November 13, 2011

When we discussed M.C. Escher (Reflections, And to think), I mentioned that I would discuss some of my other favorite contemporary and historical figures, including Al Jolson (loved him more than Donny Osmond and Davy Jones, but not more than Elton John, Harry Chapin and Queen), George M. Cohan, George C. Scott (I think something about him reminds me of Grandpa John), a myriad of gymnastics and figure skating champions, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung and probably my all-time favorite hero (there are so many from which to choose!), Nikola Tesla.

A hero can be anyone that gives to the world in any way. Each of us is likely to have our own list of people whom we feel have contributed to society, and our own ideas regarding the magnitude of their contributions. Sometimes contributions are within our own lives. In my eyes, your mother and grandparents are heroes; my parents and sister are heroes. Those who stick by us through all of the wonderful parts of life and don’t leave us when things are rough are heroes to me.

Beyond the obvious for each above-listed hero, there are things about certain public figures that I have admired.

Al Jolson was a dynamo. He was dramatic and gutsy, soulful, and an early egalitarian. I can get goosebumps listening to his “Mammy” (in the video, actor Larry Parks portrays Jolson in The Jolson Story (1946), dubbed by the voice of Jolson himself), which was instrumental in introducing African American music to popular culture. I loved his blackface performances. He would never be able to get away with those performances today, but his use of blackface and presentation of African American music in mainstream theaters brought public attention to one of his core beliefs—equality for black performers.

In September of 1950, Jolson traveled to Korea to entertain American troops who were feeling a long way from home in hostile territory. When he knelt on one knee and began to sing “Mammy” the troops became teary-eyed and hollered for more. He presented 42 shows in 16 days all at his own expense to entertain our troops. He was a patriot.

George M. Cohan was also a patriot. He was the Yankee Doodle Boy” in the early 1900s and dozens of other personas in vaudeville shows, while writing his own music and presenting patriotic extravaganzas on stage with his family.

During the War to End All Wars (WWI), America had been growing increasingly isolationist while Europe suffered. In the spring of 1917 Cohan composed the tune “Over There“, shortly after the United States declared war on Germany. The song was credited as having considerable influence on American citizens to lend approval to the United States’ entry into the war. In recognition of that influence, president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to Cohan for “Over There” and his other patriotic songs and shows. He was the first entertainer to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

The athletic ability of Nadia Comăneci and Olga Korbut amazed me, and I looked forward to the summer Olympics to watch them stun the world in gymnastics competitions.

Figure skating champions Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamil, Katarina Witt, Oksana Baiul, Kristi Yamaguchi, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, and many others have left me slack-jawed and staring at their athletic grace. And I loved Dorothy Hamil’s sassy hair.

I like George C. Scott’s face and gruff demeanor.

The minds of people like Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein and Carl Jung fascinate me and I would love to have run around in their brains for a day or two, just taking it all in.

But Nikola Tesla, the man who greatly influenced our world and daily life, was largely an unsung hero until the latter part of the 20th century. It seems as though many of the people who influence our lives the most have gone to their deaths alone and in obscurity. Tesla was alone in a hotel eating saltines, in spite of having lit up the world during his lifetime. His legacy now is to light the minds of future generations.

Without contributions made to science by Tesla, electrical systems could be costlier, less reliable and lacking convenience and grace of usage of energy from the atmosphere. If not for Tesla, we would perhaps have no remote controls or radios, induction motors or spark plugs.

Had Tesla and Westinghouse been able to convince Thomas Edison to work with them, rather than becoming mortal enemies in the 1880s War of Currents (during which Edison electrocuted dogs on the street to show the public that his choice—and that in which he had invested his money—DC current, was safer), who knows what kind of electrical miracles we could now be enjoying.

A student of Michael Faraday and his Faraday Cage, Tesla presented a much better picture of the safety of his choice, AC current (much better than killing dogs on the street), with the above image. Though Tesla did not intend for the image to used as a response to Edison, its use by The Century Magazine produced essentially the same result. The image was actually a double exposed publicity shot for The Century Magazine. From Tesla’s notes:

To give an idea of the magnitude of the discharge the experimenter is sitting slightly behind the “extra coil”. I did not like this idea but some people find such photographs interesting. Of course, the discharge was not playing when the experimenter was photographed, as might be imagined!

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