I am going to tell you about one of the most important scientists or engineers there have been in the past 150 years – a man named Nikola Tesla. This is a man responsible for our current flow of electricity and has predicted or put down the building blocks of many of our more modern technologies that we use today.
But first a bit of background about where he came from. Nikola Tesla was born on 10th July 1856 to Serbian parents, in the village of Smiljan in the Austrian Empire, now modern day Croatia. This was said to have happened during a fierce lightning storm, where legend has it that the midwife stopped half way through to declare lightning as a bad omen, only for his mother to reply, ‘No. He will be a child of light”. One of five siblings, he quietly gained his education at several schools due to family movement, eventually ending up at Higher Real Gymnasium, Karlovac in 1870.
It was at this point he was greatly influenced by his maths teacher, named Martin Sekulic, who sowed the seeds that would inspire Tesla to do feats of great engineering. Tesla developed an eidetic memory, and could perform integrated calculus in his head comfortably, which resulted in his teachers questioning whether he could be cheating. Tesla attributed this memory to his mother’s genetics and influence, who regularly memorised Serbian poems and had a talent for fixing mechanical appliances and craft tools.
He graduated from school in 1873, he did a four year course in three years, before spending a couple of years in the mountains to avoid the military draft. Tesla would claim that this contact with nature during this time would make him stronger, both physically and mentally.
He enrolled at Austrian Polytechnic in 1875, where he would study from 3am till 11pm each and every day, gained the highest grades possible and passed nine exams in his first year alone. His high work rate concerned lectures and tutors, who would regularly write to Tesla’s father hoping he would be able to convince him to slow down.
During his second and third year though Tesla gained a gambling problem, both losing and winning back his entire tuition fees, but this disregard ultimately led to him being denied final grades in his fourth year, which did not allow him to graduate. So there is a bit of hope for anyone without a degree, as hopefully you will be amazed at a Nikola Tesla achieved without one.
All of the above is some very basic and frankly boring information, but it is the next part where Tesla’s story starts to get interesting.
In 1882, Tesla began to work for the Continental Edison Company, created by Thomas Edison, the ‘inventor’ of the light bulb (we’ll come back to that later). Now Tesla’s and Edison’s stories are intertwined for the next 20 years, culminating in the War of the Currents, but initially Tesla started off by fixing and making improvements to Edison’s electrical equipment in France. He relocated to New York in 1884, where Edison offered him the task of completely redesigning his companies direct current generators – “There is 50 000 dollars in it for you, if you can do it” he said. So Tesla went about his work for months, and once he was successful enquired about his payment. Edison claimed he was only joking, saying “I don’t think you understand our American humour”. Tesla immediately resigned.
Now Nikola Tesla was no businessman, whereas Thomas Edison was. Many believe that Edison was the inventor of the light bulb, but what he actually did was found a way to improve on 22 previous attempts by other men and then worked out how to market the light bulb appropriately. This was a world all about making money, which left Tesla on the outside due his desire to invent new technologies purely for human advancement.
This was the case in 1886, just after Tesla left Edison’s company, where Tesla collaborated with two businessmen named Robert Lane and Benjamin Vale to create the ‘Tesla Light and Manufacturing’ company. They installed electrical arc light based illumination systems and dynamo machine commutators, but Lane and Vale showed little interest in Tesla’s ideas for new types of motors and electrical transmission equipment. Ultimately they forced Tesla out of the company, leaving him penniless in the process, and kept all the patents Tesla had created so far.
Tesla began to question his education and its worth over that winter, which he would describe as a time of “terrible headaches and bitter tears”.
However at the end of 1886 he met two men who would set Tesla on a path to success. Alfred S Brown was a Western Union superintendent, and Charles F Peck was a New York attorney, and they both agree to finance Tesla, forming the Tesla Electric Company in April 1887. They set up a lab for Tesla at 89 Liberty Street in Manhattan, where Tesla could develop new designs for motors and generators.
One of the motors Tesla created was the alternating current induction motor, which would use a rotating magnetic field to turn the motor. This did not require a commutator therefore did not require sparking or high maintenance and repairs that other motors required. Tesla was encouraged to show off his new motor at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1888, which was watched by engineers of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company.
George Westinghouse had been looking for the patent to an AC motor and related power system, so when new reached him of Tesla’s design, he set out to buy the patents from Tesla for $60,000 plus hired Tesla as a consultant for his company.
In agreeing to do so though, Tesla had picked a side in the ‘War of the Currents’, fought between George Westinghouse for alternating current (AC), and Thomas Edison for direct current (DC). Each side stated their case to have their source of electricity become the main power supply for the world. The advantage of AC over DC was that it could travel greater distances and could use thinner wires. Edison though, being a businessman, did his best to devalue Tesla and Westinghouse’s AC system by showing public electrocutions of stolen pets in a bid to convince the general public that AC was too dangerous to be the main supplier.
In 1893, Westinghouse won the bid to supply the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago with alternating current, at which Tesla demonstrated a series of electrical effects that he had demonstrated across Europe and America.
By this time Edison’s company had become General Electric financed by J.P Morgan, and over the next few years tried to take over Westinghouse Electric several times until finally a patent sharing agreement was reached between the two companies in 1896, with General Electric switching to AC. This ultimately led to AC being the dominant source of power, and the apparent victor in the war of the currents. It is also what we still use as our electricity today, even though DC current is used in appliances such as phones and computers also.
From 1890 onwards Tesla began to predict and develop many technologies that would not come to fruition for the next half century. He built the first ever hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls, completely revolutionising how electricity was produced. It was also the first time renewable energy had been considered, as opposed to coal power stations. In part of his speech at the opening ceremony on January 1897 Tesla said, “It is a monument of our scientific age, a true monument of enlightenment and peace”
In 1894 Tesla started to work on what he referred to as radiant energy of invisible kinds when he had notice damaged film in his lab, having previously been working with Crookes tubes, a cold cathode electrical discharge tube. Although he did not know it at the time, what he had in fact discovered were X-rays, but a fire in his lab wiped out all his notes, plans, laboratory data and photographs before he could investigate them further. The eventual credit for discovering X rays went to Wilhelm Rontgen a couple of months later in December 1895.
As a result of this new discovery, many scientists including Tesla experimented with X rays, with some believing they could cure blindness and other ailments. Once again that man Thomas Edison wanted to get involved in the next big thing and started human trials with X rays, particular on some of his assistants and even himself. One of his assistants, Clarence Dally, was exposed to so much radiation that he needed both his arms amputated, and ultimately he died of mediastinal cancer as a result. This is acknowledged as the first American death as a result of experimentation with radiation. Edison even directed X rays into his own eyes, almost blinding himself in the process. He would later reply when someone asked him about X rays, “Don’t talk to me about X rays. I am afraid of them”. Edison was haunted by Dally’s death till the end of his days, and kept him on his payroll and covered medical expenses until he died. Tesla refused to use X rays for medical experiments, fearing their danger.
Around 1900 Tesla began to consider building a global communications system, using a large electrical tower. Ten years previously he had invented the Tesla Coil, which was capable of turning very modest voltages of electricity into very large surges of energy potentially one hundred times in size. He had already displayed a remote control boat using radio waves in 1898 during an electrical exhibition at Madison Square Garden, in which the public claimed they were being duped by magic, telepathy and even a trained monkey such was their amazement at the feat. Tesla’s plans for his communications system were much grander though, and he put to work designing a 186 foot high tower on Long Island, known as the Wardenclyffe facility, that would send out wireless information and provide free energy for the world. He also envisioned that this information could be gathered together and broadcast into a small handheld device – pretty much predicting smartphone technology and wireless internet! The tower itself was built but the project ran out of money before it could come to fruition, and the Wardenclyffe facility was sold in 1917.
Tesla also investigated atmospheric electricity, observing lighting signal via his receivers in Colorado Spring in 1899. The great distances and the nature of what Tesla was detecting from lightning storms confirmed his belief that the Earth has a resonant frequency, something that could not be confirmed until 50 years later when technology had caught up with his prediction.
During his time at Colorado Springs he also created artificial lightning, the thunder of which could be heard 15 miles away. He also observed unusual signals from his receiver that he concluded, correctly as it turned out, could be communications from another planet. This was the birth of radio astronomy!
Radar is widely accepted to have been invented in 1935 by Englishman Robert A. Watson Watt, but was actually pitched to the US Navy by Tesla during the First World War in 1917, as a solution to submarine attacks on US ships. Coincidentally once again Thomas Edison was standing in Tesla’s way, as part of the Naval Consulting Board, who dismissed Tesla’s idea of using radio waves to track submarines. There was some reason behind this as radio waves could not penetrate water easily, so they focused on sonar technology instead. However the idea still could have worked for tracking enemy fighters, but due to a lack of aerial warfare and tank battles it was maybe too ahead of its time.
Amongst other things Tesla is said to have predicted, invented or influenced are Remote Controls, Neon Lighting, Earthquake machines and even the possibility of producing a death ray using electricity. The later one had the FBI concerned so much that they constantly monitored Tesla’s activities, who touted the device the governments of the US, UK, Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. No completed death ray was ever found though, despite Tesla’s claim to have built and tested one.
For all the remarkable events in Tesla’s life, he died alone in room 3327 of the New Yorker hotel on 7th January 1943. He was penniless and never had any family for he believed that dating would interfere with his work, and remained celibate his entire life.
His influence on the world cannot be understated though, and recently the remaining buildings of the Wardenclyffe facilty have been purchased with a view to turning them into a museum dedicated to his life and works.