In this modern age of cell phones and palm pilots we often find ourselves relying on technology to make it through the day. How many people can say that they could do without a car or a phone? Indeed we all take a lot of technology for granted. Some of the technology is so pervasive that we tend to forget it is even there. AC powered engines drive numerous machines, vacuum tubes power televisions and monitors, and wireless communication is vital to radio and other mediums. These and a few other simple ideas are the foundation on which everything we use today was built and most of them were invented by one man, almost a hundred years ago. The technology is so common place that few even know the name of the man responsible for it. His name was Nikola Telsa and by 1900 he held over 100 patents on everything from the x-ray to the remote control. Despite his contributions in the field of science he died penniless and virtually unknown. To this day he is overlooked by even the Smithsonian, which displays none of his work. Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant, may have been one the greatest masterminds of the technological century.
Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in small Serbian hamlet near the Austro-Hungarian border. His father was a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church, a choice he made as an alternative to joining the army. Perhaps it was genetic or perhaps it was his environment but Tesla acquired attributes from his family that would later define him as a genius. His father, being a priest was extremely prodigious, with an acute memory that he passed on to his son. Tesla’s mother was illiterate but despite this she was blessed with an amazingly creative imagination. Tesla was also inspired to succeed after the death of his brother.
In elementary school Nikola showed an amazing aptitude for mathematics. By the time he graduated he could solve complex math problems in his head. He required no drawings, models or experiments, only time to visualize it. Unfortunately Telsa’s high school career was cut short due to a bout with Cholera that nearly killed him. It was during his time in bed that his father told him that he would allow Nikola to go to study electrical engineering at the prestigious Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria. Nikola was overjoyed to hear the news and after regaining his health he left for Austria at the age of 19.
It was at the institute that Tesla discovered a problem that would become his obsession for years: alternating currents. During one of his classes a professor was demonstrating a piece of electrical equipment that worked on DC (direct current) power and required a commutator to change the direction of the current. Tesla thought that if he could come up with a way to make the current itself alternate, the commutator would be useless. He remarked to the professor about his plans only to be ridiculed. The judgment didn’t face Nikola one bit and he thought about the problem day and night, sleeping an average of only four hours. The solution still eluded him after leaving Austria to work for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in Budapest. During his time in Budapest he came up with the idea for the loudspeaker, and in what would become Tesla’s fashion, he failed to patent the idea.
Telsa’s propensity for illness also followed him to Budapest. There he was stricken by a very mysterious illness. Tesla had always had sharp senses, but one day they all seemed to go into overdrive to the point where he was incapable of performing even menial tasks. The sound of a sound of a pocket watch, even several rooms away, became deafening to him. He installed rubber cushions on the feet of his bed to decrease vibrations from people walking nearby, which shook him terribly. Years later he claimed to be able to hear thunder from hundreds of miles away. At the same time Tesla began to manifest symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Before he could eat he had to be sure of the exact volume of his food, which he got by dipping it in water. Any actions he repeated daily (like footsteps in his walk) had to be divisible by three. He would continue to perform the task until he arrived a suitable total. Tesla never shook hands with anyone and never showed any signs of attraction to the opposite sex, or same sex for that matter. Some of Tesla’s compulsions aided him in his lab work. He worked fervently, forgetting to eat or sleep for days at a time. At one point his exhaustion cause him to forget who he was for several days (Neidle, 139).
After he recovered his illness, Tesla was free to solve the problem of AC power. One day, while watching the sun set, Tesla had an epiphany. He immediately drew his plans for the AC induction motor in the sand. That was it, Nikola Tesla had changed electrical engineering and consequently the world forever, now the challenge was to convince others of it. Tesla showed his ideas to numerous influential people in Europe with no luck, no one was interested. After months of failed exhibitions someone suggested that he bring his inventions to Thomas Edison in New York. After having all his belongings stolen, Tesla arrived in America with four cents. Unfortunately, Thomas Edison would do nothing to help Tesla financially. At the time Edison was working to construct DC power plants in many cities around the country. He had a lot riding on the venture and did not want to hear anything about Tesla’s AC schemes. “Hold up! Spare me the nonsense. It’s dangerous. We’re set up for direct current in America. People like it, and it’s all I’ll ever fool with.” Despite their disagreements Edison offered Tesla a job redesigning his DC motors, which were prone to breakdown. A year later Tesla had created a DC motor that was a great improvement over Edison’s previous design. Edison took the motor and never paid Tesla the $50,000 he had promised him (One Story of Nikola Tesla, 2).
Tesla’s efforts did not go unnoticed and those in the academic world soon began discussing the prospects of AC power. Business magnate George Westinghouse, an early advocate of AC power, soon became interested in Nikola’s idea. Westinghouse proceeded to buy the patents for Tesla’s polyphase AC systems and hire him as a consultant. The system was a great success and beat out Edison’s DC systems. Westinghouse implemented the system across the country and even on Niagara Falls. The system is still in use today. In their contract Westinghouse had agreed to pay Tesla two dollars and fifty cents for every AC motor sold. The royalties alone would have made Tesla the richest man in the world at the time. However a smear campaign launched by Edison’s financial backer, J.P. Morgan, scared investors away from Westinghouse, depriving him of the capital he needed to proceed. In an act of friendship, and some would say stupidity, Tesla ripped up the contract between himself and Westinghouse, releasing him from any obligation to pay Tesla. He never again received royalties.
The money he did get from his adventures in AC power did allow him to build his own laboratory in Colorado Springs, CO. The location was especially enticing because Tesla had been offered free electricity by a friend at the local power plant. Tesla seized the opportunity and constructed a 150 foot metal tower at his lab. The idea of the tower was to test his theory of resonant energy. Tesla discovered that the earth, with its molten iron core, was a great conductor for electricity. He could send a pulse of electricity through the earth that would return to him about 1/30th of a second later, but considerably weaker than when it started. To amplify the wave he would just send more electricity out at that exact moment the first returned. He experimented with it for weeks, putting small amounts of energy into his tower. People living around it reported lights in their house coming on spontaneously and sparks would leap from the ground as people walked. This was only the test phase. In the fall of 1899 Tesla turned his machine all the way up. The result was truly dazzling. One hundred and thirty five foot bolts of lightning leapt from the ground to the top of the tower. If the war, and still is, the most powerful man-made power surge in history. Unfortunately the experiment was cut short when Tesla blew out the generator at the power plant. Nonetheless, Tesla’s experiment proved his theory of free energy, the next step was to sell it. Tesla new that people would be reluctant about the idea of free energy so he passed off his idea as new form of transmitting communications, not electricity. The man who had cost Tesla millions of dollars, J.P. Morgan, took him up on the idea and gave him money to build a new laboratory on Long Island, which he called Wardenclyffe. Wardencylffe was wracked by a string of accidents including a fire. Morgan’s interest in the project started to win and as a last ditch effort Telsa informed Morgan that he was not trying to redesign the telegraph, but replace the traditional way of transmitting energy. Morgan withdrew from the project and Tesla never got to bring his idea of free energy to the world.
In try to get himself out of debt Tesla started to experiment with inventions that had military applications. Given Tesla’s past inventions and his genius it is frightening to think what he could have done in a war? This is same man who claimed that he could spilt the earth in two with his resonance machine, and no one ever knew it was joking. Tesla first dabbled with war machines when he invented an automated submarine that was so advanced that it responded to voice commands. He remained humanitarian about the project saying he didn’t invent it so destroy, only to prevent lives from being lost at sea. He proposed his submarine to the government and to J.P. Morgan. The government passed and Morgan agreed only if Tesla would marry his daughter. Tesla passes on the offer. Eventually he ended up getting a contract with the German government to manufacture turbines for use in their submarines. Tesla was forced to give up the contract soon thereafter lest he be charged with treason when World War I broke out. So instead of sulking Tesla dreamed up a new invention that he thought would interest the military: a death ray. He began and finished construction on his death ray in 1908 atop a tower at his Wardencylffe lab. The specifications of the device are shaky at best but from what we can gather from his notes it was an early form of a particle accelerator. The ray focused a beam of energy so concentrated that it wouldn’t scatter over long distances. Tesla couldn’t wait to test his device and one night in 1908 he did. At the time Robert Peary was on a expedition to the North pole and Tesla had told the party that we try to contact them, neglecting to tell them how. On the cool summer night of June the 30th Tesla pointed his death ray out over the Atlantic Ocean to a point near the Peary expedition. He switched the device on and at first it seemed if nothing was happening. The weapon emitted a dim light that was barely visible. It wasn’t until an owl flew into the path of the beam and disintegrated instantly that Tesla knew something was happening. He switched it off and waited for contact from the Peary expedition. The next day in the newspaper he read about an explosion in Siberia that came to be known as the Tunguska event. The explosion flattened trees for five hundred thousand square acres and the event was audible for 620 miles. The explosion was equivalent to 10 to 15 megatons of TNT, and even consequent thermonuclear explosions have not equaled it. Scientists today belie that the explosion was caused by a comet or meteorite fragment that exploded above the surface of the earth although no mineral fragments or impact craters were ever found. Tesla had another explanation. He had missed the Peary expedition and hit Siberia. Luckily no one was killed in the explosion, but Tesla dismantled the device anyway and never put it back together, something which we should all be thankful for (Tesla, 79).
A lack of funds pushed Tesla into obscurity in his later years. He was unable to obtain any patents for his inventions because doing so would require a working model, the money for which just wasn’t there. For this reason all Tesla’s ideas were confined to his notebook. From looking at his notes one can only imagine what he could have done under the right circumstances. He was working on predecessors to voice recognition, the fax machine, and x-rays (“Nikola Tesla”, 1). He even proposed his plan for an “exploring ray” to the War Department during World War I. The board, which included Thomas Edison, dismissed the idea a joke. Ironically a few years later an invention almost identical to Tesla’s helped the allies win World War II, it was called radar.
There are several theories about why Tesla fell from grace like he did. Tesla was not a businessman and looking back it is easy to see that he made some bad financial decisions. His contract with Westinghouse alone would have allowed him to die in luxury, but the most accomplished men are rarely the most brilliant and more often the ones who know how to play the game. Some put Tesla’s downfall in the hands of a few powerful men who conspired to destroy him. Thomas Edison was immensely jealous of Tesla because of his amazing scope and did his best to convince the public that AC power just wouldn’t work. He held public demonstrations in which he electrocuted animals using AC power, a deceptive and cruel ploy. He was jubilant when he found out that Sin Sing prison was using AC power to run its electric chair. J.P. Morgan was the other man who was belied to be active in the anti-Tesla cover up. When Tesla informed Morgan about his plans for free energy, Morgan was so scared by the idea of free distribution of energy that he did what any self-respecting capitalist would have, cut all of Tesla’s funding. In the future he put considerable resources into making sure Tesla would never rethink the idea. Perhaps most amazingly the government became strangely interested in Tesla’s work after his death. The Office of Alien Property illegal seized all his work from his laboratory. Tesla’s paper were just recently released to the public under the freedom of information act (Neidle, 165).
Unfortunately Tesla’s downfall can most probably be attributed to his failing public image due to a surge of outlandish ideas and inventions. Tesla claimed that while working one night in his Colorado Springs laboratory his magnifying tower began to emit a precise series of clicks. Tesla deemed it Morse code and said that it had come from extraterrestrial life on Mars. He began to try to contact the Martians. As far as we know, he was never successful. Tesla dismissed Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity as vague and incoherent. At the same time he worked on his own plans of time travel, teleportation and anti-gravity ships. As this leads one to question how great of a scientist Tesla actually was.
Nikola Tesla died in 1943 at the age of 87. He was penniless and lived in a dilapidated New York hotel room with a flock of pigeons that he considered his only friends. Tesla never married, never even knew the company of a woman. Nikola Tesla died how he had been born, humbly.
It has taken over a hundred years for people to finally rediscover Nikola Tesla’s genius. The inventor had gained almost a cult following among electrical engineers. At least three organizations are devoted to preserving Tesla’s memory. The Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, the Tesla Memorial Society in New York and the International Tesla Society in Colorado Springs. In addition there exists a 1,000-member Tesla Engine Builders Association. Members of the group claim that recent tests on the engine indicate that it could rank as the world’s most efficient gas engine. The Tesla Coil web ring has more than 100 sites where fans of the invention post pictures and videos of electrical displays that make Hollywood pale in comparison (Lange, 2). Tesla Technology Research in Monrovia, California manufactures laboratory grade Tesla coils for use in theme parks, feature films and are an integral part of Ohio State’s high-voltage engineering lab. “Inventors of the modern computer have repeatedly been surprised, when seeking patents, to encounter Tesla’s basic ones already on file,” said Tesla historian Leland Anderson. Some of Tesla’s patents from 1903 contain the basic elements of the logical and circuit element (Lange 4).
By the 1940’s the scientific community regarded Tesla as a mad scientist. Early Superman cartoons feature Superman fighting a villain with electromagnetic terrors named Tesla. Even if some of Tesla’s ideas were completely wrong you cannot ignore all his other contributions to humanity. Slowly people are starting to recognize him as the genius he was. The Supreme Court ruled after his death that he was the legal inventor of the radio, not Guglielmo Marconi who had stolen it from him at a public exhibition. The court also recognized Tesla as the inventor of the vacuum tube, florescent bulb and the X-Ray machine. History books have followed suit. The advent of the internet has made Tesla’s legacy known to millions as well. Perhaps the story of the demolition of his Wardencylffe laboratory serves as the best metaphor for his life. In 1917 the bank foreclosed on the building and it was consigned for demolition. The demotion team succeed in destroying the building but the massive tower on which Tesla had done many of his experiments still stood. They blasted it repeatedly but it still stood proudly. The team gave up and had to return on a later date to try again. Finally they felled the tower but when it hit the ground it did not explode, shatter or even crack.
Lange, Larry. “Tesla’s Legacy Continues to Electrify Engineers.” EE Times Online. 9 July 1998. 15 March 2001. http://www.eet.com/news/98/1016news/tesla.html
Martin, Thomas. The Inventions Researches and Writings of Nikola Tesla. New York: The Electrical Engineer, 1894.
Neidle, Cycle S. Great Immigrants. New York: Twyane Publishers, 1973.
“Nikola Tesla..” Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 1996. 15 March 2001. http://www.neuronet.pitt.edu/~bodgan/tesla/bio.htm.
One Story of Nikola Tesla. 3 May 1999. 15 March 2001. http://www.speakeasy.org/~ohh/tesla.htm.
Tesla, Nikola. My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla. New York: Hart Brothers, 1982.
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