Today, July 10th, is informally known in the Geek world as Nikola Tesla Day. Why is this important? Because Nikola Tesla basically invented the world we live in. And the world part about it is that we don’t even know it. Hell, most people on the street have no idea he existed at all. Oh sure, they know who Thomas Edison was, and some of them might even know who (Guglielmo) Marconi or (Wilhelm) Röntgen were. But most of them would have no idea who Nikola Tesla was, or what he did for them.
So let’s talk about the man for a moment. Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856 in the Croatian village of Smiljan, which was then part of the Austrian (and later Austro-Hungarian) Empire. Now, many sources cite him as being Serbian, and that’s probably because his father was a Serbian (read: Russian) Orthodox minister (most Croats are Catholic). Despite generations of political and religious separation, one of the few things the Soviets got right was that Croatians, Serbians, Montenegrins and Bosnians are all ethnically the same. They speak the same language and they have the same genetic traits. They are one people, to the point that the language is officially called “Serbo-Croat”. Trust me on this. This is a topic I know a lot about. Besides, I’m 1/4 Serbo-Croat myself (my paternal grandfather’s parents were from Croatia).
OK, so Tesla was a Serbian (Croatian, Yugoslavian… whatever…), and supposedly graduated from Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, though the university itself denies this. They say he stopped attending lectures in his third year. Degrees are overrated. Especially for geniuses. Anyway, he cut ties with his family and moved around Eastern Europe until about 1882, when he moved to Paris and began working for the Continental Edison Company, a power company that was using Edison’s ideas and paying for use of his patents. It was during this time that Tesla developed the idea for devices using rotating magnetic fields (for which he filed patents in 1888). His claim of development of the idea in this year gave him the patent over Galileo Ferraris, who displayed his version in 1885.
In 1884, Tesla began his love-hate… well hate-hate really… relationship with Thomas Edison. Tesla came to New York with just a letter from a former employer. He went to work for the Edison Machine Works in 1885, and while there, offered to redesign Edison’s very inefficient direct current generators. The story goes that Edison offered Tesla $50,000 if the problems could be solved, which was noted as highly unusual, since Edison was a well-known skinflint (and the company didn’t have that kind of money). When the work was complete, Tesla asked for payment, to which Edison famously replied, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American Humor”. Edison instead offered a $10 a week raise (Tesla was making $18 a week – not bad money for the 1880′s – this would have been a significant increase), but Tesla immediately resigned, igniting a feud between the two.
Among the scientific community Edison himself is surrounded by a cloud of controversy. He’s considered to be the 4th most prolific inventor of all time, but some argue that he did very little of the inventing himself. As a businessman, he had a staff of engineers at his disposal, so the idea isn’t out of the question. But the patents are filed in his name, and patents are what matters. The primary fuel for the Edison/Tesla feud was called the War of Currents. After he perfected the light bulb in 1879, he then went about creating the first power company, the Edison Illuminating Company in 1882. The main problem, though, was that Edison was using direct current (which we use in batteries today). DC can only be transmitted over short distances, on the order of only a mile or two from the power generator. After leaving Edison’s employ, Tesla developed a system for power using Alternating Current (AC), which was superior because the power could be amplified to travel great distances, and then reduced again at the receiving end. This meant fewer power stations. Edison went to great lengths to discredit Tesla and prove AC was dangerous. This war led to the development of the Electric Chair (to prove AC was fatal while DC was not – mainly because AC power was high voltage), and resulted in the systematic execution of countless animals (including an elephant). Tesla, and his financial backer, George Westinghouse, actually won a contest by proving that Niagara Falls could be used to generate electrical power. In 1893, they built the first Niagara Falls Power Station and it used AC power. Over the tears, AC systematically replaced DC power until the final holdouts in New York were converted in 2007 (that’s right… 2007). Many years later, near death, Edison admitted that one of his few regrets was not respecting Tesla and his work.
Tesla dabbled in many fields, and he ran into Edison often. Marconi was the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909 for the creation of Radio (which at the time was called wireless telegraphy). Marconi didn’t invent the Radio, though, he just discovered a practical use for something other people already knew about. When Tesla was asked about Marconi some years earlier (1901) he is quoted as saying, “Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He’s using seventeen of my patents.” Of course, in 1904, the U.S. Patent office gave Marconi a patent for the Radio, meaning that he no longer had to pay Tesla for his patents, even though his design utilized many of Tesla’s principals. There was never a reason given, but it’s probably because Marconi was well funded and Tesla wasn’t. Score another one for Capitalism.
Tesla is also often credited with the invention of modern RADAR, though historically, that honor is given to Sir Robert Watson-Watt. RADAR is a bit trickier to actually pin down, even more than Radio, because so many people were developing it at the same time. Further, Tesla himself was only further developing ideas pioneered by others. However, he was the first person to develop a practical system using radio waves to detect objects. In some circles, it’s said that he pitched the idea to the U.S. Navy, but that Edison was the head of R&D, and convinced them that the idea wasn’t practical. Who knows if that’s really true. What’s documented is that RADAR wasn’t deployed by the US until World War 2, nearly 30 years after Tesla made his pitch.
Tesla is probably most famous for the development of a wireless electricity system using something called the Tesla Effect. If you’ve ever touched one of those giant balls that made your stand up, you’ve actually touched a Tesla coil and experience a wireless transfer of electricity. Tesla’s system was incredibly practical and he actually developed his own lamps to use with it. His entire lab was powered wirelessly, in fact. The only reason this wasn’t developed into a power system we could all use is that there was no way to regulate the power (which means you couldn’t keep people from connecting and you couldn’t track how much they used for purposes of billing – it would essentially be free power). There is a famous picture of Tesla holding one of his electric lamps being powered by wireless electricity.
Tesla was a man displaced in time. He developed a system for vertically lifting an aircraft off the ground (VTOL), years before it became practicable. He even developed a system for Ion Propulsion (TIE Fighters, anyone?). He WAS Science Fiction. He was also bat-shit insane and had frequent conversations with pigeons. Pigeons he loved. He lived the last ten years of his life in the Hotel New Yorker, room 3327, feeding his favorite pigeon. In what we be one of his last interviews, he said, “I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a women, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.” He mentioned that her eyes lit up, more powerful than any of the lamps in his room/office, and that her death was a final blow to his work. Like I said, bat-shit insane. But a genius. And when he died broke and alone in that hotel, the world began to forget him.
Well, I won’t forget him.
Here’s a link to a comic written by the great folks at The Oatmeal honoring the REAL father of the modern world.
Why Tesla is the Greatest Geek who Ever Lived.
Happy Birthday you fantastic lunatic. We live better lives because of the world you dreamed.