It will never work. It can never be done. It is impossible. It will never be accepted.
How often, throughout modern history, have those words been spoken? There are dozens of classic examples. Physicist and engineer Lord Kelvin, president of the British Royal Society, famously said back in the late 1800s that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible” and “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” Albert Einstein said in 1932 that he couldn’t see nuclear energy ever being obtainable. Tunis Craven, in his role as commissioner of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in 1961, spoke a few years prematurely when he dismissed the future prospect of communications satellites. “There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States,” pronounced Craven, only to be proven wrong when the satellite Syncom 3 transmitted television signals from Japan to the United States, giving Americans live foreign coverage of the 1964 Summer Olympics.
Many theoretical physicists during the late 1960s and 70s said nuclear magnetic resonance technology, first discovered in the 1930s, could not be adapted to detect cancers and other disease in the human body. A New York physician named Raymond Damadian ignored the naysayers and built his own body scanner. In 1977 he successfully performed the first full-body magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam on a human. Receiving an award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001, Damadian said criticism and scepticism comes with the territory of invention and innovation. “The bolder the initiative, the harsher the criticism.” A gracious response, but I rather like the comment by Time magazine writer Lev Grossman. “There’s nothing like the passage of time to make the world’s smartest people look like complete idiots.”
In the area of energy technology and systems, it’s arguable that no one has been doubted, underestimated or challenged more than Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla, and perhaps no innovator has proven so many people wrong over the past 100 years. His best-known invention was the alternating current (AC) induction motor, patented in 1888, which became crucial to the subsequent development of high-voltage AC power systems that could distribute electricity over long distances.
I first became fascinated with the life and work of Nikola Tesla 10 years ago while researching a story marking the 100th anniversary of Gugliemo Marconi’s first transatlantic wireless communication. On Dec. 12, 1901, the letter “S” was transmitted in Morse code from a wireless transmission station in Cornwall, United Kingdom, to Signal Hill in St. John’s, a city in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The 3,500-kilometre transmission across the Atlantic Ocean was hailed as a great moment in science and eventually led to Marconi’s branding as “The father of radio.” He might be, except for the fact that Tesla was the true father of radio. In fact, Tesla filed his first radio patents in 1896, five years before Marconi, and when Marconi did file to the U.S. patent office it initially rejected the application for being too similar to those submitted by Tesla. It was only when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the patent issue in 1943, just a few months after Tesla’ death, that the matter was settled for good: Tesla invented radio.
The more I dug into the life of Tesla the more I realized how much his inventions and vision influenced the 20th century and continue to do so in our current century. In 1898 he demonstrated a remote-controlled robotic boat that heralded the beginning of remote-controlled electronics and multichannel broadcasting. Tesla called it “teleautomation” and referred to his boat as “the first of a race of robots – mechanical men which will do the laborious work of the human race.” Learning this gave new meaning to the remote-controlled, battery-powered Spiderman helicopter I fly with my kids in the basement, though the larger influence is obvious – everything from the Mars Rover to unmanned drone planes to cruise missiles. To those watching the demonstration in 1898 it seemed pure magic. “Skeptics had him pull the lid to prove there wasn’t a midget operating inside,” according to documentarian Robert Uth. But there was little financial interest in the idea at the time.
There seems no ending to the man’s accomplishments. He is credited in hindsight for perfecting neon and fluorescent lighting, for the earliest work in wireless power transmission, for taking the world’s first x-ray photographs, and for proposing the basic principles of radar technology two decades before its “official” invention. Even his ability to create “lightning balls” in the laboratory has inspired research into plasma physics and nuclear fusion.
It’s no wonder Tesla is regarded today as one of the greatest inventors and thinkers of the 20th century. But the label only took hold many years after his death. And it didn’t come without a fight. In many respects he was an underdog from the start, despite his lifelong creativity and brilliance. Ultimately the Serbian-American engineer was a loner both in how he lived and in his head. He kept ideas locked up inside his mind and, to the frustration of many, did not collaborate well with other engineers and scientists. His ideas and achievements were his and his alone, as was his struggle to have those ideas and achievements accepted by society. This, and the fact that he has proven so many sceptics wrong over the years, has endeared Tesla to many inventors and entrepreneurs that identify with his struggle. “The example set by Tesla has always been particularly inspiring to the lone runner,” writes Tesla biographer Margaret Cheney.
This book explores some of the other “lone runners” out there that I have identified during my many years as an energy reporter and clean technology columnist. It is titled Mad Like Tesla because, in my observation, the companies or individuals profiled here have reason to identify with Nikola Tesla the man. They are considered – or have been considered — crazy because of the perceived impossibility or unacceptability of what they’re attempting to do, yet they forge ahead in an inhospitable marketplace driven largely by a desire to do right and a belief they are right. In this sense they are mad like Tesla — because of how many in society so easily dismiss their potentially game-changing efforts; because of the barriers they face along their journey.