Saturday, June 01, 2019 2:40 pm - 3:55 pm
Craig Wright / Yale University
When Thomas Edison died on October 18, 1931, the lights went out. In his honor, President Herbert Hoover asked Americans everywhere to turn off their Edison lightbulbs at 10 p.m. on the evening of his funeral. "Thomas Edison—Genius Inventor—Dies at 84" screamed the front-page headline in the New York Daily News. When Nikola Tesla died in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel on January 7, 1943, the lights went out for him alone. Tesla was surrounded, not by a family, but by his pet pigeons (among his eccentricities were Columbophilia and Triphilia—look at his room number). The obituary in The New York Times did not call Tesla a genius. Instead, its final paragraphs implied he was a crackpot: Tesla had conceived of a "death beam" powerful enough to annihilate an army of 1,000,000 soldiers; and he was certain of intergalactic messaging that would allow communication with Mars. The Times obituary implicitly posed this question: Was Tesla a visionary genius or a lunatic?
Edison and Tesla (Edison's one-time employee) were arch-enemies with competing visions as to how to electrically empower America. Their hostility played out in the infamous War of the Currents, which culminated in the electrocution of Topsy the circus elephant in 1903, orchestrated and filmed by Edison, but intentionally using Tesla's controversial AC current. Radio, television, robots, electric cars, self-driving cars, solar heating, the internet, and the cellphone were on the mind of one or the other of these geniuses. Which one ultimately proved to have the more accurate and enduring vision for the world? Who is in the news today and why? Come and find out the answers.
Craig Wright holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard and has taught at Yale for more than forty-five years, where he continues to offer annually “The Genius Course.” Professor Wright has published six books on music and cultural history, and his “The Hidden Habits of Genius” will appear in 2020. Yale has recognized Wright’s contribution to undergraduate teaching in the form of its two most prestigious prizes, the Sewall Prize and the DeVane Medal. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago and in 2011 was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.