When we think about great inventors, the first name that comes to mind is Edison. We have all learned about his great inventions which light up our world today. But there is someone who is far more talented and has contributed more to these discoveries than Edison. What if I told you that the real hero was a Serbian scientist called Nikola Tesla and that Edison was more of a business person than a scientist?
Early Life of Nikola Tesla:
Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American inventor and physicist who was born on July 10, 1856. When he was in school he became interested in demonstrations of electricity by his physics professor. He was capable of performing integral calculus in his head. He joined the Austrian Polytechnic and earned the highest grade possible. After his father’s death, he found many letters which were sent to his father from his professors. They stated that unless he was removed from his school Tesla would die of overwork.
Tesla was upset when his father brushed aside his hard-won achievements. He lost interest in studying after he took up gambling. He lost all his scholarship money although he won it back. He was unprepared for his examinations and never graduated from University. In March 1879, Tesla suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1881, Tesla moved to Budapest to work in a Telegraph company.
Tesla and Edison:
In 1884, Tesla moved to the United States. He was invited by Edison’s manager Charles Batchelor. He wanted Tesla to work on the Edison Machine Works based in New York. Tesla worked there for a year and impressed Edison with his diligence and creativity. The two worked together to improve Edison’s inventions. But after several months they parted ways due to conflicting interests.
The fact was that Edison posed a challenge to Tesla to improve the design of his DC dynamos. He offered a reward of $50,000 for the same. After several months of research, Tesla produced an improved design. But when he asked for the reward money Edison refused to give him the money stating that it was a joke. He is reported to have said, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor”. Tesla quit soon after this insult.
The Battle of the Currents:
After Tesla quit, he founded the Tesla Electric Light Company. He then patented his improved arc lighting using AC current. But his investors showed little interest in his ideas for AC motors and electricity transmission. This was due to the intense competition at that time. The investors then abandoned the company leaving Tesla penniless. He lost his existing patents as well as he assigned the patents to his company in exchange for stock.
He had to work in manual jobs to make a living. He even worked as a ditch digger for $2 a day. 1886 was a year of hardships for Tesla. This is what he wrote, “My high education in various branches of science, mechanics, and literature seemed to me like a mockery”. But in late 1886, Tesla met Alfred S. Brown and New York attorney Charles F. Peck, who were experienced in setting up companies. They both agreed to fund Tesla for his research.
In 1887, Tesla developed an induction motor that ran on alternating current (AC). Edison was using Direct Current(DC) and promoting its usage as it was safer since it was at a lower voltage. Alternating current was gaining popularity as it can be transmitted over large distances. DC generators could transfer power only within a one-mile radius of the power source. This made alternating current the ideal power source. It had the potential to power facilities over large distances.
“If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once, with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. … I was almost a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.”
Westinghouse hired Tesla, licensed the patents for his AC motor and gave him his own lab. So the “Battle of the Currents” began between Tesla’s Alternating Current and Edison’s Direct Current. Although AC was better and more efficient, Edison was more adept at marketing his inventions. To do this he would do anything possible.
Edison wanted to prove that Tesla’s Alternating Current was dangerous. He even arranged the public execution of a convicted New York murderer using an electric chair powered by Alternating Current. During the financial panic of 1890, there was a sudden shortage of cash for all companies. As the Tesla induction motor had been unsuccessful during this time, it was stuck in development.
Tesla’s Many Achievements:
The discovery of Alternating Current is one of the many achievements of Tesla. This changed the way we transfer current. It is true that Edison won the battle of the currents but it was Tesla’s AC which won the war. We continue to use Alternating Current even today. He even developed fluorescent bulbs a long time before neon lighting became famous.
We credit Marconi for inventing the Radio but it was Tesla who actually invented it a few years earlier. Tesla also the use of the Radio during a demonstrated in 1893. But, the US patent office reversed Tesla’s patent and offered it to Marconi in 1904 to avoid having to pay royalties to Tesla.
The first primitive radar unit was built in 1934. But this was created based on the principles for frequency and power level devised by Tesla during in 1917. When Radar was first invented by him, it did not have any practical use and so it was dismissed. Tesla also invented the remote control. The first remote-controlled model boat demonstration was in 1898. Radio signals were used to control the boat’s propeller, rudder, and running lights.
In 1895, Tesla designed the first AC hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls. He also invented the Tesla coil. The Tesla Coil is an electrical resonant transformer circuit in 1891. The electric motor was also invented by Tesla in 1930. But due to the economic crisis and the World War, this did not gain much interest as well.
Around 1900, Tesla started to work on a bold project to wirelessly transmit energy. This consisted of a large electrical tower for wireless communication and providing free electricity throughout the world. But there were many doubts about this project. Marconi, funded by Edison was making good progress in the field of radio technologies. Soon funds ran out and Tesla was bankrupt and the project was scrapped.
Although Tesla was talented and made many breakthroughs, he could not use them. He was a scientist and not an entrepreneur. His inventions were also far ahead of his time. The world could not find any ways to use them now. Due to this, he had many of his patents stolen. In 1943, the Supreme court overturned Marconi’s patent on the radio after it was proven that it was initially invented by Tesla.
“I don’t care that they stole my idea. I care that they don’t have any of their own”
He also went up against Edison who was financially more settled and had more funds to work with. Edison was also a showman who knew how to market his inventions. Tesla could not compete with such abilities. His innovations led to major breakthroughs in science but had no direct practical uses.
In 1895, Tesla’s lab burned down which destroyed years of work. He did not marry and was working on his inventions till the end even as his health deteriorated. He had several mental breakdowns and suffered from hallucinations. Tesla died on January 7, 1943, bankrupt and penniless. His achievements were never appreciated during his day.