Five Professional Lessons from Watt’s Inventive Career

THE BOY SPENT HIS DAYS watching ships arriving back to the port. One day, thanks to his inventive genius, ships like these would be powered by engines rather than sails. Belonging to an accomplished Scottish family, young James Watt excelled at mathematics, science, and engineering at high school, but his language skills were less impressive.

At eighteen, following the death of his mother, and a ship sinking that placed a heavy financial burden on his family, James gave up his plans to join university in Glasgow. Instead, he chose to train, first in Glasgow and later in London, as a scientific instrument maker. However, odds seemed against him. 

After spending two weeks in London and visiting various shops for being employed as an apprentice, young Watt realized that the rules of the trade were a significant obstacle in his way: the only employment was for fully-trained instrument makers or trainees serving seven years apprenticeships; clearly, he did not fall into any of the two categories. 

Watt had his first stroke of luck as he met John Morgan– an instrument maker in the heart of London – who was not so strict with rules. As Morgan assessed Watt’s extraordinary capabilities with mechanical work, he agreed to shorten the apprenticeship period to one year rather than seven on the conditions of a meager stipend. Likewise, Watt did not disappoint Morgan. 

Within two months, James Watt was able to surpass another apprentice who had been there for three years. Nonetheless, it was no easy task; covering seven years of practice into one year required him to work for ten hours a day in a cold workshop. With the little money he received, he had to maintain long hours on little food. Eventually he finished his apprenticeship year successfully and returned to Glasgow as a trained instrument maker in 1756. 

Lesson One: Be ready to work harder and make sacrifices especially when the odds are against you. Don’t expect lucrative rewards in the beginning of your career. When John Morgan offered a tough apprenticeship with little pay to James Watt, the latter took it as a rare opportunity to develop his skills, worked harder, and made personal sacrifices. But as you will find out later in this account, these sacrifices did not go in vain. 

Upon his return to Glasgow, James Watt succeeded in setting up a workshop at the University of Glasgow and started making mathematical instruments for the university labs. As the Mathematical Instrument Maker for the university, he was often consulted for repairing lab equipment. One such repair was about to change the future of mankind for good.

One fine morning in 1763, Professor John Anderson, who used to demonstrate the working model of the Newcomen steam engine in his physics lab, needed the model repaired. James Watt was called for repairing the engine. During the repair, he was astonished to learn how little work the engine was capable of. Realizing that there was an ample room for improving the efficiency of the engine; he decided to take it as a challenge.

Though Newcomen engines were in use for more than 50 years in Britain, no one had found a way to improve them. These engines worked on a simple principle: a jet of steam was used to drive a piston inside a cylinder in one direction; the cylinder was subsequently cooled down with water to bring the piston back to its initial position. The cycle could then be repeated, thereby converting heat into mechanical work. 

Taking into account the low efficiency of the Newcomen steam engine,Watt spent the next two years conducting experiments with water and steam in metal vessels. Eventually, he realized that cooling with water after steam had done its work was the root cause of energy loss and lower output. He redesigned the engine skipping the cooling water injection & inclusion of a condenser intended to collect the condensed steam and make it available for the next cycle. 

By the end of 1765, a 29 year old James Watt had built his first small-scale steam engine featuring a separate condensing chamber and a steam jacket. Winning his first challenge, he had brought the required improvements in the efficiency of the Newcomen engine – the improvements that no one had been able to figure out hitherto. 

Lesson Two: Keep looking for improvement opportunities in your trade, take those opportunities as challenges, and work hard to tackle them. Watt was supposed to repair the laboratory steam engine model but he identified an opportunity in the task, took it as a challenge, and finally won over it. Just like Edison who had not invented the light bulb but improved it for practical viability, Watt’s improvements on Newcomen’s steam engine were no less than a reinvention. 

In 1769, Watt had his steam engine improvements patented but in order to build a practical steam engine, he needed a lot of money. He found a financier in John Roebuck, a mine owner. But this proved to be a brief partnership; four years later, Roebuck went bankrupt and sold his shares to a wealthy manufacturer from Birmingham- Mathew Boulton. 

In 1775, Watt started a highly successful partnership with Boulton. They complimented each other perfectly – it was an excellent combination of Watt’s engineering ingenuity and Boulton’s commercial skills. News of Watt’s super-efficient steam engines spread fast, and as Boulton & Watt engines found their way into ever more applications, the Industrial Revolution kick started. 

Lesson Three: Find a trustworthy partner who can compliment your shortcomings. Watt was a brilliant inventor but the commercial success of his improved steam engine was impossible without the financial support and business genius of Mathew Boulton – this is akin to the fact that Nikola Tesla’s success in the Battle of Currents over Thomas Edison could not have occurred without the support of George Westinghouse. 

Until the mid-eighteenth century, horses were used for most demanding labor. With the advent of the steam engine, machinery began to replace horses for various tasks. However, the transition received major resistance from folks who were skeptical about the efficacy and reliability of machines over horses. In order to market his improved steam engine, Watt had to convince the skeptics. 

Watt understood that the potential buyers of his engines would be inclined to compare the performance of steam engines with that of pony horses. Therefore, he drew a comparison  between the two technologies and claimed that one of his improved steam engine could produce enough power to replace ten cart-pulling horses or ten horsepower. 

The comparison appealed to his potential customers as well as competitors, creating a measure of power known as “horsepower”. Though the scientific unit for power in use today is Watt (in the honor of James Watt), horsepower is still commonly used to indicate power of automotive engines.  

Lesson Four: Speak to your customers in the language they can understand. You might be a technical expert but your customers would be least interested in your technical jargon; they prefer to listen if you have the solution to their problem. Realizing the same marketing principle, Watt presented a convincing comparison of his improved steam engines versus horse carts.

In 1800, aged 64, James Watt retired as a wealthy businessman. Both Watt and Boulton passed their partnership to the next generation. Watt’s achievements were amply recognized during his lifetime: in 1806, he was made the doctor of laws at the university of Glasgow; he became a foreign associate of the French Academy of Sciences in 1814; and he was offered a baronetcy, which he declined. 

While Watt was already a rich old man in his sixties, his inventiveness was still young and alive. Continuing with his research, he came up with a couple of new patents including double-acting steam engine, the rotary engine, the steam pressure indicator, and even a copying machine. The rotary engine was a crucial invention as it enabled to drive wheels rather than the simpler up and down pumping motion of earlier machines. 

Lesson Five: Do not let your passion die with age and achievements. Even after retiring as a wealthy businessman, James Watt continued with his inventions and improvements well into his sixties and seventies. Albert Einstein had a similar ending : while on his deathbed, he was still working on his Unified Fields Theory.

James Watt–the pioneer of industrial revolution– passed away in 1819, aged 83. We still remember him as Watt (the scientific unit of power) as well as whenever the term horsepower is mentioned.

Five Professional Lessons from Edison’s Inventive Career

THOMAS ALVA EDISON– fondly called Al- was the seventh and last among his siblings. Mostly homeschooled, he had developed hearing problems early in his childhood. In his teenage, he became a newsboy, selling newspapers on trains. Though he liked to conduct experiments with chemicals, it didn’t take Edison long to discover his talents as a businessman. By the time he was fifteen, he was publishing and selling his own newspaper called the Weekly Herald

Being around with train stations all the time, Edison became enthralled with telegraphy while watching telegraph operators. Soon he learned telegraphy himself. As a telegrapher, he realized that things could be improved to create new business opportunities for him. On 1st June, 1869, Edison got his first patent for a vote recorder. This small invention was the beginning of something really big. 

Lesson One: Try to recognize your inner talents at an early stage of your professional career. Just like Albert Einstein identified his niche for science at an early age, Edison was already aware of his business acumen as a teenager. Early recognition of your key talents will allow you to channel your time and energy positively towards your career objectives.

In 1876, following the invention and successful sale of his quadruplex telegraph, Edison established the first industrial research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey – the first of its kind setup for technological innovation. Most of his inventions came from this laboratory, and for this reason, Edison later came to be known as the “The Wizard of Menlo Park”. 

Though Edison is almost always solely credited for his numerous inventions, he had several employees who did the research and development in his lab. Frequently, he would gather his research assistants for brainstorming sessions aimed at resolving problems and bringing about improvements. As his laboratory expanded, Edison gave his assistants shares in various companies associated with his inventions. In time, those assistants, who often complained for being underpaid, would eventually gain direct benefits from the success of those enterprises. 

Lesson Two: Build a team of smart people, interact with them regularly, and motivate them by giving incentives. Edison was notorious for underpaying his employees but he compensated them by offering opportunities to reap the direct benefits of a successful company. This approach could be far more effective for creating a team that owns its work and is motivated to deliver its best output. 

In the summer of 1877, Edison created his “talking machine”. Its technical name was phonograph, and it was an earlier version of a record player. Before long, people started believing that there were magicians sitting in those labs in Menlo Park, Edison being the Chief Wizard. Nonetheless, he made the mistake of restricting his phonograph for business purposes and didn’t push it into entertainment venue, a decision that proved to be a major opportunity loss subsequently. 

The invention of phonograph could be attributed to a particularly useful habit of Edison: he loved working on more than one project at a time, and he would always look out to apply the ideas of one project into someplace else. Consequently, he would move his assistants around different tasks. By the same token, learnings from an improvement project on telephone microphone led to the creation of phonograph. 

Lesson Three: Keep your team members rotating, particularly if your work hinges on innovation and creativity. Just like Edison liked to apply the ideas of one project to other places, cross functional movement of people creates avenues for knowledge sharing and exchange of ideas. Additionally, such movements ensure that certain skills do not remain restricted to certain individuals – a situation that makes an organization dependent on few experts. 

Over 1000 patents hold the name of Thomas Edison but the one which made him a household name is the invention of a light bulb. There is a small correction, however: Edison didn’t invent a light bulb but improved on it. Incandescent lamps were already invented by people like Humphry Davy, James Bowman Lindsay, Joseph Swan etc. However, Edison was the one to create the difference. 

People who had tried their hands over incandescent bulbs earlier went no further than demonstrating how light could be produced from electricity. The brilliance of Edison was to improve the lamp design so that it could be easily manufactured, lasted a longer time, and was cheaper to buy. Edison was not only an inventor, he was a businessman who knew how to turn an invention into a marketable commodity. That was the genius of Thomas Alva Edison.

Lesson Four: Learn to create value for your customers. People who invented incandescent lamps before Edison were not able to turn them into user friendly products. Thomas Edison realized the missing link from business perspective and improved on it so that light bulbs could be successfully marketed.

Thanks to Edison’s design improvements and marketing capabilities, light bulbs were now a reliable and affordable household item. The next step was to make electric power as viable as the bulbs. Edison’s own power system ran on Direct Current or DC which had a significant drawback: DC power plants, having immense losses due to low voltage, couldn’t supply power beyond a one mile radius; there was a large gap in supplying power to everyone.

George Westinghouse, Edison’s competitor, took this void as an opportunity and joined hands with Nikola Tesla– another brilliant inventor, but someone whom once Edison had allegedly mistreated as an employee. Together they went on to bring about an alternative: Alternating Current or AC power distribution system, which depended on high voltages, had the potential to fill the gap left by DC power. However, Edison remained adamant that it was not a workable solution. 

By the time Edison found his judgment fallacious, it was too late. His company had already installed more than hundred DC systems and to change now to AC was absolutely out of question. As Westinghouse took more and more business, Edison was fast losing out. So much so that by 1892, Edison himself had to announce his retirement from his own company.

Lesson Five: Be flexible in your opinions. As it happened with Albert Einstein who did not accept quantum mechanics as a worthy concept, Edison was not ready to admit the superiority of AC power over his DC power distribution systems. Eventually, Edison had to exit the very company he had established through a long and hard struggle. 

With a total of 2,332 patents amassed from his inventions, the Wizard of Menlo Park took his last breath on October 18,1931. Americans extinguished their light bulbs at ten p.m. for a minute as a tribute to the man who had lit America and the rest of the world. 

Five Professional Lessons from Tesla’s Inventive Career

IN THE YEAR 1905, a few construction workers gathered in a small New York village to erect a particularly lofty structure, a 187 feet tall tower. Atop this tower was perched a fifty-five ton dome of conductive metals, and beneath it stretched an iron root system that penetrated more than 300 feet deep into the earth. The structure was named “power tower” and its intended purpose was to bring about a global energy revolution.

The idea in the mind of the tower’s inventor was fairly eccentric – he proposed to conduct electricity through the earth and the sky, enabling a wireless transmission of electric power across large areas of land. Lamentably, the tower was never completed as envisioned by its inventor due to shortage of funds. Eventually, the tower was unceremoniously demolished in 1917 for salvage of the debts that accrued through the project.

The name of the inventor was Nikola Tesla – a generally under appreciated genius to whom we owe a myriad of modern day conveniences. So let us pay a brief homage to Tesla by recounting his illustrious career and learning a few lessons from his professional life.

Born and bred in Croatia, Nikola Tesla possessed a photographic memory and a surprisingly vivid imagination as a child. Despite being a brilliant student, he could not finish his university degree as he got addicted to gambling. Following his father’s demise, he spent next few years bouncing back and forth across several European cities for work and study. But his career took a significant turn as he immigrated to New York City in June 1884 and joined Edison Machine Works.

Though Thomas Edison – a great inventor in his own right – was fairly impressed with Tesla’s diligence and problem solving abilities, the professional relationship between the two was sour from day one. A famous episode goes like this: 

Edison offered Tesla an amount of $50,000 to improve the design of his DC (direct current) power generation plants. Tesla worked day and night on the said improvements and when he demanded the payment, Edison laughed off saying,  

“ When you become a full-fledged American, you will learn to appreciate American humor”. 

Instead, Edison offered a $10 a week raise in Tesla’s salary. Having felt cheated, Tesla immediately quit his job with Edison and left.

Lesson One: Always document your business deals. We have no way to delve into the accuracy of Tesla’s claim about Edison’s mis-commitment however such situations are not uncommon in business dealings. Never ever rely on verbal agreements in professional matters, always get contracts signed and stamped. 

As his time with Edison came to an end, Tesla had many ideas for new motors and electric transmission equipment – ideas that never appealed to Edison. Soon afterwards, having tried and failed with a brief partnership named Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing, Tesla found him digging ditches for $2 per day. He felt miserable and depressed about his chances in this new country. However, it proved to be a temporary trial. 

Before long, Tesla and his promising ideas caught the attention of the right people. In 1887, he joined hands with A.K. Brown, a manager for the Western Union Telegraph Company; together they founded the Tesla Electric Company with the specific intention of developing Tesla’s AC induction motor. By 1891, Tesla had obtained a total of 40 patents related to his induction motor. 

Meanwhile George Westinghouse, a powerful businessman,  who was looking to compete with Edison’s DC motors realized that future belonged to Tesla’s superior AC motors. The partnership between Tesla and Westinghouse marked the beginning of what came to be known as “War of Currents” i.e. to establish the commercial viability of Tesla and Westinghouse’s Alternating Current over Edison’s Direct Current.

In 1893, when George Westinghouse was awarded a contract for the electrification of world’s fair to be held in Chicago, he selected Tesla as the lead engineer for the project. Being an unconventional inventor, Tesla wanted to demonstrate the practicality and superiority of his AC technology over Edison’s rival DC electric power. 

On the day of the event, the fairgoers were amazed to see wireless lamps connected to an AC power electric field. Tesla had not only eradicated the publicized safety concerns about his wired AC electricity, he had also demonstrated the possibility of wireless electricity. Subsequent installation and success of electric generators at the Niagara Falls by Tesla and Westinghouse proved to be the decisive victory over Edison’s DC systems; Tesla had won the Battle of Currents over Edison. 

Lesson Two: Keep your aims high; give a positive direction to your anger and frustration. Rather than fighting trivial battles, strive to contest and win bigger wars. Despite his negative experiences with Edison, Tesla chose to battle in the field rather than blaming Edison for his miseries. 

Tesla’s triumphs with AC induction motors and Niagara Falls project were still fresh when a tragedy befell: on the inauspicious morning of March 13, 1895, Tesla learnt that his laboratory located on West Broadway had burnt to ground over night. Within a span of few hours, he had lost his years of research and hard work. 

It is thought that experiments involving production of liquid oxygen could have caused the disaster. However, the consequences were much more fateful than the causes. Not only had Tesla never prepared for such a situation, he had not bothered to take insurance for the building and the equipment. Consequently, the calamity caused him a major intellectual as well as financial loss. 

Lesson Three: Never underestimate the vulnerability of your business. Always keep a disaster management plan in place. Tesla was so busy in imagining and experimenting with his ideas that he didn’t think the unthinkable and eventually got a major blow.

Subsequent to his lab’s destruction, Tesla found him struggling to cope with the aftermath; on the other hand, his partnership with Westinghouse was about to run its course. He had no choice but to find new investors. The trouble was that most of his ideas, despite being brilliant, were so grandiose that investors were often skeptical about spending huge amounts of money.

Tesla’s power tower mentioned in the beginning was not the only project that failed due to lack of funding. In 1898, at the first Electrical Exhibition in Madison Square Garden, Tesla demonstrated the first remote-controlled boat and advocated for its numerous applications including military potential but there were no takers. 

Many of Tesla’s ideas were so far ahead of his time that no one was able to grasp their limitless potential. Thus they remained limited to his imagination and could never be materialized. 

Lesson Four: Try to turn your ideas into commercially viable projects or they will remain nonsensical sparks of brilliance just like many of Tesla’s ideas. It is better to start small and gradually upgrade than starting big and failing due to lack of resources.

In 1897, Tesla filed his fundamental radio patent. But when Guglielmo Marconi sent the first transatlantic radio communication in December 1901, it started off a series of legal battles that would last decades. Tesla responded to the situation by saying:

“ Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using 17 of my patents.”

While the legal battles continued for next forty years, Marconi reaped plenty of financial gains; on the contrary, Tesla spent the better part of his remaining life struggling to make ends meet. It wasn’t until 1943, eight months after Tesla’s death, that the United States Supreme Court finally ruled that Tesla’s fundamental radio patent was to be upheld.

Lesson Five: Don’t expect to win all the battles in your career; be ready to loose some of them, fairly or unfairly.  The posthumous acknowledgement of Tesla’s radio invention meant nothing to his financial struggles. The world may treat you unfairly as it happened to Tesla; that is the way it has always been, and always will be. Keep a plan B ready. 

Though he could not gain the appreciation he deserved, Nikola Tesla was granted more than 250 patents across 24 countries. Apart from his contributions to electricity, he was the inventor of car sparkplugs, remote controls, wireless communication systems and numerous other devices. However, his dream of wireless electricity remains elusive till date.

Five Professional Lessons from Curie’s Scientific Career

MARIA SALOMEA SKLODOWSKA , later dubbed Marie, was a Polish girl who was passionate about learning science. But as she passed high school with a gold medal, two obstacles stood in her way to higher education: first, university education for women was forbidden in Poland (occupied under the Russian Empire in late nineteenth century); secondly, her father– a teacher himself– though encouraged her academic interests, did not have enough money to support her education overseas.

Marie’s sister Bronya faced similar circumstances. Though Polish women were not permitted to join universities under the Tsar rulers, the Sklodowska sisters would never let go of their insistence that they deserved the same rights on education as their male counterparts. However, there was no easy way to achieve their ambitions. 

Having no apparent outlet for her scientific zeal, Marie decided to carry out her own higher education secretly. In the mornings, she would earn her living by working as a child governess for wealthier families; she consumed her evenings studying books on physics, chemistry, and mathematics and occasionally attending laboratory practicals at an underground educational academy called “Flying University“. 

Soon afterwards, the Sklodowska sisters had hatched an audacious plan: Marie’s savings from her tutoring job would allow Bronya to go to France and study medicine; after her graduation and employment, Bronya was supposed to support Marie’s university studies in Paris. This arrangement  continued for nearly five years during which Marie kept earning and saving money for herself and Bronya.  

Eventually, in November 1891, Marie herself landed in Paris to study science at the Sorbonne – the most prestigious university of Paris. After several years of persistent struggle, her dream for higher education had finally come true. 

Lesson One: Choose your struggle and remain persistent with it. Suppression of female education and her poor financial background seemed enough to convince a young Polish girl to give up her ambition on learning science but Marie didn’t relent. She chose a quest for herself, a struggle spanning five years – five years of toil and anticipation – finally winning a triumph, not only for her but also for her sister. 

Marie’s struggle didn’t end with enrollment at the Sorbonne. It was the beginning of another quest, another river to swim through. Living alone in a low-rent, freezing garret, she still had to grapple with hardships. But her passion for science was oblivious to any inconvenience. Giving in to obstacles was an act unknown to her. In her own words: 

“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”

In the summer of 1893, aged 26, Marie finished up as top student in her masters of physics degree course. In addition, she received industrial funding to investigate the relationship between steel composition and its magnetic properties, a research aimed at finding ways to make stronger magnets. As if this achievement was not enough to satisfy her scientific gusto, she passed a masters in mathematics with distinction the following year. As Marie once reflected:

“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”

Lesson Two: Don’t let your achievements retard your career progression. Marie had already accomplished a great deal in her scientific career; far greater than anyone could have imagined for her. But she continued her ambition towards scientific pursuit inexhausted, unabated.

In 1895, Marie married Pierre Curie, a highly respected industrial scientist and inventor. Marie Sklodowska became Marie Curie. From financial troubles to professional interests, the couple had much in common. Consequently, their union turned into a collaboration that won them many laurels. In 1898, they discovered two new elements: Marie named one of them Polonium in the honor of her beloved homeland Poland; the other element was dubbed as Radium.

1903 was a special year for the Curies. Sorbonne awarded Marie a Ph.D. degree for her scientific achievements and the same year, she shared  a Nobel Prize in physics with her husband Pierre and Henry Becquerel. Once again, Curie had to experience prejudice for the simple fact of being a woman. The Nobel Committee had originally omitted Marie but Pierre insisted that his wife deserved the honor equally. Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. 

Lesson Three: Look out for a sincere teammate with whom you can share common career goals. Pierre Curie was not only a collaborator but also Marie’s life partner. Together, they conquered many battles that they couldn’t have fought in isolation. However, it is not a one way affair; support and recognition must be reciprocated by both sides. 

Money from their Nobel Prizes and the accolades that followed made life easier for the Curie couple. They could now take care of their two daughters and afford a laboratory assistant. Meanwhile Pierre took the Chair of Physics at the Sorbonne. But then the unthinkable happened. In 1906, Pierre Curie got killed in a horse-drawn carriage road accident. Marie lost her life partner and collaborator. 

Desolate and distraught, Curie soon turned her attention towards work. After Pierre’s death, she was offered to replace him as the Chair of Physics which she accepted. In 1911 , she won another Nobel Prize in chemistry for her contributions to the field of radioactivity, making her the first to receive two prizes in two different fields. 

At every corner of her life, Curie was breaking the mold: she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first female professor at the university of Paris, and the first laureate to win two prizes in two different sciences. 

Lesson Four: Don’t try to be the best, try to be the first. While there could be arguments over the significance of Curie’s discoveries, her achievements as the first woman are certainly undisputed.If you want to stand out in your profession, look out for the untapped potential rather than joining and trying to win a rat race. 

While she held the notion that radioactivity could be used for the benefit of mankind, worldwide recognition of Curie’s achievements gave her leverage to convince the French authorities to fund a new research center. The Radium Institute – now Curie Institute – was established in 1914, but before the institute could commence any earnest work, First World War erupted.

During the course of war, Curie decided to put her scientific knowledge to the service of humanity. With the help of her seventeen years old daughter, Irene, she set up mobile radiography medical units – came to be known as “petite Curies”– near battle lines to facilitate X-rays of wounded soldiers. By the end of the war, around one million injured soldiers had passed through her medical units. 

Convinced that radioactive rays could treat cancer tumors, Curie toured across the United States in 1921 to publicize a fund raising campaign so that she could get one gram of Radium for researching its medical applications. On May 20, in the Blue Room of the White House, President Warren G. Harding presented her one precious gram of Radium which she brought to France as a gift from America. 

Under Curie’s supervision, the Radium Institute in France went from strength to strength and made many useful discoveries during 1930s. Irene, her own daughter, followed her trail-blazing footsteps; working at the institute, Irene Curie and her husband Fredric won the 1935 Nobel Prize in chemistry for creating an artificial radioactive element. The Curie Institute continues to do important research work till today.

 Lesson Five: Think about your professional legacy. What was Marie Curie’s legacy: a couple of new elements, numerous Nobel Prizes, perhaps no. Curie left behind a better world – for women, for Polish people, and for scientists – than she had been born into. Leave your legacy: a better place for those who follow you.  

Marie Curie died in 1934 at an age of 66 years. It is widely believed that exposure to Radium- her most promising find- had caused an irreparable damage to Curie’s health, eventually taking her life. 

Five Professional Lessons from Darwin’s Scientific Career

THE BOY’S NAME WAS CHARLES. His father, Robert Darwin, a doctor himself, wanted his son to study medicine. So young Charles Darwin was sent to Edinburgh University Medical School –the finest medical college in Britain – where his elder brother Erasmus was already enrolled. Contrary to his father’s ambitions, Charles found the lectures intolerably dull; the dissection of animals was a horrific sight for him and he often escaped the place in disgust.

Charles had a peculiar taste for natural history rather than medicine. As soon as his father learned about his lack of interest in medicine, Charles Darwin was presented a second career choice: to be a clergyman which, after a little bit of thought, he accepted. However, before undertaking a vocation as solemn as priesthood, he was enrolled in the Cambridge University for studying arts. 

Most of us know Charles Darwin as a naturalist, not as a priest. Ironically, he was condenmed as a “heathen” whose ideas were in stark conflict with the clergy his father wanted him to join. He would later recall in his autobiography:

Considering how fiercely I have been attacked by the orthodox, it seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman. Nor was this intention and my father’s wish ever formerly given up but died a natural death”. 

Lesson One: Do not force yourself or let others force you to make specific career choices. Your profession is a significant part of your life; you must choose it wisely and deliberately.  Newton’s mother forced him to be a farmer rather than a scientist, but he resisted. Similarly, Darwin’s father wanted him to be a physician at first, and then a pastor. However, unlike Newton, Darwin had nearly accepted priesthood as his future profession. As it turned out, fate had other plans for him.  

Darwin spent a major portion of his stay at Cambridge collecting beetles. Nonetheless, he found a special friend at the campus­­ – John Stevens Henslow – a botany professor who was about to play the most significant role in the subsequent making of Charles Darwin as we know him today.

As he graduated from Cambridge University in 1831, Charles Darwin was on his way to be a priest as his father desired. Meanwhile, he joined a course on geology which saw him traveling to Wales to map out rocks and soil. When he returned from his Wales trip, a letter from Henslow awaited him. There was an expedition going along the HMS Beagle and Henslow had proposed his name to join the ship as a naturalist.  

Initially, Robert Darwin objected saying that this trip would entail a huge loss of his son’s time. He thought it as youngster’s excuse for avoiding his career in clergy. However, upon involvement of Charles’ uncle, the elder Darwin agreed to finance the trip. This was destined to be the most influential voyage in the known human history – a voyage that uprooted the long-held beliefs about the nature of life on earth. 

Lesson Two: Make sincere friends who can see your strengths and support you in your career. As you have seen here and will find out later in this tale, Henslow was instrumental in creating opportunities for Darwin without being jealous or biased. Just like Edmond Halley encouraged and supported Newton in publication of Principia.

On December 27, 1831, HMS Beagle embarked its journey. While the Beagle surveyed and chartered the American coastlines, young Darwin would stay on land collecting specimens and taking copious notes. Though not an experienced botanist, Darwin was a man of intent. Despite being seasick at times, he remained diligent with his specimen collection and notes taking. By the end of the voyage, he had compiled a dairy of 770 pages and had cataloged more than five thousand skins, bones, and carcasses. 

The trip was originally planned for two years but it actually took five years to complete. Every now and then, Darwin would send his collected specimens to Henslow at Cambridge who, with unparalleled sincerity, presented and popularized Darwin’s work in the academic circles.By the time the Beagle landed back in October 1836, Darwin was no longer a juvenile looking forward to becoming a priest. He was a kind of celebrity who had seen natural wonders no other Brit had ever witnessed.  

Lesson Three: Make extra efforts in the beginning of your career. Darwin was inexperienced as a biologist, but he made up for his shortcomings through extensive notes taking and specimen collection. You may not be the smartest in a new field, but hard work seldom goes unrewarded.    

Funded by his wealthy father, who was by now convinced that his son’s original talent was somewhere else, Darwin did extensive research over his collected specimens. By 1839, Charles Darwin had his theory on evolution of life through natural selection. Though he himself was convinced about his results yet he was fully aware of the consequences of the publication of his concepts: clerics would certainly deem his ideas as a blasphemy, an affront to religious scriptures. So he kept his ideas to himself for many years while continuing his research on plant and animal species thus fine tuning the details.

In 1856, two decades after his Beagles voyage, Darwin started writing a book incorporating the gist of his ideas. Though public sense of science had improved during these years, yet he apprehended that the publication of his concepts concerning human evolution could lead to a national uproar causing problems for him and his family.

While he was halfway through his book, Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, who had indicated that while working on animal species as a naturalist in the islands of Malay Archipelago, he had found conclusions nearly the same as those of Darwin. While Wallace had sought Darwin’s views on his research as a respected biologist, the latter went into a professional dilemma: if Darwin delayed his publication further, the opportunity could be seized by someone else. 

Contrary to Darwin’s apprehensions, the matter was sorted wisely: joint extracts of Darwin’s and Wallace’s findings were read at the Linnean Society. Surprisingly, the presentation (which Darwin couldn’t attend due to his son’s death) failed to cause much social stir. 

Lesson Four: Don’t live in your comfort zone and try to seize the opportunity before someone else grabs it. Darwin delayed the publication of his theory for nearly two decades. Unless he felt a threat that another man could take credit for a similar work, he did not take the initiative. Off course, he had solid reasons for delaying the publication but then those reasons could persist forever.     

Once the Wallace crisis was averted, Darwin, despite his health problems and family turmoil (two of his ten children passed away at young age), started working towards his main idea. Fully aware of the nature of objections that could arise, he used his two decades of research to find convincing answers.

Finally, in 1859, The Origin of Species was published which sparked significant interest on international level. It was translated into several languages and its popularity can be compared to any international bestseller on today’s Amazon list.

Lesson Five: Prepare well before presenting a critical idea. Darwin had concluded his theory during 1830s but did not have all the answers. Learning from the Wallace episode, he started working diligently on his ideas to address anticipated objections. Bottomline:  if you are not prepared, don’t present your idea;  a bad impression is far worse than no impression at all.       

Charles Darwin died in 1882, having lived for 73 years. His idea of natural selection would not become a widely accepted principle until 1930s which meant only Darwin’s son Leonard lived on to see his efforts to fruition.

Five Professional Lessons from Faraday’s Scientific Career

HE HATED HIS JOB but loved the company of the books around him. His name was Michael Faraday. Born in suburbs of London to a blacksmith, the boy was too poor to be formally educated.  Nevertheless, apprenticed to a book binder at the age of fourteen, young Faraday used the opportunity to read extensively for next seven years. He would read every book that came to him for binding, and found a special adoration for science; electricity, in particular.  

As he turned twenty, Faraday got an opportunity to attend lectures of Sir Humphry Davy – the inventor of laughing gas and the most eminent British chemist of his time. He was fascinated by the lectures and scribbled furiously on his notebook as Davy addressed. Subsequently, he compiled a 300 pages book – a synthesis of what he had learnt at the binder’s shop and during the lectures– and sent it to Davy, who was fairly impressed by the youngster’s zeal towards science. 

And then came the first stroke of luck for Faraday. During one of his experiments, things went wrong for Davy and his eyesight was severely affected; he started looking for someone who could take notes for him, preferably someone who knew a little bit about chemistry.  Upon recommendation of one of his customers at the binding shop, Michael Faraday was able to join Sir Humphry Davy as an assistant a little while later. He had found his dream job. 

Lesson One: Seek to create growth opportunities even if they don’t seem to exist. Faraday had no hopes to join an educational institute ever; but he converted the book binder’s shop into a school – an alma mater that eventually got him to a position that others with proper erudition could desire but never attain.

As soon as Davy recovered his sight, Faraday was sent back to work at the binder’s shop. It seemed luck had played a trick with him. Despite his repeated letters to Davy, begging to be considered for even the most menial of scientific posts, he always received the same response that there were no openings at the Royal Institute. A couple of months went by like this. 

Eventually, in February 1813, Faraday had his final piece of good fortune. One of the laboratory assistants at Royal Institute  got involved in a public brawl and was dismissed from his post on account of misconduct.  Davy sent for Faraday and offered him the job with a good salary and accommodation along with the desired research facilities.  The poor book binder’s apprentice was on the way of becoming one of the greatest scientists of all times. 

Lesson Two: Do not loose hope if luck seems to be against you. It could be a temporary trial. Faraday was fortunate as unfortunate Davy met an accident; then he felt unfortunate for being sent back to the binder’s shop; then luck favored him again as a vacancy was created at the Royal Institute due to a public brawl. Luck is an unknown, uncontrollable force; it could change direction at any time. The best you can do is to be persistent in your efforts towards your desired goals. 

Coming from humble origins and lacking formal education, Faraday was not considered a gentleman and often disdained by upper class peers. Once during a trip across Europe, Davy’s wife refused to treat him as an equal and made him eat with servants; Faraday felt so miserable that he thought of returning to England alone and giving up his scientific endeavors for good. But he stuck in for his love of science. 

In 1821, at the age of thirty, Faraday got his first major breakthrough: the first electric motor; the first device to use electric current to make a material object move. Though primitive in form, this motor was the ancestor of all the electric motors in use in the world today. It was a momentous achievement by a nearly illiterate outcast, purely by dint of his sheer diligence towards scientific pursuit. 

Lesson Three: Be prepared to face suffering in pursuit of your aims. Faraday was often humiliated in the class-based British society of nineteenth century; but he held his goals higher than himself, thought them more important than his own ego. So though he suffered, but not without a purpose. Suffering with a purpose makes it meaningful, rather enjoyable.

Faraday revered Humphry Davy as his mentor. Davy took him in as an apprentice when others scorned him as a lowly pariah. Under his mentoring, Faraday was winning laurels; but gradually Faraday’s brilliance started to overshadow Davy’s own achievements. This aroused a not so uncommon resentment between the mentor and the pupil. 

Davy was an influential aristocrat, while Faraday, irrespective of his feats, was still a blacksmith’s son. Influential Davy used his stature to snub his pupil’s work; a relentless Faraday continued his independent research in the field of electrochemistry.  It took Davy several years to overcome his insecurities. When asked what his greatest discovery was, an elderly Davy simply replied, “Michael Faraday.”  

Lesson Four: Don’t let jealousy spoil your personal and professional relationships. Sir Humphry Davy was a remarkable scientist but his student, Michael Faraday, surpassed his brilliance. Davy’s resentment took him nowhere; eventually, he had to embrace Faraday as his most promising find.  

Faraday was excellent at conducting experiments. However, lacking formal education, he did not possess the necessary mathematical skills. Though he had postulated that light is a form of electromagnetic energy, he could never validate it quantitatively. Being ill-equipped to prove his proposition, he was often ridiculed in the scientific community. 

It took another genius to show that Faraday’s extraordinary idea was in fact correct.  James Clerk Maxwell, some forty years his junior, came to the rescue of an aging, and now forgetful, Faraday. Maxwell, a Cambridge alumnus, used his mathematical prowess to prove the existence of the invisible electromagnetic fields that Faraday had intuited.

Lesson Five: Identify and accept your weaknesses; do seek help when you lack the skills. Faraday, despite his talent as an experimenter, did not possess the mathematical expertise to prove his theory. He accepted his weakness, sought help from Maxwell, and the collaboration resulted in a crucial success. 

In August 1867, Michael Faraday died at an age of 75 years. Thus ends the tale of human endeavor with an ultimate triumph – a triumph that has given us everything from electricity to modern day communication systems.

Five Professional Lessons from Newton’s Scientific Career

HE WAS BORN THREE MONTHS AFTER HIS FATHER’S DEATH. Named after his late father – Isaac Newton – his life started as a solitary child. When he was three years old, his mother married for the second time and moved with her new husband, leaving him to the care of his grandparents. When he was eleven, his stepfather passed away and his mother returned along with a couple of half siblings.  

Although a bright child, Isaac was often inattentive in school. When he turned seventeen, his mother took him out of school hoping that he will be more successful as a farmer. Fortunately, her assessment didn’t prove to be true; when sent out to look after the sheep, he spent the day designing ingenious mechanical devices instead of tending the cattle. Eventually, his mother had to renounce her thoughts and send her back to school.

In 1661, Newton entered Trinity College at Cambridge. During those times, Cambridge was almost entirely reserved for the sons of the aristocracy, which Newton was obviously not. Moreover, his mother, though not lacking in means, was not willing to spend much on his education. Consequently, he had to earn his keep by performing menial tasks for fellows from affluent families. More than three centuries after, no one knows the names of those affluent nobles while Isaac Newton is still hailed as the most influential scientist that ever walked the planet. 

Lesson One: Do not let the external circumstances dictate your career choices. Newton had a turbulent childhood­ – he could have ended as a farmer as his mother desired. But he was persistent in his craving for scientific knowledge. If you have a specific motive in your personal or professional life and the odds seem to be against you, don’t give in; just remain determined with your goals.  

In the year 1664, plague broke out in Britain. The epidemic was so severe that Cambridge University was forced to close its doors. Most of the students would have taken it as an opportunity to ease off on studying a bit. However, Newton was no ordinary student. He returned home but continued his scientific research with fervor.  During this period, Newton conducted various experiments focused on optics and motion; these leisurely studies laid the foundation for his later scientific achievements. 

Lesson Two: Make the best use of the free time available to you. Upon closure of the university, Newton could have spent his time playing and rejoicing but he valued time as a precious resource. Time is probably the most precious personal resource in your life. In fact, life itself is time; your life is primarily the time allotted to you for living in this world. So learn to appreciate its value and utilize this limited personal resource to further your desired goals.

Between his twenty-first and twenty-seventh years, Newton had laid the foundations for the scientific theories that subsequently revolutionized the world. But he was always reluctant to publish his results. Thus, many of his theories were not made public until much later. Principia, arguably the most significant piece of scientific work, had to wait for two decades before publication; and that too upon strong persuasion from Sir Edmund Halley – the Halley Comet fame and a contemporary of Newton.

Despite being brilliant himself, newton feared criticism from other scientists and made every effort to avoid controversy. Perhaps the insecurities from his flustered upbringing were still ingrained in the youngster’s brain, ruining his abilities to confront the world with confidence. Ironically, his tendency to avert disputes led to a major intellectual controversy that could have deprived him from one of his foremost credits – the invention of integral calculus – the mathematical study of change.

In 1669, Newton wrote a paper delineating the fundamentals of calculus. Nonetheless, it was not published until 1711– a gap of 42 years! Incidentally, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German mathematician, published his work on calculus in 1886 and claimed the invention. Upon this, Newton declared that he had invented it much earlier and Leibniz had merely stolen his ideas. Today the common wisdom is that both great mathematicians invented the field independently. 

 
Lesson Three: Be assertive with your ideas and don’t hesitate to express them to the world. Newton was so afraid of being confronted that he always avoided publication of his concepts. Had Edmund Halley not persuaded him; Principia might have never been published – the world could have been a much darker place. So folks, open your thoughts to other people; let them disagree and criticize. This may seem intimidating at first blush, but it will lead you to a path of growth and development. 

Leibniz was not the only rival that Newton’s popularity earned him. By 1672, the Royal Society –the most eminent scientific institution in Britain – got wind of Newton’s brilliance and invited him to publish his work on light and color. In this paper, Newton posited that light is composed of particles. This was a radical notion for many at the Society; one of its members named Robert Hook– often credited with the discovery of living cells­– led the pack of skeptics and called Newton’s results a mere “hypothesis”.

After weathering the criticism for a couple of months, Newton bent his back on finding mathematical proofs for his theories. Though the two scientists remained adversaries till Hook’s demise in 1703, the constant pressure from Hook on Newton forced him to bring significant mathematical refinements in his scientific concepts. Thus, in a way, Robert Hook proved to be a friend rather than a foe. 

Lesson Four: Try to find friends in your foes. Those who criticize or belittle you are mostly viewed as your enemies, and they often are. Robert Hook criticized Newton’s ideas but Newton used that criticism as an opportunity to improve his work. If people laugh at your presentation, don’t drown yourself in a river of embarrassment. Rather identify what made them laugh and improve on that. Easier said than done, but definitely worth practicing.  

Newton’s lifetime was a period of great scientific upheaval. Though scientists like Copernicus and Galileo had shunned the misconceptions of ancient scientific thought, science as a knowledge was more of a loose assortment of seemingly unrelated facts.  Besides, pure science was often viewed as a plaything of intellectuals and no one believed if it could be of any practical significance. 

It was Isaac Newton who, building upon the works of his predecessors –Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus– supplied a unified theory that could make scientific predictions, and subsequently be applied to bring about the technological revolution that seems so mundane to us today. Newton himself realized and acknowledged the importance of the foundations laid by his forerunners. In his own words,

“If I have seen further than others, it is because I have been standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Lesson Five: Never hesitate to learn from others’ ideas. Newton studied the concepts of his precursors and then synthesized them to build the unified theory that led to the scientific and technological advances. Following the footsteps of Newton, dear readers, don’t hesitate to learn from seniors and peers and upon that learning, construct the building of your own ideas.  And yes, don’t forget to acknowledge the contribution of people from whom you learn.

Newton was knighted and died a superstar in 1731. His theories received unanimous acceptance across the world, until Albert Einstein appeared on the scene beginning of twentieth century.