Drop that nervous tension

21 February 1999

Be warned, some of our everyday speech is becoming unacceptable to the authorities. I refer to the high international authorities that set our scientific and technical standards. In the temples of the ISO and the IEC it is deemed unprincipled to call a quantity by any name like that of its measuring unit. Yet, for a long time, the vocabulary of our electrical world has violated principle: we have spoken of voltage – even of amperage and wattage – when discussing electrical entities. So the authorities intend to banish voltage and enthrone tension in English usage.

What if context does not make clear that the tension to which you refer is not of the sort exerted in material testing machines, or of the kind created in human situations? What if, for instance, you have to clarify that you are not concerned about wind and gravity but potential difference when you allude to tension in overhead transmission cables? Or you have to make plain that, more terminally, your concern is a method of execution that is neither rack nor gallows but the electric chair?

Such distresses have been foreseen and catered for. When confusion threatens we are allowed to say electric tension, not just tension. Experience in languages other than English, where they too give different meanings to single words, shows that this causes no problems, declare the authorities, citing the French tension and the German Spannung in evidence.

Accept, therefore, that henceforward voltages will not be approved in polite company. The authorities say they want the change 'as soon as possible', and they call for it to be promoted.

But they do acknowledge it may need 'several decades' to be brought about. So we can relax.

Save the sweat of your brow

One of our industry's hallowed patriarchs, Edison, was not always right. Among his most grievous misjudgements was his condemnation of new-fangled alternating current. His much-quoted aphorism, 'Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration', was conclusively rubbished for me by a comment in, of all places, the staff newspaper of the oil major, British Petroleum. The writer asked how Edison's dictum could be reconciled with the sweatless sleight of mind shown by the great mathematician, Gauss, while at school.

“The authorities intend to ban voltage”

One day in the 1780s Gauss's teacher, wanting a respite, told his class to add up all the numbers from one to a hundred. Before the tired master had properly sat down the young Gauss had trotted up to him with the answer, 5050, which the lad had not totted up but had deduced. He had dodged the drudgery imposed on his classmates by spotting that, if the column of figures from one to a hundred were placed line by line alongside a column of figures from a hundred to one, the sums of all the neighbouring pairs of figures (1 + 100, 2 + 99, 3 + 98 ... 100 + 1) would add up to a hundred times 101, or 10 100, and the sum of either column had to be half of 10 100.

Which is not to say that Edison was not a genius too, but rather that his genius lay in something other, and greater, than the hard work directed by it.

Flaubert, the nineteenth-century French novelist, whose genius was different again from that of Edison and Gauss, is perhaps best remembered for his creation of Madame Bovary. Much less famously, he thought that the four greatest evils of civilization in his day were railways, factories, chemists and mathematicians. I guess that, asked similarly to judge our times, Flaubert would keep mathematicians in his list, even if he substituted power stations for factories.

Scouts probe power crime

The new rage, I hear, is catching power thieves. Human meter readers are turning into detectives. They go forth armed with compact meters and loggers which they connect to tappable points near suspects' premises. The sleuths may do this either openly or surreptitiously. They can come back later to extract stored data or they can read the evidence at base by radio or telephone. The power usage monitors are supposedly unrecognizable as such, but you can never be too careful on the gumshoe trail.

It is good to know that healthy outdoor careers can be extended for at least some of a fine body of men, threatened as they have been with extinction by automatic remote-reading meters.


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