Thomas Edison, Patents, Intellectual Property Rights, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, DC, AC and the War of Currents

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 27th, 2012

History 101

Thomas Edison protected his Intellectual Property Rights with over 1,000 Patents

Thomas Edison was a great inventor.  A great entrepreneur.  But he wasn’t a great scientist or engineer.  He was home-schooled by his mom.  And didn’t go to college.  But he read a lot.  And loved to tinker.  He grew up in Port Huron, Michigan.  At one end of the train line that ran between Port Huron and Detroit.  Where he sold newspapers and other things to commuters during the Civil War.  Then he saved the life of some kid.  Pulled him out of the way of a runaway boxcar.  The kid’s dad ran the train station.  Out of gratitude for saving his son’s life he taught the young Edison Morse Code.  And trained him to be a telegraph operator.  He mastered it so well that Edison invented a better telegraph machine.  The Quadruplex telegraph.  Because he liked to tinker.

What made him a great entrepreneur and not a great scientist or engineer is that his inventions had a commercial purpose.  He didn’t invent to solve life’s great mysteries.  He invented to make money.  By creating things so great that people would want them.  And pay money for them.  He also had an eye on production costs.  So he could build these things the people wanted at affordable prices.  For if they were too expensive the people couldn’t buy them.  And make him rich.  So his inventions used technology to keep production costs down while keeping consumer interest high.  Because of the profit incentive.  But the POSSIBILITY of profits wasn’t enough to push Edison to set up his invention lab.  Where he employed a team of inventors to work full time inventing things.  And figuring out how to mass-produce inventions that made everyone’s life better.  He needed something else.  Something that GUARANTEED Edison could profit from his inventions.  The patent.  That gave the patent holder exclusive rights to profit from their invention.

Inventors and entrepreneurs spend a lot of money inventing things.  They do this because they know that they can file a patent when they invent something that people will buy.  Protecting their intellectual property rights.  So they alone can profit from the fruit of all their labors.  And Edison was one of these inventors.  One of the most prolific inventors of all time.  Filing over 1,000 patents.  Including one on the incandescent light bulb.  Which was going to replace gas lamps and candles.  And provided a need for another new invention.  Electric power distribution.  Something else he spent a lot of time tinkering with.  Producing electrical generators.  And an electric power distribution system.  Which was going to make him an even richer man.  As he held the patents for a lot of the technology involved.  However, he was not to become as rich as he had hoped on his electric power distribution system.  Not for any patent infringements.  But because of a mistreated former employee who had a better idea.

Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse battled each other in the War of Currents

Nikola Tesla was a brilliant electrical engineer.  But not a great entrepreneur.  So he worked for someone who was.  Thomas Edison.  Until Edison broke a promise.  He offered a substantial bonus to Tesla if he could improve Edison’s electric power generating plants.  He did.  And when he asked for his bonus Edison reneged on his promise.  Telling the immigrant Tesla that he didn’t understand American humor.  Angry, Tesla resigned and eventually began working for George Westinghouse.  An Edison competitor.  Who appreciated the genius of Tesla.  And his work.  Especially his work on polyphase electrical systems.  Using an alternating current (AC).  Unlike Edison’s direct current (DC).  Bringing Edison and Tesla back together again.  In war.

Direct current had some limitations.  The chief being that DC didn’t work with transformers.  While AC did.  With transformers you could change the voltage of AC systems.  You could step the voltage up.  And step it back down.  This gave AC a huge advantage over DC.  Because power equals current multiplied by voltage (P=I*E).  To distribute large amounts of power you needed to generate a high current.  Or a high voltage.  Something both DC and AC power can do.  However, there is an advantage to using high voltages instead of high currents.  Because high currents need thicker wires.  And we make wires out of copper or aluminum.  Which are expensive.  And the DC wires have to get thicker the farther away they get from the generator plant.  Meaning that a DC generating plant could only serve a small area.  Requiring numerous DC power plants to meet the power requirements of a single city.  Whereas AC power could travel across states.  Making AC the current of choice for anyone paying the bill to install an electric distribution system.

So the ability to change voltages is very beneficial.  And that’s something DC power just couldn’t do.  What the generator generated is what you got.  Not the case with AC power.  You can step it up to a higher voltage for distribution.  Then you can step it down for use inside your house.  Which meant a big problem for Edison.  For anyone basing their decision on price alone would choose AC.  So he declared war on AC power.  Saying that it was too dangerous to bring inside anyone’s house.  And he proved it by electrocuting animals.  Including an elephant.  And to show just how lethal it was Edison pushed for its use to replace the hangman’s noose.  Saying that anything as deadly as what states used to put prisoners to death was just too deadly to bring into anyone’s house.  But not even the electric chair could save Edison’s DC power.  And he lost the War of Currents.  For Tesla’s AC power was just too superior to Edison’s DC power not to use. 

Nikola Tesla was a Brilliant Engineer who Preferred Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe over Business

George Westinghouse would get rich on electrical distribution.  Thanks to Nikola Tesla.  And the patents for the inventions he could have created for Thomas Edison.  If he only recognized his genius.  Which he lamented near death as his greatest mistake.  Not appreciating Tesla.  Or his work.  But Edison did well.  As did Westinghouse.  They both died rich.  Unlike Tesla.

Westinghouse could have made Tesla a very rich man.  But his work in high voltage, high frequency, wireless power led him away from Westinghouse.  For he wanted to provide the world with free electric power.  By creating power transmitters.  That could transmit power wirelessly.  Where an electric device would have an antenna to receive this wireless power.  He demonstrated it to some potential investors.  He impressed them.  But lost their funding when they asked one question.  Where does the electric meter go?  Free electric power was a noble idea.  But nothing is truly free.  Even free power.  Because someone had to generate that power.  And if you didn’t charge those using that power how were you going to pay those generating that power?

Edison and Westinghouse were great entrepreneurs.  Whereas Tesla was a brilliant engineer.  He preferred unraveling the mysteries of the universe over business.  Tesla probably suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Think of the character Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory television sitcom.  He was a lot like that character.  Brilliant.  Odd.  And interested in little else but his work.  He lived alone.  And died alone.  A bachelor.  Living in a two-room hotel room in the last decade of his life.  Despite his inventions that changed the world.  And the fortunes he made for others.  Sadly, Tesla did not die a rich man.  Like Edison and Westinghouse.  But he did live a long life.  And few men or women changed the world like he did.  A brilliant mind that comes around but once in a millennium.


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LESSONS LEARNED #72: “Moms are a lot like CEOs. Only with more responsibility, longer hours and less pay.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 30th, 2011

A Genius may have a Brilliant Idea, but it’s an Entrepreneur that brings it to Market

A CEO is a lot like an entrepreneur.  They’re both a cut above the rest.  And can do what few can do.  Bring two worlds together.  The theoretical world inhabited by great thinkers and inventors.  And the practical world inhabited by people who act.  Who take the things the great thinkers and inventors create and give them to us.   There is a difference between the people that inhabit these worlds.  And most can only live in one or the other.  But CEOs and entrepreneurs can live in both.  That’s what makes them special.  Thinkers and inventors possess a genius of theoretical creativity.  But they can do little with their idea.  The action people can build great things (cars, airplanes, buildings, power plants, cell phones, etc.) but only from a construction plan.  Someone else has to have an idea and think and create the construction plan before they can build.  These are the two worlds.  The genius.  And the builders.  And it is the CEO and entrepreneur that bring these two worlds together.

Nikola Tesla was a genius.  A brilliant theoretical thinker.  He created the world in which we live.  But do you know who he is?  What he created?  Probably not.  Unless you’re a Croat.  Because there are probably a lot of statues of him in Croatia. Because he was born there to Serbian parents.  He eventually moved to America.  Got a job with a guy name Thomas Edison.  Who didn’t appreciate his genius.  Or his one particular ‘crazy’ idea.  But George Westinghouse did. 

That ‘crazy’ idea is the AC power we use today.  Thomas Edison was building DC power plants and a DC electric grid.  Despite all the failings of DC distribution (DC power doesn’t travel far requiring lots of generating plants, different voltages have to have their own generating plant, large power loads require very thick and expensive copper wires, etc.).  There was already a DC electrical infrastructure.  And it was Edison’s.  Which he wanted to expand because it would pay him well.

But Tesla’s AC system was better.  Because it could use transformers.  One power generating plant could provide power at a variety of voltages.  You just needed a transformer to get the voltage you wanted.  Also, electrical power is the product of voltage and current.  High power, then, requires either a high voltage or a high current.  High currents require thick, expensive copper wires.  So high voltage was the way to go.  It allowed power to travel farther over thinner wires.  Therefore, it required fewer generating plants.  And a single electric grid (not one for each voltage).  AC power was much more economical than DC power.  And George Westinghouse saw that.  And took Tesla’s brilliant idea and built the AC power generation and distribution system we use today.

The Business of Beautiful, Estée Lauder

You see, Tesla was at home in the lab.  He was a scientist.  Not a salesman.  That’s why he wasn’t an entrepreneur.  Because, just like being a CEO, you need sales skills to be an entrepreneur.  Because you are the number one sales person in your business.  And Edison and Westinghouse were great salesmen.  That’s why they brought a lot of Tesla’s great inventions to market.  And why Tesla did not.  He was just not a sales person.

But Estée Lauder was.  She was always selling.  And creating.  She was the classical entrepreneur.  Her uncle was in the chemistry business making beauty products.  Which fascinated her from a young age.  He taught her the chemistry.  Taught her how to make the products.  How to use the products.  And she did.  Loved them.  And started selling them.  With a passion.

She started creating her own products.  Using her own kitchen as her laboratory.  When not tending to her two sons.  She demonstrated how to use her products.  Gave away free samples.  And sold.  She was always selling.  She started out small.  By herself.  From these humble beginnings she grew to dominate the industry.  She was relentless.  She worked herself to the premier counter space in department stores by redefining the way cosmetics were sold.  Starting with Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.  She visited each counter to ensure they were meeting her high standards.  She gave away free samples.  She demonstrated.  She touched.  Personally applying products on customers.  That’s why when you walk into a department store you’ll see the Estée Lauder counter first.  And you’ll see all the counters selling the same way.  Giving away free samples.  Demonstrating products.  Showing how to apply products.  The Estée Lauder way.

One Smart Cookie, that Mrs. Fields

Debbi Fields liked to bake cookies.  She married young at 19.  To a Stanford graduate.  And aspiring financial consultant.  And about a year later decided to go into the cookie business.  After an incident at a party with her husband and a lot of his snobby associates.  She apparently mispronounced a word.  Said ‘orientated’ instead of ‘oriented’.  A snob pointed out her faux pas.  Sending her home in tears.  Didn’t much like that experience.  And decided to be something more than a ‘just’ a housewife.  Not that there was anything wrong with that.  And she would love being a housewife.  She would raise 5 daughters.  And add another 5 stepchildren in a second marriage.  But the snobs in her husband’s circle did look down on that particular institution.  It was so old fashioned.  It wasn’t progressive.  It wasn’t what people in their circles did.  So they acted like real asses.

Yet they liked her cookies.  Loved them.  Her husband would take them to work.  Where they were a big hit.  Soft and chewy.  Gourmet.  They were different.  When she asked them if she should go into the cookie business, they said it was a bad idea.  The conventional wisdom said crispy cookies were the way to go.  People didn’t want to buy soft and chewy.  They said as they stuffed their mouths with soft and chewy cookies.  And there were others who told her not to do it.  Even her husband doubted her.  But he loved her.  And would support her. She had no business experience.  But she was a hard worker.  And believed in what she was doing.  She got a bank loan to open a cookie store.  Not so much because the banker believed in the business idea.  But because of the good character of her and her husband.  Whatever the outcome, the bank was willing to take a chance.  Because, success or fail, they knew they would repay the loan.

She opened her first store in a mall food court.  Did not sell a single cookie.  Until she used the Estée Lauder sales method.  She gave away free samples.  People tried.  And people liked.  Soft and chewy was a hit.  She grew the company.  Added more stores.  And made a lot of money.  She was very hands on to maintain the quality.  Again, like Estée Lauder.  She visited her stores.  To make sure they maintained her high standards.  Which is why she refused to franchise.  She was too worried about losing that quality.  Which is what made Mrs. Fields cookies better than the competition.  Her husband computerized her operation.  Adding a computer at each store.  All wired to the Internet and tied into her headquarters.  It was state of the art technology.  Allowing more growth.  While retaining full control.  The growth was fast.  Too fast.  The hands-on management didn’t work well with so many stores.  The debt started to pile up.  And then a recession hit.  Her expensive gourmet cookies became too expensive.  And people stopped buying them.  To save the company she had to sell 80% of it.  And the new owners changed the business model.  Franchised stores.  And bumped Debbie Fields from CEO.  But she remained chairman of the board.  And though only a minority shareholder, the business Debbie Fields created continues on.  Her only mistake was being so successful so fast.  And if you’re going to have a fault that’s not a bad one to have.  By the way, don’t forget that she did all of this while raising 5 daughters.  Which probably made the running of the multi-million dollar business the easy part of her life.

Entrepreneurs, CEOS and Moms

Entrepreneurs and CEOs.  They’re a different breed.  They can be both brilliant thinkers like Nikola Tesla.  And aggressive sales people like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.  Such as Estée Lauder.  And Debbie Fields.  These mothers dominated their industries.  And set the bar for everyone else.  Lauder built an empire that dominates still.  Fields use of technology to streamline operations is a model for business efficiency at Harvard Business School.  Two of America’s most successful entrepreneurs and CEOs.  And both were moms first.


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LESSONS LEARNED #70: ” There is no such thing as ‘consensus’ in science.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 16th, 2011

State of the Art Medicine – Balancing the Four Humors

Early science was sometimes by consensus.  Arrived at by some guesses that were almost educated.  Early medical science, for example.  The human body was and is a complex thing.  Most of our knowledge was based on the excretions we observed coming from the body.  Someone with a cold had a runny nose.  Someone with a fever sweated.  Someone with an upset tummy vomited.  And, of course, there’s poop and pee.  If you didn’t excrete enough of either there’s probably something wrong with you.  Even today we look at our poop and pee.  For things like blood.  Or other abnormal secretions.  Because that can be a problem.  So the human body is a plethora of excretions.  Or fluids.  Each telling a story.

Early medicine broke these fluids down into 4 basic fluids.  The four humors.  Black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood.  A healthy body had the four humors in balance.  A sick body had an imbalance.  Too little of one.  Or too much of another.  So early medicine looked at putting the four humors back into balance.  Either through putting humors into the body.  As in herbs or food.  Or taking humors out of the body.  As in bloodletting or inducing vomiting.  Or applying a poultice.  Out with the bad.  In with the good.

This was state of the art medicine at its time.  They even used it on George Washington in 1799.  The most important man in America.  He was making his rounds on horseback, inspecting his plantation one day in the rain and snow.  Got a bit of a sore throat.  Came in that evening for dinner.  Didn’t change out of his wet clothes so as not to inconvenience his guests.  The next day his throat was worse.  And he had a fever.  He also had trouble swallowing.  Today we’d see our doctor and ask for some antibiotics.  Before antibiotics, though, you tried to balance the four humors.  So they bled Washington.  State of the art medicine back then.  Washington died 6 days later.  Having never recovered from his sore throat.  Despite using what was then the consensus for the finest medical care.  Bleeding.

The Fight against both Smallpox and the Medical Consensus

Interestingly, George Washington was a healthy man.  He lived longer than most Washington men.  Even survived a run in with Smallpox in his youth.  Which makes his death from something starting out as a sore throat sadder still.  Because Smallpox was a killer.  People feared it like the plague.  In time, though, people found a way to make themselves immune to the disease.  By infecting themselves with a little of it.

England learned of this procedure from the Turks.  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu brought the practice (variolation) back from Turkey.  The king volunteered subjects for experimentation in England.  Which proved to be a success.  Even though there was a risk of death (about 1 in 1,000).  And during the procedure people were highly contagious.  Still, it was a whole lot better than dying from the pox.  So the Royal physician inoculated the Royal family.  And the practice slowly spread.  African slaves were doing it, too, and brought the practice to the New World and taught the procedure to the Reverend Cotton MatherEdward Jenner conducted further experiments.  Found a safer way to inoculate using cowpox.  Without the higher death rate.  Or with people being highly contagious during the process.  And the Smallpox vaccination was born.

But the acceptance of inoculation wasn’t easy.  The accepted medical practice did not include such a radical procedure.  Those in medicine belittled the procedure and anyone practicing it.  The medical consensus was that these were just some misguided people playing God who were going to turn people into cows after injecting them with cowpox.  But fear of dying can change minds.  Especially when there is a Smallpox epidemic in your country.  Which there was during the American Revolutionary War.  More soldiers died from Smallpox than were killed in battle.  A lot more.  More than half of the army.  Soldiers inoculated themselves using the puss from the pustules on infected soldiers.  John Adams’ wife, Abigail, inoculated her own children.  The inoculations saved the army.  And many of the cities.  And it was the successful fight against Smallpox that allowed the fight for independence to proceed.  Thanks to those who went against the consensus.

Contagions, not Bad Air, make you Sick

Part of the reason the disease was so contagious was because of poor sanitary conditions.  Soldiers cramped together in barracks.  Or in hospitals.  Crowded cities.  A lot of sick people in contact with a lot of healthy people got a lot of healthy people sick.  Some understood this and tried to stay away from sick people.  But they didn’t really understand germs.  They tried to stay away from sick people so they wouldn’t catch what they had.  By breathing the same air.  Not necessarily the breath they were exhaling.  But the air they were breathing in that made them sick in the first place.

A common medical opinion was that ‘bad’ air caused illness.  Thomas Jefferson believed this.  That’s why he hated leaving Monticello during the summer.  When the tidewater air was ‘bad’.  The coastal towns.  Where the government met.  He hated going to New York, Philadelphia and Washington.  Because they all had ‘bad’ air during the summer.  And that ‘bad’ air could give you malaria.  Of course, it wasn’t the air.  It was the mosquitoes who liked the marshy tidewater areas.  And understanding this was the first step in (almost) eradicating malaria.

Benjamin Franklin didn’t believe in ‘bad’ air.  Well, not the kind other people worried about.  He didn’t believe cold air gave anyone a cold.  Or the flu.  No one knew anything about germs or viruses yet, but he had an open mind.  And constantly questioned things.  He was, after all, America’s greatest scientist.  Why did he not get sick when traveling in the coldest of winters?  Yet he could catch cold in a warm and comfortable room when someone with a cold was in that same room?  The answer was obvious.  Bad air.  Created by the sick person exhaling their sickness into a room with no fresh air.  Whereby he had no choice but to breathe in this same air.  A contagion spread the sickness.  Not cold air.  Sure of this he would forever sleep with the window open.  Even during winter.  Even when sharing a bed with a sick John Adams during a diplomatic mission to discuss possible terms with the British on Staten Island to stop the rebellion.   There was no room at the inn.  So they had to share.  And they discussed Franklin’s theory.  Adams had a cold and wanted to close the window.  Franklin didn’t want to catch Adams’s cold and insisted on leaving the window open.  Adams returned to bed while listening to Franklin opine.  And fell asleep.  With the window open.  He was no sicker in the morning.  And Franklin did not catch his cold.

Before Modern Science there was Consensus and Bad Medicine

Poor sanitary conditions and a lack of understanding of germs killed a lot of people.  During the American Civil War, doctors would go from patient to patient without washing their hands.  After an amputation, they just wiped their saw on their apron before moving on to the next patient.  These were approved medical procedures.  The consensus was that it wasn’t necessary to wash your hands.  Or your saw.  And the result was an epidemic of gangrene.  And high mortality rates in Civil War hospitals.  Louis Pasteur‘s work on the germ theory of disease began to change things.  And Joseph Lister introduced the modern sterile and antiseptic operating room.

We were making progress.  Modern medicine was coming into being.  But we were still doing a lot of questionable things.  Even though it was accepted by the medical community.  Sometimes we just didn’t know any better.  Like giving people heavy doses of toxic mercury.  Then there were things where we should have known better.  Like sticking an ice pick through someone’s eye socket into the brain to sever the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex during the popular lobotomy craze of the early 20th century.  We don’t do these once accepted medical practices anymore. 

Before modern science and modern surgical tools and equipment there was little more than consensus in medicine.  No one knew anything.  So they started by guessing.  And if a guess won a popular vote, it became an accepted medical procedure.  For it was the consensus of the medical community.  Which until real science came along was the best they could do.  Thankfully, today, we have real science.  We no longer have to guess.  Or win popularity contests.  Which has greatly reduced the amount of bad medicine in our lives.  Thanks to those lone voices in the crowd.  The few who dared to go against the consensus.


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