Pop quiz time at the Flophouse. Yesterday I took each of the Frenchlings aside and asked them to tell me who Nikola Tesla was. The elder Frenchling (proud possessor of a "baccalauréat littéraire" also known as a Bac L) didn't have a clue. But the younger Frenchling who is working on her "baccalauréat scientifique" (Bac S) did and almost seemed offended at being asked such an obvious question.
Following this short test I was tempted to make a snide comment about the French educational system since it seemed to me that the history of technology is something that should be part of everyone's "culture générale" and not just confined to the geeks. Tesla was, after all, one of the great engineers/inventors of our time. And then I remembered that what I know about Никола Тесла I didn't learn at school either. I know about him because I come from long line of engineers and other technology workers. My grandfather was a 30-year veteran of the Boeing Corporation and worked on just about every airplane they produced from the B-17 up to the 747. My other grandfather worked nearly his entire life for the Army Corps of Engineers. My father was a computer programmer back in the days of mainframes and punch cards. My stepfather is a radio engineer. My mother is a proposal manager at an engineering firm in Seattle. With a lineage like that how could I have done otherwise than to work in Information Technology? And is it any surprise that I married a material sciences engineer? His father, by the way, was an ingénieur de combat (combat engineer) and the commander of: the Unités du Génie (engineering) in Laos (1953-1956), the Génie of the 20th division in Algeria (1961-1962), the 5ème Régiment du Génie here in Versailles (1962-1965) and, at the end of his career, la Brigade des Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris.
So if the elder Frenchling doesn't know about Nikola Tesla then the fault lies firmly at our door. How to rectify this? One place to begin is this wonderful Ted Talk about Tesla's life and work by magician Marco Tempest which captures so well all of the romance, the tragedy and the sheer love of discovery that defined the great engineers/inventors of that time (and ours). Perfect place to start. Because as Arthur C. Clarke so rightly said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."