Who is Nikola Tesla? He has an electric car company and a rock band named after him. Legendary rock musician David Bowie even played the eccentric scientist in the 2006 movie "The Prestige." Tesla had hundreds of patents registered in his name -- yet he never won a Nobel Prize for his lifelong work with electricity. The inventions and discoveries he made over his lifetime, particularly in the late 1800s, are the basis for much of our modern lifestyle. Let's take a look at his most famous and influential works.
- Rotating Magnetic Field (1882): Tesla's first breakthrough came when a professor in his native Croatia (he was ethnically Serbian) told him it was impossible to create a motor powered by alternating current (AC) instead of direct current (DC). Tesla was sure this wasn't the case, and after two years of performing experiments in his mind, the solution came to him like a bolt of lightning: a rotating magnetic field that would allow alternating current to power an engine without being first converted to direct current.
- AC Motor (1883): Tesla carried detailed plans for this AC motor in his head (a particular talent of his) until he could build a physical model the next year. The alternating current created magnetic poles that reversed themselves without mechanical aid, as DC motors required, and caused an armature (the revolving part of any electromechanical device) to whirl around the motor. This was his rotating magnetic field put into practice as a motor; within two years, he would use it in AC generators and transformers as well.
- Tesla coil (1890): The electrical coil named for its inventor is one of Tesla's showiest inventions, and he used it to its full dramatic extent in demonstrations held in his New York City lab. The coil uses polyphase alternating currents -- another of Tesla's discoveries -- to create a transformer capable of producing very high voltages. It brought forth impressive crackling sparks and sheets of electric flame that impressed the electrically savvy and the layman alike. They're primarily used for entertainment today.
- Radio (1897): Tesla first sent a wireless transmission from his lab at Houston Street in New York City to a boat on the Hudson River -- 25 miles (40 km) away -- in 1897; he would've done this sooner but for a fire that destroyed his previous lab in 1895. Tesla invented everything we associate with radio -- antennas, tuners and the like -- but an inventor named Guglielmo Marconi was given the actual credit. In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Tesla's patent had precedence, but the public already considered Marconi the father of radio [source: TSMNY].
Tesla built on these discoveries and inventions to create the first wireless remote control boat, fluorescent and neon lights (which he did indeed bend into letters), wireless bulbs that were lit by energy from the earth and an AC power plant that harnessed the hydroelectric power of Niagara Falls. He even had a hand in the creation of robotics. His system of delivering power to homes and businesses using AC eclipsed the DC power advocated by his former employer Thomas Edison. (We still receive AC power in our homes today.) By the time Tesla died in 1943, his money and fame were on the wane, but his inventions and discoveries have made much of our current technology possible.
For more information on scientific discoveries and the people responsible for them, see the links on the next page.