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I remember reading Edison’s name against many inventions in the field of electricity. In fact, there have been instances when he has been called ‘The Father of Invention’ and rightly so. However, there have been times when another inventor has been described to be greater than Edison. I had read about this man’s inventions but his greatness impressed me only after I watched ‘The Prestige’ and decided to do my own research. His name is Nikola Tesla.

Born to a priest father, Tesla intended to specialise in Physics and Mathematics while studying at the Polytechnic Institute in Graz. However, he soon became fascinated with electricity. He began his career as an electrical engineer at a telephone company in Budapest.

Induction Motor (AC Polyphase System)

It was during his time with the telephone company, Tesla was walking with a friend through the city park and the elusive solution to the rotating magnetic field flashed through his mind. With a stick, he drew a diagram in the sand explaining to his friend the principle of the induction motor. Two years later, while working with ‘Continental Edison Company’ in France, he developed a running prototype of the same. He could not pique anyone’s interest in his device in Europe, so he accepted an offer to work for Edison Machine Works (EMW) in New York.

Four years later, he went on to address the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (now IEEE) in his model of Induction Motor. He was a pioneer in the ‘Alternating Current Revolution’.

Nikola Tesla & Thomas Alva Edison

Tesla was referred to Edison by Charles Batchelor through a letter that famously said, “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man”.

While working with Edison, Tesla was asked to improve the performance of the equipments at Edison’s company. Edison had promised a sum of 50 thousand dollars if he is able to make the machinery more efficient. However, after successfully performing the task, he was offered a mere 10$ increase in pay against the promised sum. ‘Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor”, Edison had said. Tesla refused to accept the offer and quit Edison Machine Works.

AC & the war of currents

Tesla lay low for a while after quitting Edison Machine Works. Of course, he was working on his own experiments then, which were mainly based on ‘Alternating Current’. It was his Induction Motor running on AC which placed him in news. This was when he addressed the AIEE in 1888 at a time when Edison and George Westinghouse were indulged in the ‘war of currents’, so to speak.

After his successful stint at AIEE, George Westinghouse of Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company licensed the patent. The war became more interesting as Tesla was pitted against his previous employer.

Tesla argued that direct current required power stations to be built at very small distances since step up/down wasn’t very efficient for DC. Also, DC required thicker wires to carry high currents for high voltage. Alternating Current could, on the other hand, be stepped up/down much easily. So AC required thinner wires as well. Therefore, AC was much economical when compared to DC.

Edison pointed out that AC was much more dangerous. He demonstrated this on animals. People could understand that Edison favoured DC mainly because all his investments were into Direct Current at the time. Edison failed to convince the world against AC electricity. Tesla’s Alternating Current is a boon to the world, evident even today, as most of the households are supplied with it.

Later, Edison Machine Works (now a part of General Electrics) started pursuing Alternating Current projects too.

The Wardenclyffe/Tesla Tower

Also famously known as Tesla Tower, Wardenclyffe tower at Shoreham, New York, was designed by Tesla as the first broadcasting system which could transmit wireless signals through the ionosphere. This was using molecules in the upper atmosphere that are under constant solar radiation and thus transmitting them as ions.

The Tesla Tower
The Tesla Tower

The Tesla Tower was more than just a radio. When Marconi successfully transmitted the first Trans-Atlantic telegraphic signal, Tesla considered expanding the project. He added to the project scope, that the tower would also be used for transmitting electrical energy without wires to the entire globe. The Earth, underground device, rooftop device and Ionosphere were to be the paths of the huge circuit. The Tower was set to complete the Earth-Ionosphere circuit.

Despite the successful results of the trials, the biggest financier of the project Mr. J.P. Morgan withdrew his funds after the idea of global expansion. This was also a time of economic depression, so financiers had to run for cover. Gradually, Tesla lost all major financing and the project had to be abandoned. This was a huge setback to Tesla.

The Nobel Prize

According to a Reuters report, Tesla and Edison were to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915. However, Brags was awarded the same for his works on ‘Crystal Structures’. Reportedly, Tesla refused to share the Prize which led to the dropping of Edison’s name as well.

Important Inventions which used Tesla’s work

The invention of Radio which earned Marconi a Nobel Prize in Physics was originally Tesla’s idea. After Marconi was awarded the Nobel, Tesla reportedly said “Marconi is a good man. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents”.

Marconi's early Radio Patents submitted in 1897
Marconi’s early Radio Patents submitted in 1897

Tesla proposed that electricity could be used to locate submarines using the reflection of electric rays of high frequency with the signal being viewed on a fluorescent screen. This was during World War I (1917) which could have helped the USA. However, Edison said the concept had no major use. The RADAR was invented around the said concept in the 1930s.

The idea of X-rays also developed around his works. William C Roentgen who invented X-rays, in a letter addressed to Tesla said, “..You have surprised me tremendously with the beautiful photographs of wonderful discharges and I tell you, thank you very much for that. If only I knew how you make such things!..”

Personal Life

After the fall of the Tesla Tower, Tesla’s condition kept deteriorating. He started staying in a hotel room alone in New York. He was very passionate about feeding the pigeons. He even maintained a menu for them. This was one of the reasons why the world frowned upon his mental condition.

Tesla's Menu for Pigeons
Tesla’s Menu for Pigeons

In one of his last interviews, he revealed something very personal

“I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them, for years, but there was one pigeon, a beautiful bird, pure white with light gray tips on its wings. That one was different… No matter where I was that pigeon would find me; when I wanted her I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me… I loved that pigeon… I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me”.

“Then one night as I was lying in my bed in the dark, solving problems, as usual, she flew in through the open window and stood on my desk. I knew she wanted me; she wanted to tell me something important, so I got up and went to her. As I looked at her I knew she wanted to tell me – she was dying. And then, as I got her message, there came a light from her eyes – powerful beams of light… a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.”

“When that pigeon died, something went out of my life. Up to that time I knew with a certainty that I would complete my work, no matter how ambitious my program, but when that something went out of my life I knew my life’s work was finished”.

Such is the legend of the man called Nikola Tesla.

Note: With advancements in the field of Semiconductors, DC step up and step down is much efficient today. Europe uses High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) since the losses are lesser as compared to AC.

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