Lift your spirits

23 April 1999

If the British physicist, Oliver Lodge, had been born a Russian, he would have been claimed by the Soviet Union (remember it?) as the inventor of radio. In the 1890s Lodge devised new ways of detecting what were then known as Hertzian waves. He sent radio signals through walls and he used a mirror galvanometer to display the signals' reception. So impressed was a fellow scientist, Lord Rayleigh, that he told Lodge, "if you follow that up there's a life's work in it".

Alas Lodge did not follow it up, and the credit for the invention of 'the wireless' went instead to an Italian, Guglielmo Marconi. Except in Stalin's Muscovy, that is, where all scientific and technological progress had to be traced to Russian origins, and where Marconi's contemporary, Alexander Popov, another near-misser like Lodge, was given the place of honour in the history books. Had it not been for the Soviets' differences with Tito's Yugoslavia, they might conceivably have made a claim for Nikola Tesla, father of ac power engineering, but Croatia-born Tesla migrated to the USA (where his ac ideas were rejected by Edison but admired and adopted by Westinghouse) so he was perhaps doubly lost to communist history. In the west Tesla rivals Lodge as the possibly true begetter of radio.

Telecommunication on electromagnetic waves is of course one of the benefits made commonplace worldwide with the help of our industry, so it is good to remember that Lodge contributed to power engineering too. He more or less paralleled Dr Frederic Gardner Cottrell in the USA in the conception and development of the electrostatic precipitator. Each pioneer independently took significant steps but it was Lodge's new mercury arc rectifier that made the first real progress possible - the direct currents available had not been adequate until then. The American and British corporations exploiting the two men's patents eventually merged. When I last heard of the transatlantic alliance it had become part of the Danish group, FLS miljø.

Lodge may have missed fame as the inventor of wireless telecommunication but he did win notoriety for telecommunication of another kind. His inquiring mind led him to attempt contact with the spirit world. (We should not scoff too lightly at his credulity - we believe in the no less counter-intuitive, counter-commonsensible world of quantum mechanics, don't we?) But ESP as what psychic researchers call extra-sensory perception gave him dustier answers than did ESP as you and I know it in the cleaning of flue gases.

Goodbye crisis, and carbon too?

The avant-garde among doomsters seems to have accepted that the 'energy crisis' was a chimera. It was popularized by the 1970s antics of OPEC. (That is an acronym that younger readers may need to have translated: it means Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.) Technical advances in oil and gas exploration have made new discoveries easier and fluid hydrocarbons seem to be practically as abundant as coal and uranium, neither of which threatens to run short for a good while yet.

So doom now beckons from other quarters, my environmentalist friends tell me. Global warming is one threat and the friends still see renewable energy sources as the best alternative to fossil fuels and their greenhouse gas (among other undesirable) combustion products. Acknowledged snags include the still excessive costs of renewably sourced electricity and the fact that forests are being depleted faster than are fossil fuel resources. Also, the internal combustion engine still reigns over transport - electricity competes only for rail traction - and hydrocarbon fluids seem to have most of the mobility market cornered.

Maybe the new millennium will eventually bring us the 'hydrogen economy', in which neat hydrogen fuel supplants hydrocarbons and gives the world clean power. Cesare Marchetti's ideas in this direction, which were at least in part prompted by the 1970s 'energy crisis', could yet prove prophetic. His proposed use of nuclear fission energy to produce the hydrogen is probably unsaleable for the foreseeable future, but his intellectual heirs at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria, hope that solar or fusion energy, or something as yet unforeseen, might help a transition from hydrocarbons to pure hydrogen begin in about twenty years' time. Meanwhile we go part of the way by converting to the unexpectedly plentiful natural gas, methane, with its low carbon:hydrogen ratio.

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