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].
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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