This is the kinda stuff that gave him “the mad scientist’ moniker…not that he minded it. He liked the attention…Nikola Tesla is known to be one of the greatest electrical inventors of modern times. His fundamental work included the invention of the induction motor, fluorescent lights, remote control and artificial intelligence and the current polyphase system. He truly shaped our technological society, and yet he often doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Tesla’s nephew, head of the Tesla Society, believed that one of the major reasons is that no corporation is closely identified with him. His name only sometimes appears in history books, unlike Edison or the Wright Brothers, and when he is featured—his contribution is often muddled. So what are Tesla’s most important contributions?
In 1888, Tesla created the AC polyphase system, an idea that he had first offered to Thomas Edison. Until that point, the naturally flowing alternating current was converted into direction by a series of wire brushes. At the time, generators cold only transport electricity about a mile. After Tesla’s invention, electrical power and energy for lighting homes could be transported hundreds of miles, using two or more currents out of phase to generate a single electromagnetic field that rotated in space. A receiving magnet placed within the field could then turn motor without the use of a commutator. It was ultimately George Westinghouse, an Edison competitor, who purchased the invention.
At the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago, Tesla demonstrated the safety of his technology by passing high-frequency AC power through his body to power light bulbs. He then was able to shoot large lightning bolts from Tesla coils to the crowd without harm.
What Westinghouse ultimately acquired was the entire power system, rather than simply the device. The AC polyphase system was broken down into seven major inventions and 40 patents, including the Tesla coil, the alternating current generator, and the rotating magnetic field. Today, virtually every electrical power station on the planet can be credited to Tesla—and his creation has remained unchanged more than a century after its conceptualization.
In 1898, Tesla invented and displayed his remote control torpedo boat at the Electrical Show at Madison Square Garden. The machine, which Tesla called the teleautomation, actually contained all of the principles of the radio, electrical action at a distance, and the robot. Just one year later, Tesla moved to Colorado Springs to build a trial wireless transmission laboratory in order to send impulses around the globe.
While Tesla was out west and out of touch with New York, Marconi was gaining a worldwide reputation, capturing the front page of newspapers with his wireless coverage of the America’s Cup yacht races. Though Tesla demonstrated the principle of the radio almost a decade before Marconi, this was the beginning of his defeat in the race for wireless. In 1943 the US Supreme Court ruled that Marconi’s patents were invalid due to Tesla’s descriptions of his work. Still, most references do not credit Tesla with the invention of radio.
All was not lost, however. While in Colorado, Tesla was able to experimentally establish that he could traverse the globe with electrical pulsations. He also reported that he illuminated light bulbs by wireless transmission at distances of 25 miles from his lab. These works reveal his true genius about the principle of resonance, the teleautomation, and the distribution of electricity from a magnetic transmitter.
The actual tower at Wardenclyffe rose to a height of 187 feet and to a depth of 120 feet, so that total length of the apparatus was 307 feet. Along the main center of the tower was a primary and a secondary coil and condensers which stepped up electrical vibrations to many millions of volts. Tesla essentially made the earth into an electric tuning fork by getting a steam-driven oscillator to vibrate at the same frequency as the ground. He actually created an earthquake in the surrounding city—but had successfully determined the resonant frequencies of Earth six decades before science could confirm his findings.
In 1899, he sent waves of energy through the Earth, providing the theory for earthquake seismic stations. He also created the largest man-made lightning bolt ever recorded, at 130 feet. The thunder from that experiment was heard 22 miles always and created a blue glow lighting up the meadow outside of his lab.
At the beginning of World War I, Tesla introduced the idea of using energy waves to detect German submarines. Today, that is known as RADAR, but at the time Thomas Edison rejected his idea.
After his death, scientists have continued combing through Tesla’s work, uncovering inventions like the “bladeless disk turbine engine”—one of the most efficient motors ever made. The experiment he performed has been the foundation for modern superconductors. It is no wonder that he has been labeled “the man who invented the 20th century”–by those who know him, of course.