Realizing the Impossible: Part 3

By Robert Koeneman, President and SVP Technology on August 16, 2016
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The Energy Impossible

In this three-part series about the “impossibles” that move civilization forward, we have covered space exploration moonshots and technology game-changers. For this last post, I would like to bring the discussion a bit closer to home by exploring the world of energy and how two remarkable men, who lived exactly at the same time, changed energy forever through their ingenuity and determination.

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were giants in an era where there were many—Albert Einstein, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Niels Bohr, and Marie Curie were just a few of their contemporaries. The disruptive inventions of these two men (who were also fierce rivals) in the field of energy literally enlightened the world with their discoveries and changed the face of the twentieth century.



1893 Chicago World’s Fair, World Columbian Exposition. It was here where the “War of Currents” rivalry between Edison’s DC and Tesla’s AC ended. The adoption of the AC standard took off after the fair was lighted with it. Photo courtesy of Haygenealogy:

Thomas Edison

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

There are 1,093 U.S. patents under his name. He invented the motion picture camera, the phonograph and, of course, the incandescent long-lasting light bulb. Called “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” Thomas Edison was a relentless inventor that neither took “no” for an answer nor was discouraged by failure. He is the embodiment of how hard work and focus produce breakthroughs that spur innovation and entire new industries.

His quote above is quite literal: it took years of work and sheer persistence to overcome the thousands of unsuccessful iterations he experienced when working on a system of “electrical illumination” (better known as the long-lasting light bulb) to replace dirty kerosene, oil, and gas lighting in cities around the world. The J-Curve of exponential growth is nicely illustrated by the invention of the light bulb and the electric power revolution that followed.

The first light bulb was created in 1800 by English scientist Humphry Davy. It would take almost 80-years and nearly a dozen incremental technology improvements before the light bulb achieved successful commercialization and the industry underwent explosive growth. These early bulbs were unviable for many reasons: short life, cost, and high electric current requirements, which prevented their widespread commercialization. Edison focused his work on solving for two main issues: longer life (the early bulbs lasted no more than 40-hours) and low electric current. Success came on October 22, 1879 when Edison created a long-lasting light bulb (about 1,500-hours) powered by low electricity.

Here is where the exponential growth began. Edison was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass and large-scale teamwork to the process of invention, and because of that, he is often credited with the creation of the first industrial research laboratory. Thus, after his successful light bulb, he immediately went on to develop an electric utility, the Edison Illuminating Company in 1880, that quickly made the existent gas lighting utilities obsolete. He also patented his system of electric distribution. The first electric utility was opened by his company on Pearl Street Station in New York City, which served 52 customers.

It was at this juncture where our other energy giant comes in. Direct current (DC) power proved inefficient when transmitted over large distances. Edison’s DC energy delivery system began to be attacked by the use of alternating current (AC) systems. Within a relatively short period in the early 1880s and 90s, the AC system began to dominate the market to power streets and industry. These efforts were led by Westinghouse Electric in the U.S. when they developed a system to transmit AC over long distances via thin and cheaper wires. The man behind the invention that enabled the competing AC standard was Nikola Tesla.

Nikola Tesla

Einstein’s reply when he was asked how it felt to be the smartest man alive: “I don’t know; you’ll have to ask Nikola Tesla.” 

Regarded by many of his contemporaries as the “Leonardo da Vinci” of the twentieth century, the genius of Nikola Tesla reverberates to this day. He invented the AC power standard, which eventually displaced Edison’s DC standard to power cities and industry with electricity. Tesla also invented the induction motor, fluorescent tubes, bladeless turbines, the precursor to the X-Ray, and “teleautomation” (or what we today call wireless communications). Interestingly, the latter was demonstrated to the public at Madison Square Garden in New York using a radio-controlled boat. This invention so defied common sense at the time that the crowd who witnessed it swore that magic, telepathy, or a trained monkey hidden inside surely controlled the boat.

When Nikola Tesla moved to the U.S. from Europe in 1884, he was hired by Thomas Edison to work at his Edison Machine Works in New York City. In just a few years, his genius was recognized when Edison personally offered him the task of completely redesigning the company’s inefficient direct current generators. This is the genesis of the animosity that eventually affected both men. According to Tesla, Edison promised him $50,000 if he could pull it off, which he did. Within a few months, Tesla redesigned the generators and inquired about the reward. Edison allegedly replied saying that he was only joking, and instead, offered him a $10/week salary increase. Needless to say, Tesla resigned.

Nikola Tesla proceeded to work on the issue of power delivery efficiency, which eventually resulted in his induction motor and Westinghouse’s subsequent licensing of the patent in 1888. This started what was at the time called the “War of Currents,” a fierce market battle for the electrical distribution standard between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse that was sparked by Tesla’s inventions. While Edison held the patents for DC and the light bulb, Westinghouse used Tesla’s patented AC system and modified incandescent lamps to get around both patents held by Edison. To make a long story short: Edison was eventually fired by his board, and Tesla’s AC, licensed by Westinghouse, became the de facto standard for electric power transmission.

However, the Nikola Tesla story did not end there. He was called the Da Vinci of his time for a reason. Tesla held 700 patents, and his work on several inventions provides the basis for many innovations today—nearly a century after his time. His radio waves invention, for example, led him to do research on wireless power transmission. His uncompleted work in this field was picked up in the 1990s by several Silicon Valley companies working on wireless electricity.

In the end, both men were fiercely opposed by the status quo of their time, and their work on subsequent inventions that could have resulted in exponential growth in other fields went unfinished.

We Need Another “Energy Impossible”

Nikola Tesla once said, “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.” He was describing exponential growth by the means of going deeper to understand the science that results in the natural phenomena we see and experience.

I was inspired to create this series of three articles on “Realizing the Impossible” through my everyday work on Hydrogen 2.0 to provide clean and abundant energy anywhere, anytime. We are not the Wright Brothers, nor are we part of NASA’s amazingly talented team (although we are proud to call Kennedy Space Center our home); and we are not giants like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. But we are working to make an energy breakthrough the way Tesla encouraged all scientists to do: by having an open mind and the willingness to go deeper. We also approach our technology development the same way Edison worked: by trying relentlessly and refocusing after each iteration.

Our work at Joi Scientific focuses on what has been called an ‘impossible’ for nearly five decades: harnessing the energy of the universe’s most abundant element to power civilization in a sustainable way without compromise. We often encounter closed minds related to hydrogen technology. Yet, the history of hydrogen energy, like that of the airplane, DNA, and electricity—which we have written about in this series—is full of promise, but also full of failures, false starts, and outrageous claims.

Our work on Hydrogen 2.0 is focused on solving for the barriers that have prevented this amazing and abundant energy source from taking off: availability, safety, and efficiency. We are working on more than one front: the science of hydrogen, the technology to make it safe and take it to market, and the business model to make it viable for industry and people everywhere. If we are successful, our work, and that of many others in our field, could result in exponential growth—a game-changer in energy that could help to solve today’s most pressing issues like climate change or the lack of access for nearly one billion people to electric power. 

Open Minds Own the Future

The future belongs, and always has, to those with open minds and the willingness to work against all odds to realize their vision of a better world. Just think of what the world wide web did to communication and commerce, or the new superpower that emerged when a dogged sailor went to the edge of the world to prove the Earth was round.

The story of the “impossibles” is the story of human struggle. It is the story of those who went against preconceptions. It is a story of sweat, determination, and ingenuity that keeps the human spirit going against all odds. It is a story of those who challenge the establishment, whatever that is, to advance humanity.

Our story is just beginning…


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