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Disentangling Facts From Fantasy In the World of Edison and Tesla 386

Posted by timothy
from the not-about-the-slash-fiction dept.
dsinc writes "Forbes' Alex Knapp writes about the Tesla idolatry and confusing his genius for godhood: 'Tesla wasn't an ignored god-hero. Thomas Edison wasn't the devil. They were both brilliant, strong-willed men who helped build our modern world. They both did great things and awful things. They were both brilliantly right about some things and just as brilliantly wrong about others. They had foibles, quirks, passions, misunderstandings and moments of wonder.'"
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Disentangling Facts From Fantasy In the World of Edison and Tesla

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  • Irrefutable fact (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 21, 2012 @03:24AM (#40062251)

    Tesla > Edison.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 21, 2012 @03:39AM (#40062313)

      Dennis Ritchie > Steve Jobs too, but which one will be remembered?

      • by Dexter Herbivore (1322345) on Monday May 21, 2012 @04:12AM (#40062415) Journal
        I sense an argument along the lines of Kirk > Picard coming up.
      • by StripedCow (776465) on Monday May 21, 2012 @05:34AM (#40062687)

        Steve Jobs of course, for inventing alternating current (to be copied later by Tesla).

        • I presume you have wikipedia to back up this claim?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 21, 2012 @03:44AM (#40062333)

      Certainly not by the measure of business acumen, and, therefore, things he personally achieved. Tesla was undeniably greater in terms of "things he was wrong about", and "general insanity".

      • by randalny (227878) on Monday May 21, 2012 @04:15AM (#40062433)

        What the article does not note is that Tesla didn't really claim to have invented alternating current, but he did claim (probably validly) to having invented the a working, practical AC induction motor (while a student in Europe), which made AC practical for industry. He also claimed to have invented a practical AC generator (at least he had a patent on it that he sold to Westinghouse). Additionally he did invent and patent a working system for radio and wireless signal transmission that was essentially copied by Marconi later. Add to that the Tesla coil and the working florescent light bulb, and you have a pretty impressive set of inventions. Compared to Edison (who I admire very much also) Tesla with just a couple of assistants revolutionized a great deal of the world. Edison's real claim to fame, on the other hand, was in inventing the modern invention research team system. His actual inventions were relatively few, but with teams of some dozens of inventors he spewed out patents that made him much richer and successful than Tesla (though not as rich as he wanted - he was essentially defeated in business by J.P. Morgan). Tesla unfortunately subsided into partial insanity after his attempt at power transmission in the teens, and almost every invention after that was essentially in his head.

      • by gl4ss (559668)

        I think the point there isn't business acumen or personal built empire.

        but that what edison did .. most of the things edison did someone else would have done anyways relatively close to the time edison did it, while teslas achievements might have taken considerably more time to come up for someone else.

        • by SuricouRaven (1897204) on Monday May 21, 2012 @05:00AM (#40062571)
          Edison himself wasn't a great inventor. He was a great businessman and head-of-R&D. Pioneer of inventing as a business - not as just a couple of lone experts, but a whole department of underlings systematically tackling potentially profitable issues with pooled resources. He dabbled, yes, but most of the actual inventing was done by his employees.
          • by scharkalvin (72228) on Monday May 21, 2012 @08:36AM (#40063667) Homepage

            Actually most of Edison's ideas WERE his own. He didn't do much of the actual work of constructing prototypes or models, his hired "technicians" did this work. Edison did supervise the most interesting projects but his employees were simply given some guidelines and did the work themselves in most cases. Comparing him with Bill Gates would be correct, Mr. Gates was very involved with most of Microsoft's technical direction and he contributed to much of the technology they developed, at least in the early days.

            On very interesting fact is that Edison almost invented electronics. He was working on improving the telephone (he did invent the carbon button microphone) at the same time that he was working on improvements to the electric lamp. One problem that plagued the early production carbon filament lamps was a gradual darkening of the inside of the bulb (due to evaportation of the carbon filament). Edison noted that one side of the bulb (the side connected to the positive end of the filament) darkened more than the negative side AND that a shadow appeared behind the positive end where no carbon was deposited. This was partly do to the bulb not having a perfect vacuum. Edison added a free wire into the bulb to which he connected a sensitive ammeter. When the meter was connected between this free wire and the positive end of the filament a current flowed. When it was connected to the negative end of the filament there was no current. This was the "Edison Effect", or thermionic emission, the principle upon which the vacuum tube depends on. If Edison was aware of atomic theories of electricity (IE: that electricity is the flow of negative atomic particles) is unknown. If he had been just a bit more curious he might have inserted a THIRD element into the bulb between the filament and his first electrode and experimented with the effects of both positive and negative charges on it. If he had he would have been able to notice that there was a ratio between the current change on the outer element and the voltage change on the inner, IE: amplification that could have been used as a repeater element for telephone circuits. Edison was just a small step away from inventing the Triode Vacuum tube about 30 years early! He was working on two projects that could have been connected to do this. However it didn't happen. I wonder how the world might have changed if Edison had made this leap of discovery.

            • by paiute (550198)

              Mr. Gates was very involved with most of Microsoft's technical direction and he contributed to much of the technology they developed, at least in the early days.

              Yeah, like when he stayed up all night writing QDOS and then MSDOS, the foundation of the Microsoft empire.

              • by stevew (4845) on Monday May 21, 2012 @09:41AM (#40064475) Journal

                This is ignorant. Yes he bought QDOS, and yes he had people working for him to modify it. This doesn't take away the fact that he was heavily involved in building the BASIC that was loaded into PROM on my PC-1! For the first several years of the company Bill coded. He also was very astute at guiding the financial and business aspects of his company, and being at the right place at the right time multiple times. Don't forget that he pointed IBM at Digital Research FIRST, before he went and purchased QDOS. At the time - Microsoft was a language company. They specialized in creating language compilers. That is how IBM had Pascal, etc. available for the PC the first day it was introduced!
                GAWD - you're making me defend Bill Gates - STOP THAT! (Now I've got to go and compile a linux kernel or something to make up for this!)

    • In other words, you're a Tesla fanboy.

      Look, Edison was an impressive inventor. Tesla was great at electricity. There's a lot of Edison hate going around lately. But he was a very good inventor, things that are completely unrelated to Tesla or AC/DC.
    • I read TFA and it's absolutely correct. Tesla's contribution to the development of science and technology has been FAR overrated lately.

      Edison's contribution, OTOH, was significant. He didn't "invent" that many things, he made them practical.

      We had flying cars forty years ago [flixxy.com]. So why can't you buy one? Because they are not practical.

      Everything that Tesla invented was like the Mizar Flying Pinto. Kind of interesting to look at, wonderful if it were true, but totally outside of practical reality.

  • Irrelevant. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Mannfred (2543170) <mannfred@gmail.com> on Monday May 21, 2012 @03:26AM (#40062257)
    All that's left of them now is what mattered the most to the rest of the world.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    This is all lies and propaganda brought to you by those crazy Edison supporters. DC current. As if.

    • You joke about DC (Score:5, Informative)

      by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Monday May 21, 2012 @04:33AM (#40062493)

      But it was legitimately a problem back in the day. The reason was twofold:

      1) There's no good way to generate DC using a mechanical system. So while something like a solar cell will generate you DC, a mechanical generator won't, at least not without some fiddling and then not as efficiently as AC. These days, not a big deal, we have good devices to convert from one to the other quite efficiently. However when the current wars were happening, DC generation wasn't as good as AC generation. You see it to this day: Cars use alternators (as in alternating current) to generate power, despite being DC devices. The alternator then has a rectifier bridge to turn it in to (pulsed) DC power, which the battery helps clean up.

      2) There was no good way to convert DC voltage. AC is exceedingly easy to convert with simple technology: A transformer. You can step it up or down with some wraps of wire, and it is fairly efficient to boot. No such luck with DC. There just isn't a good way to step it up with the technology they had back then. As such you needed generators close to the home. You couldn't run massive voltages, far too dangerous (and as a practical matter difficult to generate directly) and you couldn't go for long runs because of impedance loss. These days thyristors can do the trick nicely but they are 1950s tech, and the ones that can do HVDC are more recent.

      Were we to rebuild the grid these days, DC might well make sense (though it does have some other issues that need to be considered). However during the current wars, Tesla really did have it right. The technology was there to make AC work well, not DC.

      Edison really was fighting for DC because of his invested infrastructure, not because it was a superior technology at the time.

      • Re:You joke about DC (Score:5, Interesting)

        by silentcoder (1241496) on Monday May 21, 2012 @04:57AM (#40062559) Homepage

        >1) There's no good way to generate DC using a mechanical system. So while something like a solar cell will generate you DC, a mechanical generator won't, at least not without some fiddling and then not as efficiently as AC. These days, not a big deal, we have good devices to convert from one to the other quite efficiently. However when the current wars were happening, DC generation wasn't as good as AC generation. You see it to this day: Cars use alternators (as in alternating current) to generate power, despite being DC devices. The alternator then has a rectifier bridge to turn it in to (pulsed) DC power, which the battery helps clean up.

        There is actually an interesting twist to this however which comes into play with very long power lines. The Cahora Bassa hydro-electric dam powers much of South Africa's Gauteng industrial region despite being in another country. Gauteng runs on AC, Cahora Bassa generates AC - but the line between them is DC. It gets rectified at the dam site and then reconverted to AC when it gets to the local grid.
        Obviously that equipment cost a pretty penny - but DC was still cheaper. The reason is that DC only requires as single cable - which can be supported by quite a thin little pole (the ground itself can be the return line).
        So if the line is long enough - running the power over DC can be more economical, you just need enough distance for the cable savings to start to get bigger than the converter costs.

        • Re:You joke about DC (Score:5, Informative)

          by am 2k (217885) on Monday May 21, 2012 @06:19AM (#40062853) Homepage

          Gauteng runs on AC, Cahora Bassa generates AC - but the line between them is DC. It gets rectified at the dam site and then reconverted to AC when it gets to the local grid.

          There's another reason for doing that: you can't just stick two AC lines from non-synchronized generators together and expect it to work. They will actually work against each other, and you get a huge mess. This is a problem when combining two power sources from different countries. What's usually done in this case is to do an internal AC/DC/AC conversion to synchronize them.

          • Re:You joke about DC (Score:4, Informative)

            by srmalloy (263556) on Monday May 21, 2012 @12:27PM (#40066701) Homepage

            There's another reason for doing that: you can't just stick two AC lines from non-synchronized generators together and expect it to work. They will actually work against each other, and you get a huge mess. This is a problem when combining two power sources from different countries.

            It doesn't have to be different countries. After the Fukushima disaster, the power problems in Japan were compounded because of purchases made more than a hundred years ago. In 1895, the first electrical generators were installed in Tokyo, purchased from AEG in Germany; a year later, Osaka installed generators purchased from General Electric. AEG's generators produced 50-Hz power, while GE's generators produced 60-Hz power. This dichotomy exists to this day, so that western Japan runs on 60-Hz power, while eastern Japan runs on 50-Hz power. There are four back-to-back HVDC convertors at the border between the two grids to convert between the two frequencies, but it didn't have anywhere near the capacity to shift more than a fraction of the load to the western grid after 11 nuclear generators (including the three at Fukushima) were shut down in response to the quake, taking 9.7GW off the eastern grid.

      • by mark-t (151149)

        1) There's no good way to generate DC using a mechanical system.

        Actually, there is. A conductive disk in a magnetic field and spun such that its axis of revolution is parallel to the field will generate a measurable DC voltage between the center of the disk and its edge. Faraday had discovered this back in his day, and the underlying principle behind its operation baffled many people for many years (some would say that questions remain about it even today). It's an millivoltsextremely efficient gener

  • false equivalency (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    It's the same kind of media attempt to put forth a "balanced" view, even when there's a clear bias in reality. It happens all the time in politics. Just because they want to claim that Tesla not marrying is the same as Edison strangling puppies for sexual pleasure, doesn't mean those two options are the same. Some times, there isn't any reason to search for a middle ground, if one side is simply wrong.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      To be fair....

      * Tesla never married
      * Edison did kill puppies by electrocution

    • by Sique (173459)

      Yes, and Nikola Tesla was simply wrong in promoting alternating current for about any use. If you look at modern electrical or electronic gear, they all have circuitry to convert alternating current to direct current before powering anything. Thomas Alva Edison was right.
      But where Nikola Tesla was right was that for transmitting current, alternating current beats direct current downhand. And that's why about any electrical system in the world transmits alternating current.

      • Re:false equivalency (Score:5, Informative)

        by TummyX (84871) on Monday May 21, 2012 @03:59AM (#40062379)

        AC was much better for transmitting back then because transmitting high voltage is more efficient (less current means less copper and less resistive waste) and they had an efficient way of converting high voltage AC to low voltage AC (transformers). Efficient high voltage DC-DC voltage conversion was not something that was possible back in the day.

        DC is actually more efficient for long distance high voltage transmission -- they just didn't have the technology to convert DC voltage. Now days HVDC transmission for new long distance lines is much more viable.

        • by Corbets (169101)

          AC was much better for transmitting back then because transmitting high voltage is more efficient (less current means less copper and less resistive waste) and they had an efficient way of converting high voltage AC to low voltage AC (transformers). Efficient high voltage DC-DC voltage conversion was not something that was possible back in the day.

          DC is actually more efficient for long distance high voltage transmission -- they just didn't have the technology to convert DC voltage. Now days HVDC transmission for new long distance lines is much more viable.

          I've seen a few ACs on this site that I would suggest converting to high voltage...!

      • Re:false equivalency (Score:5, Informative)

        by tibit (1762298) on Monday May 21, 2012 @04:10AM (#40062413)

        For modern high-voltage transmission, capacitive losses matter even at 50/60Hz. HV transmission is best done as DC. The thing Tesla was right about was that with technology available back then, AC distribution was the only feasible one. It has only been in the last few decades that we have the semiconductor technology that would allow completely solid state, DC-to-DC power conversion all the way to the consumer. That would be, ultimately, the way to go. DC-to-DC converters can be quite compact compared to 50/60Hz transformers, especially when running at high frequencies. I've seen resonant converters taking in 10kV 3 phase and outputting 1.5kV DC at about 50kVA. It had PFC as well. Two people could very easily lift one up, it was probably less than 200lbs, just bulky, and the magnetics (cores) could fit in a breadbox. Try lifting up a 50kVA oil immersed transformer with same ratings -- it's half a ton, give or take.

        Alas, circuit breakers for DC are significantly more complex and expensive than ones for AC, since you have an arc that needs to be quenched. They need to have a chamber that utilizes spatial gradients in pressure or temperature (due to asymmetry of the plasma chamber) to move some air around to blow the arc out. AC arcs are usually self-extinguishing, except at extreme short-circuit currents and voltages (high voltage substations and the like).

        • Re:false equivalency (Score:5, Informative)

          by niteshifter (1252200) on Monday May 21, 2012 @06:29AM (#40062877)

          For modern high-voltage transmission, capacitive losses matter even at 50/60Hz. ....

          That's an overly broad statement. Capacitive reactive losses really matter a lot on submarine or buried cable. Not much of a factor in overhead HV transmission. Think of it like the classic parallel plate capacitor - since that's what we have, just our "plates" are curved away from each other (which reduces capacitance, but let us consider them as flat here). The area (over the length of the lines) is large, yes. But what kills that off so to speak, is a product of two things: a poor dielectric medium (air) and a large distance (many meters) between the "plates".

          For "plates" 3cm wide with a length of 1km and a separation of 10m: about 27pF. In other words: 27pf/km.

          Formula: (where's my dang MathML slashdot?) C = k * E * A / S where:
          C is capacitance in Farads
          k is relative permittivity of the dielectric. Equals 1 (for air)
          E is permittivity of space, a constant 8.85E-12 F/m
          A is area in meters squared
          S is separation distance in meters

          For that 1km model above the impedance at 60 Hz is 100Mohm. For a 220KV line that is a loss of about 480W/km. Such a line would be conveying power in the few hundreds megawatt range. Not much of a reactive loss there. Different on sub/buried: k is much larger, and S is much smaller (mm - cm distances).

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Edison's position is generally mis-characterized. For long distance transmission, Edison said of course AC power at high voltage would be best. He argued that DC was best for distribution (i.e. supplying several city blocks)

          Edison was basically correct except that expensive motor-generator sets would have been needed to convert AC to DC.

          Also, to put it in context, Edison's vision of a central generating station was one that supplied a dozen city blocks. His vision never extended to huge remote power plant

      • Re:false equivalency (Score:5, Informative)

        by randalny (227878) on Monday May 21, 2012 @04:27AM (#40062479)

        Yes, and Nikola Tesla was simply wrong in promoting alternating current for about any use. If you look at modern electrical or electronic gear, they all have circuitry to convert alternating current to direct current before powering anything.

        EXCEPT for the AC electric motor and the florescent light bulb -- two of the most common uses of power even today (and certainly before about 1960). In 1960 the refrigerator, the record player, the kitchen mixer and also various household pumps were powered by what was essentially a slightly improved version of Tesla's motor. The incandescent lights were also being run off his power too. Only really the radio needed a coil to convert to DC.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by randalny (227878)

        Yes, and Nikola Tesla was simply wrong in promoting alternating current for about any use. If you look at modern electrical or electronic gear, they all have circuitry to convert alternating current to direct current before powering anything.

        Except for just about all uses of power till home electronic equipment was invented in the 80's. In 1960 just about everything in the home was powered directly by AC (as in incandescent and florescent lights) or by an AC motor very similar to the one invented by Tesla. Only the radio needed a transformer to use AC power. Even today probably 90% of your actual power usage is of direct AC power (air conditioning and lights). So I would say that it is wrong to say Tesla was wrong.

      • by digitig (1056110)
        AC is a lot safer around the home, at least at mains voltages (DC is ok once you get below about 40V). If you touch anything with live mains on it then it will tend to throw you off. If it were DC it could lock your muscles and you'd fry.
      • Modern electronics require a range of low-voltage DC to power the solid state components. High-voltage mains electricity still needs to be converted to the voltages required by the individual components, and this is hardly any easier than with AC.

  • by dejanc (1528235) on Monday May 21, 2012 @04:12AM (#40062419)

    I live in Belgrade, Serbia, and Tesla is revered as god here. For a person who only spent a night in Belgrade (he was born in what is now Croatia but was of Serbian ethnicity), it's a bit strange he got major boulevard and airport named after him. He is also on our money and has a number of monuments.

    We also have a Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, which I recommend everybody visit. It has working examples of some of his inventions, so you can see what the first radio controlled device [pbs.org] looked like.

    I don't mind it though, he was a brilliant mind. Of course, sometimes he was out of touch with reality and had no sense of business, but geniuses often are like that...

    If you can find this series subtitled and want to learn more about the life of Tesla, I strongly recommend watching this [imdb.com].

  • AC/DC (Score:5, Funny)

    by Cat_Herder_GoatRoper (2491400) on Monday May 21, 2012 @04:12AM (#40062421)
    "Highway to Hell" may have not been possible without Telsa/Edison so they are both equally important.
  • Grey fallacy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ZankerH (1401751) on Monday May 21, 2012 @05:44AM (#40062715)
    The groundless assumption that since neither extreme can be true, the truth must be precisely in the middle.
  • by clickclickdrone (964164) on Monday May 21, 2012 @06:05AM (#40062795)
    He had a huge staff who did the vast bulk of his R&D and a significant % (possibly the majoroty) of his achievements were actually made by his staff with Edison just facilitating their efforts and then claiming the kudos.
  • by Relayman (1068986) on Monday May 21, 2012 @06:10AM (#40062813)
    A discussion of the development of electricity without mentioning Charles Proteus Steinmetz [edisontechcenter.org] is incomplete. You are pandering to the people with the big PR departments and an army of lawyers instead of the ones who really got things done.

    Steinmetz understood how to build three-phase motors (the standard for big motors today) better than anyone in the early days.
    • by Teancum (67324)

      I think there are a number of people that you could include in any list of people important to the development of electricity and electrical technologies. Off the top of my head, I can think of several others:

      • Benjamin Franklin
      • Alessandro Volta
      • Georg Ohm
      • Michael Faraday
      • Joseph Henry
      • Charles Wheatstone
      • Charles-Augustin de Coulomb
      • Philo Farnsworth
      • Guglielmo Marconi

      That is just barely scratching the surface. I didn't know much about Steinmetz myself, but after reading the link you provided he certainly should be incl

  • Everything you really need to know about Tesla vs Edison:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gOR91oentQ [youtube.com]
  • Forbes (Score:4, Insightful)

    by SteelCat (793238) on Monday May 21, 2012 @06:17AM (#40062839)
    "Business magazine says businessman better than engineer" shocker.
  • by hessian (467078) on Monday May 21, 2012 @06:20AM (#40062859) Homepage Journal

    Um... that's not different enough.

    They teach us about Thomas Edison in schools. Everyone thinks he's great. Therefore, there must be another way.

    To be hip, we talk about Tesla instead. You probably haven't heard of him.

  • elephants (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 21, 2012 @07:15AM (#40063091)

    After what I saw edison did to the elephants, and the IP agreements he made his
    employees sign, I lost all respect for the man both his intellect and his person.

    Edison was a dark and troubled person. Killing something just to prove a point -
    someone else did that, too...

  • by DollyTheSheep (576243) on Monday May 21, 2012 @07:27AM (#40063151)
    When I was a kid 30 years ago, Edison was still the undisputed old god of engineering. It only was later, that he became villified as the suppressor of Tesla and AC. I think, it has todo with Edison's viewpoint towards intellectual property. He and his colleagues at Menlo Park invented mainly and did not produce anything, so he relied on patent fees. He procescuted anyone who produced stuff that violtated one of his many patents including early movie technology. This forced movie people from the east coast to the west. The rest is history. Tesla was clearly the far better, more visionary scientist. Edison remains the more important inventor and engineer (lightbulb, phonograph, movie technology).
  • by guidryp (702488) on Monday May 21, 2012 @07:57AM (#40063377)

    Edison will always get my disdain for running the most disgusting smear/FUD campaign that I am aware of.

    He repeatedly and publicly executed animals to "prove" the danger of AC current.

    He fried Cats/Dogs/horses/cows and even an Elephant, just to discredit a fellow inventor.

    • by sjames (1099)

      Lets not forget the electric chair, and naming the process of executing someone with it "Westinghousing".

  • by Alex Belits (437) * on Monday May 21, 2012 @08:26AM (#40063571) Homepage

    Why Forbes is attacking some webcomic's exaggerated and tongue in cheek interpretation of Tesla while trying to present it as some kind of established opinion?

  • by wdhowellsr (530924) on Monday May 21, 2012 @09:42AM (#40064493)
    I have to start by saying that I am extremely biased. Even though it is only a few hours away, my wife won't let me visit the Edison museum in Fort Myers for fear I would burn it down.

    However Edison was a truly dispicable man. You can say what you want about Gates, Jobs, Elison, Zuckerburg and others but they are businessmen and often nasty businessmen.

    Edison spent years trying to discredit A/C including killing animals as large as an elephant.*

    One of his inventions was the electric chair which by it's very design is a device to kill.**

    The nascent movie business actually pulled up stakes and moved 3000 miles to a little CA town called Hollywood because Edison's thugs would destroy any film or equipment being used for movie making unless he got a cut.***

    I could go on but I think I'm getting a tad emotionally attached to this post. I think all of us are. Have you ever seen so many four and fives?

    * Jan. 4, 1903: Edison Fries an Elephant to Prove His Point. [wired.com]
    ** Edison's Menlo Park Lab Invents the Electric Chair. [smithsonianmag.com]
    *** Edison's hires goons to shut down movie filming. [wired.com]
  • Oatmeal repsonds (Score:5, Informative)

    by SpryGuy (206254) on Monday May 21, 2012 @03:31PM (#40069127)

    Here's a great response to the forbes article, from the author of the article that the Forbes article is critiquing:

    http://theoatmeal.com/blog/tesla_response [theoatmeal.com]

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