Sunday, September 14, 2014

Pure Magic

Nikola Tesla in his laboratory, 1899.

When people speak of longevity, I always say that I intend to live to 200, for one simple reason.

For all its shortcomings, the human race is endowed with the most amazing capacity - its creative ability. This unique attribute has given rise to masterpieces like Chartres Cathedral and the Large Hadron ColliderBeethoven's Ninth, and the Hubble Space Telescope.

To our early ancestors, all this would surely seem the fruits of powerful magic. And I, for one, can't wait to see mankind's next magic trick. Here are my favorites:

1. The PC
Since the Dark Age of DOS, a PC has provided me with the means of earning a living, and in the process become my most prized, multipurpose tool - a typesetter, photolab, publicist, accountant, recording studio, publisher, scout and personal secretary.

It's evolved significantly - my current home built PC functions as an alarm clock, fitness coach, interpreter, tutor, stereo, home theater and game center. I use it to design curricula, to write, illustrate, edit and publish books, blogs, brochures, business cards, posters, ads, and even songs and videos. And when the workday is done, it lets me shed my cares like a dusty overcoat, and lose myself in a movie or game. I heart PCs.

2. The Internet
The Japanese animation Doraimon recounts tales of a blue robotic cat from the future, equipped with an amazing bit of technology - the docodemo doa, or anywhere door. To me, this is a metaphor for the Internet.

Via the Internet's magic, I can now walk the halls of the most magnificent edifices in history, browse the Louvre, speak in tongues, earn a degree from Harvard, Oxford, or Columbia, chat face-to-face with friends across the planet, trace my family history, or order up a gene sequence as easily as a fresh pizza.

I can learn from history's most brilliant minds, and read wisdom as ancient as the earliest Sumerian cuneiform tablets or as fresh as captions streaming in real time across a live CNN broadcast. I can learn to dance, publish a best seller, or attend a conference without ever leaving my apartment, thanks to the doco demo door.

3. Google Maps
Feed it an address, and Google maps will instantly give step-by-step directions for travel on foot, or by public and private transport, with estimated arrival times and links to schedule, fare and route information. It's even possible to virtually walk the entire route via "street view" images, which comes in handy when one is traveling abroad. Access it on a cell phone, and I can track my progress toward my destination in real time. It's a spectacular innovation.

4. Facebook
Facebook is the greatest party in history. I have literally found everybody who ever meant anything to me - from my very first girlfriend to my old school chums and workmates from across the planet. Via Facebook, we can chat any time of day or night, via text, voice or video - or play mindless video games till dawn together, should the mood strike us.

5. The inflatable bicycle tire
To save money, stay in shape and reduce pollution, I ride a bicycle everywhere. It's given me a deep appreciation for something which remained beneath my notice for decades. Now every time I ride, I'm a bit amazed at the ingenuity that went into engineering the simple bicycle tire - mounted upon load-distributing spokes and sporting its clever little auto-sealing valve.

After inflating a flat, it feels oddly marvelous to glide effortlessly across the ground and to feel the tremendous difference in energy expenditure. This wonderful innovation was Irish inventor John Dunlop's 1888 gift to mankind.

6. The electric light bulb
I suspect that when Roald Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he was basing his main character, Mr. Willy Wonka, upon the Wizard of Menlo Park, who authored over two thousand patents worldwide, and gave the world its first electric power station, motion picture camera and sound recording.

Thomas Edison's amazing productivity was not just due to his brilliance, but also his Herculean patience. Forbes Magazine tells of how a reporter once asked him how it felt to spend years producing nothing but failed prototypes for a commercial light bulb, and his paradigm-shifting reply was reputedly: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

Perhaps Edison can be forgiven for indulging in a bit of self-aggrandization in the interest of marketing, but historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel say that actually no less than twenty-two people invented various forms of electric lights before Edison filed his own 1878 patent. Chief among them was John W. Starr, who died shortly after filing an 1845 patent. And, says the Smithsonian, Edison and his team actually tested 1600 filaments of various types (including coconut fiber and human hair) before settling on carbonized fibers extracted from a folding bamboo fan he found in his factory.

7. Direct current
As if merely lighting up the world wasn't enough for Edison, he would soon create an entire electric power system to run his invention. The world's first power station, launched in 1882, would bring direct current power - and light! - to the masses.

Direct current is generally too expensive for large-scale long-distance distribution, so it's now primarily used in electronic devices, including the Integrated Circuit chips which manipulate the on and off states of binary code - the magnificent Lingua franca of the Digital Age.

8. Alternating current
One wonders if Edison's former employee and arch rival Nikola Tesla knew he was destined to reshape the world someday, by inventing the very lifeblood of our civilization. Try to visualize alternating current at work: electrons streaming across atoms, building speed to a climax, then slowing, and switching direction. The cycle repeats endlessly 50 to 60 times every second.

Tesla used AC to power induction motors - essentially the same variety which run most household appliances, such as vacuum cleaners and blenders. AC flows through copper coils wrapped around a cylindrical iron stator. This generates a magnetic field which induces a rotor inside to turn, running machines used by billions worldwide every day.

9. Binary code
The level of profound genius required to convert a machine's simple on or off states into a Lingua Franca capable of conveying everything from the entire works of Shakespeare to the launch control codes for artificial satellites is mind-boggling. Particularly when one realizes its inventor, the rather eccentric hypergenius Gottfried Leibniz, first devised the system over 300 years ago, in 1679 - based, no less, upon ancient Chinese mysticism. Beyond cool.

10. The internal combustion engine
This magic box harnesses the power of explosions to move cars, trucks and motorcycles. I remember first learning its inner workings in elementary school, daydreaming my way through the process - imagining spark plugs igniting oxygenated gasoline, and the explosions forcing pistons through cylinders hundreds of times every minute, rotating a crankshaft whose motion is ultimately transmitted via gears and axles to the wheels, propelling the vehicle forward. All hail the late, great Nikolaus August Otto.

No comments:

Post a Comment