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March 1, 2003
Why is it that some people are born inventors while others are better at adapting other people's ideas to their own needs? We all know the inventive types

Why is it that some people are born inventors while others are better at adapting other people's ideas to their own needs? We all know the inventive types — creative people who come up with brainstorms while shaving, taking a shower, or while out for a run — and then sketch the idea for you on a cocktail napkin while you are out for a few beers. Don't ask them to balance a checkbook, remember their firstborn's birthday, or find their car keys. No, they are big-picture, free-wheeling dreamers who get their biggest thrill by solving problems with their inventions.

The electrical industry has some brilliant inventors. Everyone thinks first of Thomas Edison or George Westinghouse. We often forget Nikola Tesla, who, by some measures, had impact of a similar magnitude. Born in Croatia in 1856, Tesla was a brilliant if somewhat eccentric genius who invented the fluorescent bulb, X-ray machine and “Tesla coils,” still used today in radios, televisions and other electronic equipment. He also helped George Westinghouse develop the first commercially viable AC power system, which in 1895 used dynamos to harness the power of Niagara Falls to produce electricity for the city of Buffalo. Tesla and Westinghouse spent years battling Thomas Edison, who saw AC current as a direct assault on his DC power systems.

Tesla also has never received enough credit for his work on the wireless radio, even though Marconi used many of Tesla's patents for his first radio. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned Marconi's patent, ruling that Tesla's patent had priority.

Sadly, despite his contributions to these inventions — not to mention his experimentation in a Colorado Springs, Colo., laboratory with the wireless transmission of huge amounts of electricity he said could be used as a “death ray” — Tesla died penniless in 1943 at age 87 in a New York hotel room he shared with a flock of pigeons. Tesla's death is cloaked in mystery with reports that his papers and technical drawings were removed by the U.S. government.

As Tesla found out, “adapters” like Marconi look at the world differently. They are pragmatists who don't like to reinvent wheels. They are usually quite content to let others do the heavy lifting when it comes to conjuring up new ideas. When adapters need to solve problems they look for existing solutions. They don't suffer from the Not-Invented-Here (NIH) syndrome, where people refuse to use a technology that they didn't create themselves.

For 82 years, this magazine has focused on providing solutions to distributors' business problems. Our philosophy has always been that if you don't have the answer to a problem, a distributor across the country might, and we do our editorial best to provide a public forum for this exchange of ideas.

I think our coverage this month on page 36 of the ice storm that knocked out power to more than 420,000 homes in the Kansas City area exemplifies this mission. It's not enough for us to just report how Kansas City's electrical industry responded to this crisis, although that alone is fascinating reading. Indeed, the area's electric utilities and electrical contractors quickly became quasi-celebrities in town. Residents eagerly awaited the arrival of utility trucks in their neighborhoods; electricians were also working around the clock to repair damage. Milbank Manufacturing, one of the largest utility meter manufacturers in the world, happens to be based in Kansas City, and its executives were even on the evening news. That's unfamiliar territory for our industry.

But EW can help you even more by relaying the lessons other distributors have learned about emergency preparedness after being hit by blackouts, floods, computer outages and other natural and technological disasters. These lessons can help you become an “adapter,” and prepare your company to get through emergency situations. When ou take advantage of the resources that EW offers, you won't fall victim to the Not-Invented-Here syndrome.