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  • Writer's pictureReece Bithrey

The Unsung Mastery Of Nikola Tesla

(Picture Credit - Mental Floss)

Often unnoticed for his exemplary work, Nikola Tesla was a scientific genius. Some people know the name 'Tesla' from Elon Musk's electric vehicle venture that has become a symbol for his work ethic and innovation. The namesake, however, does not even scratch the surface of the work of one of the twentieth century's greatest minds.

Born in the old Austrian Empire in 1856, Tesla was the fourth of five children. From a high-school age, he was fascinated by the teachings of his then Physics professor, which were what he described as "mysterious phenomena". He had a burning desire to "know more of this wonderful force" and indeed, throughout his career as an engineer and scientific mind, he grew to have a great wealth of knowledge about electricity. Tesla was able to perform integral calculus as a form of mental maths; this led to his teachers making the claim that he was cheating. Of course, he wasn't and so, he graduated from high school in 1873. This set him down the path to eventual greatness whilst working for the Budapest Telephone Exchange, where he reformed their entire system, allegedly creating a telephone amplifier for better sound, but this was never patented nor acknowledged.

His first major breakthrough came when working for the Continental Edison Company, that ultimately led to Tesla meeting one of the supposedly great technological innovators of the modern age, Thomas Edison. Edison often gets credited with the invention of the incandescent light bulb, but he simply had an ability to sell the product, not develop it like mainstream culture states. In fact, he built on the work of twenty-two other men, including Tesla himself. Edison offered Tesla the sum of a million dollars to fix the issues he was having with his DC transformers and motors; once Tesla had sorted the issues, he went to find Edison, expecting the cash-in-hand sum. Edison reportedly said to Tesla: "Tesla, you don't understand our American humour".

After falling out with Edison whilst working for him, Tesla devoted time to the development of a system known as 'Alternating Current', or AC. Edison, at this time, was trying to sell the world his 'Direct Current' system, but unlike Tesla's, it had a distinct flaw - DC required power plants every square mile to deliver power. AC used smaller wires, had higher voltages and could be transported over much longer distances. The AC system was developed to run on streetcars in Pittsburgh and in tandem, Tesla developed one of his most famous inventions - the induction motor.

The induction motor that was used along with AC ran on a rotating magnetic field and because it didn't require a commutator, high maintenance costs associated with the upkeep of the overall part replacement were avoided. At the time of Tesla's invention, the American electronics market was in a war; three firms, Westinghouse, Edison, and Thomson-Houston were all trying to grow through capital investment and all tried to undercut one another. Westinghouse signed the AC Tesla contract and within two years were in financial troubles. The occurrence of corporate restructuring meant that the per-motor-royalty payments owed to Tesla had to be cut. A few years later, the payments were stopped altogether and Westinghouse would purchase the patent for a lump sum of $216,000 ($6,065,754.73 in today's US money) - this was part of a patent-sharing agreement signed with new firm General Electric, that had been formed out of the 1892 merger of Edison and Thomson-Houston.

Thanks to the lump sum from Westinghouse, Tesla was free to go on and innovate until he ran out of ideas. Using his New York laboratory, he was able to develop the Tesla Coil, which singlehandedly opened doors and broadened his horizons no end. With this, he was able to develop the idea of wireless lighting - at various points in the early 1890s, Tesla would publicly demonstrate this phenomena by lightning various Geissler Tubes and even incandescent light bulbs from across the stage. After the fire in his New York laboratory, Tesla experimented with the idea of X-Ray imagery, using his friend and author Mark Twain; he managed to obtain a picture of the metal locking screw on his camera on one of his attempts, but also his hand in another in 1895. Inventor of X-Rays, Wilhelm Roentgen credited Tesla in his research surrounding X-Rays, proving not only that Tesla wasn't just a pioneer in his own work, but also in aiding the research for other people.

1896 saw Tesla present the idea of a radio-controlled boat to a crowd, in the hope that he could use it as a platform to sell to navies worldwide as a guided torpedo. The crowd made bold claims as to how the boat was running, such as forms of magic and illusion, or telepathy. Tesla went to the US Military in the hope he could sell the idea, but they had little to no interest in his invention. Ironically, in the period during and following the First World War, certain countries started using radio-controlled devices in warfare, such as the German Army with the Siemens Torpedo Glider.

In his middle years, Tesla devoted time to the development of wireless transmission and the fruits of his labour were exemplified in the Wardenclyffe Tower project. He planned to harness the power of radio waves to transmit signals across the Atlantic, leaping ahead of the works of Guglielmo Marconi and his patents that Tesla believed were his own. The Great Radio Controversy had emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century and still to this day, it is pretty unclear as to who invented the radio. Tesla was quoted as saying "Marconi is a good fellow; let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents.". In December 1901, Marconi jumped Tesla in managing to send the letter 'S' over from England to Newfoundland. Tesla wagered with investor J.Pierpont Morgan to gain as much money as possible to finish the Wardenclyffe project and catch up with his Italian rival.

Over the next five years, Tesla would send over fifty letters to Morgan asking for the additional funding he required to finish Wardenclyffe properly, but would receive no reply - Tesla would be forced to fund it from his own money and run himself into debt. It took nine months to do, as opposed to the few years that Tesla had proposed to Morgan, but in June 1902, Tesla would move his laboratory from Houston Street to Wardenclyffe in the hope of further experimentation. Investors in the financial sector on Wall Street would lend their money to Marconi, in tandem with the press claiming Tesla's system was an utter hoax. He would eventually lose the property in 1915, with it being demolished in 1917 to make the land more viable for the purposes of real estate.

Following the closure of Wardenclyffe Tower, Tesla was broke, begging for office space in his former stomping ground of New York City. He would eventually find temporary forms of refuge in 165 Broadway in 1906, the Metropolitan Life Tower from 1910 to 1914 and 8 West 40th Street for ten years from 1915 to 1925. This last move effectively made Tesla bankrupt and at the same time, most of his older patents had run out and even with new inventions, he was finding immense trouble in their development. The last years of Tesla's life would be his most problematic, being shunned by investors left right and centre, whilst spending his final years at the Hotel New Yorker, with his only companionship proving to be the pigeons he would feed outside the hotel most days.

He would spend his birthdays with the press, dining finely on dishes of his own creation, whilst telling stories about past inventions and new ones he theorised. Most notably, at the 1934 occasion, Tesla claimed he had invented a weapon that could end all wars. He coined the word Teleforce to describe it, but in most circles, people referred to it as his Deathray. He described it to be a defensive weapon that could be placed along the borders of a country, designed to defeat aircraft or ground-based infantry. It was only in 1984 that the plans for the 'deathray' were uncovered, describing a system that could fire millions of volts worth of charged slugs of mercury or tungsten at a target in fast streams. Tesla tried to interest the governments of the USA, the UK, the USSR and Yugoslavia in the weapon, but none took him up on the idea.

Nikola Tesla would eventually pass away in 1943 at the age of 86, following a case of coronary thrombosis. His life is one that elements of science and engineering are ignorant of and it is only through further reading and awareness that we come to understand one of the best minds of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He's an idol of mine by way of sheer intrigue and endeavour and Tesla's work proves that with the right mind and right ideas, anything is possible. We live for instant innovation in today's society and in truth, modern-day pioneers can learn a lot from delving into the past and finding such technological magnificence.


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