Introduction to human energy
The great scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla coined the term human energy in an essay he wrote in 1900, in which he related all human progress to simple physics.
This idea has largely gone unnoticed amid his myriad other inventions and original thoughts. But it shouldn’t any longer. We are going to re-examine his ideas on human energy andqu find ways to relate them to actually making a difference in our world. After all, that was what he was aiming for.
Owing to this universal property and condition, a body, be it at rest or in motion, tends to remain in the same state, and a force, manifesting itself anywhere and through whatever cause, produces an equivalent opposing force, and as an absolute necessity of this it follows that every movement in nature must be rhythmical.
In other words: The human mass is moved forward by an accelerating force and slowed by an impeding force that is both partly negative and partly frictional.
Tesla believed the fundamental goal of all scientists should be to solve the problem of increasing this human energy—something we will explore now.
Click here to read Nikola Tesla’s original essay The Problem of Increasing Human Energy.
A little science
Tesla’s idea was grounded firmly in the principles of thermodynamics. He advised that we should conceive of man as a mass that is urged on by some force. The energy of this mass can be measured by well-known principles.
But in any given moment we may ignore these slow changes and assume that human energy is measured by half the product of man’s mass with the square of a certain hypothetical velocity. However we may compute this velocity, and whatever we may take as the standard of its measure, we must, in harmony with this conception, come to the conclusion that the great problem of science is, and always will be, to increase the energy thus defined.
What does this mean?
Man, or mass, is pushed forward by some force. This force is resisted by a second force, partly frictional and partly negative, which acts in a direction exactly opposite.
Mechanically, think of a train moving up a hill. Gravity acts as the resisting force. Socially, think of a student moving through the school system. Poor schools act as the resisting force. Making sense?
In this diagram:
– M represents the mass
– f represents the force acting positively
– R represents the resisting force
Tesla describes these variables in physics terms:
To increase the human energy is, therefore, equivalent to increasing this product.
There are three ways to increase this human energy:
1. Increase the mass
2. Reduce the resisting force
3. Increase the velocity or impelling force
Each solution involves different degrees of effort and impact, each of which will now be discussed in detail.
1. Increase the mass in human energy
Back to the concept of mass – remember, we equate this to population, in human energy terms.
In other words: the greater the population, the greater the human energy. Naturally, we need to do our best to preserve this population and increase it. Assuming the same level of production per capita, a greater population on its own will be good for society. Although we know greater populations require more land, resources, jobs, food, etc., if we can assume positive returns in productivity per person, then growing populations are good for the human energy system.
More workers, more output, more customers, and so on. This is what we want. How do we achieve this?
Either the mass added is of the same velocity as the old, or it is of a smaller or of a higher velocity.
Tesla relates this to a train running with 100 locomotives on a track. To increase the energy of this moving mass, you decide to add 4 locomotives.
If the added locomotives are of the same velocity, the total train energy will increase 4%.
If, however, you add 4 locomotives of half the average velocity of the first 100 to this train, then the total energy will increase by 1%. On the other hand, adding 4 locomotives at twice the velocity as average will increase the total train energy by 16%.
While this is a critical piece of the human energy equation, velocity will be examined in the third part of this guide. For now we will focus simply on the addition of compartments to the train.
How do we increase the mass?
Things that harm our bodies and shorten our lifespans can be though to reduce the human mass. A combination of voluntary vices like drugs, alcohol, and harmful activities as well as involuntary events like disease and natural disasters all play a part in reducing the mass.
It makes sense then that reducing the frequency of these activities would be in the best interest here.
While voluntary vices have a significant impact on society, reducing the involuntary things like disease provides a much better long-term return on investment.
Ensuring people have clean drinking water in sufficient quantities should be a top concern in all areas. Along the same lines, we should concern ourselves with feeding everyone healthy food at reasonable prices.
A person’s health is made up of a combination of internal and external factors. Beyond mere genetics, a person’s choices and environment greatly impact the long-term health he can expect to achieve.
Source: Stanford Social Innovation Review
So in addition to minimizing tobacco and alcohol use, a person should focus just as hard on supplying her body sufficient water and food.
There is no doubt that some plant food, such as oatmeal, is more economical than meat, and superior to it in regard to both mechanical and mental performance. Such food, moreover, taxes our digestive organs decidedly less, and, in making us more contented and sociable, produces an amount of good difficult to estimate. In view of these facts every effort should be made to stop the wanton and cruel slaughter of animals, which must be destructive to our morals. To free ourselves from animal instincts and appetites, which keep us down, we should begin at the very root from which we spring: we should effect a radical reform in the character of the food.
Bottom line: Beyond merely increasing the population, we must ensure the population is of sufficient health. This can be achieved through clean water, healthy food, and reduction in unhealthy activities.
How do we quantify mass?
Mass is the most easily quantified component of human energy. It is basically population. Or more specifically it can be broken out as the number of residents, taxpayers, businesses, and so on. Residents make up the basic population count in any area. In addition to this, they add production value through buying things, working, and paying taxes. Similarly, businesses employ individuals, sell things to people, and pay taxes.
To increase the energy in any given city or state, it therefore makes sense to increase the number of residents who pay taxes and stimulate the economy through working and buying things.
You might also want to count the number of residents who are home- or land-owners, because this aids in property and other tax development.
Types of activities that increase population:
To increase the mass, we must attract people to an area. Rising property values, good schools, safe neighborhoods, and job opportunities are all attractive qualities in an area that wants to attract permanent residents.
Source: Active Rain
Naturally, the degree of each of these characteristics will vary depending on the type of people you want to attract. A bustling city looking to boost its economy will look to improve its infrastructure to attract business investment and property purchases. These will tend to increase job opportunities and the number of people who flock to fill them.
A quiet town, on the other hand, might look to keep its overall mass down, in order to preserve the lower overall costs of running the government and to keep the property values relatively high so as to reduce the number of people moving in.
Any place that wants to increase its mass must focus on improving the qualities that people will most likely move for. On the other hand, a place that’s content with its mass must focus on maintaining the qualities that keep the current people in place.
2. Reduce the resisting force on human energy
The simplest way to increase the human energy in any system is to increase the overall mass. But earlier we explored the priority of adding mass of a higher velocity to increase the energy at a higher rate.
The velocity has to do with both the force moving an object forward and the impeding force applied against it.
On the other hand, visionariness, insanity, self-destructive tendency, religious fanaticism, and the like, are all forces of a negative character, acting in definite directions. To reduce or entirely overcome these dissimilar retarding forces, radically different methods must be employed.
One knows, for instance, what a fanatic may do, and one can take preventive measures, can enlighten, convince, and, possibly direct him, turn his vice into virtue; but one does not know, and never can know, what a brute or an imbecile may do, and one must deal with him as with a mass, inert, without mind, let loose by the mad elements.
Tesla was clear in distinguishing between frictional and negative forces.
Frictional force acts in an unpredictable manner and cannot be counted on to be reversed or used to increase mass in a positive way. There are certain disabilities that are inherent in man that serve to limit specific individuals’ capacities (whether they be physical, mental, psychological, whatever). These limitations cannot typically be reapplied in a positive way, but their negative impact can certainly be reduced.
Negative force, on the other hand, acts in a directionally opposite way from positive forces. Think of things like hate, violence, and war. These typically surface through ignorance between groups of people. The inability or unwillingness of one group to understand another, often builds tension and conflict that leads to destructive forces in society.
Unlike frictional forces, these can be reversed. The energy is real with hate, it is just misdirected. Opening up a hateful person’s eyes to the other side’s perspective has the power to turn that negative force positive.
There can be no doubt that, of all the frictional resistances, the one that most retards human movement is ignorance.
Think of your ordinary, every-day language barrier. You may know some people who speak English as a second language, and you may find it harder to engage with them. Maybe communication is a little choppy. Certain cultural cues are lost in the exchange. This is exaggerated many times over among two people who don’t have any way to speak the same language.
Without the ability to communicate effectively with another person, the relationship suffers inherent friction.
Now add to the mix differences in religious beliefs, customs, work habits, priorities, and other things. You end up with a situation where it is near impossible for many multiple societies to see each other’s perspectives and deal effectively on a large scale. Even differences in currency have the ability to spark massive economic reforms across countries. Naturally, energy is lost translating meaning between people.
The ability to see other peoples’ perspectives is the ultimate way to reduce this ignorance, and in turn reduce the friction holding back human energy. Breaking down the ignorance that separates people of different races, nationalities, religions, and anything else, will enable the impelling force behind human energy to face less resistance.
Now, let’s take the example of war. Every prudent country funds a standing army—a line of defense to protect itself in international conflicts. The mere presence of a military implies something bad is going to happen, typically resulting in a loss of population (or mass).
When we consider the millions of individuals, often the ablest in mind and body, the flower of humanity, who are compelled to a life of inactivity and unproductiveness, the immense sums of money daily required for the maintenance of armies and war apparatus, representing ever so much of human energy, all the effort uselessly spent in the production of arms and implements of destruction, the loss of life and the fostering of a barbarous spirit, we are appalled at the inestimable loss to mankind which the existence of these deplorable conditions must involve. What can we do to combat best this great evil?
I mean, would we really need armed forces if we actually had complete and total peace worldwide? Of course not. Law and order absolutely require the presence of organized force.
If peace could be attained among societies, or even within our cities and towns, we could re-direct the wasteful energy spent on defense and criminal justice toward something more “velocity-adding” to society.
How do we quantify frictional and negative forces?
This is a much more difficult task than quantifying mass. Examining the activities that work against societal progress requires counting the number of negative events impacting the population.
Things that act in a negative direction against the human mass include crime, fires, natural disasters, and other destructive events. Things that act as friction toward progress include disease (mental, physical, and emotional), poor infrastructure, and anything that stands in the way of clear communication and dealing between different groups of people.
Types of activities that reduce the friction:
According to Adam Smith, governments serve three major purposes:
1. Defense against foreign powers
2. Law, order, and justice among its own people
3. Enabling of commerce through education and infrastructure
Certainly the first two categories address needs related to frictional and negative forces. And a good portion of the third category does as well.
General administration in governments allows for their continuing operation. Thought typically seen as a cost center for taxpayer dollars, it is important that some minimum level of government exist to maintain and enable a certain amount of public services.
Public safety departments help ensure the maintenance of the current population. Fire, police, and emergency medical services all work together to keep people alive, reduce crime rates, and limit destruction from negative events.
Health and welfare departments (including hospitals) also help maintain the mass. By keeping people healthy, governments reduce the friction that ends up surfacing among sick people unable to provide the same level of value to society as before.
Human services are part of a much broader category that typically addresses myriad frictional issues. Think about a homeless shelter. People who use this service are in desperate need of a home, without which, makes it hard for them to engage in value-adding activities in society. When the obstacle of finding a roof to put over their head is removed, they can more proactively find a job and a permanent place to live.
Criminal justice systems also address frictional and negative forces but in a much more balanced way. Whereas hospitals exist to heal people and bring them back to “full value,” oftentimes courts decide that someone is not a value-producing member in society and must be incarcerated. This is a costly decision, as the person cannot earn a wage, pay taxes, and contribute productively to society. However, these decisions have the ultimate value of society in mind, deeming the person more dangerous (a negative force) than productive (a positive force). So the marginal cost of removing this person from society should be a net positive in the long run, if done correctly.
3. Increase the velocity affecting human energy
Onto the most important solution to consider for increasing human energy: increasing the velocity.
When discussing velocity, we should revisit the example presented earlier. Remember, we wanted to increase the overall energy of a train by adding compartments to it. When compartments of higher energy are added to the train, the train’s overall energy is increased, and in turn so is the average energy of each compartment.
When compartments of lower energy are added, however, the train’s overall energy is increased, but at a much lower rate. And the average energy of each compartment is actually decreased.
Apply this example to society. Naturally we want to increase the mass. But additional mass added (again, additional population) will increase the overall energy of the system at varying rates.
Think of a person being born. Either this person will grow up to be of a “higher” or “lower” velocity than her parents. The overall opportunity of this person can be compared to those offered to her parents. Maybe she will be exposed to a better education. Maybe she won’t be forced to work at a young age. Maybe she will have more technology to aid in her learning and development than her parents.
How do we add mass of higher velocity?
Society is driven forward by the ability of individuals to work. Since the beginning of time, technological innovations have allowed for economizing of day-to-day tasks. Farming allowed for people to source food in centralized locations instead of hunting and gathering. Marketplaces allowed for people to buy their clothes instead of making their own. Even the concept of a corporation has allowed people to pool their resources in order to provide greater value than any one individual can.
What we have, as a result, is a collection of resources specializing in individual tasks that contribute to the overall system. One person makes shoes. One person slaughters animals. One person repairs furnaces. And so on.
This specialization has created an economy based on a much more efficient supply chain than one in which every family provided everything for themselves. Anything designed to make providing for oneself easier, can be said to increase the velocity at which mass moves forward.
And when there is an accidental stoppage of the machinery, when the city is snowbound, or the life sustaining movement otherwise temporarily arrested, we are affrighted to realize how impossible it would be for us to live the life we live without motive power. Motive power means work. To increase the force accelerating human movement means, therefore, to perform more work.
For simplicity, we will assume that the amount of work or output a person contributes to society equals his overall productivity and energy pushed through the system. Technological advances, in any form, tend to increase this amount of work, no matter the field. Farming, industrialization, vaccination, and many others help contribute to more efficiency and higher productivity for people.
In the same way that people can contribute ideas and effort to the overall human energy system, outside sources of energy clearly contribute to its increase as well. Coal, oil, wind, and solar are just a few of the many ways that we harness energy from our environment and use it to make our lives easier and more productive.
There can be no doubt that the first is the oldest way. A fire, found accidentally, taught the savage to appreciate its beneficial heat. He then very likely conceived of the idea of carrying the glowing members to his abode. Finally he learned to use the force of a swift current of water or air. It is characteristic of modern development that progress has been effected in the same order. The utilization of the energy stored in wood or coal, or, generally speaking, fuel, led to the steam-engine. Next a great stride in advance was made in energy-transportation by the use of electricity, which permitted the transfer of energy from one locality to another without transporting the material. But as to the utilization of the energy of the ambient medium, no radical step forward has as yet been made known.
Finding ways to harness energy from our environment and use it to enable commerce, education, and overall improvement of society is the easiest way to increase the velocity moving human energy forward.
How do we quantify velocity?
Velocity is probably the most difficult aspect to quantify in the human energy equation. At a high level, it is represented by anything that facilitates increased value or production in society.
We can attempt to quantify this measure by looking at social outcomes related to human achievement. Graduation rates, job attainment, wage growth, purchasing power…they’re all possible indicators.
In their own ways, these kinds of measures indicate efficiency and effectiveness in a society—the higher they go, the better off the people are, and the more able they are to produce and add value for the overall system.
Types of activities that increase velocity:
Several government services exist to improve the capabilities of its individuals.
Schooling is the first thing that comes to mind here. Typically making up over two thirds of a municipal budget, education is the primary spending category among local governments. They exist to teach children and prepare them for the real world, providing real life skills and theoretical knowledge to back them up. The better the schools, the more productive the students should become.
Other government services exist to facilitate commerce and the ability to do more work.
Public works ensure bridges and roads are in working order.
Transportation departments ensure people can get where the need to go.
Conservation and development agencies invest in programs to increase economic activity and sustainability.
Parks, recreation, and library departments help educate and entertain citizens while increasing property values for those living in a certain area. Again, if property values go up, the human energy equation is bolstered by increase tax receipts and resulting public spending on programs or increased spending power for the property owners.
A Note on Human Energy and Collaboration
Hopefully this type of thinking can help relate the many different components acting in society. Instead of seeing everything as competing agents, we can start to see the interplay of different activities and how certain shared outcomes are typically desired by many overlapping organizations.
A more collaborative business and political environment should help cut through some of the competitive tension that hurts many industries—perhaps none more-so than the nonprofit sector. Like the way businesses compete on the ground level for customers, nonprofits often battle over every little bit of funding they can get, creating waste and misalignment of outcomes.
But how can collaboration help remedy this? Imagine the following scenario:
Five similar nonprofit agencies, that each would produce the same general outcomes, compete for the same government grant. To win this much-needed funding, each organization submits bare-bones proposals in attempts to underbid the competition and win the contract.
This creates a major problem: agencies have a harder time meeting the original intended outcomes on such stripped-down proposals.
So instead of creating a cohesive strategy to split funding among five complementary agencies, all the money goes to one which is now unable to deliver based on the low costs proposed.
Nonprofits exist to create better outcomes for society in areas where profit-driven enterprises can’t compete—essentially picking up the slack left by public services but, overall, serving the same purpose.
Tying back to the human energy idea, we can see how this works. The most basic element of the energy equation is mass (or population). Mass ties very nicely to financial measures in the form of taxpayers versus tax receivers from a government perspective. So, in a way, to grow the human energy in any given city, it makes sense to calculate the total mass of taxpayers funding the government.
For example, removing people from prison and enabling them to lead productive, taxpaying, value-adding lives obviously benefits the community in which it takes place.
Human energy can quantify these types of outcomes and financial tools like social impacts bonds can be used to fund them.
Now, what if the other elements of human energy (which, admittedly, are much more difficult to quantify) could be tied to dollars in the same way that mass is? Outcomes achieved by nonprofits represent either increases in the force accelerating human progress or decreases in forces slowing progress.
Again, nonprofits already know their missions seek to achieve these goals, whether or not financial measures are easily attached to them. But without tangible proof of societal improvement, few governments have incentives to increase current funding without commensurate increases in taxes.
By taking the concept of human energy, we can bring together the many different agents in society to help produce better outcomes and a better life for everyone.