeth of york

Elizabeth of York (known in some circles as the White Princess) was technically the very first queen of the infamous Tudor dynasty.  She was born on this day, February 11, 1466, and, ironically, also died on this day, February 11, 1503.

Young Elizabeth had a lot going for her.  Besides the royal bloodline, she was, by all accounts, beautiful, intelligent, kind, empathetic and well mannered.

eliz of york 2

She was the oldest daughter of King Edward of York and his wife Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth’s father had come to power after many hard fought battles with his cousins the Lancasters. Edward’s reign issued in a period of peace and prosperity. When he died unexpectedly in 1483, a new game of thrones would ensue, complete with evil plots and bloody battles as the Lancasters and Yorks once again strove for power.

Elizabeth was only seventeen when her father died. Her younger brother Edward, just thirteen, then became king. However, their Uncle Richard (Richard III) exercised his power as Lord Protector of the Realm and had Edward and his younger brother Richard (second heir) put away in the Tower of London for “safe keeping”.  What happened to the two York princes remains a mystery to this day.  Neither boy was ever heard from again. It is commonly thought that Richard had them murdered.

In 1674, workmen at the Tower discovered a box containing two small skeletons. Those are thought to be the bones of the princes.

princes

Richard then took the throne for himself. He did not keep it for long. Henry Tudor, a Welshman from a royal but illegitimate bloodline, also had kingly ambitions. He waged war. Richard III was defeated and lost his life at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

Henry Tudor then became King Henry VII.  He knew it would be prudent to unite his house with York and asked for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. Young Elizabeth then found herself in the rather awkward position of being a York heir, yet pulled into the Lancaster-Tudor stronghold, most likely against her own will.

The marriage, however, proved to be a happy one.

Elizabeth gave birth to eight children. The most notorious of these was of course King Henry VIII. He continued the dynasty and also fathered a rather strong tempered little girl, also named Elizabeth, who would  never marry, but would come to rule England for almost fifty years.

You guessed it! Bess the Virgin Queen was Elizabeth’s granddaughter.

bess

Elizabeth of York was a hands-on mother, unusual at the time for women of her status. She insisted upon having much domestic time with her children and often brought them to her palace at Eltham.  Although she left behind a great legacy, Elizabeth of York only lived to be thirty seven years old. She died of an infection on Feb. 11, 1503, just days after giving birth to her last daughter Katherine. The baby died too.

In 2012, the Vaux Passional, an illuminated manuscript that was once the property of Henry VII, was rediscovered in the National Library of Wales. This manuscript gives us insight into the strong bonds between Elizabeth and her family.  It depicts Elizabeth’s death, with a saddened Henry VII in mourning garments. In the background, an 11-year-old King Henry VIII’s red head is shown weeping into the sheets of his mother’s empty bed. His two sisters wear black mourning veils.

Fun Facts:

  • After her father’s death, teenage Elizabeth went to live with her Uncle Richard.  It is rumored they developed a romantic relationship, and Richard planned to marry her. Richard himself denied this, and sent his niece away after the death of his wife, perhaps to end further rumors.

eliz and richard

  • She loved music and dancing — a trait that was perhaps passed on to her granddaughter Queen Elizabeth I.
  • She was extremely fond of greyhound dogs and kept several of them at her residence in Eltham Palace.

  • Elizabeth’s grandmother, Jaquetta of Luxembourg, was rumored to have been a witch — a bloodline which was passed down to her daughter Elizabeth Woodville and hence Elizabeth of York. The women are said to have used their witchy powers to keep their various dynasties afloat.

  • She is thought to be the queen in the poem “Song of Sixpence”. The rhyme goes: “The king was in his counting house, counting out his money; The queen was in the parlour, eating bread and honey.” In real life, Henry VII was shrewd with money and Elizabeth was preoccupied with domestic work, meals and children, so maybe it is true.
  • Pre-raphaelite artist Valentine Cameron Prinsep even painted this 1860 depiction of Elizabeth as “the queen in the parlour”!

Eliz of york

  • Her flower symbol became a red and white rose. Red represented  the House of Lancaster and white represented the House of York.  This, the Tudor rose, is still a floral symbol of England.

  • Remember the knaves painting roses from white to red in Alice in Wonderland? You guessed it! This was  not just some silly whim of author Lewis Carroll,  but actually based upon the rival Houses of Lancaster and York.  (“Off with their heads” was not far behind.)

Happy Birthday Elizabeth!

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Lewis Carroll

 

Lewis Carroll

Today we celebrate the life of Lewis Carroll, best known for his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass.  He was an author, mathematician, Oxford don, part time babysitter, photographer, inventor, and a bit of an all-around inscrutable person.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know of my big obsession with Alice in Wonderland. I have long been fascinated by its white rabbits, mirrors, painted rosebushes, flamingo croquet, and the man who brought all these tales to life.

His given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but I will call him Lewis, since he is best known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. He was born on January 27, 1832 in Daresbury, Cheshire, England.  Yes, Cheshire! No evidence as to whether or not he had a cat 🙂

Cheshire_Cat

Carroll’s father was a conservative minister in the Church of England, one in a long line of Dodgson men who had respectable positions in the Anglican clergy. Lewis was home-schooled until the age of twelve and developed an early love for reading amd writing. He attended grammar school at Rugby in Warwickshire, and began study at Oxford University in 1850.  He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and graduated with high honors.  In 1855 he won the Mathematical Lectureship for the college of Christ Church at Oxford, which he held for the next 26 years.

In 1856, a man named Henry Liddell took a position as Dean at Christ Church. Henry arrived in town with his young family, all of whom would eventually serve to influence Lewis’ writing. Lewis became close friends with  Liddell’s wife Lorina and their children, particularly the three sisters Lorina, Edith, and Alice Liddell.

LewisCarroll3

It was this Alice Liddell who served as the inspiration and namesake for the fictional Alice.  Lewis frequently took the children on outings. It was on one such outing, a rowing trip, that the girls begged to hear a story; the result eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

It is said that Carroll never intended to publish Alice’s adventures, but his friend, fairy-tale author George MacDonald convinced him to do so after Macdonald’s own children read the stories and and loved them. Good thing they did! Can’t imagine a world without Alice.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865. The book quickly became an international hit, and was liked and promoted by Queen Victoria herself! In 1871, Carroll published the sequel Through the Looking-Glass. The Alice books are still among the most popular in the world. Reportedly they are also among the most quoted, second only to the Bible and Shakespeare.  And many of those quotes are really phenomenal, full of wisdom and humor.  Some of my favorites:

“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”

“I give up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter. 

“I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended,” Alice thought to herself.

“Shall I never get any older than I am now? That will be a comfort, in one way — never to be an old woman. But then — always to have lessons to learn? Oh, I shouldn’t like THAT!” 

“How am I to get in?” asked Alice. “Are you to get in AT ALL?” said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.”  It was, no doubt; only Alice did not like to be told so.

“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”

real

Lewis Carroll was also an amateur photographer. He ran in artistic circles with pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

He took this photo of Alice Liddell. dated 1868. Alice would have been about six.

Alice LIddell

Years later, Julia Margaret Cameron photographed the grown up Alice.

Alice LIddell 2

Despite the fact that the Alice books brought him fame and fortune, Carroll never left his position as don at Oxford. Other than traveling a bit throughout Europe, he seems to have lived modestly. He wrote a few more books — The Hunting of the Snark, a fantastical “nonsense” poem, and Sylvie and Bruno, a fairy tale which satirized English society. Neither had the astounding success of the Alice stories. He also wrote several treatises  on mathematics, which he published under his real name, Charles Dodgson. His writings included works of geometry, linear and matrix algebra, mathematical logic and recreational mathematics. Yes, complicated stuff!

Carroll/ Dodgson’s mathematical contributions are noteworthy. Apparently, he was exploring The Matrix long before Keanu Reeves.

matrix

At Oxford he developed a theory known as the “Dodgson Condensation”, a method of evaluating mathematical determinants and patterns within equations. His work attracted renewed interest in the late 20th century when mathematicians Martin Gardner and William Warren Bartley reevaluated his  contributions to symbolic logic. This led them to the “Alternating Sign Matrix” conjecture, now a theorem. The discovery  of additional ciphers that Carroll had constructed showed that he had employed sophisticated mathematical ideas in their creation.  Perhaps he understood that through mathematics and chemistry, humankind may eventually reach the kind of alternate worlds he created for Alice.

alice matrix

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll died of pneumonia on 14 January 1898 at the age of 65.

Some Fun Facts:

  • He was one of eleven children, the oldest son
  • As a young child, he suffered a fever which left him deaf in one ear
  • He was six feet tall — really tall by Victorian standards.
  • A self- deprecating guy, he often referred to himself as “the dodo” and is said to have modeled the Dodo in Alice after himself!
  • In actuality he was hardly a dodo, more like a near genius.
  • He invented the earliest version of Scrabble — a type of word ladder in which the words were changed by adding one letter.
  • He was an ordained deacon of the Anglican Church.
  • Don’t let the stoic pictures fool you. Although he never married, his letters and diary entries indicate he had relationships with several women, both married and single, which would have been considered “scandalous” by Victorian standards.

 

Happy Birthday Lewis!

alice-vogue