Edison Eats a Puppy, Ruins Gates' Free Lunch

Francis Vale

Did you catch MS Bill on TV last Winter when he duked it out with Java McNealy on Capitol Hill? It almost makes you wax nostalgic about the "purity" of technical innovation around the late 19th and early 20th century. But guess what? Even back then, when the "format" wars were being fought over which type of electricity distribution scheme was best for consumer use -- AC (alternating current) or DC (direct current) -- there were some marketing shenanigans that make today's "Microsoft vs. The World" WCW title bout look relatively tame.

Thomas Edison, the champion of DC (and who also stood to make a ton of money from his new company that was selling DC electricity) would go around the United States, picking up stray dogs, and then frying the hapless creatures to death on an AC electric griddle before jaw agape crowds. This was all done in the name of science, of course, to show the horrors that lay in wait if this dangerous new electricity format was adopted as the national standard.

In the end, though, it was Nikola Tesla (an immigrant Serbian from the now defunct Yugoslavia) the inventor of AC, who won the electrified day. The AC/DC turning point came when Tesla teamed up with George Westinghouse. Together, they engineered and built the first huge AC generator hydrostations up in Niagara Falls, NY, in 1895. In the process, Tesla also signed over all his patent rights for his AC invention to Westinghouse's company (at the demand of the company's merchant bankers, the House of Morgan.) Tesla ended up with financial squat, and was paid a pittance for what otherwise would have been stupendous patent royalties. Incredibly, Edison's corporate progeny, the General Electric company, still hasn't forgiven Tesla for being the winner. Nearly 80 years later, GE was running ads procliaming that it was their company which built the first Niagara power station. But all GE did was build the transmission and distribution lines for Tesla's radical new power system. Talk about a long running format war! Today, Tesla's pioneering work is known to but a few. Which is a shame, because Tesla was one of the true inventor geniuses of his age, or any other age, for that matter. Tesla, for example, was the real inventor of wireless radio, not Marconi.

Meanwhile, Let's-pop-another-puppy-on-the-griddle-Edison is lionized as the greatest inventor of his era. This same kind of reality distortion field seems to be happening around our Mr. Bill, who, according to some reports, is listed in a few school text books as the inventor of the CD-ROM! In fact, CD technology was first introduced to the public in 1982, or just about the same time that our young Bill was "liberating" MS DOS from a tiny company called Seattle Computing. Like Tesla, Seattle Computing also got paid a pittance and received zip in royalties for its operating system software, which went on to become the bedrock of Gates' multi-billion dollar fortune. History does indeed have a tendency to repeat itself. In fact, one has to wonder how closely Gates might have studied Edison, who once said nearly a century ago, "Everybody steals in commerce and industry. I've stolen a lot myself. But I know how to steal. They don't know how to steal..."

Maybe Bill still has a business lesson or two to learn from old Tom. Palm Computing, Inc. is in an uproar about Microsoft's plans to "liberate" its trademark moniker, "Palm." Microsoft has a new version of its Windows CE system coming out expressly for handheld devices, which they planned to call "Palm PC." It also appears that the Palm PC "borrows" a number of features from the wildly successful Palm Pilot. In response, Palm successfully sued Microsoft (in Europe) for trademark violations. Bill said in response that the very idea of his company stealing the Palm name or its features was "beyond bizarre," as his company has "zero market share" in handheld computing. Right. Just like Microsoft had zero market share in web browsers when Netscape first stormed onto the scene.

Hey Bill, here's another innovative idea you can try on for size. For some time now, I have been using these black pyramid cones made out of carbon fiber and other special ingredients under my WinTel PC. Originally intended to prevent nasty vibrations from interfering with sensitive high-end audio components, these little widgets, from Black Diamond Racing (Tel. 414 747 8733, Milwaukee, WI) also appear to work their magic on it-always-wants-to-crash-Windows. Maybe it's all voodoo, but Windows seems to work a lot better with these gizmos under the computer. I gave some of these wondercones to a fellow scribe in the computer press. He thought I was totally nuts. Then he tried them under his new lap top computer which was rapidly developing a distinguished history of crashing often and hard. Guess what? His lap top suddenly reformed its ways, and works without a whimper now -- unless he takes the cones out from under it. Then it just goes crash all over again.

Hmmm. I wonder how they'll work under the BBQ? Hey Bill, how 'bout coming over tonight for some grilled stray puppy? Just bring along some extra Palm PC press releases for kindling.

The Bottom Line

Home Users: And you thought Edison was this great icon symbolizing the best in American invention, and Bill Gates was an inventor genius? Psst. Wanna buy a bridge, cheap?

Business Users: Want to save big bucks on PC maintenance? Buy a truckload of those magic black cones and put some under every computer in your organization. Users will think you are nuts -- until their machines mysteriously stop crashing.

Power Users: Go ahead, keep the Gates faux legend alive. He needs the money.

Copyright 1998, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

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