History, they say, is written by the victors, but that's cold comfort to the men and women x-ed out by the editor's pen. For years, science textbooks equated electricity and light with one man, Thomas Edison, while the genius whose pioneering electrical technologies truly power the modern world languished as a minor note in scientific history, sandwiched between Edward Teller and Thales of Miletus.
Before the turn of the 20th century, electricity remained a mere scientific curiosity -- one that many doubted would ever do an honest day's work. Nikola Tesla, arguably more than anyone else, changed that, but his pioneering research in electricity represents only a portion of the scientific and technical innovations that elevated him to science godhood.
Tesla not only expanded and revolutionized the work of his predecessors; he also leapfrogged ahead of his contemporaries to the next step, and the next. But, just as it takes more than groundbreaking music to give rise to a rock god, we think it takes more than innovative breakthroughs and amazing machines to make a scientific one. We'd argue that such a figure must also possess intriguing facets -- qualities like eccentricity, vision and the will to suffer for science. Nikola Tesla was such a man.
He Saw the Potential
In an era when the dollar was king, in which scientists and engineers built business empires on the backs of one or two breakthroughs, Tesla's focus never strayed from his work. Consequently, he was both prolific and, at times, poor.
While his competitors in the War of the Currents -- the struggle between Tesla's and Edison's camps over whose electrical technology would reign supreme -- fought tooth-and-nail to secure electrical monopolies, his desire to acquire funding for his next big project repeatedly trumped his interest in protecting his patents and inventions [sources: Cheney; Jonnes].
Tesla's focus and farsightedness worked to the inventor's detriment almost as much as they benefited society. Unlike Edison, he did not actively cultivate a reputation with the public, wield the press for publicity (or to launch attacks) or possess a strong business standing. More to the point, his work delved into realms beyond the grasp of many of his contemporaries. Consequently, Tesla struggled to gain funding to support his research [sources: Jonnes; PBS; Secor]. For example, Tesla suggested bouncing high-frequency electrical waves off the hulls of ships and subs made of nonferrous and nonconducting materials. The Navy passed on funding his research [sources: PBS; Secor].
He Dreamed Big
Like any world-changing inventor, Tesla was a man of vision, and his career ran most smoothly when he could convey that vision to other pioneers. In 1893, his alternating current beat out Edison's direct current proposal to light the monumental World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (aka the Chicago World's Fair). Not only did this event mark a turning point in the War of the Currents, it also enabled him to follow his grandest ambitions, including his childhood dream of harnessing the power of Niagara Falls [sources: Cheney and Uth; Jonnes; PBS].
Even after he'd won the Niagara contract, most of his backers remained dubious about whether Tesla's hydroelectric machines would work. The inventor did not. When the switch was thrown at midnight, Nov. 16, 1896, lights turned on in Buffalo, N.Y., 21 miles (34 kilometers) away. Within a few years, the station expanded its reach to New York City, roughly 400 miles (644 kilometers) away [sources: Cheney and Uth; Jonnes; PBS]. Tesla's youthful dream had come true.
Tesla also proposed controlling, or at least catalyzing, weather with electricity. He visualized transmitting power globally and, with it, information -- an early version of a global wireless communications system [sources: Cheney and Uth; PBS]. The scientist told investor J.P. Morgan, "When wireless is fully applied the Earth will be converted into a huge brain, capable of response in every one of its parts" [source: PBS].
Two Words: Death Ray
Amid the gathering clouds of World War II, Tesla announced that he had conceived a new "peace beam" weapon capable of ending war forever. He saw his device, which we now know as a charged particle beam, as a kind of "Chinese wall," an anti-war device that would safeguard national borders. The papers took a different view: "TESLA, AT 78, BARES NEW 'DEATH BEAM'" blared The New York Times' front page on July 11, 1934.
CPBs were made famous by Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, program, but the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was investigating them as early as 1958 [source: Roberds].
He Had a Loose Fuse or Two
For good or ill, quirkiness is a quality we associate with genius, and Tesla does not disappoint.
Some say Tesla constructed his greatest inventions, including his induction motor, entirely within his own mind. Unlike Edison, who worked a problem through prototyping, trial and error and similar hands-on methods, Tesla found that key solutions sometimes came to him in blinding flashes of insight [sources: Cheney and Uth; Jonnes].
By his own account, Tesla suffered from visual and auditory hallucinations, as well as hypersensitivity to vibrations and strong light [sources: Chandrasekhar; Pickover]. He also feared round objects, such as women's pearls, and fixated on the number three [sources: Jonnes; Pickover].
The inventor also suffered a progressive germ aversion and eventually limited his diet to boiled foods. This phobia reportedly arose after a scientific colleague showed him unboiled water under a microscope. Late in life, the aging scientist kept pigeons in his hotel room, but continued to dress as nattily as ever -- behaviors that led some to question his mental state [sources: Jonnes; PBS].
Tesla's peculiarities did not impair his socializing, however; reporters and friends described him as charming, humble and well-spoken.
He Has a Scientific Unit Named After Him
They don't just hand those things out like party favors, you know.
Tesla, like Carl Friedrich Gauss, lends his name to a unit of magnetic flux density in the International System of Units (abbreviated SI). A tesla can also be thought of as a unit of magnetic induction [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. At one time, high-frequency currents were known as Tesla currents [source: Houston and Kennelly].
One tesla equals one weber per square meter, or 10,000 gauss (hence, scientists often use gauss to measure weak magnetic fields, reserving tesla for stronger ones, like those used in MRIs). A weber is a unit of magnetic flux, which can be thought of as the amount of magnetic energy "flowing" over an area, such as the surface of a magnet.
Remember above when we described induction, and how changing magnetic fields can induce currents to flow in a conductor? One weber is the amount of this magnetic energy "flow" required to induce one volt of current in a loop of wire. Actually, it's a bit more specific than that: The definition assumes that you drop the flow, or flux, to zero at a uniform rate, and do it in one second [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].
The weber is named for Wilhelm Eduard Weber, a German physicist known for his work in terrestrial magnetism and his invention in 1833 of an electromagnetic telegraph [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].
He Was a Prolific Polymath
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].
He Gave Us Radio
Radio arose from an array of discoveries and innovations, but Tesla's work devising and refining its foundational technologies has earned him hard-fought recognition as its father [sources: Jonnes; Vujovic].
The scientist's work in the field grew out of his foray into the wireless transmission of energy -- which, if you think about it, is exactly what radio is.
Not only did Tesla file the first radio patents, he also gave a lecture in1893 -- two years before Marconi began experimenting with radio -- that laid out how radio broadcasting worked, complete with a demonstration of radio communication. By mid-1894, he had built and begun testing a small, portable radio-transmitting station [sources: Cheney; Jonnes].
As with the induction generator and transformer, Tesla built upon the work of his predecessors, but with unparalleled vision. James Clerk Maxwell had theorized electromagnetic waves, and Heinrich Hertz had figured out how to transmit them, but the Tesla coil, and Tesla's four tuned circuits for transmitting and receiving, made radio a reality. His patents describe the fundamental way we still transmit and receive radio signals [sources: Cheney and Uth; Encyclopaedia Britannica; Encyclopaedia Britannica; Vujovic].
Two More Words: Secret Labs
Like any great movie scientist or Bond villain, any self-respecting science god requires a secret laboratory -- preferably one located in some remote locale and bristling with mad machines. Tesla had two.
In 1899, Tesla constructed a lab in Colorado Springs, Colo., to delve into the mysteries of high voltage and high frequency electricity [sources: Jonnes; PBS; Vujovic]. In one experiment, a 42-foot (12.8-meter) metal mast drove huge electrical impulses into the ground; in another, a Tesla coil shot 100-foot (30.5-meter) arcs of electricity across the room. The latter's surge blew out the electric company's dynamo and cast Colorado Springs into darkness [sources: Jonnes; PBS].
While at Colorado Springs, Tesla proved the existence of terrestrial stationary waves -- a means by which the Earth could conduct energy at certain electrical frequencies -- by illuminating 200 lamps from 25 miles (40 kilometers) away [sources: PBS; Vujovic]. As far as we know (contrary to the film "The Prestige"), he never worked on human teleportation.
Tesla later built his second secret lab, Wardenclyffe, closer to his Manhattan home. The Shoreham, Long Island, facility featured a 50-ton, 187-foot-high (45,000-kilogram, 57-meter-high) transmitting tower above a 120-foot-deep (36.6-meter-deep) well, along with 16 iron pipes sunk 300 feet (91.4 meters) deeper. Tesla planned to transmit power through the planet, using the rods to "get a grip of the Earth ... so that the whole of this globe can quiver." [sources: Greenfieldboyce; Jonnes; PBS].
He Was Tragic
We revere geniuses as much for their struggles as for their triumphs. Perhaps it comforts us to know that brilliance comes at a cost, or maybe we find that suffering humanizes those rare souls who truly operate on a higher level.
Tesla, an outsider, fought an uneven battle against wealthier and better-connected businessmen: Edison smeared his name and took his electric fame; Marconi beat him in the radio market -- and to a Nobel Prize -- using his own technology; and industrialist George Westinghouse built an empire out of his torn-up patent agreements [sources: Cheney; Harkins; Jonnes; PBS].
Tesla's loyalty to his first loves, science and progress, cost him his fame, his fortune and, some argue, his sanity. Indeed, it is likely that, after losing J.P. Morgan's financing and, with it, his dreams for Wardenclyffe, Tesla suffered a nervous breakdown. "It is not a dream," he said. "It is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive ... blind, faint-hearted, doubting world" [sources: Jonnes; PBS].
He Electrified the World
Tesla's system of alternating current generators, motors and transformers powers the world's industry, lights our homes and underpins most modern electronics. Edison, though more famous, backed a direct current (DC) system used today primarily in batteries.
DC vexed Edison because he could not find a way to send it long distances [sources: Jonnes; Vujovic]. He also struggled to convert the alternating current produced by his dynamos into direct current. Edison's solution involved "commutators" -- brushes that allowed current to flow in only one direction but created inefficient friction and required frequent replacing [source: Jonnes].
Tesla's generators didn't require such a cumbersome approach. Moreover, his system could "step up" voltages for transmission over long distances, then "step down" voltages at the destination to levels usable in homes and factories.
Take the electric motor pioneered by Belgian engineer Zénobe-Théophile Gramme. Whereas Edison and others tried to tether the device inefficiently to DC, Tesla revolutionized it by adding a second circuit that would "alternate" a current out of phase with the first, creating the prototype for his successful polyphase system.
The transformer, like the generator, was invented by Michael Faraday, but both lay fallow until Tesla unlocked their potential and, by doing so, harnessed electricity to do the work of the modern world [source: Jonnes].
Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla both had amazing inventions. Find out more about this controversial duo with our HowStuffWorks quiz.
Author's Note: 10 Reasons Why Tesla Is a Scientific God
Tesla was my childhood hero, and I have been excited to witness his recent surge in recognition and status, especially among young people. At the same time, I have been increasingly troubled by some of the blatant misrepresentations on both sides of the Tesla vs. Edison feud. The career of Nikola Tesla, perhaps more than that of any other scientific figure, is surrounded by a fog of misinformation -- generated first by those who sought to usurp his place, and later by those who overreached in their attempts to redress those wrongs -- and to demonize Edison and Westinghouse.
The truth is, Tesla had many more patents and ideas than he could ever test; inventors still scour his notebooks for clues. Some ideas, like his particle beam, appear to have been on the mark; others, such as his alleged proto-radar or his V/STOL aircraft, remain debatable. Of course, Tesla may well have corrected any oversights or blind alleys through experiment, had he received funding and pursued these ideas, but that's neither here nor there. As for Edison and Westinghouse, both were complex figures who have been both vilified and lionized more than they deserve.
But then again, maybe that's what made Tesla a scientific god: He has inspired factions ranging from zealots to true believers to doubting Thomases. Depending on your point of view, Tesla vs. Edison is either like the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones ... or the Beatles vs. the Monkees. I'm just glad were having the argument.
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