Sunday, January 30, 2005

Master of Electricity

Alternate submission for Eggplant Magazine. It was fun writing this article, if only for the new information that I got on Nikola Tesla. Not Russian-born, as I originally thought, and with a far greater impact on the 20th century than anyone could have imagined. References at the end of the article.

Picture of Tesla from Complete Patents of Nikola Tesla

If you've ever played the Command and Conquer video games, you'll have to agree that one of the most interesting, if not the most powerful, units to play with are the Tesla Troopers, Tesla Tank, and the Tesla Coil. They all use electricity as their primary weapons to jolt their opponents into submission.

Now, we all know that Command and Conquer is just a game set in a fictional future world. But did you know that the person for whom they are named after, Nikola Tesla, is real? Not only that, he was a true master of electricity to whom we owe many important discoveries and inventions like radio, radar, x-rays, and the everyday electricity that powers our homes.

Nikola Tesla was born in July 10, 1856 in the town of Smiljian, which is located in modern Croatia. His father was a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and his mother, like many women at that time, was a homemaker.

Young Nikola was a fragile, high-strung boy but he had a stroke of ingenuity within him that led him to inventing at an early age. Tesla probably inherited this inventiveness from his mother, Duka, who designed and built devices to help her with her housework.

Nikola did very well in school. He had an excellent memory and quickly learned six languages. He was also quite good in mathematics, physics, and mechanics.

He entered the Polytechnic College of Graz at the age of 19. He was an avid student. However, he was forced to stop before he could complete his second year for lack of finances. He left for Prague, where he educated himself in the university library there. The thing that fascinated him most was electricity which, in those days, was only beginning to be understood and harnessed. Nikola decided to make it his life's work.

Nikola was 24 when he started work at the Budapest Central Telephone Exchange. It was there that he first conceived of the induction motor, one of his earliest inventions. The induction motor was a great improvement over the motors and generators at that time. Because of his skills and knowledge, he earned quite a good reputation. Many power companies across Europe hired him to improve their generators.

But Nikola knew that more opportunities lay in America. With access to capital and rapidly-growing industries, American inventors like Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were building their empires with their creations. Surely a man of his talents could make it there, too?

Nikola seized the opportunity and not long afterward, he arrived in America. He arrived in the new country with only four cents in his pocket, some mathematical computations, a rough drawing of a flying machine, and a letter of recommendation to Edison.

Edison, as most people know, invented the light bulb. He also devised a way of distributing electricity using direct current, or DC. DC power provides a constant level of current, similar to what we have in our modern dry cells. However, his system of electrical distribution was dangerous and inefficient.

Edison was dismissive of Nikola's ideas but hired him anyway. Nikola was given the difficult task of redesigning the Edison dynamo to make it more efficient. Edison promised him a substantial reward if he succeeded. Nikola completed the task set out for him, saving Edison a great deal of money but Edison reneged on their deal, saying he was only joking.

Angry at Edison's treachery, Nikola quit his job. He spent some time digging ditches to survive, until some investors gave him the financing to realize his ideas. His first product was an arc light, far more efficient than the light bulb.

Nikola's grand project, however, was an alternating current (AC) motor and generator. AC does not supply a steady current like DC. Instead the current changes over a cycle. Unlike DC, AC is easier and safer to distribute. AC is the electrical system we have in our homes today. He patented this in 1887.

George Westinghouse, a wealthy industrialist, heard about Nikola's invention and bought the patents. Westinghouse wanted to use it as a means of distributing power over long distances, something Edison's DC system could do only with great difficulty. In addition, Nikola would receive royalties for every horsepower of electric capacity sold.

With his newfound wealth, Nikola was able to set up a laboratory and do what he wanted to do best: experiment. With his newfound fame, many people consulted him on projects concerning electricity.

The most ambitious of these was the Niagara Falls Power Project. In 1893, Nikola was asked to design the hydroelectric plant that would be powered by the falling water. It was a huge project involving thousands of men and many years' work, but when they opened it in November 16, 1896, it worked perfectly! Niagara provided power for many cities, extending as far as New York City. Soon, more power plants were built based on Nikola's designs.

Nikola then turned his attention to high-frequency electric currents. It was in the course of his experiments that he invented what is now known as the Tesla coil, which transforms input voltages into very high voltage pulses. Working with high frequency electricity, he discovered the principles of flourescent lighting, x-rays, and most importantly, radio.

Radio and the wireless transmission of energy became his obsession, and he was quite prolific with his ideas. He created the first remote control, envisioning robots to help people with dangerous tasks. He talked about transmitting sound and pictures over the airwaves. His ultimate goal was free energy for people, all transmitted wirelessly.

Alas, Nikola was way ahead of his time. Many people could not understand the ideas that he was proposing. Edison, now his bitter rival, used all the means at his capacity to discredit him. Worse, Nikola was getting into financial trouble because he gallantly gave up the millions in royalties that Westinghouse owed him in order to save Westinghouse's company.

What infuriated Nikola most of all was credit to the invention of the radio went to Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor with connections to the British aristocracy. This meant Nikola lost out in millions in revenue from the invention. Worst of all, Marconi was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1909, an honor Nikola felt he deserved. It wasn't until 1943 that the United States Supreme Court overturned Marconi's claim in favor of Nikola.

Gradually, Nikola faded from the limelight, only occasionally taking on consulting work. Later in life, he became a bit of an eccentric. He died in January 7, 1943, at the age of 86, a poor and penniless man. Only in recent years has Nikola been recognized for the genius that he really was.

Complete patents of Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla, Master of Lightning


  1. Interestingly enough, Tesla also seems to sit at the center of a number of conspiracy theories, among them claims that he was able to harness electrical energy to create devastating weapons of war. That, I believe, would be the direct connection to Command & Conquer.

  2. Hi, Sean, thanks for dropping by. Yup, that's absolutely the case, as the very enlightening PBS documentary will show. This is a kids' magazine that I'm writing for, however, so I'm debating whether it's wise to include that or not. It would just be an extra paragraph.

  3. I'll agree to that, I suppose. It wouldn't be wise to expose kids to conspiracy theory before they get a little bit older...