Nikola Tesla

December 14, 2006

Photo of The Prestige,  David Bowie

Seeing David Bowie playing Nikola Tesla in The Prestige reminded me what an interesting character Tesla was. Outside of the scientific community his great rival, Thomas Edison is probably better known though a quick study of his work shows what a genius Tesla was – particularly in the fields of electricity and magnetism. He carried out experiments in alternating current generation, wireless telegraphy, x-rays, radio, lighting and many others. Although Guglielmo Marconi was awarded the Nobel Prize for the invention of radio, Tesla’s patent for the invention of the radio was subsequently upheld.

He even experimented with lightning and wireless power transmission similar to the fictional version in The Prestige (though without the magic element used in the film!)

Tesla died a pauper and in debt at 86 having been a millionaire at 40, largely because he was poor businessmen and failed to secure his rights over his royalties. By comparison, Edison seems to have patented everything that moved and has managed to leave his name etched on the popular consciousness far more than Tesla. A lesson for all in the importance of controlling your copyright.

In a small way, Nikola Tesla has at least had a small recognition of his genius. The Tesla is the SI unit of magnetic flux, while as far as I know there is no scientific unit called the Edison!


An Idle Speculation

December 11, 2006


I have just read a report on an Ancient Greek machine – The Antikythera Mechanism – thought to have been an astronomical calculator made around the first or second century BC. Although this brass device was first discovered in 1902, it took until the 1950’s before it was surmised by Derek de Solla Price that this find was an early analogue calculator, and then it wasn’t until the 1970’s that Price was able to suggest how it worked. The device is in the news again because a new team in Greece and the UK is studying it again using newer x-ray tomography and other technologies and have questioned some of Price’s explanations.

Further reading on the subject has been very instructive for me on how the Wikipedia works and in some way has provided a validation of its usefulness. The section dealing with the Antikythera Mechanism recognises that Price’s work has been called into question and suggests that it needs to be rewritten. It also has a talk forum attached to it, with many interesting discussions on various Wiki projects such as the History of Science and Classical Greece and Rome and how they should be handled by the Wikipedia. For the casual user of the Wikipedia, it is worth taking a moment to look at the complexity of the operation. I am also pleased to see a note that the section headed ‘Possible Uses’ has no references or sources cited for the claims there, suggesting that pure speculation has no place in an encyclopaedia that wishes to be regarded as an authority.

Reading about this early calculator reminded me of an idle speculation of mine many years ago. On a visit to a Roman amphitheatre in Arles, I was struck by how modern the ancient Roman central heating was. It got me thinking about how much science and technology the ancients possessed and led me to speculate on the possibility of the Romans building a steam railway to China to open up the silk trade. Why not? They had wheeled vehicles that could run on iron-banded, spoked wheels with suspension. They understood the piston which they used in water pumps. They had the road technology to make straight roads. And so on. Surely the railway was possible?

At War With Machinery

December 5, 2006

I often joke that my excuse for jay-walking, rather than crossing the road at the lights, is because I hate to be told what to do by inanimate objects. Although I am an enthusiastic technophile and a reasonably early adopter of both soft and hardware, I feel strongly that I should be in control of the technology. I have no tolerance for so called user friendly technology that does not let me operate it as I think it should.

So yesterday’s experience with Nokia and its software has left me fuming. Actually my frustration with the Nokia software goes back a lot further than that. I had some communication with the company a couple of years ago when I first got my present phone and discovered that there was no control over the start-up tune or the beep that the phone makes (even when the phone is off) when the battery charging is finished. The first is a problem because you can’t subtly turn the phone on in a meeting to use the calendar or contact list without the welcome music playing and the second is a problem when you are staying in a hotel and need to charge the phone at night in your room and are woken by the beeps telling you that the phone is fully charged. Phone calls to the Nokia techs elicited the simple response – it can’t be done.

Earlier this year I started regularly synchronising my Outlook calendar with the calendar on the mobile phone. All was fine until recently, when I discovered that all the times of events that I had transferred from the computer were wrong. I realised eventually that the issue was daylight saving. I won’t go into all the to-ing and fro-ing that involved download and installing new operating software for the phone and new phone software for the computer and many iterations of changing time settings on the phone and computer and several phone calls to some unknown Asian country via Nokia’s 1300 help line – but the upshot seems to be that in order to sync my phone to my computer, I have to disable the automatic daylight saving function in both Windows and on the phone.

That I have to disable a perfectly useful function on my computer because Nokia can’t write software correctly is bad enough in itself, but the phone conversation with the helpline was even more ridiculous. Not only could they not solve this problem, but when I asked where I could find the changelog for the phone software so I would know what had been fixed, changed or added, I was told that it didn’t exist and that I would find the changes when I discovered them.