Economy needs spark of invention

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Economy needs spark of invention

Thomas Edison (1847-1931) and Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) are early inventors of the Electrical Age. Edison is famous for inventing the incandescent lightbulb. But strictly speaking, he did not invent the lightbulb but improved it. Since Alessandro Volta discovered electricity, countless inventors created glass tubes that lit up. However, none succeeded in creating a lightbulb that lit up for practical use. He used carbon filament to produce affordable and durable bulbs.

His greater accomplishment would be the development of the electric utility system. On Sept. 4, 1882, 59 houses in lower Manhattan could turn on incandescent lightbulbs all at once, a 110-volt direct current was provided for the first time from his Pearl Street generating station. It was a landmark event that opened the electrical age that freed mankind from the restrictions of darkness. Not just the lightbulbs from his company but also the power generator and distribution network were used. The electric system encompassing production and consumption emerged. Electricity distribution expanded rapidly and became the foundation of 20th century civilization. Thanks to the stable electricity grid, motion pictures and sound recording, also his inventions, have become widely enjoyed pastimes today.

Tesla had long been the “mad scientist” outshone by Edison. The Serbian-born eccentric was an inventor, electrical and mechanical engineer, physicist and futurist. He explored the wireless technology of lighting up lightbulbs and built the first-ever wireless controlled boat. His high-frequency wireless communication experiments gave future scientists inspiration for X-rays or wireless communication.

Tesla also played a key role in the commercialization of electric power. However, Edison’s direct current system had a crucial flaw. The farther the electricity’s delivery, the weaker the power became. The alternating current system, which was distributed in the United Kingdom, emerged as an alternative option. Edison felt threatened and called in Tesla from his company in Paris in 1884 and commissioned him to improve the direct current generator. However, Tesla figured that the alternating current generator was more efficient and developed an improved AC generators and transformers. Edison adhered to direct current and rejected them. Disappointed, Tesla left the company and gave related patents to Westinghouse.

At the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, AC was chosen, and the “War of Currents” ended in AC’s victory. In the aftermath, Edison’s Edison Electric Illuminating Company was merged with General Electric. Of course, Edison and Tesla did not get along. Edison attacked Tesla, saying that the high voltage of alternating current was dangerous, creating fear among the public still unfamiliar with electricity. An inhumane performance of electrocuting an elephant was staged. Tesla struck back with a performance of setting alternating current through his body in a theater. There are no records that the two ever reconciled.

The presence of the two scientists’ is still solid after more than 100 years. General Electric, the successor of Edison Electric Light Company, recently sold its home appliance section to China’s Haier, allowing China to reinvent the 20th century industry of home appliances with its economy of size. Tesla was revived as a name of the high-tech electric car brand by magnate Elon Musk. Tesla announced its entry into Korean market at the end of last year, and soon, Koreans will see Tesla electric vehicles on their streets. The two great minds who fought over the hegemony of scientific technology and new economy have come alive in the United States and China.

Here, I cannot help feeling anxious over the future of Korean economy. The Korean economy is sandwiched between China and Japan, dwarfed by China’s size and falling behind Japan. But what we should really fear are not China and Japan but the internal problems. There are no innovators or pioneers like Edison and Tesla. Instead, management struggles and fights over licenses and rights are intense. The imagination and pioneering spirits of Lee Byung-chul and Chung Ju-yung have been replaced by slackness and self-complacency. When the United States leads Tesla-type industries and China dominates Edison-style businesses, how long can the Korean economy survive?

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 21, Page 28

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Rah Hyun-cheol
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