Crowdfunding the future: Mad science, bad science, and the Tesla Museum

September 5th, 2012 by

As the original mad scientist, Nikola Tesla has been a source of inspiration to geeks of all types for over a century. The Serbian-American electro-wizard transformed the world with his development of alternating current (and inspired direct current supporter Thomas Edison to electrocute an elephant), before vanishing into madness and obscurity.

If you’re interested in crowdfunding, you’ll probably know all about Operation: Let’s build a Goddamn Tesla Museum, which has become one of crowdfunding’s most high-profile success stories to date. So far, over $1m has been raised to preserve the Wardenclyffe facility, the site of a particularly fascinating (and ultimately tragic) period in Tesla’s life. But as well as being an inspiring example of grass-roots crowdfunding success, the Wardenclyffe facility provides a useful insight into the pitfalls of funding today’s mad science.

Tesla is my Ohmboy

Tesla’s work was backed by J.P. Morgan and John Jacob Astor (which today would be the equivalent of having Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei in your corner). Both were confident that the man who won the “current wars” (without electrocuting a single elephant) would fulfil his promises of wireless power. Alas, the project fell apart in 1905, when Tesla’s alternating current patent expired and the royalty cheques stopped coming.

Unable to find more backing, and with Morgan and Astor growing increasingly impatient, the madness began to overwhelm the science, and Tesla suffered a mental breakdown. Wardenclyffe was foreclosed, and the site has been abandoned ever since.

This sad tale raises an interesting question: if Tesla had crowdfunded his research instead of relying on impatient big wigs, would we now be free from the tyranny of endless power cables (and have an unlimited supply of hats)? Is crowdfunding the key to unlocking the potential of the misunderstood geniuses of the world?

Igor! Check the KickStarter page!

One of the best things about crowdfunding is it gives inventors and innovators access to millions of new investors. Crowdfunding gives even the maddest scientists the chance to fund their zeppelin-mounted death-rays without having to pander to the impatient scrutiny of large, experienced investors. Hopefully this will mean the world will benefit from more inspired innovation (who doesn’t want their very own death ray?).

But the problem with mad science is that it’s very difficult to tell the difference between a crazy-haired genius and a crazy-haired crazy person. This is especially so if you’re an internet-based crowd, rather than a local, expert investor. My concern is that lots of people will lose lots of money funding crazy schemes, not only wasting their money but also discrediting crowdfunding.

Sorting the bad from the mad

Thankfully, sites like Petridish and #Sci-Fund Challenge offer a potential solution to this problem, by promoting the work of established research teams and insisting on university support before opening projects to donations.

Both sites insist on hard science, so if you were hoping to finance your perpetual motion machine, you’d better look elsewhere (and also consider visiting a psychiatrist, or at the very least investing in a high school physics book).

It is said that the difference between genius and insanity is measured only by success. By making sure that the crowd are funding mad scientists and not bad scientists (or just plain madness), sites like these provide a healthy dose of reality. The history of invention and discovery is full of live wires like Tesla. But as any electrical engineer will tell you, every live wire needs to be earthed.

  • Robert Latchford

    Thanks for the links to Petridish and Sci Fi Fund Challenge. Inventors don’t always make the best marketeers. Am keeping an eye on crowdfunding for an idea I am working on. The key is to protect some key IP and I am currently seraching for prior art before sinking time , effort and money into it.

  • Austin Springer

    Everyone loves Tesla, Or at least they should.

  • Tommaso De Benetti

    Indeed. I’m reading this now and it’s amazing.

  • Kamilla Oribabor

    I totally agree. Crowdfunding is a great thing and it is important to ensure that such funding gets into the right hands. Thanks for the link to Petridish – what a fantastic initiative.

  • BonnyElise

    Really interesting to read