During the early 20th century, many people wrote Nikola Tesla off as a mad scientist. Which he was, sort of. Near the end of his life, the Serbian inventor claimed that he had developed plans for a death ray (never built). But Tesla also was instrumental in developing alternating current (AC) networks, perfected the fluorescent light bulb and snapped the first X-ray photograph. In “Mad Like Tesla,” Tyler Hamilton, a technology writer for the Toronto Star, profiles nine of today’s modern thinkers and corporations with similarly outre but possibly useful visions for producing electricity. California-based Solaren hopes to collect solar energy from an orbiting platform and use microwaves to beam it down to Earth. Louis Michaud, a Canadian engineer, describes his plan to use waste heat from power plants to produce a “tornado” in a contained environment, then use that force to drive power-generating turbines. Laugh now, but, according to Hamilton, those tornadoes might be keeping the lights on some day.
For Popular Science, the 1950s were all about color television. The magazine spent the “Donna Reed” years running feature after feature on the physics of color TV tubes, how to dial in a clear and crisp picture and which model to buy. Recently, the magazine posted a retrospective of its best work on the subject to its Web site (www.popsci.com; look under photo galleries), with the original pages archived via Google Books. Check out 1956’s “How Color Television Works,” a slide-by-slide breakdown of the science of NTSC, the analog television broadcasting system. Dial the wayback machine to 1950, and read the list of alternatives to replacing your black-and-white set with an expensive color model. One option: a motor-driven color disc and adaptor. “The disc puts red, green, and blue filters in front of the tube in exact step with similar filters in the TV camera, creating the illusion of color,” the article reads. The illustration shows a faded, sepia-toned television image — but it is, nonetheless, more colorful than black-and-white.