Friday, February 8, 2013

Tesla > Edison

It's been said that art is not made in a vacuum. The same is true in the fields of science and engineering, and in just about every other major invention, discovery, and design in human history. Most advances are made, after all, by building on ideas and inspirations of past discoveries.

What this means is that the people we often credit as the "inventors" and "creators" of history's most famous gadgets, scientific breakthroughs, and even artwork may not be the only people behind their creations. As often as not, there's more to the story as to who invented what -- and sometimes, the credit may be going to the wrong person entirely.

From Walt Disney to Thomas Edison, the stories of our most famous inventors' and creators' breakthroughs usually have a more complex history to them than we realize. As often as not, they relied on the help of people who have been less well-remembered in popular history. 

So to celebrate Thomas Edison's birthday this upcoming February 11, let's take a look at some of those inventors and discoverers who are in need of a little more of the limelight:

You might remember the names "Watson and Crick" from high school biology class. James Watson and Francis Crick (along with Maurice Wilkins) are remembered as being the discoverers of one of the biggest biological finds of all time. In April 1953, they identified the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid -- DNA.

But Watson and Crick would have never made the discovery that forever altered our understanding of biology without not only the help, but the groundwork, of chemist Rosalind Franklin. Franklin, who had a particular skill with photography, took an X-ray diffraction photograph of a DNA molecule. The photo was the first to show DNA's basic structure, which, with its double-helix shape, was the necessary clue for scientists to understand how it replicated.

Watson and Crick built up on Franklin's work -- without her permission or, unfortunately, even her knowledge. Franklin died in 1956 at the age of 37, making her ineligible to share in the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine awarded to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins.

Walt Disney -- the animator, voice actor, director, producer, and the creator and founder of Walt Disney Studios. Famous for his work in animated films, short cartoons, and live-action features, it is already understood that such creations are not manufactured by one man alone. Disney obviously oversaw hundreds of writers, artists, animators, designers, special-effects experts, and actors who all contributed to the creations of Walt Disney Studios, and without whom the company's films and animation would never have been possible. It's just a little surprising to discover that Disney's most famous creation -- Mickey Mouse -- wasn't created solely by Disney himself.

The honor also goes to Ub Iwerks, an animator from Kansas City. Iwerks and Disney first met in 1919, both of them employees at a Kansas City commercial art house. The two men left a year later, hoping to start their own independent organization, but the venture ultimately fell through.

Traveling to Los Angeles, Disney established a successful studio, eventually inviting his friend Iwerks to join him. In 1927, design began on a new animated character. Taking some inspiration from a previous series the duo had done, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney and Iwerks created the most famous and recognizable animated character of all time: Mickey Mouse.

The first Mickey Mouse cartoons were animated, not by Disney, but solely by Iwerks. Iwerks went at record-breaking speed while working on the first Mickey cartoons, producing 700 drawings a day (compared to the 80-100 drawings a modern animator might produce in a week). 

No one really knows for sure how much of Mickey's design was done by Disney, and how much by Iwerks. But what is certain is that it was, at minimum, a joint effort. Without Iwerks's artistic style and abilities, the character might have never reached the popularity he's enjoyed for over eighty years.

Designs of theoretical "flying machines" have been in existence since at least the time of Leonardo da Vinci. But without civil engineer Octave Chanute's improved glider designs, Orville and Wilbur Wright would probably never have made their historic flight.

Born in Paris, France, Chanute's family immigrated to America when he was six. He attended private schools in New York City, but received no formal training in the field of engineering. Nonetheless, he found employment with the Hudson River Railroad, and eventually went on to be the chief engineer of the Chicago & Alton Railroad. He was the planner and superintendent of several major bridges and and railroads, but should be best remembered for his work in aerial navigation.

Otto and Gustav Lilienthal had begun groundbreaking gliding experiments in Germany in 1867. Chanute studied the Lilienthals' experiments carefully, improving on the designs by studying sparrows in flight. He eventually designed a biplane which weighed a mere 23 pounds, capable of carrying up to 178 pounds at 23 miles an hour.

The Wright brothers' first glider was based largely on Chanute's biplane model. Chanute visited the Wrights' camp in 1901 (two years before their historic flight), and was warmly supportive of their efforts. The Wright brothers, for their part, didn't fail to credit Chanute for the role he'd played in their success.

If the Internet has a "patron saint," it may very well be Nikola Tesla. This Croatian-American inventor and electrical engineer was the first scientist to perfect the use of alternating–current electricity. He acquired over 100 patents over the course of his life for his inventions -- including one for the Tesla coil, a vibrating air-core transformer, capable of producing high-frequency and high-magnitude currents. 

After achieving wireless communication via radio waves over 25 miles, he turned his attention to the idea that radio waves could carry electrical energy (which would involve transmitting electricity without wires). After working with high-frequency currents, he developed several generating machines, forerunners to those that would eventually be used in radio communication. 

While partnering with Westinghouse, Tesla designed the world's first hydroelectric generating plant. Westinghouse also used Tesla's alternating current system when providing electricity to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, making it the first world's fair to use electricity.

The Internet is rife with stories of the "epic battle" between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, with Tesla championing the use of alternating current, and Edison determined to stick with direct current electricity as the technology went forward. (Tesla spent some time working at the Edison research laboratory in New York City.) Today, Tesla's alternating current is used to power businesses and homes; Edison's direct current is present in batteries.

How much credit for Edison's discoveries and inventions should go to Tesla's inspiration remains a topic of debate. What is certain is that Tesla's inventions had a lasting effect on the use of electricity to this day. Be sure to think of him the next time you flip on a light switch!

(Click here to hear "Dueling Banjos" played by Tesla coils!)

(Be sure to click on the comic to read it in full-size!)

"Hark, a Vagrant" comic strip copyright (c)2006-2012 Kate Beaton 

-- Post by Ms. B

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