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An Unpayable Debt

The handsome looking man at the top of this page is Nikola Tesla. He was a Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, and scientist. He was born in 1856 in Austria-Hungary, emigrated to America in 1884, and became a U.S. citizen in 1891. He died in 1943 in New York City. If you are one of the few people who even recognize his name, it was probably because you saw it in a footnote somewhere.

I want you to consider the notion that Nikola Tesla, more than any other individual, was most responsible for shaping our modern civilization.

Tesla invented the polyphase rotating magnetic field principle, the basis of all present alternating-current dynamos, motors and machinery. He also invented the essential equipment required for AC power generation and transmission -- plus the induction coil, radio, and fluorescent lights. In all, he held more than 700 patents - including a few for wireless energy transmission!  His genius extended into the field of mechanical engineering as well; he invented such devices as a speedometer and bladeless boundary-layer turbines. Some of his notes even dealt with the detection of objects by radio waves, prefiguring the principle of radar.

And I guess you thought Marconi invented the radio. Shame, shame on you! And shame on the slack, misguided High School Science teachers and inaccurate textbooks that led you to believe that! Sadly, Tesla had to spend more than a decade in court asserting his primary claims on the principle of radio wave transmission, before ultimately prevailing.

Growing up in Europe, Tesla attended the Technical University at Graz, Austria, and the University of Prague. Later, at Budapest, he visualized the idea of rotating magnetic fields, and laid out plans for an induction motor. In one fell swoop, Tesla had envisioned the technology required for an alternating current power system. Tesla sailed for America in 1884, arriving in New York with four cents in his pocket, a few of his own poems, and -- presumably something he had scratched out in his spare time -- calculations for a flying machine.

After arriving in the U.S., Tesla spent a short stint working for Thomas Edison -- the champion of DC power. Needless to say, that gig didn't last very long. Undaunted, Tesla looked up George Westinghouse. Finding now a sympathetic and enthusiastic patron for his ideas, he sold to Westinghouse the patent rights to his system of alternating-current dynamos, transformers, and motors - with very favorable personal royalty terms as part of the deal. As it turned out, he picked the right horse in the ensuing AC/DC power "showdown" between Edison and Westinghouse. And with Tesla's inventions in hand, there was no way that Westinghouse could lose that race...

In 1891, working with Westinghouse, he went on to invent the Tesla coil, an induction coil widely used in radio and television technology.

With the help of Westinghouse, Tesla soon established his own private laboratory where he explored numerous areas of scientific interest. He experimented with shadowgraphs similar to those that were later to be used by Wilhelm Röntgen, the discoverer of X-rays. In 1898, Tesla announced his invention of a tele-automatic boat guided by remote radio control. He went on to invent the fluorescent lamp, and reveled in providing public demonstrations where he would hold a lamp in his hand, and let the supply voltage travel through his own body to light it. In Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he stayed from May 1899 until early 1900, Tesla made what he regarded as his most important discovery: terrestrial stationary waves. By this discovery he proved that the Earth could be used as a conductor, and could transmit electrical energy at a certain frequency. He was able to light 200 lamps without wires from a distance of 25 miles. (As a possible downside to his feat, witnesses recounted that horses in nearby fields began to jump madly into the air during the course of some of these experiments…)

Returning to New York in 1900, Tesla began construction on Long Island of a wireless "world broadcasting tower", with $150,000 capital from the American financier J. Pierpont Morgan. Tesla was the first person to realize the usefulness of the ionosphere surrounding the earth. His vision was to provide worldwide wireless communications and to furnish facilities for sending pictures, messages, weather warnings, and stock reports. The project was abandoned because of a financial panic, labor troubles, and Morgan's withdrawal of support.

Some years later, when George Westinghouse got into severe financial trouble, he visited Tesla and begged for his company to be released from the onerous licensing and royalty arrangements they had mutually agreed upon earlier. Under those original terms, Tesla was due a small fee for every single kilowatt-hour of electrical energy produced by the AC power method. Incredibly, owing either to his utter lack of business sense -- or to the close relationship he had with his friend George -- Tesla agreed to cancel the original terms of the contract, and he gave up his claim to any future royalties on the AC patents for a pittance. Then again, perhaps Tesla was merely grateful to Westinghouse for turning some of his early dreams into reality.

Or, it could have simply been that he was feeling flush at the time of Westinghouse's visit. For it is a fact that Tesla, while good at self-promotion, was impractical to the extreme in financial matters. He could blow through funding like an all-consuming hurricane, and not give a thought to future capital needs. In his later years, he battled constantly to maintain adequate finances to support his scientific experiments. To his further disadvantage, he was the prototypical eccentric, driven by odd compulsions & obsessions -- for example, dread fear of numbers divisible by 3 -- and he was affected by a progressively distracting germ phobia. Despite this, he always had a way of intuitively sensing and teasing out hidden secrets of Nature.

To be sure, derision greeted some of his later claims and speculations: that he was receiving radio communications from other planets, that he could split the Earth like an apple, that he had invented a death ray capable of destroying 10,000 airplanes at a distance of 250 miles. In the end, at 87, he died a lonely and penniless man.

At his funeral, three Nobel Prize recipients stood and addressed their tribute to Tesla as "one of the outstanding intellects of the world who paved the way for many of the technological developments of modern times." In my estimation, their eulogy was a tad understated...

Where would we have ended up today, if Tesla had been given consistent support throughout his career to fully develop his miraculous ideas? And, given his genius, were some of his more outlandish claims truly the ravings of an unsettled mind?


Postscript:  Despite being released of the burden of continuing royalties owed to Tesla, George Westinghouse still managed to lose control of his company by 1911 -- to J. P. Morgan.

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