Nicola Tesla — Where Credit is Due


Born on this day, July 10,  electronics engineer Nicola Tesla is perhaps one of the most overlooked inventors. Although we credit Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison with the discovery and implementation of electricity, it was really Tesla who had the most innovative ideas and contributed the most to modern electronics.

Although he later became a US citizen, Tesla was born in 1856  in what is now Croatia. Some biographers claim  he was born — appropriately — in the middle of a lightening storm. He was educated at the Higher Real Gymnasium in Karlovac.  There he became interested in demonstrations of electricity by his physics professor.  He wrote that the demonstrations of this “mysterious phenomena” made him want “to know more of this wonderful force”.

As a child, Nicola reported having strange visions of light which he could reach out and touch.  He had a vivid imagination and was never sure whether these light visions were real or not. He had an unusual ability to visualize his inventions in his head, and even claimed to see, with his inner eye, the entire electromagnetic field of electricity.

In his early years, Tesla showed signs of mathematical genius. He was able to  perform integral calculus in his head. This prompted his teachers to believe that he was cheating.

 Tesla finished a four-year term in three years, graduating in 1873.

The most famous of Tesla’s inventions is the alternating-current (AC) electric system. This provides a fast current of electricity, able to travel long distances, as opposed to the  slower and weaker direct current( DC)  system. Without the AC system we would not be able to power modern cities and our landscape would be quite different — cluttered with small power plants and electric chambers on every corner.  In fact, AC is still the predominant electrical system used across the world today.  He also created the “Tesla coil” which is still used in radio technology, and several other inventions.

Nicola came to the United States in 1884. He briefly worked with Thomas Edison, whom he had greatly admired, until the two parted ways.  A case can be made for “good inventor/ bad inventor” with Edison in the latter role. While Tesla tried to develop his ideas for incorporating the AC system, Edison  — who was already using the DC system — jealously guarded his own interests through aggressive marketing and slanderous propaganda.

Edison convinced the public that Tesla’s AC electronics were dangerous and impractical.  He used underhanded and inhumane methods to prove this.  In his efforts to instill fear in people, Edison even electrocuted a few animals, including elephants!

Tesla abandoned Edison and went to work for George Westinghouse.

Westinghouse Electric  won the bid to light the Columbian Exposition of Chicago in 1893. They asked Tesla to participate. It would be a key event in the history of AC power.

At the Exposition, Tesla showed a series of electrical effects related to AC as well as his wireless lighting system, using  demonstrations he had previously performed throughout America and Europe.  These included using high-voltage, high-frequency alternating current to light a wireless gas-discharge lamp.  He demonstrated to the American public the safety, reliability, and efficiency of a fully integrated AC system,  thus proving that Edison was wrong. 

Throughout his lifetime, Tesla suffered from mad/ genius syndrome and all the impulsiveness that went along with it. He was known to gamble and accrued several exorbitant debts. Sadly, to pay his debts he ended up selling several of his patent rights to Westinghouse, including those to his AC machinery. The success of the Westinghouse Electric company was almost entirely based upon Tesla’s work, although Tesla never got monetary credit for it.

Having become obsessed with the wireless transmission of energy,  in around 1900, Nicola set to work on his boldest project yet: to build a global, wireless communication system — to be transmitted through a large electrical tower — for sharing information and providing free electricity throughout the world. Sounds familiar, right? But this was only 1900 🙂

With funding from a group of investors that included financial giant J. P. Morgan, in 1901 Tesla began work on the project in earnest, designing and building a lab with a power plant and a massive transmission tower on a site on Long Island, New York, that became known as Wardenclyffe.

However, doubts arose among his investors about the plausibility of Tesla’s system. As his rival, Guglielmo Marconi — with the financial support of Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison — continued to make great advances with his own radio technologies, Tesla had no choice but to abandon the project.

It’s too bad. Had investors believed in him, perhaps we would have had the Internet a lot sooner!

The closure of the project affected Tesla emotionally. He suffered a nervous breakdown. After that his work was mainly as a consultant. Radically ahead of his time, his interests after that were considered outlandish and a bit crazy. For example, he devoted much time to the care of wild pigeons in New York City’s parks. (Who knows what he had in mind — as carrier pigeons were a well known and reliable source of communication.)  Tesla even drew attention from the FBI for some of his so-called dangerous ideas.

Tesla died on January 7, 1943 at the age of 86. Like many eccentric geniuses, he was poor and virtually unknown. Sadly, American education does not incorporate him into the curriculum, so most kids learn very little about him. Recently however, more attention has been brought to his name by billionaire businessman Elon Musk, who named his electronic automobile company “Tesla”.  According to Musk, the mission of Tesla is “To accelerate the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future.”

The legacy of the work Tesla left behind him lives on to this day. Every time we turn on radio, watch a live stream, plug in a device or use wifi, we should remember who we have to thank!

Happy Birthday Nicola!