Today’s electrical facilities are the result of Tesla’s invention of the alternating current (AC) system.
“Science is but a perversion of itself unless it has as its ultimate goal the betterment of humanity.” – Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla was born in the town of Smilijan in present-day Croatia. Legend has it that he was born in the midst of a tremendous electrical storm.
Passionate about mathematics from a very early age, he had a prodigious memory and showed astounding skills in mental calculation and in “visualizing” his inventions.
He studied Electrical and Mechanical Engineering and Physics. He worked for several electrical companies around Europe, the last of which transferred him to New York, where he arrived with four cents in his pocket and a letter of recommendation from his superior to his much-admired Thomas Edison, who was famous by then. The missive said, “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!”
Tesla’s Relationship with Edison
Edison and Tesla were soon at loggerheads. Tesla was absorbed by his research, to the extent, it is said, that he slept barely two hours a day. He was driven by one single passion, the progress of science for the betterment of humanity while Edison sought fame and focused on his “business talents”. Indeed, he broke his promise to pay Tesla fifty thousand dollars if he could improve his flawed motors and generators. Having achieved this, Tesla inquired about the payment, whereupon Edison burst out laughing and said, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humour”. This eventually led to the so-called “War of Currents” which Edison tried to win by playing dirty although it was finally demonstrated that Tesla’s alternating current worked better than Edison’s direct current.
Tesla and Westinghouse
After breaking with Edison, Tesla found a good partner in the person of the businessman George Westinghouse, who believed in his ideas and gave him the support he needed to bring them to fruition. They worked together to bring into being two great projects: their electrical exhibits in the Chicago World’s Fair (1893) and the hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls.
Nevertheless, although Westinghouse offered Tesla a large sum of money for his patents, plus a percentage of the profits deriving from his discovery of alternating current, a bizarre tangle of loan agreements which Westinghouse could not meet – in addition to a campaign by J.P Morgan to bring the company into disrepute in his attempt to wrest control of the energy sector – meant that Tesla did not receive payments that would have made him immensely rich. When Westinghouse confessed to him that his company was on the verge of collapse, Tesla released him from the licensing agreement over the AC patents. This was a tremendously generous gesture but, in the light of what occurred later, it may be been an error because he then lacked the funds to develop the ideas conceived by his privileged mind.
J. P. Morgan finally decided to invest in Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower but when the latter revealed that his ultimate aim was to make cheap electric power available to everyone, the magnate feared for the future of his energy empire and cut off all funding.
This episode was the beginning of Tesla’s decline. Many people believed he had gone mad. He died alone in the New Yorker Hotel in New York in 1943. On his death, the FBI seized all his papers and possessions.
“Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine.” – Nikola Tesla
More than 700 inventions have been attributed to Tesla. Many of them have not yet been put into practice.
Perhaps his greatest discovery was the principle of the rotating magnetic field, the basis for the alternating current (AC) which today lights up the world. AC can be transmitted over thousands of kilometres with hardly any loss. It replaced Edison’s direct current, which needed repeater stations every few kilometres. Moreover, alternating current can be converted into a magnetic field and vice-versa by means of a transformer, which is a very simple way of changing current voltage and intensity.
However, his genius also left a legacy of many other inventions and discoveries of enormous value for humanity: wireless energy transmission, the loudspeaker, radar, fluorescent lamps, remote control, spark plugs, the alternator, the first hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls (which he is said to have dreamed of as a child), the basic concept of the microwave oven, the car ignition system, the electron microscope, X-rays and many others.
In 1943, the Supreme Court of the United States recognised Tesla as the inventor of radio, which had previously been unjustly attributed to Marconi. For some inexplicable reason, many books still keep reproducing this error concerning the real inventor.
Although Not Yet Accomplished This Dream Now Seems Feasible
Despite all his contributions Tesla did not live to see the fulfilment of many of the projects he longed to accomplish. Apart from the fact that his ideas were snatched from him, he was also treated with contempt and swindled. He died without receiving the recognition he deserved and without being able to see his greatest dream come true: renewable and almost cost free wireless energy transmission over great distances. Curiously enough, 157 years after his birth, a young Croatian researcher at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has managed to achieve wireless energy transfer, although this only covers a short distance at present (see the Discovery Channel video below).
- The documents (the famous “Tesla Papers”)seized by the FBI in the hotel room where Nikola Tesla died were declassified in 2012.
- Tesla is considered to be the father of all forms of wireless energy transmission, which is to say the transfer of information in real time over a “non-real” space such as Internet, mobile telephone networks, radar fields, et cetera.
- This year, a group of Tesla admirers who have set up the Tesla Science Center have collected 1.3 million dollars through Internet crowd funding in order to buy the inventor’s laboratory building (Wardenclyffe) on Long Island. The purchase has now been formally finalised with the participation of the New York State with a view to restoring the site and opening a museum. Tesla’s friend, the well-known architect Stanford White designed the original Long Island laboratory at the beginning of the twentieth century.
- Orson Wells played J.P. Morgan in the film The Secret of Nikola Tesla, which was directed by Krsto Papic.
- David Bowie played Tesla in the film The Prestige.
Links of interest:
Teslablog (educational website of the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia and CSIC – Spanish Council for Scientific Research). In Spanish.
Tesla Science Center (in English).
Tesla Society (in English).
Nikola Tesla: el genio al que le robaron la luz, by Margaret Cheney, Turner (2010); published in English as Tesla: Man Out of Time, Touchstone Press (2001).
Nikola Tesla: biografía de un genio anónimo (Nikola Tesla: Biography of an Anonymous Genius) by Massimo Tedodrani, Sirio (2011).
Firmado, Nikola Tesla, de Nikola Tesla (Signed by Nikola Tesla), Turner (2012).