11 January 2008

Jedlik and the Dynamo

On this date in 1800, Anyos Jedlik was born in Hungary.

If the name doesn't immediately ring bells, that's understandable. Jedlik is best known in engineering circles, but even there, he gets nowhere near the respect or remembrance he deserves. Jedlik is one of the Alfred Russell Wallaces, the men who made discoveries along with, or in Jedlik's case before, the people credited with them, but who for one reason or another have faded into the background of history. Wallace has enjoyed a bit of a comeback, with modern biologists granting him the credit he deserves for basically having the same idea as Darwin at about the same time. Jedlik has gotten no such surge, and it's a shame.

Anyos Jedlik was a true Renaissance man, and excelled in many areas of study. He was a priest, a physicist, an inventor, and an engineer. He should be above all else remembered as a teacher. He wrote the first textbook, and taught the first university classes, in physics in the Hungarian language. Up until that point, physics was taught in Latin, and Jedlik really did nothing less than translate an entire science into his native tongue for his countrymen. He lectured at Budapest University of Sciences for 40 years, and helped to foster a whole generation of Hungarian scientists.

Jedlik's most important invention, and the one for whom he is truly an unsung genius, is the dynamo. Though Werner von Siemens is given credit for the invention of the device, Jedlik's dynamo predates Seimens' by six years. However, by the time he got around to publishing it, Siemens had published his own and begun marketing it commercially. Soon, Seimens was a well-known name, and he would continue on to have such honors as a unit named for him. A seimen is the SI unit of conductance. There are no scales that measure in jedliks.

Jedlik's accomplishment shouldn't necessarily take anything away from Siemens. After all, having an idea isn't always the hardest part, and credit often belongs to the person with the ability to make an invention commonly applicable to people's lives, not just invent it. Just as Wallace's attention takes nothing away from Darwin, we should accept that many of history's geniuses were not alone in their discoveries, but instead were simply the ones that were most able to bring that discovery to market. And then there are Einsteins, who really do come out of nowhere with discoveries and theories that might not have been made for 50 years had he not made them, but that's a story for another day.

Tomorrow, The League of Extraordinary Scots.

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