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
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
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.
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