Nicola Tesla (1856-1943) was one of the greatest inventors of all time. His work in magnetism and electrical devices was unsurpassed by anyone else in recent times. He does not get the credit he deserves as he was not focused on personal promotion or to monetize his creations.
He is directly or indirectly responsible for over 80% of the technology we use today, including AC electrical power, radio transmission and x-rays.
Innovation based on Tesla’s ideas is essential as our society moves away from fossil fuels into renewable technologies, as the U.S. government acknowledges. Renewable electric generating technologies account for almost 60% of the approximately 1,000 gigawatts of cumulative capacity additions projected in the AEO2021 Reference case from 2020 to 2050. The large share is a result of declining capital costs but is also a result of increasing renewable portfolio standard (RPS) targets and tax credits. Although wind contributes to renewable electric generating capacity additions, it is on a much smaller scale compared with solar capacity, which builds steadily throughout the projection period. See https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/electricity/sub-topic-02.php
The Electrical and Magnetic Transmission Genius of Tesla
Being non-conventional also means being controversial and many of his ideas were derided at the time. Even beyond physical inventions he stated “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence”
Tesla was unique in that he envisioned power generation through natural means. Every physic student knows that electricity, magnetism and motion are related. He realized the earth was a endlessly spinning electrical generator within a magnetic field from the North to South Pole, and that it could be tapped to generate electricity. One of his many related patents was 787,412 – see below.
Be it known that I, NIKOLA TESLA, a citizen of the United States, residing in the borough of Manhattan, in the city, county, and State of New York, have discovered a new and useful Improvement in the Art of Transmitting Electrical Energy Through the Natural Media, of which the following is a specification, reference being had to the drawings accompanying and forming a part of the same.
It is known since a long time that electric currents may be propagated through the earth, and this knowledge has been utilized in many ways in the transmission of signals and the operation of a variety of receiving devices remote from the source of energy, mainly with the object of dispensing with a return conducting-wire. It is also known that electrical disturbances may be transmitted through portions of the earth by grounding only one of the poles of the source, and this fact I have made use of in systems which I have devised for the purposes of transmitting through the natural media intelligible signals or power and which are now familiar; but all experiments and observations heretofore made have tended to confirm the opinion held by the majority of scientific men that the earth, owing to its immense extent, although possessing conducting properties, does not behave in the manner of a conductor of limited dimensions with respect to the disturbances produced, but, on the contrary, much like a vast reservoir or ocean, which while it may be locally disturbed by a commotion of some kind remains unresponsive and quiescent in a large part or as a whole.
A True Scientific Genius
Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in what is now Croatia. He was the fourth of five children in the family. His father was a priest and his mother somewhat of an amateur inventor. She was adept at making craft tools for the home.
In 1875 Tesla studied electrical engineering at the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz. While there he studied the uses of alternating current. In December 1878, Tesla left Graz and broke off all relations with his family for a time.
After re-establishing a relationship with his family, Tesla was persuaded by his father to attend the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague. His father died after he completed only one term, and he left the university.
In 1880, he moved to Budapest to work for a telegraph company. When the first telephone exchange in Budapest opened in 1881, he became the chief electrician. Later he would become the engineer for the country’s first telephone system.
In 1882 he moved to Paris, to work as an engineer for the Continental Edison Company. Later that year he conceived the idea for an induction motor and began developing various devices that use rotating magnetic fields. He received patents for these devices in 1888. On 6 June 1884, Tesla came to the United States and was hired to work at Thomas Edison’s lab in New Jersey. His first tasks were simple electrical engineering projects, but he quickly was called on to work on some of the most challenging projects at the company.
After a dispute with Edison over using direct current or alternating current as a power source, Tesla left the company. In 1886 he formed his own company, Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. This was a short lived venture however. Again Tesla got into a dispute with his financial backers over the use of alternating current. He eventually was relieved of his duties at the company by his investors. In 1887 Tesla filed for seven U.S. patents in the field of polyphase AC motors and power transmission. These included a complete system of generators, transformers, transmission lines, motors and lighting. George Westinghouse heard about Tesla’s patents, and was interested in using Tesla’s inventions for the long distance transmission of electrical power. Westinghouse paid Tesla a cash sum to buy the patents, and also agreed to pay royalties of $2.50 per horsepower of electrical capacity sold. With Westinghouse’s purchase of these patents, a full scale war broke out between Westinghouse and Thomas Edison. The stakes were high because both knew the monetary rewards that would be reaped in the future. Edison steadfastly believed the future of electric power was in using direct current. Westinghouse, however believed Tesla’s alternating current system was superior.
Like something out of a bad movie script, it just so happened that a murderer was about to be executed in the first electric chair at New York’s Auburn State Prison. Someone had succeeded in illegally purchasing a used Westinghouse generator, and it was used in an attempt to demonstrate the so-called ” extreme danger of alternating current”. Convicted murderer William Kemmler was executed on August 6, 1890 using electricity from Westinghouse’s generator. It was described as “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.” Death by electrocution was later sarcastically referred to as “Westinghousing.”
Despite this setback, the Westinghouse Corporation won the bid for illuminating The Chicago World’s Fair, the first all-electric fair in history. The contract was awarded to Westinghouse after the company was able to bid substantially less than the newly formed General Electric Company. General Electric had taken over the Edison Company.
Still using direct current, General Electric’s bid was twice that of the bid by Westinghouse. Tesla’s alternating current system had won it’s first major battle. After the success at the fair, over 80% of electrical lights and other devices ordered in the country ran off of alternating current. Tesla and Westinghouse would have their next triumph in 1893. Westinghouse was awarded the contract to build the Niagara Falls Power Project. The project would supply electricity from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, N.Y.
On November 16, 1896, the switch was thrown and at midnight the first electricity reached Buffalo. The Niagara Falls Gazette reported that “The turning of a switch in the big powerhouse at Niagara completed a circuit which caused the Niagara River to flow uphill.” Within a few years the number of generators at Niagara Falls reached the planned ten, and power lines were electrifying New York City for the first time.
Years of fighting competitors had financially drained Westinghouse, and the company was on the verge of takeover. Famed investor J.P. Morgan was accused of plotting to bring all U.S. hydroelectric power under his control by manipulating stock prices. His alleged plan was to take over Westinghouse and the patents he had bought from Nikola Tesla.
This was when Tesla tore up the previous contract he had with Westinghouse. This released Westinghouse from his agreement to pay Tesla royalties on electrical power produced. Tesla’s act literally single-handedly saved the Westinghouse Company. It also cost Tesla a massive fortune he would have received from the royalties.
After the Niagara Falls Power Project was completed, Tesla resumed his experiments and testing. This was the work he loved doing more than anything else. In 1891 he invented the famous Tesla coil. This invention took ordinary sixty-cycle per second household current and stepped it up to extremely high frequencies. It could also generate extremely high voltages. The Tesla coil is still used today in TV’s, radios, and various other electronics.
But Tesla’s lifelong obsession was the wireless transmission of energy. Using his Tesla coils, he soon discovered that he could transmit and receive powerful radio signals when they were tuned to resonate at the same frequency. In early 1895 he was ready to broadcast a signal 50 miles to West Point, New York. But soon after Tesla’s lab was completely destroyed by fire.
In England Guglielmo Marconi was experimenting with a device for wireless telegraphy. Marconi had taken out the first wireless telegraphy patent in England in 1896. But his invention only used a two circuit system. Such a system could not transmit “across a pond” according to some skeptics. Later Marconi set up long-distance demonstrations, using a Tesla oscillator to transmit the signals across the English Channel.
On December 12, 1901, Marconi for the first time was able to transmit and receive signals across the Atlantic Ocean. Otis Pond, an engineer working for Tesla told him “Looks as if Marconi got the jump on you.” Tesla replied, “Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents.”
Tesla was successful in a number of scientific breakthroughs. In 1898 he conducted a demonstration of the world’s first radio-controlled vessel. Tesla’s U.S. patent number 613,809 describes the first device anywhere in the world for wireless remote control. The working model, or “teleautomaton,” responded to radio signals and was powered with an internal battery. Tesla’s remote controlled boat was literally the birth of robotics, though he is seldom recognized for this accomplishment. The talented inventor was trained in electrical and mechanical engineering, and these skills merged perfectly in this remote-controlled boat. Unfortunately, the invention was so far ahead of its time that those who observed it could not imagine its practical uses.
Tesla had spent the latter part of the 1890′s in Colorado Springs. He was of the belief that it was possible to transmit electrical power without wires at high altitudes. Though he spent nine months there conducting experiments, the results of his experiments are not clear. No one knows for sure if he was actually able to transmit wireless power at Pikes Peak.
After returning to New York from Colorado, a controversial article he wrote appeared in Century Magazine. In the article Tesla proposed a global system of wireless communications. The article got the attention of J.P. Morgan, the investor who Tesla had previously prevented from acquiring the Westinghouse Company.
Tesla proposed to Morgan his belief in a system to broadcast news, music, stock market reports, messages, top secret military communications, and even pictures to any part of the world. Morgan offered Tesla $150,000 to build a transmission tower and power plant. Tesla’s real intentions however was to make a large-scale demonstration of electrical power transmission without wires. This would later prove to be a huge mistake by Tesla.
Tesla acquired land on the cliffs of Long Island Sound for the new project. The site was called Wardenclyffe. As construction projects very often do, this one soon ran out of money. The $150,000 Tesla received from Morgan didn’t last long. Tesla asked for more funds, but Morgan refused. Most historians today believe that Morgan somehow learned of Tesla’s intentions of supplying free electricity, and would have no part of such a plan. Free electricity meant no profits, so Morgan repeatedly denied Tesla more money to complete the project.
In 1905 Tesla was forced to abandon the project. It was soon labeled “Tesla’s million dollar folly.”
In 1912, Tesla tested a revolutionary new kind of turbine engine. Both Westinghouse Manufacturing and the General Electric Company had spent millions developing bladed turbine designs, which were in reality nothing more than powerful windmills in a housing.
Tesla’s design was a series of closely spaced discs that were keyed to a shaft. With only one moving part, Tesla’s turbine was simplistic, but practical, much like the AC motor he had invented years earlier. Fuels such as steam or vaporized gas were injected into the spaces between the discs, spinning the motor at a high rate of speed. Too high it later turned out. The turbine operated at such high revolutions per minute that the metal in the discs distorted from the heat. The project was later abandoned.
In 1928, at the age of seventy-two, he received his last patent, number 6,555,114, “Apparatus For Aerial Transportation.” This ingenious flying machine resembled both a helicopter and an airplane. It in fact was the forerunner of today’s tiltrotor or VSTOL (vertical short takeoff and landing) plane. Tesla unfortunately did not have the funds to build a prototype.
In 1931 Tesla invented what is today called a charged particle beam weapon. Tesla had hopes the weapon would put an end to war. Newspapers at the time called the invention a “death beam”. Tesla stated that this invention would make war impossible by offering every country an “invisible Chinese wall.”
One of the more controversial topics involving Nikola Tesla is what happened to many of his technical and scientific papers after his death in 1943. Just before his death at the height of World War II, he claimed that he had perfected his so-called “death beam.” So it was natural that the FBI and other U.S. Government agencies would be interested in any scientific ideas involving weaponry he invented. Some were concerned that Tesla’s papers might fall into the hands of the Axis powers or the Soviets. The next morning after Tesla died his nephew Sava Kosanovic went to his hotel room. He suspected that someone had already gone through his uncle’s effects. Technical papers were missing as well as a black notebook he knew his uncle kept-a notebook with several hundred pages, some of which were marked “Government.” P. E. Foxworth, the assistant director of the New York FBI office, was called in to investigate. According to Foxworth, the government was “vitally interested” in preserving Tesla’s papers. Two days after Tesla’s death, representatives of the Office of Alien Property went to his room at the New Yorker Hotel and seized all his possessions.
Dr. John G. Trump, an electrical engineer with the National Defense Research Committee of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, was called in to analyze the Tesla papers in OAP custody. Following a three-day investigation, Dr. Trump concluded: “His [Tesla’s] thoughts and efforts during at least the past 15 years were primarily of a speculative, philosophical, and somewhat promotional character often concerned with the production and wireless transmission of power; but did not include new, sound, workable principles or methods for realizing such results.”
Really, Dr. Trump? Nikola Tesla was a man with a remarkable scientific mind. A man who was decades ahead of his time. A man who was a true visionary, and whose inventions still contribute to our 21st century lifestyle, even though some of those inventions are over a century old. The world owes a huge debt of gratitude to Nikola Tesla, one of the greatest inventors and scientists who ever lived.