Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Article excerpt


WHEN ASKED how he had accomplished so much in the sciences, Sir Isaac Newton replied, "If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." [1]

Newton recognized that science operates as a social function, a time-binding endeavor, the latest achievements of which stand on a foundation built by past generations. Without this quintessential human trait of recording "knowledge" for others to use later, Newton could never have studied Copernicus, Kepler, Bruno, Galileo, and Descartes - whose works helped mold Newtonian physics. Without it, we would have no time-binded model of Newtonian physics [right arrow] no theory of relativity (Einstein) [right arrow] no De Sitter cosmology, Schrodinger/Heisenberg quantum mechanics, general semantics (Korzyb ski), neurolinguistics, transactional psychology, etc. (2)

Recognizing the singular importance of passing knowledge from one generation to another (time-binding), we trust that those who document the discoveries of science do not abuse their positions, do not attempt to distort our shared history. (3) In this essay, the present author shall attempt to amusenalyze (amusingly analyze) just such an abuse of the time-binding "ethic" from within one of America's s most prestigious institutions, the Smithsonian.

In short, the Smithsonian [Institution.sup.1995-1999] (SI) seems to present the public with an extremely biased version of electrical engineering history. (4) As we shall soon see, certain individuals within the SI have used rather loathsome linguistic legerdemains in their attempt to erase the great Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla from the history books. Students of general semantics, I think, will find an examination of this semantic sabotage quite entertaining.

The curator and others staff members within the SI credit Thomas Alva Edison for our worldwide system of electricity and Marchese Guglielmo Marconi for the invention of radio.

In contradistinction to these assertions, we find the publicly available decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Patent Office, both of which recognize Tesla - not Marconi or Edison - for innovations in radio and AC electrical development. (How many readers assumed, up until this point, that Marconi did in fact invent radio and that Edison did spark an "electrical revolution" around the turn of the 20th century?)

Tesla holds over forty U.S. patents (c. 1888) covering our worldwide system of polyphase alternating current (AC). We cannot accurately describe Edison's system of direct current (DC) as "revolutionary" because it used already existent technology in its development. [5] (Read: Edison copied the work of other scientists, namely Zenobe T. Gramme and Friedrich von HefnerAlteneck, who had created a successful DC generator in 1872.)

As to the credit Guglielmo Marconi receives from the SI, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Marconi's basic patent in favor of Tesla for the invention of radio. [6] The court ruled unequivocally that Tesla's four-tuned circuits (two circuits on the transmitting side and two on the receiving side) predated Marconi's patents on radio. [7] (Read: Marconi's two-tuned circuit system represented nothing more than the work earlier advanced by Heinrich Hertz and offered no more advantage than the system Mahlon Loomis proposed back in the 1870s.)

Perhaps the mainstream's myopia in this matter results from the sheer prestige associated with the SI. Perhaps the dizzying eminence attached to a title such as "Curator of the Smithsonian" can induce some form of neurolinguistic narcosis, leaving the hapless reader believing that such a title bestows infallibility upon a person so tagged.

Whatever the cause, assigning sole credit to Edison for our worldwide system of electricity and Marconi for inventing radio represents one of the most audacious assaults on the scientific annals in contemporary history. Either that, or those involved compose one of the most unprofessional, irresponsible, and incompetent congregation of dolts in all of modern academia. [8]

(When I see such grievous errors in education take place, I tend to think that a blend of both the deliberate and the delinquent runs amuck behind the scenery. As we proceed, I invite the reader to decide upon this matter for themselves.)

I now refer to a piece published by (and available through) the SI entitled "The Beginning of the Electrical Age," penned by Dr. Bernard S. Finn, curator of the Smithsonian. In this publication, Dr. Finn names forty-three individuals who, in his estimation, have made significant contributions to the science of electricity. While speaking of Edison quite often (with pictures to boot), he makes no reference whatsoever to Tesla. At first, this seems harmless enough. But nearing the end of the text we discover a picture of Tesla's AC generators at the Niagara Falls power station. Still no mention of Tesla, but somehow a curious connection between the Niagara Falls station and Edison's enterprise finds its way into the conclusion:

"When the Niagara Falls power station began operating in 1895, it signaled the final major act in the revolutionary drama that began in Menlo Park in the fall of 1879."

Aristotle might have pointed out the existence of an inherent "inference" within this sentence. The late novelist William Burroughs - who studied general semantics with Korzybski - might have called it a "virus."

Before continuing, let's re-read the conclusion from "The Beginning of the Electrical Age," that When the Niagara Falls power station began operating in 1895, it signaled the final major act in the revolutionary drama that began in Menlo Park in the fall of 1879. Now, try to "map out" the major inference (or "virus") contained therein. We'll call upon this information later.

I now direct the internet-savvy to point their web browser to the SI National Museum of American History's "Hall of Electricity." (9) Pay close attention to the following, taken directly from the Smithsonian's web page:

"[PICTURED] An Edison electric motor of about 1890. In 1895 a large remote generating station began producing electricity at Niagara Falls. Less than two decades after Edison's invention, electricity thus was accepted as a principle means of power transmission. A revolution had taken place. Cheap electric power made new industrial processes possible, such as the economical production of aluminum. Eventually this power reached the city and the home, where its influence is made clear in a case filled with early 20th-century appliances such as fans, coffeepots, and vacuum cleaners."

First they show us a picture of an "Edison electric motor" c.1890 -- which, by the way, Edison didn't invent. Then they fail to mention that Tesla had already revolutionized electrical history with the first successful alternating-current induction motor two years before. Once we know these facts, it would seem that the picture of the "Edison motor" serves only to paint a background where the focal point of breakthrough electrical development falls squarely on the shoulders of old Tom Ed. Or perhaps the author(s) of this piece had no idea that the construction and operation of the Niagara Falls power generating station required the licensing of Tesla's patents?

We should note how, by mentioning Edison in the next sentence, a subtle -- and false-to-facts -- connection between Edison and the Niagara Falls station becomes solidified in an uninformed reader's mind. Read it again and see for yourself:

"Less than two decades after Edison's invention, electricity thus was accepted as a principle means of power transmission. A revolution had taken place."

After reading this, who does not feel in some way like a child, led by the hand to the conclusion that Edison deserves credit for the "electrical revolution"? And, looking back, who cannot recognize a similar modus operandi in Dr. Finn's conclusion of "The Beginning of the Electrical Age"?

Borrowing from the work of Dr. Irving David Shapiro, we could call these inferences a cause and effect con -- a flawed argument which "involves assuming that just because event A preceded event B, event A must necessarily be the cause of event B." [10]

To describe something similar, Nietzsche used to use the word swindle. [11]

Having seen how easily such inferences (or "cons," or "swindles") can invade our thinking via language, perhaps the reader will now understand why Burroughs picked the "virus" metaphor, or why Ambrose Bierce chose the term "charms." [12] The SI continues, speaking of aluminum production and "20th-century appliances such as fans, coffee pots, and vacuum cleaners." Point of fact: Edison's DC electrical system did not make the production of aluminum practical. AC accouterments did that. And how many battery powered fans, coffeepots, and vacuum cleaners do you own?

To amusenalyze one further "con," consider an argument which ran in a debate between Dr. B. S. Finn and Michigan educator John W. Wagner. In an attempt to defend his pro-Edison/anti-Tesla position, Finn declares:

"Tesla was a loner. He had difficulty working with other engineers -- whether in explaining his ideas to them or in considering their criticisms. The unfortunate aspect of this was that his impact on practical technical development was severely impaired ... we should be careful in what we claim were the consequences of his activities." (13)

Neurosemantic effects on the personality (resulting from habitual usage of "is" constructions) aside, what significance should we place on the statement "Tesla was a loner"? Looking through the history books for similarly described individuals, one finds Copernicus, Galileo, van Gogh, and Goddard among many such examples. Should we follow Finn's finicky logic and rescind the credit they currently receive as well?

Referring back to Dr. Shapiro's work, we quickly identify an ad hominem, or "ignoring the issue and attacking the man personally" con, at root here. (14) We might ask how anyone could know that Tesla's impact "was severely impaired" because of his personality. (15) Should we follow Finn's method and conceal the decision of the group of prominent scientists who comprised the world-class Electrotechnical Conference (Munich) which elevated Tesla's name to stand alongside only fourteen other scientists in history?

Which single scientist do you now think deserves credit for our worldwide system of electricity: Edison or Tesla? (I say "single scientist" because, remember, science operates as a social function -- a time-binded enterprise. With this in mind, we cannot rightfully say that any one person created radio, AC electricity development, etc.) Did your answer change since you read this essay? Why, or why not?

Do you think the Smithsonian [Institution.sup.1995-1999] has lived up to its charter as a fair and just "establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge" in these matters? Can you explain your answer without referring back to information presented in this article? Can you validate blaming an abstraction (i.e., The Smithsonian) and everyone associated with it for the actions of a few individuals?

Do you think the promotion of Edison over Tesla by Finn could have anything to do with the fact that a substantial portion of the SI's private sector funding comes from the Edison Institution? [16] Did that last sentence imply another inference? If so, how?

Do you think the majority of people who fail to recognize Tesla's achievements might do so because of a massive "appeal to revered authority" con? [17]

Did you notice that the author introduced you to "Dr. Bernard S. Finn, curator of the Smithsonian," who then became just "Dr. Finn," and finally ending up as plain-old "Finn"? Do you suppose this bit of monkeyshine could have influenced your judgment in any way? Explain.

The same year Tesla patented his revolutionary AC motor, Nietzsche wrote, "The man of belief is necessarily a dependent man ... He does not belong to himself, but to the author of the idea he believes." [18] Why do you suppose I have included this quote here?

Do you suspect that the present author has uncovered a deplorable deception within the SI, or might you have fallen prey to yet another "inference" (Aristotle), "charm" (Bierce), "con" (Shapiro), "virus" (Burroughs), "swindle" (Nietzsche), etc.?

(*.) Writer, researcher, and Editor-in-Chief of Rhesus Monkey Magazine, Mark A. Raimer's last contribution to these pages, "The War of the Words," appeared in the Spring 1999 issue of ETC. Mark currently works as an information architect for Vision & Voice Studios in the Berkshires.


(1.) R. March, Physics for Poets (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970, p.22).

(2.) For this reason, Voltaire concluded in the 18th century, "Books rule the world, or at least those nations which have a written language; the others do not matter."

(3.) "Man's achievements rest upon the use of symbols. For this reason, we must consider ourselves as a symbolic, semantic class of life, and those who rule the symbols, rule us." -- A. Korzybski, Science and Sanity (Englewood: Institute of General Semantics, 5th ed., 1994, p.76).

(4.) The extensional use of dating here should help emphasize to the reader that, when referring to the Smithsonian Institution, the author intends to address only those individuals who involve(d) themselves at the SI in this capacity at a certain date.

(5.) In Edison's time, DC seemed rather impotent in long-range power transmission, proving impossible to send just one mile from its generating station. We should not forget, however, that Edison's factory at Menlo Park (NJ) did undoubtedly produce many ingenious inventions in its time -- including the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb, and the "moving picture" machine -- with much help from Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey, etc. Ironically, Tesla himself made improvements in DC transmission while he "worked briefly for Thomas Alva Edison, who as the advocate of direct current became Tesla's unsuccessful rival in electric-power development." -- quoted from Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia (Vers. 9.0 (computer software for PowerMac). Grolier Interactive, Inc., 1997).

(6.) 21 June 1943 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, case #369. See also the lower court ruling in Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America v. The United States, 81 Ct. Cls. 671 (1935).

(7.) Secured by U.S. patents #645,576 and #649,621 (c. 1893).

(8.) A brief background on the obscure electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla seems in order. After all, we've heard Edison's name since before our high school days (and now many of us pay our utility bills to a company bearing his name), but few have heard about the man who made electricity generation and transmission practical and inexpensive for us all. After studying physics at Graz Polytechnic and philosophy at the University of Prague, Tesla worked as an electrical engineer in Hungary, France, and Germany. Just four years after emigrating to the U.S. (in 1884), Tesla invented a ground breaking motor using two coils arranged at right angles which, when energized with alternating currents ninety degrees out of phase with one another, resulted in a rotating magnetic field. For this revolutionary AC motor and other important inventions, Tesla received fifteen honorary degrees from universities in Europe and the U.S. (including Columbia and Yale). To date, the international scientific community recognizes him as on e of only two Americans to have a unit of electrical measurement named in his honor -- a distinction which has gone to only fifteen people in history who have made the greatest contributions to electrical science. (Read: Edison is not included.) Odd that most people have never heard of this man Tesla, eh? Many in science have ridiculed him in the past for either: 1. "wasting his time" trying to produce free energy for humanity, or 2. dedicating much effort in an attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial civilizations. As to Tesla's success in either of these last two endeavors, I would do well to quote the intellectual gadfly Charles Fort (1931): "I have heard of the 'fourth dimension', but I am going to do myself some credit for not lugging in that particular way of showing that I don't know what I'm talking about."


(10.) Shapiro, Irving D. "Fallacies of Logic: Argumentation Cons." ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Fall 1996 (vol. 53 no. 3), p.264.

(11.) Nietzsche, who studied linguistics before becoming a professor of philosophy, said, "The greatest progress that human race has made lies in learning how to make correct inferences." (Human, All-Too-Human)

(12.) "Language, n. The music with which we charm the serpents guarding another's treasure." - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (New York: Dover Publications, 1993 ed., p.68).

(13.) Mr. Wagner wrote two articles addressing the Tesla/Edison issue. They appeared in the December 1995 and January 1996 issues of Amateur Radio Today (ART). The quote cited comes from Finn's rebuttal statement in the August 1996 issue. (ART failed to publish Wagner's reply.)

(14.) Shapiro, I. D. "Fallacies of Logic ..." ETC, Fall 1996 (vol. 53 no. 3), pp.253-4.

(15.) "Tesla, Nikola (1856-1943), an electrical engineer, is generally recognized as the inventor of the induction motor ... Tesla made advances in the fields of high voltage and frequency apparatus. He invented the Tesla coil, a system of arc lighting, a generator for high-frequency currents, and a system of wireless (power) transmission." - World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia (Vers. 1.0 (computer software for PowerMac). Worldbook, Inc./IBM Corp., 1998.) Does this go towards proving or disproving the statement that Tesla's "impact on practical technical development was severely impaired" because of his personality?

(16.) Around 20% of the SI's operating funds reportedly comes from private donations and grants, like those awarded to it by the Edison Institute. (Wagner, 1997.)

(17.) In Latin, ad verecundiam. Shapiro, I. D. "Fallacies of Logic ..." ETC, Fall 1996 (vol. 53 no. 3), pp.257-8.

(18.) F. Nietzsche. The Anti-Christ. Aphorism 54. (1888)

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