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Know When to Change Your Direction: The Edison, Tesla, Einstein Learnings

For the most part, my blogs are meant to encourage and inspire. However, there are some key takeaways from past mistakes by others that might just save my readers a lot of time and anguish. The subject of abandoning an idea is one of those takeaways.

This blog was born out of my day end ritual of watching educational videos. I don’t waste time on fictional television or sports programs. I will take an occasional glance at the score or a highlight reel however my limited time on this earth is best spent learning. Videos are left until after my brain is completely spent beyond a point of absorbing through reading. The videos I fall asleep by are usually scientific documentaries or painting instructional videos. For the most part, these videos put me to sleep. On occasion they fire me up with that new idea that keeps me awake or presents itself in a dream that wakes me up. Regardless of the type of video, I figure the only way to grow myself in an area is to be immersed in it even if it can only occur during leisure time. That way, it’s a part of my routine rather than “I’ll get to it eventually.”

Recently I watched a series on Tesla and Tesla vs. Edison. I came away with a few thoughts as to how these two clung to ideas that limited them. They didn’t know when to change direction.

Edison clung to DC power causing his board members to overrule him and form General Electric in the bid to produce AC power from Niagara Falls. Tesla won the bid.

Tesla couldn’t abandon his desire to transmit power through the air. This eventually cost him his fortune and resulted in a loss of income from radio communication. Marconi essentially stole his glory.

The creation of an idea in itself is invigorating to an inventor. When the invention is as disruptive of those of Edison and Tesla, it creates a passion that can limit one’s ability to see the obvious.

Edison’s desire to embrace DC power overlooked the limitations in stepping up voltages. Tesla overcame this by using that new European invention the transformer (according to Reference 1). Whereas Edison wanted to build a power plant every mile, Tesla wanted to harness the power of Niagara Falls and transmit it to Chicago and New York, much greater distances. The battle for DC versus AC included some very extreme versions of proof including electrocution of animals and humans. The fight was that fierce. The end result of Edison’s dedication to his idea was that he would stop at nothing to prove he was right.

Tesla on the other hand was of the type that sidestepped equations and instead would create hardware and then base his next move on the results produced in the data. This tendency is exemplified in the famous pictures of him calmly recording data while lightning swirls around him. In fact, Reference 1 speaks of his commenting on Albert Einstein as emphasizing equations too much over producing results. I believe that Tesla did not know when to change direction because he didn’t do the math on energy transmission through air. He held onto the idea too long. Had he changed direction and done some simple math, he might have been more profitable in pursuing communications inventions.

As with any situation, there are always exceptions. One of my favorite documentaries is about Albert Einstein. The reason it is my favorite as it emphasizes Einstein’s life prior to his nuclear inventions. More specifically, it details his theory of relativity and how he gave up on a set of equations only to pull them out of his desk at a later time and realize his earlier mistake. Once corrected, the whole theory made sense. Sometimes going down the wrong road actually does bear results.

The key takeaway in this case is to walk away for a while. I often do this when writing patents and articles. I get so immersed that I don’t see the obvious. When I take a break, I see things in a new light. I also use that period in between to think often while I work out or drive through the scenery of the Rockies. In closing realize that a short break or an admission of when to walk away might just save some agony and time. In doing so, you don’t necessarily change direction however you do overcome an obstacle.

References

  1. Tesla: Master of Lightning”, PBS special, YouTube video Published on Oct 7, 2013
  2. NAT GEO documentary 2015 Edison vs Tesla American Genius”, YouTube video Published on August 20, 2015.
  3. The Extraordinary Genius of Albert Einstein – Full Documentary HD”, YouTube video Published on Jan 11, 2015

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