Forward into the Past?

June 1, 2003
Nicola Tesla (1856-1943) may be known to many people only as the inventor of the Tesla coil, that essential prop in every mad scientist's laboratory in

Nicola Tesla (1856-1943) may be known to many people only as the inventor of the Tesla coil, that essential prop in every mad scientist's laboratory in every bad horror movie ever made. One of Tesla's more important contributions (of which there were many) was his successful advocacy of alternating current as a more efficient means of power transmission than Edison's direct current.

We should be grateful, however, that his other proposal for transmitting electricity never caught on.

Tesla believed that electricity should be distributed at no cost to every home and business -- a radical concept. Even more radical was his proposal to "broadcast" electricity through the air -- linking every home, no matter how remote, to a national power grid through a simple "electricity receiver" pole. (Experiments conducted in Colorado Springs in 1899 and 1900 proved that it was possible.)

Such a scheme would have caused so much electromagnetic interference in the atmosphere that radio and television (which, incidentally, used Tesla coils to generate and receive radio waves) would have been quite impossible.

Another visionary who wanted to reach remote areas was Harry S, Truman (1884-1972), 33rd President of the U.S.). Truman envisioned access to a national network -- of roads. As a Senator from Missouri, Truman was instrumental in the development of the National Defense Access highway (US Route) system. He believed that free access to good roads would build prosperity in rural areas by making it possible to easily transport goods to every city, town and village (particularly those not served by railroads).

Of course, there's a reason for this science and history lesson that applies to data collection.

Long Beach, CA has instituted a wireless, public Internet access project along Pine Avenue, a trendy area lined with antique shops, restaurants and hotels that leads to the Convention and Event Center and the shoreline. Unlike typical "hot spots" in public areas that charge fees for access, the Long Beach project provides high-speed, wireless (802.11b) Internet access at no charge

Pine Avenue is only the first of a number of planned wireless Hot Zones to be located in select business districts throughout Long Beach. Access is directed through Long Beach's Internet portal ( where local businesses have the opportunity to promote themselves to visitors and residents alike.

There's little doubt that the free Internet access will do more than stimulate local businesses. It will help attract more visitors and more business because of the ease with which people will be able to gain high-speed access to the information superhighway.

So here's where history might be repeating itself.

Tesla envisioned the benefits of electricity being able to reach even the most remote location in the country. Truman envisioned an extensive network of roads to the more efficient transportation of products. Now, Long Beach, CA, has combined these concepts by providing free, local, high-speed Internet access to facilitate the efficient transportation of information.

Forecasting the continued growth and popularity of the wireless Internet is akin to a TV meteorologist predicting that "the day/night cycle will continue at least through the end of the week -- we'll have the weekend forecast at 11."

But here's the tempting thought. What if the Federal government realizes that, just as an efficient network of federally subsidized (and, for the most part, free) roads and highways helped the country and the economy grow, so too might federally-subsidized (i.e., free) access to the information superhighway help us maintain global competitiveness? What if this system was specifically extended to "economic redevelopment areas" to revitalize failing neighborhoods and business districts?

What if your company (and your mobile employees) had unlimited, free wireless access to a high-speed Internet? How much tighter could you schedule? How much more accurate would your inventories be? How much better service could you offer? In short, how much more productive could you be?

There's another lesson from history here.

The initial US Route system (of which the legendary Route 66 was a part) spawned countless small businesses along its path. When the Interstate system came in, it bypassed most of these same small business communities leaving them to wither and die.

The analogy is that companies that are dependent on hard-wired systems might suffer the same fate as the Mom-and-Pop businesses along Route 66.

Bert Moore, Contributing Editor