He Was a Prolific Polymath


Scientists at the turn of the 20th century were just becoming familiar with radiation and what it could do; in the process, they sometimes raised strange hypotheses or drew dubious conclusions. Numerous manufacturers, for example, added radium to products after it was discovered that radiation could shrink tumors [source: Blum].

Tesla was no different; he reported to the journal Electrical Review that, when someone's head was exposed to high radiation, it produced warmth, a tendency to sleep and a sensation of time passing quickly. "Who knows but that the X rays may yet banish insomnia and ennui from the world," said the journal [source: Electrical Review].

Over his long career, Tesla registered more than 111 American patents and around 300 patents worldwide [sources: Jonnes; Šarboh].

While investigating high-frequency electricity and trying to improve upon Edison's light bulbs, which were only 5 percent efficient, Tesla developed some of the first neon lights. He premiered them at that same 1893 World's Fair we mentioned, twisting their tubes to spell out the names of beloved scientists such as Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell [sources: Cheney and Uth; PBS]. He also developed early fluorescent lights, which he illuminated wirelessly using electrostatic waves [sources: Cheney and Uth; Jonnes].

Tesla's invention and demonstration of radio-controlled vehicles has earned him a place among the pioneers of robotics. In fact, the scientist described his "teleautomaton" as the first step in a race of robots, although it had no more programming or self-guidance than a modern RC car [sources: Cheney and Uth; PBS].

A novel bladeless turbine designed by Tesla rotated at such high speeds that its component disks distorted. Tesla never solved the problem, but modern materials such as Kevlar, carbon-fiber and titanium-impregnated plastic have inspired some to pick up where he left off [sources: PBS].

Tesla also reported taking X-ray photographs in 1896, a short time after Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays [sources: Electrical Review; PBS].