If you ask anyone or check up in the encyclopaedia, who invented the radio or X-rays, chances are you will never come across the name of Nikola Tesla there.

Look up fluorescent bulb, neon lights, car ignition system, electron microscope, microwave oven and many others – you can search page after page but your search will turn up zilch on Tesla in any normal reference book.

In fact very few have heard of Nikola Tesla, a brilliant scientist who lived at the turn of the century. Those who have, considered him an eccentric, or even half-baked. He was never given the credit he deserved due to some unfortunate circumstances.

Nikola Tesla – Unsung Prophet of Electrical Age
Nikola Tesla – Unsung Prophet of Electrical Age

Tesla’s theories were too unrealistic for people to swallow in his day and age. He was considered an eccentric who talked of voice and image transmission by air in the late 1800’s when radio or TV were both un-invented!

Obviously, like Galileo and Nostradamus, people steered clear of him and scientists tried to discredit him and did their best to prevent his theories from getting published.

Truth to tell, Nikola Tesla did invent all these and had elaborate notes prepared for each item he claimed was possible. In fact, Tesla is responsible for almost all the things we have given someone else credit for!

Nikola Tesla was born in Smijlan in Croatia in 1856. A brilliant child prodigy with a phenomenal memory he could speak six languages before he was 10. Tesla graduated in physics and mathematics from the Polytechnic Institute at Gratz, Austria, and then took philosophy at the University of Prague.

At Budapest he worked as a draughtsman in the Central Telegraph Office and was later in charge of the telephone exchange when it was established.

Tesla made several improvements in the telephone exchange apparatus and perfected a telephone repeater or amplifier which was never patented. Subsequently he worked at France and later, Germany.

In 1880, he emigrated to the United States. Initially he worked for Thomas Alva Edison who had just patented the light bulb. Edison was then working on his DC (direct current) generating plant.

However, there were some glitches in the system and Tesla was promised credit and share in profits if the glitches were removed.

Tesla reworked the technology of the DC generating plant and ended up saving Edison a lot of money. But the manager of Edison’s company refused to live up to his end of the bargain.

Tesla resigned in protest. In 1886, his system of arc lighting was perfected
and adopted for factory and municipal lighting and in April, 1887, the
TESLA Electric Co. was organised, providing a laboratory and facilities.

Here, Tesla developed a better system for electrical transmission – the AC or alternating current system. AC offered great advantages over the DC system – AC voltages could be transmitted over long distances through thin wires while DC required a larger power plant at frequent intervals at the same time requiring thicker cables.

In 1888, further enhanced the system by inventing the induction motor. These two – the induction motor and AC current – is what you will find available in every home in the world today.

When Nikola displayed the AC system of transmission, scientists laughed it off. They were convinced that no motor could be devised for an alternating current system. In an AC system, the current reverses direction 60 times a second.

Nikola Tesla – Unsung Prophet of Electrical Age [Illustration by Shiju George]
Nikola Tesla – Unsung Prophet of Electrical Age [Illustration by Shiju George]

Scientists felt that due to the reverse action, the motor will move back and forth and cause it to collapse. There were bitter arguments and the scientific world was divided into two camps – those who obstinately supported direct current and these included Lord Kelvin and Edison, and others who saw light at the end of the system.

Soon this AC system was the talk of the town. George Westinghouse of the Westinghouse Co. saw potential in the system and signed a contract with Tesla under which Tesla would receive $2.50 for each kilowatt of AC electricity sold.

Meanwhile, Westinghouse ran into financial trouble as Tesla was making more from royalty than they were making profits. So Tesla sold his patent outright and walked out of the contract. A year later, in 1896, the first hydroelectric AC power generation plant was commissioned at Niagara Falls.

In 1900, backed by financier J.P. Morgan, Tesla began construction of a “Wireless Broadcasting System” tower on Long Island, New York. This tower was intended to link telephone and telegraph services, as well as transmit pictures, reports, and weather information worldwide.

But for various reasons, J.P. Morgan cut funding and the tower had to be sold off. Tesla’s problem was that he had aimed for a worldwide wireless communication system and power distribution system.

He apparently did not take Marconi and other scientists in the field seriously, and so did not fiercely defend his work when stolen.

Tesla, was the unconfirmed expert in high frequency and high power systems with several patents to his name in 1898. His radio transmitter had an output power of 1,000 to 10,000 times the power of existing transmitters.

However, Marconi went ahead with the published information and commercializes them in his own name. Tesla at that time ignored Marconi’s simple form of communication to his idea of a world system.

But when the Morgan tower failed to take off, Tesla finally decided to take Marconi to court but it was too late. Though Tesla’s patents were prior to Marconi, Marconi had the national press behind him and the judge was not a technical expert. Tesla lost his case.

It was only in 1943, that the US Supreme court reversed the old decision and granted recognition to Tesla and struck down Marconi patents.

Meanwhile, Tesla was already working on another major experiment, which was to prove the last nail in the drive to discredit him. He reported that he had received radio signals from Mars and Venus by sending signal waves.

Today we know that radio telescopes actually receive signals from other galaxies too but the national press and other scientists went to town over this outrageous claim.

During World War I, governments of the world were desperately looking for an option to detect submarines under water. Tesla proposed the use of energy waves – the present day radar system technology – to detect these ships.

However, the idea was rejected as ludicrous and far-fetched. The world then waited a quarter of a century for radars to be re-invented.

Ridicule, lack of recognition, and near penury drove him into a life of self-imposed exile. The systematic drive to stop his theories from getting published in scientific journals forced him to keep his theories personal and in his diaries and notebooks.

But Tesla did file over 800 different patents. He would have filed more but for the fact that he was penniless.

Like Leonardo da Vinci, Tesla was an original thinker whose ideas typically had no precedent in science. Unfortunately, the world refused to recognise Tesla’s originality. The man who invented the modern world died on January 7, 1943. He was 86.

Half a century after his death, scientists are still trying to understand and study his various theories. Many of them are just now being proven.

For example, his 1901 patented experiments on cryogenic liquids and electricity are used in modern day superconductors. His experiments with fractional charges of an electron were discovered as late as 1977 and called quarks!

History has never managed to recognise a true genius in his/her lifetime. However, we can at least try to give Tesla the credit he is due, however belated it is.

1284 words | 12 minutes
Readability: Grade 9 (14-15 year old children)
Based on Flesch–Kincaid readability scores

Filed under: biographies
Tags: #biographies of scientists, #patents, #scientists, #edison, #telephone, #radio, #marconi

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