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Trumping Progress – How Money & Politics Corrupt Innovation

Fri, 09/07/2012 - 8:06am
Chris Fox, Associate Editor, PD&D

Have you heard of Nikola Tesla? I’m sure most of you have, you’re engineers for crying out loud. Just in case you haven’t, Tesla is arguably the most underrated and overlooked engineer of all time. He developed the alternating current, invented the bladeless turbine, built the first induction motor, and innovated the use of X-rays, to name just a few of his contributions.

So, why is this guy just a paragraph in history books? Why is he better known for fancy, blue arc lightening than for his concepts to give free power to the world (which is still feasible)? Politics and money.

There is a lot of conspiracy and mysticism that surrounds Tesla and his dealings with Edison and J.P. Morgan, and rightfully so. Morgan was funding Tesla’s work to develop the first wireless signal transmission over the Atlantic, the Wardenclyffe Project. Morgan quickly pulled out when he discovered that, upon completion, the Wardenclyffe Project could lead to wireless, free power for the world, which would clearly hinder his bottom line. Edison was apparently making a joke when he offered Tesla $50,000 to improve his motor and generators, later claiming Tesla didn’t understand American humor. Tesla made short work of improving Edison’s motors without ever receiving payment.

Tesla ended up working on several different concepts into his golden years, before he died in a New York hotel with a massive amount of debt. So the ‘American Dream Story’ that Edison lives out, with his thriving company and light bulb invention, makes chapters in the history books, while Tesla is reduced to mere characters. Why?

Unfortunately, much of history (not all) is written by the victors, or at least it is easier to find the history written about the victors. This is especially true in the United States. We seem to fear failure; not failure used as a stepping stone to achieve (we commend that), but utter failure by an individual. Even though those failures are often used as stepping stones to better things by other individuals.

Tesla was a failure. Not as an inventor, engineer, or designer, but as a businessman. Hence, in the U.S., he is forgotten, because we have a tendency to value income over all other achievements. We cheer for the underdog; and idolize, and even deify them if they achieve after being down and out. However, if they fail, no matter how pertinent their work, they seem to drift into the mist.

A capitalist society is good for innovation on one hand, because it inspires people to do new things and make a living burying their lives into a creation. It’s when the almighty dollar trumps progress in self-preservation that we have a problem. Situations like Tesla’s, where the off-key genius isn’t supported because his ideas are outlandish (even if they can be proven) or they don’t turn an immediate profit, can cause some of our greatest endeavors to slip into an almost forgotten history, reduced to less than a paragraph in the history books.

This seems to beg an ethical business question: What is more important, profit or innovation? Now, this is a black and white question for a multicolored concept, but the fact of the matter remains evident. A definitive choice in this matter is usually made, regardless of the need for a balanced compromise, and more often than not, profits are chosen before progress.

The engineers and the innovators that remember what inventors and futurists like Tesla did, are key factors in keeping the proper motivation of progress at hand.

What’s your take? Email chris.fox@advantagemedia.com.

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