W. Bernard Carlson, Joseph L. Vaughan Professor of Humanities and chair of the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia School of Engineering, has been invited to speak as part of the William and Myrtle Harris Distinguished Lecture in Science and Civilization series at the California Institute of Technology. Carlson will present “Ideal and Illusion: The Rise and Fall of Nikola Tesla” on March 12.
In the late 19th century, Nikola Tesla made significant contributions to both the development of alternating current power technology and the basic ideas underlying radio. Carlson’s award-winning biography of the inventor, “Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age,” has been widely praised as a rigorous scholarly analysis that can also be read and enjoyed by multiple audiences. It has been translated into nine languages.
Carlson’s lecture will focus on two sides of Tesla’s personality.
“Tesla’s innovations continue to affect all of our lives today,” Carlson said, “yet he also was an incredible showman, happy to give dazzling demonstrations and make outrageous predictions in newspaper interviews. This lecture explores how he was an ‘idealist’ inventor who sought the perfect experimental realization of a great idea or principle while skillfully selling his inventions to the public through mythmaking and illusion.”
Carlson is a historian of technology who studies the careers of inventors and entrepreneurs in order to educate future engineering leaders. In addition to serving as chair of the Department of Engineering and Society, he directs UVA Engineering’s entrepreneurship and business programs, which help students develop ideas into ventures through coursework and co-curricular activities and provides support to faculty entrepreneurs. He also holds appointments in UVA’s history department and the School of Nursing’s Eleanor Crowder Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry. He studied history and physics as an undergraduate at Holy Cross College, received his Ph.D. in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania, and completed postdoctoral work at the Harvard Business School.
The Harris Distinguished Lecture series was established at Caltech in 1996 to “enable the history and philosophy of science program to host distinguished scientists, historians, philosophers and other analysts of science to address concerns of mutual interest — especially their ethical implications — across the intellectual spectrum,” according to the website. Carlson joins a list of eminent scholars and scientists who have appeared in the series, such as Sherry Turkle, a professor, best-selling author and founding director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Oliver Sachs, the well-known neurologist and author of many books including “Awakenings.”
“I am honored to be counted among the distinguished men and women who have presented a Harris Lecture at Caltech,” Carlson said. “It is a privilege to contribute to the conversation about how technological innovation must be directed responsibly in order to make life better for all of us.”