When I first heard about Dorrian Porter's plan to raise $123,000 to honor inventor Nikola Tesla by erecting a statue of him in Silicon Valley, I had one thought: That's kind of kooky.
I mean, you want to honor invention in Silicon Valley, how about a statue for radio pioneer Lee de Forest, who actually worked here? Or Stanford engineering dean Frederick Terman, who nurtured the valley's tech culture and helped Bill Hewlett and David Packard get their start. In fact, how about H and P themselves? Or Robert Noyce, a father of the semiconductor. Or even Steve Jobs, though for me it's a little soon after his death to grant him statue status.
But Tesla? An eccentric guy whose contribution was huge, but also a guy who's most closely associated with New York? Kooky.
Then it struck me: Kooky was the same thought many had when Tesla was explaining his theories and ideas about electricity and wireless communication in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And while some of Tesla's ideas were out there, it was in a way the cost of doing business for someone who wanted to push technology forward in very big ways. Tesla, after all, essentially came up with our modern electricity system, without which your iPhone wouldn't be much good. And he was way ahead of the curve on this wireless communication thing -- even if some doubted his claim that he'd received signals from outer space near the turn of the 20th century.
What is it they say? Go big or go home. Tesla went very big.
"About four years ago, when I learned about him," Porter says, "I was kind of fascinated by his under-appreciation."
Porter was determined to see to it that people thought about something other than electric luxury cars when they heard the name Tesla. See, Porter is an entrepreneur -- a guy who emigrated from Canada, went to work for valley law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati at the height of the dot-com boom, then started and sold two companies of his own. He knows something about what it's like to believe in an idea and go for it when others have their doubts.
That's one thing he likes about Tesla, an immigrant from modern-day Croatia who settled in New York and developed the alternating current system of electricity that we use today. But more important, Porter says, is that Tesla invented for the sake of innovation and not because he wanted to get rich.
No question Tesla was a prolific inventor, receiving hundreds of patents for his work on electricity, magnetic fields, radio waves and wireless transmissions, which helped with breakthroughs in energy and communications. He worked with Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. He had a dream of making electricity free for all people. And he died a poor man in New York City in 1943.
"Those all seem highly relevant to the future of the globe today, and an opportunity that Silicon Valley should be thinking about in a much bigger way," Porter, 40, says of Tesla's work in communication and energy. "We get very excited about Instagram, when in fact, Silicon Valley could probably be getting more excited about how do we drive down the cost of energy and save natural resources, and connect people."
It's all about what the valley should be celebrating, Porter says. And so, he proposes a reminder: A 6-foot-2 bronze statue on a pedestal outside the building at Birch Street and Sheridan Avenue in Palo Alto, where Porter keeps an office. Porter has launched a campaign on crowdfunding site Kickstarter to raise the money. And he's recruited his 91-year-old landlord, Harold Hohbach, a kindred spirit who's commissioned huge portraits to honor other technology pioneers.
"They talk about Tesla, the car, that's what you always hear about," says Hohbach, who's willing to place the art piece on his land. "I think Tesla is an inventor who hasn't really gotten the credit that he deserves."
Tesla wasn't perfect. He apparently suffered obsessive compulsive disorder -- fear of germs, obsession with the number 3, a need to use 18 napkins with every meal. And in the mid-1930s, he wrote in support of eugenics as a way to improve the human race. But Porter is focused more on how his brilliant mind propelled technology forward.
You might be thinking that Porter must have some time on his hands, and you'd be right. He sold his most recent company, Mozes, which specialized in mobile marketing, in January. But the statue project is not an idle hobby. Porter is launching an idea incubator called Northern Imagination. He wants to build a company that can help inspire creative projects -- for-profit and nonprofit -- and pull together the various parts needed to make them happen.
The statue is something of a beta project, though Porter says, "I probably won't do too many statue projects moving forward." And though the Kickstarter effort is off to a slow start, Porter says he believes last-minute money will come in before the June 2 deadline. It seems like a long shot, maybe impossible, in fact.
But in the name of Nikola Tesla, what could be more appropriate?
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.