Tesla in the 21st Century

Last week the Daily Mail reported on the advent of a new technology that uses electromagnetic induction to transfer energy wirelessly across spans of up to 3 meters.

But this new invention isn’t new, and don’t say that Ayn Rand already thought of it! Rand didn’t pull the idea of wireless power from thin air, but took the inspiration for Gault’s Motor from the work of many scientists studying power transfer in the later 19th and early 20th century. The most famous of of these electrical pioneers was Nikola Tesla who conducted many experiments in a lab outside of Colorado Springs where he built giant Tesla coils and attempted to transfer power wirelessly over distances of several miles. So this tech has been around for a while and the goals have been ambitious.

What is new is that wireless power is now economically viable. Wireless power transfer has only ever been realistically proposed to be low power and short distance. This didn’t serve much of a commercial purpose at the turn of the century when electricity powered light bulbs and electric motors. Back then wires were a much more practical solution for this sort of things, but now the ubiquity of chip-packed gizmo devices makes this formerly useless novelty a potential cash cow.

This development is a great refutation of many arguments that support subsidizing scientific research. The market is good at allocating resources to study the technologies that can most likely be made to serve some function given the other technologies we have. Subsidized science doesn’t have to make this kind of realization, so that pipe dreams with no commercial application often see millions of dollars pumped into them. Granted, subsidized science isn’t just producing Edsels, but there is no profit motive pushing it toward practicality.

None of this would be a problem in a world of unlimited dollars and unlimited scientists, but in the real world of scarce resources we’re wise to adopt a system that gets us the most bang for our buck, or in the case of science, the most inventions, innovations, products, and cures. Through market mechanisms factors like likelihood of success, potential demand for new technologies, and use with existing technologies are all weighed. Although the market isn’t an oracle or a perfect calculator of the best place to put our science dollars, it does an infinitely better job than political wrangling and pet project earmarks can do of financing human advancement.

In the end, TINSTAAFSD, There is No Such Thing as a Free Scientific Discovery.