Aware of my Italian heritage, my webmaster in Montenegro, part of the former Yugoslavia, asked me which late 19th century innovator I liked more: Nikola Tesla, also from the former Yugoslavia, or Guglielmo Marconi from Italy? I get enthusiastic about innovators and entrepreneurs whatever their background, but couldn't help but throw someone in the ring who made his mark in Brooklyn.
Nikola Tesla's innovations led to numerous developments: from electric motors to remote control. Most famously he was a proponent of alternating current electricity over Thomas Edison's direct current. In 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair the legendary War of the Currents ended decisively when the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and Tesla's inventions illuminated the "City of Light" with one hundred thousand incandescent lamps to the delight of 27 million people.
It's no wonder that my friend, a prize winning amateur radio enthusiast (happily employed by the communications equipment maker Sky-Sat) chose Guglielmo Marconi as Tesla's worthy contender. Marconi was a relentless trailblazer who kick-started the nascent wireless communications and radio broadcasting industries. He is credited with the first transatlantic wireless communications. Marconi operators at sea saved lives. It was their SOS calls that summoned the RMS Carpathia to the rescue of over 700 passengers on the Titanic.
My favorite figure from late 19th century Brooklyn was neither an eccentric genius nor a pioneering entrepreneur. It was the bold visionary, Irving T. Bush. Native New Yorkers of a certain age remember when Bush Terminal was a bustling industrial complex on the Sunset Park waterfront. The story of how a handful of warehouses transformed into a virtual city within a city fascinates me. Historically, commodities spurred the industrial development of the other waterfront neighborhoods of today's Brooklyn. In DUMBO it was coffee. In Williamsburg, sugar. And in Red Hook it was the grain that traversed the Empire State via the Erie Canal.
But Irving T. Bush, scion of an old New York family, only had the money and property he inherited when his father died. He saw potential where others saw folly. Bush's Folly they called it. The story goes that without a catalyst to spur development, Bush sent an agent to Michigan to buy one hundred boxcar loads of hay and demand that they be shipped to his new terminal. Only the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad agreed, eventually floating the boxcars from Manhattan's west side to Sunset Park, Brooklyn. This humble start effectively established a connection between Bush Terminal and the rest of the country. Later, to draw oceangoing vessels to his piers, Bush muscled into the banana importing business. From late 19th century through the first half of the 20th, Bush Terminal would become the "Triangle of Efficiency." Manufacturing. Shipping. Warehousing. Tens of thousands of Brooklynites worked there and everything from bubble gum to toasters was made there.
Thanks in part to Tesla, I'll never take a power outlet for granted. Tesla continues to inspire the likes of Elon Musk who's electric car maker is the most valuable car company in the United States. Marconi's company lasted in one form or another for well over a century and the Marconi Prize is awarded annually to innovators in the field of communications. As for Bush, his name graces Bush Tower, a skyscraper on 42nd Street in Manhattan, and Bush House in London. In Brooklyn, there's Bush Terminal Park and in 2021 the Made in NY Campus at Bush Terminal will open. The bulk of the old Bush Terminal is now called Industry City "an innovation ecosystem" with hundreds of businesses employing thousands of people.
I wonder which Brooklynite to cheer for next. Maybe it will be a student inspired by NASA's Moon to Mars Artemis program. Or the founder of a start up who enters the "Race to 5G'' fifth generation cellular networks. I would really like to cheer for one who has the courage to take on the controversial field of waste-to-energy. Creativity, ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit are very much alive in today's Brooklyn. Fortunately, I have many to cheer for in the here and now.