From incandescence to fluorescence to LEDs, brightness once again rules our world. The Nobel Prize for Physics has recently been awarded to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura, the three scientists who invented blue light-emitting diodes, continuing an arc traced from Thomas Edison’s earliest lightbulbs more than a century ago.
Alfred Nobel created his prize to recognize and reward the innovators and discoverers whose vision truly “benefits mankind.” Of course, even the brightest of ideas sometimes flicker and burn out. And much more often, among scientists as well as writers, there are countless names and ideas lost forever to history.
While researching my new novel Electric City, I re-discovered one such genius, a man whose brilliance of mind defied his physical deformity, and whose pragmatic approach to invention thoroughly changed the way we use electricity. Charles Proteus Steinmetz, dwarf and hunchback, mathematical engineer, protégé of Edison, was once featured in The New York Times with the headline “Modern Jove Hurls Lightning at Will.” A pioneer in the understanding of alternating current and a founder of the original research laboratory at General Electric, Steinmetz once held iconic status around the globe. Now, unlike Nikolai Tesla, whose popular resurrection has been widely acknowledged, Steinmetz remains a dimmer figure, still awaiting his return to center stage.
Now that prize announcements are no longer capturing our attention, let us remember to focus our gaze on the ones overlooked, past and present. Sometimes the only way to make sense of such erasures is to shine the beacon of historical fiction onto the faces of those we have forgotten to remember. Their dazzling wise eyes can gleam again.