How to Invent Like Nikola Tesla

 Tesla“I do not rush into constructive work. When I get an idea, I start right away to build it up in my mind. I change the structure, I make improvements, I experiment, I run the device in my mind.” – Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla had a theoretical approach to inventing. His theoretical approach to inventing was different from Thomas Edison’s experimental approach to inventing. Tesla would work the invention over in this mind and try to discern the fundamental principle on which the invention would be based. In my first post on Tesla, I discussed lessons for licensing inventions based on how Tesla’s AC power system was licensed to Westinghouse. In this second post, I’ll look at the process that Tesla undertook when inventing.

Nikola Tesla is an inventor best known for his contribution to the design of alternating current (AC). His AC power systems provided the foundation for the AC power systems we have today. Tesla invented (1) a new AC motor that used a rotating magnetic field, (2) a multiphase AC system used in generating and transmitting electric power, which was used in a hydroelectric project at Niagara Falls, (3) a high frequency high-voltage transformer (now known as a Tesla Coil), (4) new electric lamps, and (5) a combination steam engine and electronic generator, among other inventions. Bernard Carlson’s biography,  Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, provides a detailed look at Tesla’s life and work. Here’s how Tesla took to inventing.

Theoretical Approach to Invention

Tesla explained his theoretical approach to invention as contrasted with Edison’s experimental approach:

I have unconsciously evolved what I consider a new method of materializing inventive concepts and ideas, which is exactly opposite to the purely experimental of which undoubtedly Edison is the greatest and most successful exponent. The moment you construct a device to carry into practice a crude idea you will find yourself inevitably engrossed with the details and defects of the apparatus. As you go on improving and reconstructing, your force of concentration diminishes and you lose sight of the great underlying principle. You obtain results, but at the sacrifice of quality.

My method is different. I do not rush into constructive work. When I get an idea, I start right away to build it up in my mind. I change the structure, I make improvements, I experiment, I run the device in my mind. It is absolutely the same to me whether I operate my turbine in thought or test it actually in my shop. It makes no difference, the results are the same. In this way, you see, I can rapidly develop and perfect an invention, without touching anything. When I have gone so far that I have put into the device every possible improvement I can think of, that I can see no fault anywhere, I then construct this final product of my brain. Every time my device works as I conceive it should and my experiment comes out exactly as I plan it.

It is doubtful that the final product always worked exactly as he planned it. But, the excerpt shows that he thought that moving to experimental prototypes too soon forced the inventor to get too deep in the details of the invention. When deep in the details of prototyping the inventor might loose sight of the fundamental principle at issue. In loosing sight of the principle at issue the inventor might miss the ideal version of the invention.

Invention Incubation and Refinement

The final conceived invention did not come to him all at once. Instead a long incubation period may occur. In this period the invention or idea is set aside from deliberate effort and the invention and its components are allowed to incubate in the mind. The subconscious mind is allowed to work on the problem. Tesla discussed his incubation and refining stage of the inventive process:

After experiencing a desire to invent a particular thing, I may go on for months or years with the idea in the back of my head. Whenever I feel like it, I roam around in my imagination and think about the problem without any deliberate concentration. This is a period of incubation. Then follows the period of direct effort.

I choose carefully the possible solutions of the problem I am considering, and gradually center my mind on a narrowed field of investigation. Now, when I deliberately think of the problem in its specific features, I may begin to feel that I am going to get the solution. And the wonderful thing is that if I do feel this way, then I know I have really solved the problem and shall get what I am after.

After incubation, Tesla would analyze the possible options and choose a direction. As Carlson stated, “In spite of the vast popular literature celebrating Eureka moments, Tesla found that an insight, intuition, or hunches had to be refined in the mind through rigorous thought and analysis.”

Expansive Imagination

But to come up with the ideas in the first place, Tesla needed to tap an expansive imagination. Carlson states:

“Tesla’s great strength was that he was willing to think like a maverick. With his [AC] motor, for instance, while most other investigators worried about changing the direction of the magnetic poles in the rotor, Tesla instead figured out how to create a rotating magnetic field in the stator… If everyone knocks on the front door, Tesla is suggesting, then one way forward is to go around the house and see if there is a back door. To find that back door, though, one needs to cultivate an expansive imagination…If we don’t take chances in our imagination, how can we even begin to find the maverick ideas or ideals?”

How to Invent Like Tesla

To invent like Tesla, you need to cultivate an expansive imagination. Next, gather information relevant to your field and allow information and ideas to incubate in your mind, often without deliberate concentration on the idea or problem. Once you have centered on a solution or invention, work through variations, improvements, and refinements in your mind before moving to the prototyping stage.

Licensing an Invention: Lessons from Nikola Tesla

TeslaNikola Tesla was reduced to taking work as a day laborer digging ditches after previously working as an engineer with the Edison Company and then being forced out of a company he started with two other investors. He was down on his luck, unable to find work as an inventor or engineer.  He was broke and despondent describing this time as “a year of terrible heartaches and bitter tears.” He lamented that all of his high education in science and mechanics was “a mockery.”

But in the midst of this hardship he did not give up on inventing. He continued his work and filed a patent on a hydromagnetic motor. Opportunity would come through an unexpected place–through a network connection prompted by the mere discussion of his hydromagnetic motor invention on the ditch digging job. This story shows the need for carrying on in the face of adversity.

Nikola Tesla is an inventor best known for his contribution to the design of alternating current (AC). His work on the AC motor and AC power allowed for transmission of power for longer distances. His AC systems provide a foundation for the AC power systems used today. His work on AC electricity brought him recognition and wealth in his 30’s, but in his forties his stature fell somewhat by his actions and efforts related to the wireless transmission of power. Bernard Carlson’s biography,  Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, provides a detailed look at Tesla’s life and work.

The success in licensing rights in Tesla’s AC motor and AC power system patents to the Westinghouse Electric Company provides potential lessons for licensing an invention and taking it to market.

 1. Use your Network to Find A Partner

While Tesla was working day labor digging ditches, as explained above, Tesla told the foreman about his invention efforts on the hydromagnetic motor. The foreman then introduced Tesla to Alfred Brown, who was the senior Western Union Manager. Brown knew he needed the business help of Charles Peck, who he knew previously. Brown was technically oriented and Charles Peck was business savvy.

Peck and Brown agreed to cover Tesla’s development and patenting costs. They also provided him with a salary of $250 per month. The three agreed to split the profits in thirds with a third to Peck and Brown, a third to Tesla, and a third reinvested in future developments. Before focusing on AC motors, Peck and Brown first encouraged Tesla to work on a pryomagnetic generator.

Not every inventor needs a financial/business partner but sometimes its helpful. You never know who in your extended network can help. Its not clear that Tesla was asking for help from the foreman. It appears that he was merely talking about his invention. Tesla was able to talk freely about his thermomagnetic motor invention because he had already filed a patent application on it. Sometimes you might want to keep your invention confidential even after filing a patent application for business or competitive reasons (not patent reasons). But in other cases, talking about the invention after filing a patent application in conversations with others can produce unexpected positive connections and results.

2. Know When To Pivot

Tesla’s efforts at making a pyromagnetic generator ran into problems. As Carlson recounts, Tesla was “[d]istressed that he was an able to perfect this invention, [and] Tesla feared that Peck and Brown might abandon him….” But they did not. Peck had confidence in Tesla. Peck encouraged Tesla to focus his work on an electric motor.

Peck likely encourage Tesla to work on electric motors, because he was aware of the market at the time. Carlson writes, “Peck and Brown were probably comfortable with Tesla investigating motors because of the growing discussion in electrical circles about using motors in central stations.” It can be difficult to know where to pivot to. But it is important to be aware of the market developments, which can indicate where to turn next.

3. Have Something to Show

Tesla had to convince Peck and Brown that he should work on AC motors rather than DC motors. Nearly all of the central stations in the U.S. in the mid-1880’s were running DC not AC. The DC generators and the copper distribution network required Edison to sell DC systems in densely populated areas. Westinghouse therefore saw an opportunity to design AC systems that could serve dispersed populations profitably.

In order to convince Peck and Brown that AC was the way to go, Tesla devised a demonstration. The demonstration had a similar purpose as Christopher Columbus’s alleged demonstration to Queen Isabella where Columbus allegedly stood an egg on its end in order to convince the Queen to finance Columbus’ ships.

To demonstrate the power of AC rotating magnetic current, Tesla attached a four-coil magnet to the underside of a table. He placed a copper plated egg and several balls on top of the table. Tesla applied two out-of-phase currents to the magnet, which caused the egg to stand on end and caused the egg and the balls to rotate on the table top. Tesla explained that the spinning was caused by the rotating magnetic current. Peck and Brown were then impressed and supported Tesla’s work on AC motors.

Tesla learned from this that to sell others on his invention he had to provide a demonstration or a show. I think this is likely true for many inventions. It harder to sell an invention without a prototype or a demonstration that allows others to see how it will work. Oral and written descriptions often do not have the persuasive power of a prototype or demonstration that others can see and touch. In Tesla’s case the demonstration was not even a motor. Instead the rotating egg showed the power of AC. Since a motor’s function is to rotate an output shaft the rotation of a metal egg was a sufficient proxy to achieve the desired interest from Brown and Peck.

4. Have a Story to Tell

Every successful inventor must tell a story that sells the invention to financial backers, other companies, decision makers, and/or the ultimate consumer. As Carlson stated, “no idea, no invention goes anywhere unless one is willing to tell a story about it, a story that another person finds interesting and persuasive.”

Not only did Tesla have something to show, he had a story that accompanied the demonstration. His story tied his invention to a famous figure, Columbus, who achieved what others thought was not possible–sailing west without falling off the flat earth–and in doing so, made a remarkable discovery, America. The implicit link that Tesla made was that if Peck and Brown got on board with AC, they would be associated with an endeavor that would change the world.

5. File Patent Application(s)

After Tesla developed a prototype model polyphase AC motor in his lab, he proceeded to file a patent application. And instead of filing multiple applications on individual motor designs, he and his patent attorney Parker Page filed one comprehensive patent application that included not only a new AC motor, but also a new system of electrical power transmission. According to Carlson, this was a bold and unusual move at the time. However, now it is quite common to file a patent application covering an overall system.

As Tesla did, the safest position is to file a patent application before going public with the invention. In the U.S. (but not most foreign countries) there is a one year grace period, but its best not to rely on it if you don’t need to.

6. Build Your Reputation, Obtain Social Proof

Brown and Peck decided on a strategy of patent-promote-license regarding Tesla’s inventions. They decided that in order to successfully promote Tesla’s inventions, Tesla needed to gain recognition in the field. Tesla had not previously joined any trade organizations or been involved in the electrical engineering community. First, they obtained the endorsement of a known exper in the field, Professor William Anthony. Tesla demonstrated his AC motor to Anthony and Anthony was impressed. Anthony then spread the news about Tesla’s motors to his fellow engineers and discussed the motors in a lecture he gave at MIT.  Therefore, the endorsement of Anthony provided the initial social proof within the relevant community. Then, Peak and Brown contacted the technical press and Tesla’s inventions received favorable coverage there. Then Tesla was invited to give a lecture on his motor and system of electrical power transmission at a meeting of the American Institute Electrical Engineers. This set the stage for the licensing of the patents to Westinghouse.

Not every invention requires a strong technical reputation in order to gain recognition with the intended audience. However, you need to have an understanding of what your audience expects in order to gain their attention and have them take you seriously. Tesla gained the social proof within the required group in order for his invention to be taken seriously. You need to figure out what social proof and reputation is necessary or helpful in promoting your invention. And as Telsa’s experience shows, you don’t have to have a preexisting strong reputation, you can build one when you need it.

7. Make the Sale

Ultimately Peck worked out a license of the patents to the Westinghouse Company for what amounted to $200,000 over ten years. More work had to be done in the development of Tesla’s AC power systems at Westinghouse, but licensing was a step along the path that ultimately put Telsa’s power systems in commercial use.

Peck died later and Tesla was unable to find someone like Peck who could guide his inventive efforts and help sell his later inventions. Therefore, Tesla is often known for his later inability to successfully commercialize his inventions after the AC motor/power invention. Yet, as shown above, Tesla benefited from the partnership with Peck and Brown. They were able to successfully guide the licensing of this inventions related to AC power. Of course, not all inventors require a business partner. But inventors and entrepreneurs sometimes forge relationships that foster a balance between creativity/imagination and business.

Invention and How to Predict the Future

Larry_Page_Charlie_Rose1The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.

Trying to determine whether your product or service will be a success is the business of predicting the future. Predicting can be hard. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that often you will want to determine whether there is a market for the invention before spending money on the patent process, but patent law encourages you to file a patent application before you make your invention public. Below are ideas on predicting the future.

Larry Page, founder of Google, said in a conversation with Charlie Rose:

Invention is not enough. Tesla invented the electric power we use, but he struggled to get it out to people. You have to combine both things: invention and innovation focus, plus the company that can commercialize things and get them to people. . . .

Lots of companies don’t succeed over time. What do they fundamentally do wrong? They usually miss the future. I try to focus on that: What is the future really going to be? And how do we create it? And how do we power our organization to really focus on that and really drive it at a high rate? When I was working on Android, I felt guilty. It wasn’t what we were working on, it was a start-up, and I felt guilty. That was stupid! It was the future.

Chris Anderson, entrepreneur and former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, says he doesn’t try to predict the future, but he actually does by observation. Anderson said:

I actually never, never make the mistake of trying to predict the future, ’cause I suck at it. And I fall back — and you’ll forgive my little semantic parlor trick here — but I fall back on William Gibson’s famous quote that ‘the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.’ To predict the future, you just have to keep your eyes open, and there it is.

Anderson’s strategy of predicting the future by observation is the concept discussed by entrepreneur and investor, Chris Dixon. Dixon said:

…Business people vote with their dollars, and are mostly trying to create near-term financial returns. Engineers vote with their time, and are mostly trying to invent interesting new things. Hobbies are what the smartest people spend their time on when they aren’t constrained by near-term financial goals.

It’s a good bet these present-day hobbies will seed future industries. What the smartest people do on the weekends is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years.

(empahsis added).

Makers are a type of hobbyist. What does it mean to be a maker? Seth Godin spoke at the World Maker Faire and said this:

[7:58] What real makers understand is this: If it might not work, then you are doing some making. If you are doing something that might not work…then you are doing something important because it is risky.  It’s risky because when you finish, you need to turn to someone and say here, here it is. I made this. And the other person can say I don’t like it … it doesn’t work right … i don’t want it. That is hard.

…[A]ll hacking is, all innovation is, all creating is, all science is: is doing things over and over and over and failing and failing and failing until it works. So if you are not willing to fail, then you cannot possibly innovate.

…if you are a maker, what have you made recently that was a complete and epic failure?

(emphasis added).

Turning back to predicting the future, a post from about a PBS video from Joe Hanson provides highlights of a discussion on why some science fiction writers are good at predicting the future.  The video provides:

One right prediction in any one body of work would be lucky, but this many right answers can’t be luck — clearly, something sets these people apart. Many of the greatest sci-fi writers also had serious scientific training: Isaac Asimov had a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and Arthur C. Clarke had degrees in math and physicns; H.G. Wells had a degree in biology…

At its core, good science fiction must rest on good science…

(emphasis added).

So, it is important to focus on the future. The future is already here, you only need to look for it. One place to look for it is in cutting edge science. Another way to look for it is to watch what makers, hackers, and hobbyists are doing with their free time.

Photo credit to flickr user Steve Jurvetson under this creative commons license.

Ideas on Successful Software Design, Creativity, and Startups: Hackers & Painters


The way to create something beautiful is often to make subtle tweaks to something that already exists, or to combine existing ideas in a slightly new way.

Paul Graham is an entrepreneur, programer, and venture capitalist. He co-founded Viaweb, which was purchased by Yahoo! and became Yahoo! Store. Later he co-founded Y Combinator, a seed capital firm. In 2004, Paul authored the book Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age which comprises a series of essays on various topics including “Why Nerds are Unpopular,” “The Other Road Ahead: Web-based software offers the biggest opportunity since the arrival of the microcomputer,” “How to make wealth,” and “Design and Research” among many others. Each of these essays are available at Paul’s website. The book provides many great ideas on design, creativity, and startups.

The Test of Time: Predicting Successful Design in Advance is Hard
In chapter 2, Paul discusses similarities between hacking and painting. As others have noted, successful innovation is often at the edge of the current technology. Paul discusses beauty in the context of design and the difficulty in measuring success:

The way to create something beautiful is often to make subtle tweaks to something that already exists, or to combine existing ideas in a slightly new way. This kind of work is hard to convey in a research paper

And there no correlation, except possibly a negative one, between people ability to recognize good design and their confidence that they can. The only external test is time. Over time, beautiful things tend to thrive, and ugly things tend to get discarded.

Paul notes cross disciplinary exposure is important to creativity:

I’ve found the best sources of ideas are not the other fields that have the word “computer” in their names, but the other fields inhabited by makers. Painting has been a much richer source of ideas than the theory of computation.

Try to Provoke a Design war in New Markets involving Tough Problems
Paul provides advice for winning against big companies when you’re a startup:

Only a small percentage of hackers can actually design software, and its hard for the people running [a big] company to pick these out. So instead of entrusting the future of the software to one brilliant hacker, most companies set things up so that it is designed by committee, and the hackers merely implement the design. If you want to make money at some point, remember this, because this is one of the reasons startups win. …. So if you can figure out a way to get in a design war with a company big enough that its software is designed by product managers, they’ll never be able to keep up with you.

But Paul says you it’s hard to get an established company into a design war. So, the best place to do so is in new markets. And “If you want to make money, you tend to be forced to work on problems that are too nasty for anyone to solve for free.”

Find Stars By Looking At Free Time Activities
How to do you find those hackers that can actually design software? Look at what they do in their free time.

When we interviewed programmers, the main thing we cared about was the kind of software they wrote in their spare time. You can’t do anything really well unless you love it, and if you love to hack you’ll inevitably be working on projects on your own.

In chapter 15, Paul talks about software design in the context of designing software programming languages. However many of the principles discussed apply to the design of any software and to design in general.

The Designer Should be an Intended User
Paul asserts that you must start by focusing on the user. But that does not mean doing exactly what the user says. Paul states, “I don’t think there is any field in which the best work is done by the people who just make exactly what the customers tell them to.” Yet, he provides that the designer should be one of the intended users:

You’re most likely to get good design if the intended users include the designer himself. When you design something for a group that doesn’t include you, it tends to be for people you consider less sophisticated than you, not more sophisticated. And looking down on the user, however benevolently, always seems to corrupt the designer. … If you think you’re designing something for idiots, odds are you’re not designing something good, even for idiots.

Paul analogizes to creation in other fields, noting that the design in software is for human use just as it is in other fields:

All arts have to pander to the interest and limitations of humans. In painting for example, all other things being equal a painting with people in it will be more interesting than one without. It is not merely an accident of history that the great painting of the Renaissance are all full of people.”

Paul notes that morale is important in design, “If you’re board when you’re drawing something, the drawing will look boring.” In art as in software design starting with a prototype that can be refined into the final product is helpful for morale. If you build software that can be working and testable in an hour, the prospect of that immediate reward is motivating. Similarly painters often “start with a blurry sketch and gradually refine it.” From morale Paul circles back to the problem with designing for the unsophisticated user, providing:

It’s hard to stay interested in something you don’t like yourself. To make something good, you have to be thinking, “wow, this is really great,” not “what a piece of shit; those fools will love it.”

Hackers & Painters is a great read with much more than can be touched on here. If you are a hacker, a startup, a maker/designer, or if you run a software company, you should read Hackers & Painters or you can read the essays on the web.

Two Ideas for Economic Development: Lifestyle and Exits

Almost every locale is interested in economic development. Intellectual property often results from economic development through new new inventions and creative works. Below are two ideas for economic development from venture capitalists.

Fed Wilson recently explained what the civil leaders looking to revitalize and attract new business need to do. Instead of focusing on tax incentives, connecting with local research universities, and providing startup capital, Fred says you need to first build a community that people, especially young people, want to live in:

I’ve been asked by civic leaders from places like Newark, Cleveland, Buffalo, and a number of other upstate NY cities that have suffered a similar fate how they can do the same thing. They all talk about tax incentives, connecting with local research universities, and providing startup capital. And I tell them that they are focusing on the wrong thing.

You have to lead with lifestyle. If you can’t make your city a place where the young mobile talent leaving college or grad school wants to go to start their career, meet someone, and build a life, all that other stuff doesn’t matter.

Read the rest of Fred’s post here.

Mark Cuban says that there’s “plenty of sources of capital everywhere.” But what Silicon Valley does best is create company exits:

Silicon Valley as a source of capital is no better or worse than any other big city. There are plenty of sources of capital everywhere. Yes, they may be better at writing 40mm dollar checks to startups (Color anyone ? ). But start up capital is not their secret sauce.

What Silicon Valley does better than anyone is create exits. They know how to get people who they have made money for to turn over a lot of that money to buy the companies they have invested in. They know how to put on a show to get a company to an IPO. They know how to go out and get hundreds of millions of dollars to bridge companies with 10s of millions in revenues to their IPO and more importantly to make sure the IPO happens.

So if you want your new tech corridor to play in the big leagues with Silicon Valley and its VCs , don’t stress about capital for entrepreneurs to create companies. Stress about capital that will buy provide exits for companies or that can get them to a liquidity creating IPO.

Read the rest of Mark’s post here.

Not everyone thinks exiting is a good thing, but knowing the option exists creates an incentive in the locale.