Which way to the future?

I’ve enjoyed reading Bernard Carlson’s [amazon_link id=”0691165610″ target=”_blank” ]Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age[/amazon_link] (although, as I confessed, skipping over the physics). How exhilarating to read about the exceitement as thousands of people crammed into lecture halls to hear Tesla speak about his discoveries. “The demand for seats was so great that tickets were being scalped outside the hall for three to five dollars,” Carlson writes of an 1893 lecture in St Louis (that’s $80-130 in today’s dollars).

[amazon_image id=”0691165610″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age[/amazon_image]

The book is particularly interesting on the lack of form and direction in the early stages of commercial development of a new technology. Standards had not been agreed. Different technical approaches seemed equally viable. Companies were forming – and going into receivership – and the investment risk was substantial. Rich investors (hello J.P.Morgan) were trying to corner new markets. Patent litigation was common.Tough choices had to be made between promoting ideas and licensing the patents versus holding patents and going into manufacturing.

In this confusion, sober analysis was insufficient to make technical and financial choices. What Carlson calls ‘illusion’, the building of sufficient belief in a single path to the future, was critical: “We need to understand and appreciate how inventors and entrepreneurs forge relationships that foster a balance between imagination and analysis.” The inventor has to inspire his (or her) backer, the businessman has to keep the creative genius grounded (no pun intended). One could see it as creating the focal point in a game with many possible outcomes, and hence sometimes the phenomenon of [amazon_link id=”0141031638″ target=”_blank” ]lock-in[/amazon_link] to what might be not the best technical outcome.

So, a fascinating read on the early development of an important new technology, as well as an extraordinary character. As the book observes, there was always a kind of minority interest in Tesla, a real maverick; but he deserves this fine biography.

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