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Profile: Nikola Tesla

Posted by jase on July 10, 2009

Nikola Tesla (10 July 1856 – 7 January 1943) was an inventor and a mechanical and electrical engineer. Tesla was an ethnic Serb born in the village of Smiljan, Vojna Krajina, in the territory of today’s Croatia. He was a subject of the Austrian Empire by birth and later became an American citizen. He is frequently cited as one of the most important contributors to the birth of commercial electricity, a man who “shed light over the face of Earth”. He is best known for many revolutionary contributions in the field of electricity and magnetism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tesla’s patents and theoretical work formed the basis of modern alternating current (AC) electric power systems, including the polyphase power distribution systems and the AC motor, with which he helped usher in the Second Industrial Revolution.

After his demonstration of wireless communication (radio) in 1894 and after being the victor in the “War of Currents”, he was widely respected as one of the greatest electrical engineers who worked in America. Much of his early work pioneered modern electrical engineering and many of his discoveries were of groundbreaking importance. During this period, in the United States, Tesla’s fame rivaled that of any other inventor or scientist in history or popular culture, but due to his eccentric personality and his seemingly unbelievable and sometimes bizarre claims about possible scientific and technological developments, Tesla was ultimately ostracized and regarded as a mad scientist. Never having put much focus on his finances, Tesla died impoverished at the age of 86.

The Nobel Prize and Edison

Since the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Marconi for radio in 1909, Thomas Edison and Tesla were mentioned as potential laureates to share the Nobel Prize of 1915 in a press dispatch, leading to one of several Nobel Prize controversies. Some sources have claimed that due to their animosity toward each other neither was given the award, despite their enormous scientific contributions, and that each sought to minimize the other one’s achievements and right to win the award, that both refused to ever accept the award if the other received it first, and that both rejected any possibility of sharing it.

In the following events after the rumors, neither Tesla nor Edison won the prize (although Edison did receive one of 38 possible bids in 1915, and Tesla did receive one bid out of 38 in 1937). Earlier, Tesla alone was rumored to have been nominated for the Nobel Prize of 1912. The rumored nomination was primarily for his experiments with tuned circuits using high-voltage high-frequency resonant transformers.

In 1915, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Marconi attempting, unsuccessfully, to obtain a court injunction against Marconi’s claims. After Wardenclyffe, Tesla built the Telefunken Wireless Station in Sayville, Long Island. Some of what he wanted to achieve at Wardenclyffe was accomplished with the Telefunken Wireless. In 1917, the facility was seized and torn down by the Marines, because it was suspected that it could be used by German spies.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Critiques

Before World War I, Tesla looked overseas for investors to fund his research. When the war started, Tesla lost the funding he was receiving from his patents in European countries. After the war ended, Tesla made predictions regarding the relevant issues of the post-World War I environment, in a printed article (20 December 1914). Tesla believed that the League of Nations was not a remedy for the times and issues. Tesla started to exhibit pronounced symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder in the years following. He became obsessed with the number three; he often felt compelled to walk around a block three times before entering a building, demanded a stack of three folded cloth napkins beside his plate at every meal, etc. The nature of OCD was little understood at the time and no treatments were available, so his symptoms were considered by some to be evidence of partial insanity, and this undoubtedly hurt what was left of his reputation.

Tesla was critical of Einstein’s relativity work, calling it:

…[a] magnificent mathematical garb which fascinates, dazzles and makes people blind to the underlying errors. The theory is like a beggar clothed in purple whom ignorant people take for a king … its exponents are brilliant men but they are metaphysicists rather than scientists …[76]

Tesla also argued:

I hold that space cannot be curved, for the simple reason that it can have no properties. It might as well be said that God has properties. He has not, but only attributes and these are of our own making. Of properties we can only speak when dealing with matter filling the space. To say that in the presence of large bodies space becomes curved is equivalent to stating that something can act upon nothing. I, for one, refuse to subscribe to such a view.[77]

Tesla also believed that much of Albert Einstein’s relativity theory had already been proposed by Ruđer Bošković, stating in an unpublished interview:

…the relativity theory, by the way, is much older than its present proponents. It was advanced over 200 years ago by my illustrious countryman Ruđer Bošković, the great philosopher, who, not withstanding other and multifold obligations, wrote a thousand volumes of excellent literature on a vast variety of subjects. Bošković dealt with relativity, including the so-called time-space continuum …’.

Tesla’s Death Ray

Later in life, Tesla made remarkable claims concerning a “teleforce” weapon. The press called it a “peace ray” or death ray. In total, the components and methods included:

  • An apparatus for producing manifestations of energy in free air instead of in a high vacuum as in the past. This, according to Tesla in 1934, was accomplished.
  • A mechanism for generating tremendous electrical force. This, according to Tesla, was also accomplished.
  • A means of intensifying and amplifying the force developed by the second mechanism.
  • A new method for producing a tremendous electrical repelling force. This would be the projector, or gun, of the invention.

Tesla worked on plans for a directed-energy weapon from the early 1900s until his death. In 1937, Tesla composed a treatise entitled “The Art of Projecting Concentrated Non-dispersive Energy through the Natural Media” concerning charged particle beams. Tesla published the document in an attempt to expound on the technical description of a “superweapon that would put an end to all war”. This treatise of the particle beam is currently in the Nikola Tesla Museum archive in Belgrade. It described an open ended vacuum tube with a gas jet seal that allowed particles to exit, a method of charging particles to millions of volts, and a method of creating and directing nondispersive particle streams (through electrostatic repulsion).

His records indicate that it was based on a narrow stream of atomic clusters of liquid mercury or tungsten accelerated via high voltage (by means akin to his magnifying transformer). Tesla gave the following description concerning the particle gun’s operation:

[The nozzle would] send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 200 miles from a defending nation’s border and will cause armies to drop dead in their tracks.

Personal Life

Tesla was fluent in many languages. Along with Serbo-Croatian, he spoke seven other languages: Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin.  

Tesla may have suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and had many unusual quirks and phobias. He did things in threes, and was adamant about staying in a hotel room with a number divisible by three. Tesla was also noted to be physically revolted by jewelry, notably pearl earrings. He was fastidious about cleanliness and hygiene, and was by all accounts mysophobic.

Tesla was obsessed with pigeons, ordering special seeds for the pigeons he fed in Central Park and even bringing some into his hotel room with him. Tesla was an animal-lover, often reflecting contentedly about a childhood cat, “The Magnificent Macak.” Tesla never married. He was celibate and claimed that his chastity was very helpful to his scientific abilities. Nonetheless there have been numerous accounts of women vying for Tesla’s affection, even some madly in love with him. Tesla, though polite, behaved rather ambivalently to these women in the romantic sense.

Tesla was prone to alienating himself and was generally soft-spoken. However, when he did engage in a social life, many people spoke very positively and admiringly of him. Robert Underwood Johnson described him as attaining a “distinguished sweetness, sincerity, modesty, refinement, generosity, and force.” His loyal secretary, Dorothy Skerrit, wrote: “his genial smile and nobility of bearing always denoted the gentlemanly characteristics that were so ingrained in his soul.” Tesla’s friend Hawthorne wrote that “seldom did one meet a scientist or engineer who was also a poet, a philosopher, an appreciator of fine music, a linguist, and a connoisseur of food and drink.”

Nevertheless, Tesla displayed the occasional cruel streak; he openly expressed his disgust for overweight people, once firing a secretary because of her weight. He was quick to criticize others’ clothing as well, on several occasions demanding a subordinate to go home and change her dress.

Tesla was widely known for his great showmanship, presenting his innovations and demonstrations to the public as an artform, almost like a magician. This seems to conflict with his observed reclusiveness; Tesla was a complicated figure. He refused to hold conventions without his Tesla coil blasting electricity throughout the room, despite the audience often being terrified, though he assured them everything was perfectly safe.

In middle age, Tesla became very close friends with Mark Twain. They spent a lot of time together in his lab and elsewhere.

Tesla remained bitter in the aftermath of his incident with Edison. The day after Edison died the New York Times contained extensive coverage of Edison’s life, with the only negative opinion coming from Tesla, who was quoted as saying:

He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene  … His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense.

Shortly before he died, Edison said that his biggest mistake had been in trying to develop direct current, rather than the vastly superior alternating current system that Tesla had put within his grasp.


Tesla died of heart failure alone in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel, on 7 January 1943. Despite having sold his AC electricity patents, Tesla was destitute and died with significant debts. Later that year the US Supreme Court upheld Tesla’s patent number, in effect recognizing him as the inventor of radio.

Immediately after Tesla’s death became known, the government’s Alien Property Custodian office took possession of his papers and property, despite his US citizenship. His safe at the hotel was also opened. At the time of his death, Tesla had been continuing his work on the teleforce weapon, or death ray, that he had unsuccessfully marketed to the US War Department. It appears that his proposed death ray was related to his research into ball lightning and plasma, and was imagined as a particle beam weapon. The US government did not find a prototype of the device in the safe. After the FBI was contacted by the War Department, his papers were declared to be top secret. The personal effects were seized on the advice of presidential advisers; J. Edgar Hoover declared the case most secret, because of the nature of Tesla’s inventions and patents. One document stated that “[he] is reported to have some 80 trunks in different places containing transcripts and plans having to do with his experiments […]”.

Tesla’s Pigeon

According to John J. O’Neill, author of Prodigal Genius, the Life of Nikola Tesla, Tesla told him this story in the presence of William L. Laurence, the New York Times science writer.

Tesla had been feeding pigeons for years. Among them, there was a very beautiful female white pigeon with light gray tips on its wings that seemed to follow him everywhere. A great deal of rapport developed between them. As Tesla confessed, he loved that pigeon: “Yes, I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me.” If the pigeon became ill, he would nurse her back to health and as long as she needed him and he could have her, nothing else mattered and there was purpose in his life.

One night as he was lying in bed, she flew in through the window and he knew right away that she had something important to tell him: she was dying. “And then, as I got her message, there came a light from her eyes – powerful beams of light”. “…Yes,” “…it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.”

Tesla admitted to O’Neill that when that particular pigeon died, something went out of his life. Before that time, he could complete the most ambitious programs he could ever dream of but after the pigeon flew into the beyond, he knew his life’s work was done for good.

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Did You Know: The History of Toilet Paper

Posted by jase on July 7, 2009

The average American uses 57 squares a day and 50 pounds of toilet paper per year.Since the dawn of time, people have found nifty ways to clean up after the bathroom act. The most common solution was simply to grab what was at hand: coconuts, shells, snow, moss, hay, leaves, grass, corncobs, sheep’s wool — and, later, thanks to the printing press — newspapers, magazines, and pages of books.  

The ancient Greeks used clay and stone; the Romans, sponges and salt water. But the idea of a commercial product designed solely to wipe one’s bum? That started about 150 years ago, right here in the U.S.A. In less than a century, Uncle Sam’s marketing genius turned something disposable into something indispensable.

Toilet paper gets on a roll

The first products designed specifically to wipe one’s nethers were aloe-infused sheets of manila hemp dispensed from Kleenex-like boxes. They were invented in 1857 by a New York entrepreneur named Joseph Gayetty, who claimed his sheets prevented hemorrhoids.

Gayetty was so proud of his therapeutic bathroom paper that he had his name printed on each sheet. But his success was limited. Americans soon grew accustomed to wiping with the Sears Roebuck catalog, and they saw no need to spend money on something that came in the mail for free.

Toilet paper took its next leap forward in 1890, when two brothers named Clarence and E. Irvin Scott popularized the concept of toilet paper on a roll. The Scotts’ brand became more successful than Gayetty’s medicated wipes, in part because they built a steady trade selling toilet paper to hotels and drugstores.

But it was still an uphill battle to get the public to openly buy the product, largely because Americans remained embarrassed by bodily functions. In fact, the Scott brothers were so ashamed of the nature of their work that they didn’t take proper credit for their innovation until 1902.

“No one wanted to ask for it by name,” says Dave Praeger, author of “Poop Culture: How America Is Shaped by Its Grossest National Product.”

“It was so taboo that you couldn’t even talk about the product.” By 1930, the German paper company Hakle began using the tag line, “Ask for a roll of Hakle and you won’t have to say toilet paper!”

As time passed, toilet tissues slowly became an American staple. But widespread acceptance of the product didn’t officially occur until a new technology demanded it.

At the end of the 19th century, more and more homes were being built with sit-down flush toilets tied to indoor plumbing systems. And because people required a product that could be flushed away with minimal damage to the pipes, corncobs and moss no longer cut it. In no time, toilet paper ads boasted that the product was recommended by both doctors and plumbers.

Strength of going soft

In the early 1900s, toilet paper was still being marketed as a medicinal item. But in 1928, the Hoberg Paper Company tried a different tack. On the advice of its ad men, the company introduced a brand called Charmin and fitted the product with a feminine logo that depicted a beautiful woman.

The genius of the campaign was that by evincing softness and femininity, the company could avoid talking about toilet paper’s actual purpose. Charmin was enormously successful, and the tactic helped the brand survive the Great Depression. (It also helped that, in 1932, Charmin began marketing economy-size packs of four rolls.) Decades later, the dainty ladies were replaced with babies and bear cubs — advertising vehicles that still stock the aisles today.

By the 1970s, America could no longer conceive of life without toilet paper. Case in point: In December 1973, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson joked about a toilet paper shortage during his opening monologue. But America didn’t laugh. Instead, TV watchers across the country ran out to their local grocery stores and bought up as much of the stuff as they could.

Also telling was that, in 1978, a TV Guide poll named Mr. Whipple –the affable grocer who implored customers, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin” — the third best-known man in America, behind former President Richard Nixon and the Rev. Billy Graham.

Rolling the world

Currently, the United States spends more than $6 billion a year on toilet tissue — more than any other nation in the world. Americans, on average, use 57 squares a day and 50 pounds a year. Even still, the toilet paper market in the United States has largely plateaued.

The real growth in the industry is happening in developing countries. There, it’s booming. Toilet paper revenues in Brazil alone have more than doubled since 2004. The radical upswing in sales is believed to be driven by a combination of changing demographics, social expectations, and disposable income.

“The spread of globalization can kind of be measured by the spread of Western bathroom practices,” says Praeger. When average citizens in a country start buying toilet paper, wealth and consumerism have arrived. It signifies that people not only have extra cash to spend, but they’ve also come under the influence of Western marketing.

America without toilet paper?

Even as the markets boom in developing nations, toilet paper manufacturers find themselves needing to charge more per roll to make a profit. That’s because production costs are rising. During the past few years, pulp has become more expensive, energy costs are rising, and even water is becoming scarce. As the climate continues to change, toilet paper companies may need to keep hiking up their prices. The question is, if toilet paper becomes a luxury item, can Americans live without it?

The truth is that we did live without it, for a very long time. And even now, a lot of people do. In Japan, the Washlet — a toilet that comes equipped with a bidet and an air-blower — is growing increasingly popular. And all over the world, water remains one of the most common methods of self-cleaning. Many places in India, the Middle East, and Asia, for instance, still depend on a bucket and a spigot.

But as our economy continues to circle the drain, will Americans part with their beloved toilet paper in order to adopt more money-saving measures? Or will we keep flushing our cash away? Praeger, for one, believes a toilet-paper apocalypse is hardly likely. After all, the American marketing machine is a powerful thing.

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