Dr. W. Bernard Carlson is a Professor of Science, Technology, and Society and the Chair of the Engineering and Society Department at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Though he began his undergraduate years with a focus on history at the College of the Holy Cross, a physics course early on shifted the original trajectory of his career plan. After this introduction to physics, he became increasingly interested in science–eventually taking more physics courses than history ones. But throughout his college career, these dual interests continued to grow and ultimately culminated in the completion of an M.A. and a Ph.D. in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania. Soon thereafter, he joined the faculty at the University of Virginia in 1986. Since then, Professor Carlson has produced several publications including Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of General Electric, 1870-1900, Technology in World History, and most recently, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age. This latest work has garnered significant attention as a fascinating look into the life of the great inventor, Tesla. Carlson tells the story of how Tesla’s greatest traits–his showmanship and impressive presentations–also played a role in his ultimate downfall.


On Thursday, January 30th, members of the Transduction team attended Professor Carlson’s presentation on Tesla, held in the Rodman Room at the UVA School of Engineering. Professor Carlson began his lecture with a brief introduction, explaining Tesla’s legacy in the context of Transduction. Elaborating on “Two Kinds of Transduction,” he defined material transduction as “a process by which materials, devices, and organisms, humans included, convert of one kind of energy or signal into another” and cultural/social transduction as one by which “ideas (signals) move from one group to another, but in moving, they may be altered in interesting ways.” He brought the two together with Tesla, whose experiments in electrical energy were, by definition, material transduction, and whose method of funding his ideas was facilitated through social transduction, through the relational connections that enabled him to do the work that he did.

Transduction Devices
Professor Carlson described major contributions of Tesla’s work–through the demonstration of an AC motor and the Tesla coil shown below–while painting a picture of the life of a man whose showmanship brought him to his highest point, only to lead to his demise. Tesla’s most admirable traits were in other instances, his greatest weakness, at different stages of his life. 

Tesla Coil Carlson AC Motor
When speaking of Tesla’s relationship with J.P. Morgan, who invested $150,000 in the Tesla Tower project and was disappointed to find less-than-successful results, Professor Carlson touched on the importance of human networks in the field of inventions. As much as inventions are about scientific or technological genius and dedicated effort, interpersonal relationships that foster growth and support inventors to realization of their goals are just as important. Tesla was a man who understood the importance of marketing himself and his products before their full realization.  But tragically he wasn’t always successful, particularly later in life, in bringing these projects–and the relationships–to complete fruition.

Wireless Power

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In his presentation, Professor Carlson described qualities that made Tesla unique, that inspired the audience to consider a similar analysis of themselves or others.  Personal, practical application of social transduction could be helpful in analyzing relationships to produce the most effective presentations and interactions with the public. This was very important for Tesla, who, like many independent inventors, always needed a steady stream of funding to support his projects. This required a level of showmanship to attract the interest of investors. Recognizing the practical power of social transduction and performing this kind of analysis on one’s own network of personal relationships could help to identify particular strengths or weaknesses in terms of human connection, and in turn, emphasize the enabling power of relationships in day-to-day endeavors. Likewise, if applied to inventors, scientists, or academics, to identify the habits, characteristics, and individual qualities held in common by many of the great thinkers of our society, could result in a comprehensive list of qualities and characteristics that led them to success. And in turn, independent researchers could apply this analysis of social transduction to their own research methods to improve presentation methods, resulting in overall improved researchers and thinkers. By analyzing a person’s strongest character traits, fostering them, and adapting to mitigate the negative effects of poor usage–or avoid losing the untapped potential–could help to avoid the fate that Tesla suffered at the end of his life. A thorough analysis of social transduction strengths is widely applicable and could prove useful to anyone.

Tesla’s effectiveness as a great presenter of ideas is a trait widely applicable, to a great variety of fields–even one seemingly so distant from technological inventions as literary publication. But taking away the subject matter and examining the framework of the relationships that make both inventions and books come to their respective modes of fruition, similarities quickly become clear. Both kinds of “creators”–the inventor in one case, and the writer in the other–require funding on faith. Both must present a possibility to potential investors who must be convinced of the viability of their vision, successfully carry out the promises made in the initial presentation, all based on their ability to present their ideas in a way appealing enough to attract the right kind of investors. These interdisciplinary connections hold exciting implications for possible research into “creative personalities” and the measured success of their culminating work. This could include not only authors and inventors but also artists, designers, advertising executives, and more–seeking to describe the relationship between personality traits of “successful creatives,” which could, in turn, lead to studies about the role of key relationships in the lives of these individuals.

Mapping Connections:  Preliminary Sketches

Tesla Analysis Words

Tesla Analysis Diagram1

Report by Madison Jaehee Lee and Nicholas Lee.