With all due respect for Thomas A. Edison, Nikola Tesla was an equal, if not greater, American inventor. Edison is highly lauded. Tesla is almost forgotten.
Broadly speaking, Edison could be described as an innovator. He improved on existing technology. He did not invent the incandescent light bulb, for example.
That was patented and demonstrated publicly by Joseph Swam of Britain in 1878 – a year before Edison. Later, Swam and Edison formed a brief partnership and Edison bought him out.
Tesla, a native of Serbia, also began as an innovator. He wanted to be an electrical engineer. At that time, "direct current" electricity was produced by chemical batteries charged by a steam-driven generator.
Direct current is affected by resistance in the wire conducting it. Within a mile or so, electricity is used up in the form of heat. At the University of Prague, Tesla was challenged to solve the distribution problem.
Tesla had a phenomenal memory. He memorized the complete works of Goethe and Voltaire. While strolling in a park, reciting poetry about the sun, Tesla suddenly perceived the direct-current solution.
An electric current that alternated from negative to positive could have been sent in separate wires. At the receiving end, the two currents would be "induced" to flow to separate magnets – one stationary, the other rotating like the sun.
Tesla patented his idea. "Alternating current" and "induction motors" is the principal system we use today for our homes and factories.
Upon graduation in 1882, Tesla worked for the Continental Edison Company in Paris. He came to the United States a year later to work directly with Edison. Upon arrival he had four cents in his pocket and a sheaf of his poems.
Edison held several patents on direct current improvements, which he led to General Electric. His installation of a complete direct- current lighting systems at lower New York City was widely hailed.
Inevitably the two men quarreled over the merits of their two systems. Tesla quit, opened his own laboratory and became a naturalized citizen in 1891. He sold his alternating current patents to George Westinghouse. A battle of titans ensued.
Edison tried to convince the public that the low-voltage Edison-General Electric system could be handled with complete safety, while the Tesla-Westinghouse high-voltage system was dangerous.
Someone in the Edison camp toured state fairs mildly shocking stray cats and dogs with direct current – then killing them with alternating current. The pitch was that the Tesla / Westinghouse high-voltage alternating current was fatal if touched accidentally.
First Human Electrocution
During this public relations war, the state of New York bungled several gruesome hangings. Condemned prisoners sometimes were slowly strangled or decapitated.
A Dr. Brown, dentist and spokesman for the Medico-Legal Society of New York, searched for a "more humane and scientific way" of applying capital punishment.
He convinced state authorities that alternate-current electricity was the quickest and surest.
The warden of the Albany Penitentiary asked Westinghouse to install an AC generator with which to execute an ax murder named William Kemmler.
Both Westinghouse and Tesla were strenuously opposed to capital punishment and refused.
Through subterfuge, someone – Historian Theo Benson says it was Edison – obtained a Tesla generator for the world's first human execution by electricity.
The voltage was too low. Kemmler was literally cooked after repeated jolts of current. The disgusted Westinghouse later said, "They've done better with an ax."
For years thereafter, people killed accidentally by electrical mishaps were said to have been "Westinghoused."
Tesla System Wins
Westinghouse and Tesla forged ahead of General Electric and Edison by winning a contract to illuminate the 1893 Chicago Exposition with 200,000 light bulbs. It was a sensation.
Three years later they installed the first hydroelectric alternating – current system at Niagara Falls for the city of Buffalo. Edison and General Electric thereafter manufactured light bulbs and other appliances compatible with alternating current.
With royalties pouring in, Tesla could concentrate on the nature of electricity and its potential.
His approach of exploring the nature of energy was science – as opposed to inventing things for specific purposes. During the next few years, he filed 830 patents.
Tesla's watershed invention was a particular coil of wire that ushered in hundreds of uses we take for granted today. They were however, too futuristic for the time.
He achieved illumination with "filamentless" bulbs filled with various gases. Today we recognize these as fluorescent lights and neon advertising letters.
He experimented with "shadowgraphs" of human bones through clothing years before Roentgen published his work.
His "Tesla coil" created high-voltage "energy waves" by which he designed radio signals to "telautomaton" model ships. They maneuvered in response to levers on a control box.
Tesla said he could replace the lever box with a telephone to transmit voices, music – and, absolutely, images. No commercial backer was interested because there were no instruments to receive ethereal waves.
This was two years before Marconi succeeded in broadcasting a single telegraph click. After a legal suit, Tesla's primacy was upheld.
The Navy was mildly interested in a tiny submarine without a crew that could be controlled by Tesla's waves. However, the admirals did not foresee the smart bombs and torpedoes of today.
The 'high-power oscillator' – that Tesla invented to control ships at sea – is the power supply for our television cathode-ray picture tube.
The US War Department in 1893 asked Tesla to expand his wireless communications systems. The request came at an awkward time. Tesla's patents expired. His New York laboratory and papers had burned.
The manager of the Colorado Springs municipal lighting system offered Tesla free electricity for his project. He moved to Colorado Springs and built an experimental radio station 10 miles out of town.
He determined that the Earth is a huge magnet with energy flowing between positive and negative poles. Also, he computed the frequency necessary to project an electrical spurt completely through the planet and recapture the spurt when it bounced back.
It was his intent – by a huge Tesla coil – to add additional spurts to successful bounces. When a massive voltage had been built up, he would release it from a tall antenna to zoom around the world.
When all was ready, Tesla, wearing shoes with two-inch-thick rubber soles for insulation, thread the switch for one second "to see what it would do." The plateau was carpeted momentarily with blue St Elmo Fire – but no explosion.
Tesla thread the switch again and stepped outside to measure the expected lighting bolt. Amidst deafening thunder, a bolt leaped from the antenna and lengthened as earth charges accumulated.
Folks in town were alarmed. Sparks crackled from fire hydrants. People in leather shoes, or barefoot, skipped from heat.
At 130 feet, the bolt collapsed. All was silent.
Tesla ran to the phone and called the Colorado Springs municipal electric plant. "You have ruined my experiment?"
"To Hell with you," was the reply. "You have burned out our generators." They sent him a bill for damages and electricity. .
Neverheless, Tesla had learned a great deal about earth resonance and aerial propagation of radio waves. He became obsessed with the possibility of capturing earth energy and broadcasting it free to the whole world.
Search For Free Energy
Tesla returned to New York City to build a radio transmitter capable of reaching Europe. He obtained backing from JP Morgan, a prominent financier of promoting projects.
A huge Tesla coil and 85-foot broadcasting tower was built at Wardenclyffe on Long Island. It soon became apparent to Morgan that Tesla was more interested in broadcasting free energy than commercial radio programs.
Morgan wanted to know, "Where will you put the meter?" He refused to advance any more money. Work stopped. The huge transmitting tower fell into disrepair and was finally destroyed as a hazard.
The laboratory and land was identified by the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in payment for a $ 20,000 room bill.
In the ensuing years Tesla experimented with a "particle beam accelerator" that could destroy invading airplanes. The newspapers dubbed it a "death ray." Today we call it microwaves for kitchen ovens.
He invented a small "energy turbine" consisting of closely-spaced disks on an axle that spins on any gas or liquid containing energy – gasoline, hydrogen, propane, or methane – without burning the fuel.
Unfortunately the disks warp or melt from the molecular action of energy atoms. Energy and pollution problems would be solved if we could invent a suitable disk material.
Tesla postulated that sunlight could be converted directly into electricity (solar panels), energy could be extracted from atoms (bombs), hundreds of messages could be transmitted simultaneously over one circuit (fiber glass cable), drone planes could be powered by electricity (NASA) has one powered by solar cells circling indefinitely at a high altitude).
During the First World War he proposed bouncing radio waves off enemy airplanes to learn of their approach. The War Department ignored his proposal. It was not until World War II that RADAR was introduced.
He detected radio waves from outer space and thought they might be signals from aliens. We now know that radio waves from space are static left over from creation of the universe.
Talk of free energy, death rays, and space aliens led people to consider him a "mad scientist."
Tesla died in 1943, still a bachelor – and almost penniless – in a cheap hotel. Gone and forgotten.
Or, maybe not. On the day of his death, government agents went to his hotel room and confiscated his papers. They are classified "Top Secret."