Why hello there… It’s Friday! Welcome to another fascinating episode of Nerdy by Nature. On Today’s show, we explore Nikola Tesla, the master of light. A man who had been overlooked, including his achievements that for some strange reason were never highlighted in history books.
When you think of the generation of electricity, you think of Thomas Edison. When you think of the invention of radio, Marconi is the guy; however, not a lot of people realize that Nikola Tesla was really the man behind those two great inventions and much more which we still see today.
He is most notable for creating A/C generation which won the war of the currents as being the new norm over Edison’s D/C generation model. He created a replacement motor which also ran on A/C and he harnessed the power of Niagara Falls generating A/C from it. He laid the ground work, and theory surrounding wireless communications, including high frequency transmission. He invented neon and fluorescent lighting, and was a pioneer with the creation, and use of x-ray technology.
So how did such a person exist with so very little remembrance? Some theories suggest he was snubbed because he was from another country. Others believe it was Edison which discredited him to prospective financiers. Some thought his ideas were so radical and that he was crazy. Whatever the reason, the man was a genius, his only crime was trying to make society a better place.
Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 and grew up in Serbia (former Yugoslavia). He studied engineering in Austria during 1877 but became obsessed with electricity. During that time, Michael Faraday had discovered induction (electromotive force using magnets). D/C power was also a thing and so was D/C motors but Tesla dreamed of a better way; a motor which had changing fields and was more efficient.
Meanwhile, in America, Edison was experimenting with vacuum tubes, and dedicated to his D/C projects. In the 1870’s D/C power was slowly being introduced to cities, but the system was far from perfect. There was always fires breaking out and horses were shocked in the streets.
On June 6, 1884 Tesla arrived in New York as a 28 year old landed immigrant. An associate of Edison’s Electric company had vouched for him during his employment in Europe. Tesla looked up to Edison, he would be proud to work with him.
Tesla vs. Edison
While Tesla wanted to make his A/C motor and explore generation for it, Edison did not want to hear anything of it. Tesla was hired to improve efficiency of D/C motors for $50,000. However, a year later when Tesla had completed the task, Edison laughed and said didn’t understand American humour, and would not be paid.
By this time Tesla had enough of Edison and opened a lab on Liberty street with some help from inventors that believed in him. It was there that he worked towards a prototype of his A/C motor and generation. A design which is still used today. He later found himself teaming up with George Westinghouse who purchased all his patents for $1M, and even offered a royalty.
Enter — the war of the currents of the 1880’s. Edison began a campaign against A/C and tried to discredit Tesla’s work. Edison was so bent on destroying Tesla that he demonstrated the awesome power of A/C very regularly on animals, saying D/C was safer. In a bold move, Edison helped to have A/C used at the Auburn State Prison for an execution during 1890. People were disgusted.
All of that changed during 1893 at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Edison along with Thompson Huston (General Electric) bid that they could light the fair for $1M. Tesla and Westinghouse Electric countered at $500k undercutting Edison and getting the job. In retaliation, Edison forbid the use of Edison’s bulbs and so Tesla had to come up with his line of bulbs.
The event was a success, people were not afraid of A/C. It was impressive that such generation could be done so cheap. The next step in Tesla’s dream was to start implementing A/C generation stations. Since childhood, Tesla had always had the thought of using Niagara Falls to do this. Lord Calvin who attended that the fair was astonished by what he saw and approached Tesla. A contract was awarded to Westinghouse Electric and Tesla was commissioned to oversee the project.
Niagara Falls had 3x 5000 HP generators installed, all connected with shafts to a water turbine. 22,000 volts were produced. Tesla was the only one who knew it would work while others had doubted. In 1896 system we went live into the age of Electric. Within a few years, the installation increased to 10 generators, and by the end of the century, power lines stretched to New York city.
So where was Edison at this time? Out of the business, with A/C being adopted as the new standard, he found himself being written out of his own company. In spite of Westinghouse Electric being the front runner to A/C technology, they had over-extended their resources. To help save the company, Tesla tore up his contract for royalties.
By this time, Tesla was looking to move on and decided to explore energy transmission. He believed he could transmit energy without connecting wires in between (the first thought of radio). He designed and worked with high frequency machines in his lab.
During the 1890s, the Tesla coil was conceived. Essentially he found a way to step up low voltage to high voltage at a high frequency, thereby creating the basis for neon and fluorescent illumination. In 1892, Tesla was invited to Europe to discuss his findings on high frequency, it was then he also discussed the topic of transmission of power (radio). The race for radio was now on.
During 1893 he discovered that the Tesla coil could be tuned to resonate at the same frequency. Tuning is a key component to any transmission of radio or television. Tesla was really on to something; however in 1895 a fire in the lab caused all equipment to be lost, including his papers on the subject. While Tesla was piecing things together, over in England, Marconi had created a device– wireless telegraphy. Tesla eventually re opened his lab and filed a patent with the fundamental design of radio, but was it too late?
Tesla continued to tinker with high frequency (specifically oscillation). He believed that he could move things if found the right frequency of object. His tests proved that he could, and in one experiment shook buildings and blew out windows. In another experiment, Tesla created a radio controlled water vessel and n 1898 and patented it. By this time Marconi had perfected radio transmission and was ready to take on the world.
Marconi came to New York and stated up Marconi Radio Telegraph. He wanted to file a patent but the design was too close to Tesla’s. Eventually due to political reasons it was allowed and Tesla spent his last days fighting it. By the end of his life, he had nothing left. Living out of a hotel room in New York City and penniless. All those years of making a difference and nothing to show for it.
So why did Tesla not make that mark in history? Was it that Edison resented him, and those that rubbed shoulders with him made it possible to discard him as a pioneer of electricity. Tesla invented the radio but somehow Marconi uses the patents to further demonstrate, a mistake on Tesla’s part for not following through with his ideas. In a lot of ways Tesla had failed to protect his inventions, and ended up with no cash at the end of it all. He was a true visionary, who never cared about money and fame but rather the chance to make society better.
Be nice to your pets and stay nerdy.