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402 Topics: Famous Americans - Nikola Tesla; the Three Stooges; king versus royalty; in an attempt to versus in an effort to; accuracy versus precision

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast English Café number 402.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 402. I'm your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Go to our website at ESLPod.com. Why? Well, we want you to become a member of ESL Podcast and download the Learning Guide for this episode. You can also take a look at our ESL Podcast special courses in business and daily English.

On this Café, we’re going to continue our series on famous Americans, focusing on Nikola Tesla, who was, or became, an American citizen. We’re also going to talk about a comedy team that was very famous in the 20th century and that most Americans know about called “The Three Stooges,” and as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let's get started.

We begin this Café with the continuation of our series on famous Americans. Today, we’re going to talk about an inventor and an electrical engineer named Nikola Tesla. Tesla was born in 1856 in what was then the Austrian Empire, in the country of what is now called Croatia. But he moved to New York in 1884 and became a U.S. citizen in 1891. I said that Tesla was born in what is now modern-day Croatia, but his parents were actually Serbian. So, he could be properly called a Serbian American.

Tesla was very smart, very intelligent, and normally was a very good student, but he also had some problems in schooling. He never finished his degree. He never finished his studies formally. However, Tesla began working at a telegraph company in Budapest in 1881, and at that company, he learned quite a bit.

A “telegraph” is a system that used to, anyway, transmit signals through an electrical connection, an electrical wire, an electrical line, usually using some sort of code. In the United States, that was Morse code, where you have a series of short and long sounds – what are sometimes called dots and dashes – to communicate the message. So, it could be something like [sound of Morse code]. That would be ESLPOD in Morse code. Pretty good, huh? Not bad. Thank you.

Anyway, Tesla worked at a telegraph company and made many improvements on the equipment. He was considered one of the smarter people there at the company. Eventually, he went on to work at a company in France called the Continental Edison company – a company that was owned by the famous inventor Thomas Edison. Tesla continued working later at the Edison Company in New York City. That's how he ended up in the United States.

He first worked as an electrical engineer. In that work, he began to redesign and make changes to the company's equipment. Edison didn't really believe Tesla could make certain improvements. He doubted whether Tesla was going to be able to do the things he said he could do. So, he told Tesla that he would give him $50,000 if he could do it now. Now remember, this is in the 19th century when $50,000s was probably the equivalent of, oh, I don't know – 10, 20, 30 times that amount in today's money. It was a lot of money. Tesla however, proved Edison wrong, that is, he showed it Edison that he was wrong, that he could make these improvements. However, when he asked for the money from Edison, after making these improvements, Edison laughed and said that he had been joking. He wasn't serious. Instead, he just offered Tesla a small increase in pay.

Well, Tesla understandably was very upset, very angry. I would be angry too, and he resigned, or left his job. The following year, the next year, in 1886, he created his own company called the Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing Company. He wanted the company to develop his ideas for something called alternating current, or what we simply call AC. The other kind of electricity is called direct current, or DC. There was a rock band called AC/DC. It had nothing to do with electricity, however, or Nikola Tesla.

Tesla wanted his company to work on this new idea of alternating current. However, the investors didn't agree with him. The people who were giving him money for the company didn't like his ideas about developing technology related to alternating current, so they fired him. They fired him from his own company.

Now, Tesla appears to be a man who didn't have very good luck. However, he started another company, the Tesla Electric Company not Electrical Light and Manufacturing, just Electric Company, and he began working on his alternating current motor and some other inventions.

He succeeded. He was successful and received a patent for his work. A “patent” is legal protection for something that you have created so that nobody else decides to use it. These new inventions caused other investors to give Tesla money. Tesla took that money and tried to invent new things. He worked a lot on X-rays – photographic images made with electromagnetic radiation. We use X-rays now a lot in medicine. For example, when you go to the dentist, the dentist will often take an X-ray of your tooth to see whether it's broken or needs to be repaired.

Tesla also apparently developed an early form of a remote controlled boat. “Remote-controlled” means that he was controlling the movement of this little boat using radio waves, not actually being on the boat. This was considered an amazing thing by those who saw it.

Tesla’s experiments became bigger and more powerful as he got more money and more fane. By the end of his life, he had more than 300, or approximately 300, patents for his inventions. So, like Thomas Edison himself, he was a very prolific inventor.

“Prolific” (prolific) is someone who produces a lot. A prolific author would be someone who writes a lot of books. Tesla was a prolific inventor. As a man, he was also rather interesting. He was a “polyglot” (polyglot). A “polyglot” is someone who speaks many languages. Tesla spoke eight languages. People also say that he had a photographic memory. The idea of a “photographic memory” is someone who can recall or remember things that they see perfectly, without any sort of effort. He’s also said to have never slept more than two hours at a time, which is kind of difficult to believe.

He became a little eccentric, later in life. “To be eccentric” means to be a little weird, a little strange. It's almost a nice or polite way of describing someone who's a little, a little weird, a little strange. That is someone who is eccentric. He became a vegetarian, which doesn't make him eccentric nowadays, but he would eat only milk, bread, honey, and vegetable juice. He didn't like to shake hands, and he wanted to have everything in multiples of three.

So he would have to have three glasses of milk, not two glasses of milk, I guess. He became known as, what we would now call, a “mad scientist.” “To be “mad” (mad) can mean to be angry, but it can also mean to be crazy. A mad scientist would be a sort of crazy scientist – someone who's very bright, very intelligent but perhaps isn’t very balanced in their life. It doesn't seem like they’re normal in their behavior.

Tesla died when he was 86 years old in 1943, and unhappily, he died poor. He was what we might describe as “penniless.” “To be penniless” (penniless) literally means to be without any pennies, not even with one cent. In 1960, the General Conference on Weights and Measures honored Tesla’s memory by deciding to use his last name – Tesla – as a unit of measure for the strength of a magnetic field. So, Tesla was honored by having a certain measurement named after him.

As a U.S. citizen, Tesla was probably one of the most important inventors of the early 20th century, almost as important as his more famous, and perhaps less honest, Thomas Edison.

Now let’s turn to our next topic which is also about the 20th century. We’re not going to talk about electricity. We’re going to talk about comedy, specifically The Three Stooges.

A “stooge” (stooge) is not a common word. It's a word we don't hear very often. It refers to people who help other people do the task that other people don't want to do. However, it has at least, nowadays, a negative connotation, a negative meaning. It's an insulting term really, to describe someone who helps another person do the things that that other person doesn't want to do.

The word was also used, and is used, in a comedy act, in a performance, where you have more than one person on the stage, and one of them is what we would call the “butt (butt) of the joke.” The person who is the butt of the joke is the stooge. “To be the butt of the joke” is to be the person that is being laughed at, the person that the comedian is making fun of. That's the stooge. Here, we have then The Three Stooges. They were a comedy trio, a team of three comedians, who appeared in a lot of movies in the 1930’s and 1940’s and frequently on television in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I remember watching Three Stooges movies on television as a child growing up.

The composition of the trio changed over time; that is, the actual comedians changed, but the three that most people remember from the movies were called Larry, Curly, and Moe. You, in watching a Three Stooges movie, will see a lot of slapstick humor. “Slapstick” (slapstick) is humor that is physical humor, where somebody falls down, someone gets into an accident. There are lots of comedians who specialize in this sort of physical humor.

What's called “slapstick humor” is less popular now than it was back when the movies were first getting started. Slapstick humor has been used by actors such as Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther, if you remember those movies; Mister Bean – the British comedian – uses slapstick humor. The old Monty Python television shows had slapstick humor in them as well. It's a type of humor that is easy to understand. It is something that doesn't require that you understand even the language very well. You can just watch it and see what’s going on and laugh at that.

The Three Stooges use a lot of slapstick humor. They were, what we would describe as clumsy. “To be clumsy” (clumsy) means that you are not very graceful, that you fall down accidentally sometimes or that you drop things that you're holding by mistake. That would be a clumsy person. “Slapstick humor” is always about clumsy people.

The Three Stooges began back in the 1920’s. In 1925, they were performers on the stage. They would do live performances. In their performance, one person would try to tell a joke or to sing, but as they did that, the two other comedians would interrupt them, would stop them to say something funny. That was kind of the basic pattern that The Three Stooges followed in their humor.

Their first movie, which was released in 1930, was called Soup to Nuts. That expression “soup (soup) to nuts (nuts)” refers to a large variety of something. If a store, for example, sells everything from soup to nuts, we mean they sell lots of different things. They may sell beds. They may sell food. They may sell animals. They sell everything. We have stores like that here in the U.S. Walmart, for example, or Target are stores where you can buy everything from soup to nuts, or almost.

Anyway, the Three Stooges ended up making about 220 films, 220 movies. Many of these movies, however, were not full movies. They were, what we would now call “shorts” – short movies. These are the kinds of movies that you might see when watching another longer movie. They might show the short movie first and then start with the main or long movie.

I remember seeing lots of these Three Stooges short movies as a child on television as I mentioned previously. People who were professional critics, movie critics, never really liked The Three Stooges. They said that it wasn't very sophisticated. However, The Three Stooges were very popular with the average person, with regular people. Even today, older people, which would mean, I guess me, enjoy watching The Three Stooges on the television and even young people are discovering the humor of The Three Stooges. What often happens, of course, is that you have some group like The Three Stooges develop certain ideas that are then adapted and taken over by younger comedians. People think that the younger comedians are the ones who invented it when, in fact, they probably borrowed it from previous generations of comedians and that's definitely the case with a lot of slapstick humor today.

There’s actually a museum called the Stoogeum, in Pennsylvania. It opened in 2004 and you can go and visit The Three Stooges museum. You might want to go on the Internet on YouTube, and search for The Three Stooges. The nice thing about The Three Stooges is that you don't really need to understand what they're saying all that much, because the humor is slapstick.

Now let’s answer some of the questions that you have sent to us.

Our first question comes from Matt (Matt) in Poland. Matt wants to know the difference between “royalty,” (royalty) and “king” (king). “Royalty” refers to the people in a country who are members of what is called the royal family. Typically, that would be a king and/or a queen and their children and relatives. “Royal,” as an adjective, refers to a king or queen. The king is the man who is the ruler of a country, typically the ruler of a country until he dies or until he leaves his office. The verb we would use would be “abdicate” – who leaves the post, if you will, the position of being king. Most kings, however, die in office. That is, they die and then somebody else becomes either king or queen depending on who's left in the family. The queen is the woman who would be the member of the royal couple.

In Great Britain, in the United Kingdom, we have Queen Elizabeth the second, at least we do have her when we are recording this episode in 2013. Many other countries have kings and queens. Several European countries have kings and queens. It's something you'll find more often in Europe than in the Americas, or Africa or Asia. There are some leaders who call themselves king in these other places or have in the past, but royalty is the general term to describe anyone who's a member of the royal family, who's related to the royal family – the king and the queen and their sons and daughters and cousins, that sort of thing. “King” refers just to the man who is the leader of the royal family. The son of the king and queen would be called a “prince” and the daughter would be called a “princess.” The term “royalty” is now sometimes used to mean the elite members of some powerful group. We might talk about Hollywood royalty – that would be men and women who work in the movie industry who have a lot of power, who everyone looks up to. They’re sort of like kings and queens of Hollywood. So the term can be used in other situations not referring to the leaders of a government in a country.

Our next question comes from the Ziya (Ziya) from Azerbaijan. Ziya wants to know the difference between “in an attempt to” and “in an effort to.” Let’s start with the first one – “in an attempt to.” “To attempt,” as a verb, means to try. I attempted to go to the store today but I wasn't able to. Sometimes when we attempt something, we’re not successful. “Attempt” can also be a noun to mean the action of trying, the action of trying, the action of trying to do something.

Effort is hard work. We are putting in a lot of effort. Notice the verb “to put in” – you often see that with the word “effort” – “to put in an effort,” “to put in a lot of effort.” It means to do a lot, to work hard in order to accomplish something. Now, we have the phrases “in an attempt to” and “in an effort to.” Both of these really just mean “trying to.” The teacher gave the students additional homework in an attempt to help them become better at learning, better at the subject they were learning. In an effort to save money, we are using less electricity. We’re turning our lights off so that we don't use as much. The expressions “in an attempt to” and “in an effort to” mean the same thing. They mean “trying to.” You can use them interchangeably – one for the other. They're not that common in conversational English, in spoken English. It’s something that you would probably see more in writing. If someone is just speaking, they would use the verb “try.” For example, we might say, “To try to save money, we use less electricity.” That would be much more common in conversational English than “In an attempt to save money, we use less electricity.” However, the word “attempt” and “effort” are slightly different. “Attempt” means to try as a verb, or the act of trying as a noun. “Effort” means all of the energy and time that you put into something, that you invest in something, that you use in order to get something done.

Our final question comes from Hosam (Hosam) in Sudan. The question has to do with the difference between the word “accuracy” and the word “precision.” “Accuracy” (accuracy) means being correct, being exact, being true. If someone says something that is “inaccurate,” we would say that that's false, that's wrong. The opposite of that is “accurate.” This is an accurate picture of what happened. This is an accurate description of what happened. It's real. It's true.

“Precision” can also refer to accuracy, but it's used when we're talking about either scientific matters, especially related to measuring things and mechanical issues – related to machines. “Precision” has to do with someone who is very accurate, but very focused, very exact. It's a word mostly used in scientific or mechanical descriptions. “Accuracy” is a much more common term, a much more general term, to talk about the truth of something, the reality of something. However, they can be used sometimes in the same sentence. You could say, “Please check the accuracy of this scale.” A “scale” (scale) is a little machine that you used usually two weigh something, to see how heavy something is. You could also say, “Please check the precision of the scale.” You're saying the same thing, “Check to see that it is exactly correct.” But “precision” is a less common word than “accurate.”

I think that's an accurate statement. If you want an accurate answer to your questions, you can e-mail us. Our e-mail address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I'm Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast English Café was written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. Copyright 2013 by the Center for Educational Development.

telegraph – a system that sends signals as a series of dots and dashes through an electrical connection

* The invention of the telegraph made it possible to send messages across great distances.

to resign – to leave a job or position; to quit a job or position

* No one expected George to resign his job before he reached retirement age.

patent – legal protection for something that one has created, so that nobody else is allowed to produce that thing for a certain period of time

* William invented a new way to fix flat tires on cars and got a patent so that no one else could claim ownership of it.

x-ray – photographic images made with electromagnetic radiation, used to see inside of a person’s body or inside an enclosed object

* Looking at the x-ray, the doctor could see that Rick broke his leg in two places.

remote controlled – controlled from a distance using a device, usually one held in the hand

* The air conditioning and heating system in our lake house is remote controlled and we’re able to turn on the heater a half hour before we arrive.

photographic memory – the ability to recall or remember Images perfectly; the ability to remember images or information in a lot of detail

* I can’t remember all of these facts for the test! I wish I had photographic memory.

eccentric – doing strange things that are not socially acceptable

* Our neighbor is eccentric, painting all of her windows black.

mad scientist – a popular type of character in books or films, usually a man who is a little bit crazy but very intelligent, concentrating only on his experiments

* In the movie, the mad scientist worked to create a monster that he could use to help him take over the world.

penniless – without any money; very poor

* The big fall in the stock market left a lot of people penniless.

stooge – a person who helps other people, doing the tasks that other people don't want to do

* Lauren quit her job because she felt that her boss treated her like s stooge.

slapstick – physical humor where people laugh because the comedian is doing funny things with his body, being very clumsy

* Manny likes slapstick movies where people fall over chairs and drop expensive dishes.

clumsy – not graceful; awkward when moving or handling objects

* Paulina has always been a little clumsy, so her mother doesn’t allow her to handle the expensive glasses.

king – a man who is the only leader of a country for the entire length of his life, given the right to rule because of his heritage (family connections)

* The old king is dying and his son is preparing to become the new ruler of the country.

royalty – any member of the royal family (family that rules a country because of their heritage)

* We’ve had two members of royalty stay at our hotel: Queen Margot and Prince George.

accuracy – being correct, exact, or true; degree of correctness of an amount or quantity

* Do you think that bathroom scales can measure people’s weight with a high degree of accuracy?

precision – being correct, exact, or true; being exact when talking about mechanical (related to machines) and scientific (related to science) matters

* This new laser has the precision to perform surgical operations in the smallest parts of the body.

What Insiders Know
The Stoogeum

The Three Stooges were “wildly” (extremely) popular “in the time” (during the time they were performing) and remain popular with fans today. Those who “can’t get enough of” (want more of) their favorite comedy “trio” (group of three people) can visit the Stoogeum.

In 2004, Gary Lassin, grandson-in-law (man married to the granddaughter) of Larry Fine, one of the Three Stooges, decided to give the fans of The Three Stooges a place to visit and gather. He opened a museum near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania “devoted to” (meant for) “memorabilia” (objects collected for their value in history) of the Three Stooges.

This 10,000 square foot (930 square meter) museum has over 100,000 pieces of memorabilia for visitors to see, “dating back to” (beginning in the year) 1918. There are “interactive” (where visitors can participate) displays, a research library, and a theater used for “screening” (showing) films and for special “lectures” (talks or speeches given by experts on particular topics).

The Stoogeum is also the “headquarters” (main office) of the Three Stooges “Fan Club” (group of people who like and enjoy talking and learning about a particular person or thing). The fan club has about 2,000 members around the world and it holds an “annual” (yearly; once a year) meeting at the Stoogeum.