Thursday, September 9, 2010

Part 1, Nikola Tesla, Thinking in Pictures and Asperger Syndrome

“When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever; the results were the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything. When I have gone so far to embody in the invention every possible improvement I can think of and see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form this final product of my brain. Invariably my device works as I conceived that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In twenty years there has not been a single exception.”

Initially, Nikola Telsa was of special interest for us because of his extraordinarily powerful visual imagination. As he says, his imagination appears to have been so highly developed that he could create complete models of devices in his mind, building them and running them as if they were real (My Inventions, 1919). But it is probably of no small consequence that he seems to have experienced, initially, this powerful ability to visualize things not as a useful talent or wonderful gift but instead as a problem.

An Unusual Affliction

Tesla explains: “In my boyhood I suffered from a peculiar affliction due to the appearance of images, often accompanied by strong flashes of light, which marred the sight of real objects and interfered with my thought and action.” He makes clear that although these images were powerful in their projection, not hallucinations. “They were pictures of things and scenes which I had really seen, never of those I had imagined. When a word was spoken to me the image of the object it designated would present itself vividly to my vision and sometimes I was quite unable to distinguish whether what I saw was tangible or not. This caused me great discomfort and anxiety. . . . These certainly were not hallucinations . . . for in other respects I was normal and composed.”

The son of a Serbian Orthodox priest, Tesla was relatively well educated in literature, science and mathematics and had a strong practical inventive inclination. He was a lonely man with many odd habits and strong compulsions. For example, at each meal he would have to calculate the cubic area of each bite of food before eating it. Similarly, he had to finish reading whatever he started, even when it ran into many volumes, whether or not he had lost interest or had decided that he was getting little return for his effort.

In 1884, he immigrated to America during a time of great excitement over technical innovation with the telephone, electric light and other new inventions. He even worked for Thomas Edison for a while (with extraordinary energy and dedication) when he first arrived in America, but finally had to leave Edison's company to pursue his own highly innovative but incompatible ideas—inventing, eventually, the entire alternating current electric power system used around the world today. (Edison was furious that Tesla’s system proved to be vastly superior to his own direct current system and he did everything he could to discredit the system that Telsa had sold to Westinghouse.)

In order to control his strong visual imagination in his youth, Tesla experimented with various mental exercises and, quite literally, flights of the imagination. In time, it became clear that the “affliction” was the negative side of what turned out to be a special and unusual talent. He continued these exercises “. . . until I was about seventeen when my thoughts turned seriously to invention. Then I observed to my delight that I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind. Thus I have been led unconsciously to evolve what I consider a new method of materializing inventive concepts and ideas, which is radically opposite to the purely experimental and is in my opinion ever so much more expeditious and efficient.”

Tesla explains that if something is constructed before it is fully developed and worked out in the mind, then the experimenter is often distracted by comparatively unimportant details of apparatus construction. In Tesla's words: “The moment one constructs a device to carry into practice a crude idea he finds himself unavoidably engrossed with the details and defects of the apparatus. As he goes on improving and reconstructing, his force of concentration diminishes and he loses sight of the great underlying principle. . . .”

Powers Beyond Belief

Some might question Tesla’s claims. He was known to have a tendency to make extravagant statements, especially to eager young reporters. We know also that Tesla was a great showman when demonstrating his new electrical devices to the public--more like a magician than an engineer or scientist. Yet his tricks were based on scientific and engineering knowledge that was not known by others in his field until decades later. Also, many of the extravagant tales and devices, like laser beams, long distance microwave power transmission and ocean thermal electricity generation, are only comparatively recently coming into serious consideration and use.

For many, Tesla’s claims were hard to believe (although those who did believe in him, in contrast, accorded him almost cult leader-like status). However, we now have reason for taking Tesla at his word. He does provide some justification for why this should be so: “Why should it be otherwise? Engineering, electrical and mechanical, is positive in results. There is scarcely a subject that cannot be mathematically treated and the effects calculated or the results determined beforehand from the available theoretical and practical data. The carrying out into practice of a crude idea as is being generally done is, I hold, nothing but a waste of energy, money and time.”

Models in Mind and Machine

We are now learning that Tesla was, in most respects, to be believed. It is perhaps a sign of our times that what might be seen as a bizarre tale spun by Tesla in a magazine article published in 1919, is now, over 80 years later, exploding into prominence at the center of industry and commerce. Tesla argued that it is a waste of time and money to build a model or prototype of anything until a number if variations have been tested in a powerful visual imagination such as his own. Virtually the same point is being made in recent years by designers, engineers and managers--but this time they are talking about the machine equivalent of Tesla's remarkable and unusual imagination--that is, what is now known as “3D computing.”

With three-dimensional computing, working models of aircraft, automobiles, golf clubs or nuclear power plants can be (and have been) constructed inside a powerful graphic computer and displayed on a screen. These models can be operated and tested and modified much as Tesla was apparently able to do with his imagination alone. Proponents claim many advantages for the widespread use of 3D computing, but two of the most important advantages relate to increased creativity and reductions in the costs of prototype building. For example, in one early study (by KPMG Peat Marwick) of the use of 3D computing in five U.S. and Japanese companies: “The speed and power of 3D Computing has all but eliminated the requirements to produce physical prototypes and models. This allows management and engineers to economically pursue more creative and sometimes high risk design options. NASA/Ames uses [3D] workstations to simulate a wide number of options for a Mach 25 aircraft that would have been cost prohibitive using the traditional wind tunnel practices.”

Tesla noted the speed and ease with which his mental modeling proceeded, free of the distractions of building an actual physical prototype. This is not an unusual observation. Creative designers often lament the time required to build a physical product of what could be built so quickly in their mind. Thus, it may not be surprising that, in practice, another important consequence of 3D computing is a marked decrease in frustration along with a marked increase in productivity: “Users of 3D Computing reported increases in individuals' productivity of 20 percent to 50 percent. This higher productivity was used to expand the scope of individual job functions and to reduce the actual time to complete a project. The ability to ‘handle’ the realistic electronic model led to improved interaction between the designer and the model resulting in a more intimate and accurate understanding of the model. This also resulted in more creativity, less frustration. We consistently observed that users had a positive work attitude and they preferred working in a 3D environment as compared to the manual or 2D environment in which they had previously worked.”

Something Really New

These kinds of reports make one wonder whether this is just one more step in an old progression or whether these developments, by now well established in some areas, can be seen as the beginning of something that is really quite new. Such changes may make it possible for comparatively ordinary people to do with ease and speed what before only extraordinary people like Tesla could do inside their heads. And, as we have noted before, this new direction in development might very well favor those who are much better with the manipulation of images and 3D models than the manipulation of codes, words and even mathematical symbols.

With Tesla, the power of the visual imagination takes on a whole new dimension. He was clearly an intensely creative visual thinker. He had some related difficulties, such as a curious inability to make drawings, but these did not appear to be a problem for him. Perhaps his greatest liability was the fierce independence and lack of social skill that repeatedly caused him to fall out with his coworkers and benefactors, eventually making him unable to continue his work.

Telsa, however, provides us with an example of visual thinking that illustrates, in a most concrete way, the power and potential of this ability. What Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein may have been able to do with abstract images, imaginary mechanical analogies or related mathematical formulas, Tesla seems to have been able to do in his mind with almost real mechanical devices and working machinery. (Some readers may recall an earlier blog referring to the powerful visual thinking used by the dyslexic molecular biologist William Dreyer--“Amazing Shortcomings, Amazing Gifts,” March 29, 2009.)

Tesla provides us with not only important new insights but also with a standard against which other visual thinkers may be assessed. He also provides us with an example of what, in time, more ordinary people may be able to do with the new tools that are becoming cheaper, more powerful, and easier to use as they become more and more widely available.

Note: Please go on to parts 2 and 3 of this blog entry below.


  1. How interesting, Tesla actually struggled with how his mind worked and saw it as a problem...until he "saw the light". He continued to suffer and his final days were spent in isolation, regrettable. His potential was not fully appreciated. Now, technology and demonstrate to the "avisuals" the value maybe people will see the gift.