The Secret

I have discovered the secret of high blog traffic!

Since I posted about this week's episode of House, M.D., my hits have quadrupled. Apparently, many people want to know about the phrase written on the chalkboard behind House in the classroom where he grilled his 40 or so candidates:

Tesla was Robbed!
The phrase appears alone on the board early in the episode. But later in the episode, House writes the following above it:
SYN
RBC
TACH
PANIC
for synesthesia, red blood count, tachycardia and panic attacks.

These latter are part of House's diagnostic procedure. He's using the chalkboard instead of the old whiteboard in the office. But the Tesla remark, which appears, on a cursory examination, to be written in a different hand (though the style of the R is similar), is incongruous.

Nikola Tesla was born in Croatia in 1856 and emigrated to the United States and became a citizen there. He was a prolific and eccentric inventor. Among his more enduring inventions are fluorescent light bulbs and alternating current. AC is the operating standard for all major electrical distribution the world over, and Tesla's AC generator design is used to generate very nearly all of the electricity on the commercial market. Having revolutionized the world with AC, Tesla next tried to move into wireless transmission of electricity. Tesla constructed large air-core resonant transformers for the purpose, and was extremely successful in getting them to transmit high voltages great distances without wires. Tesla invented long-distance radio communication in 1897 and was awarded US patents on the technology in 1900.

An upstart Italian, named Guglielmo Marconi, was working on achieving a similar feat. He was initially successful only in transmitting electrical signals a short distance. Nothing compared to what Tesla had been able to accomplish at his Colorado Springs laboratory. Marconi applied for patents on radio technology beginning in late 1900, after Tesla had been awarded his patents. Naturally, the US Patent Office denied Marconi's applications.

Tesla is rumored to have once quipped,

Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents.
That Marconi used technology that was covered by patents held by Tesla is a matter of historical record. Whether Marconi actually got the ideas from Tesla, or developed them on his own, is debatable. What is also known, however, is that Marconi's major American investor was a man named Thomas Edison. Edison was also a prolific inventor, and was a proponent of direct current electrical transmission. The electric chair was invented by Edison, using Tesla's alternating current, as part of the two inventors' ongoing and often bitter feud. But so long as Tesla held the patents on the technology Marconi was using in his radio experiments, Marconi could not obtain a patent.

That changed in 1904 when, for reasons unknown to history, the US Patent Office reversed its decision not to award Marconi a patent on the radio. Marconi also eventually won the Nobel Prize for his "invention." Tesla never won one, even though he made a much more lasting contribution to electrical science than any other inventor of his time. Tesla eventually went broke and died in massive debt.

This is, I believe, what "Tesla was Robbed!" refers to. Not only the loss, during his life, of his radio patent, but the loss of the Nobel Prize to Marconi.

But Tesla wins in the end. In the same year as his death in 1943, the United States Supreme Court finally upheld Tesla's prior patent on radio technology. To this day, as a matter of US law, Tesla, not Marconi, is the inventor of the radio. Tesla has even triumphed over Edison. Edison's most celebrated inventions (phonograph, movie projector, light bulb) have largely been replaced by technologies that rely more heavily on Tesla's contributions (CDs, digital video projectors, fluorescent bulbs). Today, Tesla's inventions touch and improve every corner of modern Western Civilization.

Tom G Varik