In the age of Edison, Westinghouse, Marconi and J.P. Morgan, Nikola Tesla was a giant of innovation because of his contributions in the fields of electricity, radio and robotics.
A Tesla is an electric car. Just about everybody knows that.
But it is less widely known that the car was named for Nikola Tesla, an electrical engineer who was once renowned as the prototype of a genius inventor.
While Tesla’s star began to fade long ago, Elon Musk, who named his car and his company after him, has contributed to a Nikola Tesla revival.
In the age of Edison, Westinghouse, Marconi and J.P. Morgan, Tesla was a giant of innovation because of his contributions in the fields of electricity, radio and robotics.
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“It’s a sociological fact that Elon Musk took the Tesla name and launched Nikola Tesla into the stratosphere,” says Marc Seifer, author of “Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla.” “Tesla’s risen to the surface again, and now he’s getting his due.”
Tesla was on the cover of Time magazine in 1931, but died a poor man in 1943 after years devoted to projects that did not receive adequate financing. Yet his most significant inventions resonate today.
The AC motor
In 1884, Tesla arrived in New York to work for Thomas Edison with the hope that Edison would help finance and develop a Tesla invention, an alternating-current (AC) motor and electrical system.
But Edison was investing in highly inefficient direct-current (DC) systems, and he had Tesla re-engineer a DC power plant on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan. The men soon parted company over a financial dispute.
George Westinghouse provided funding for Tesla’s AC induction motors and devices, which soon came to dominate manufacturing and urban life. Unlike the DC motors of the time, Tesla’s motors didn’t create sparks or require expensive permanent magnets to operate. Instead, they used a rotating magnetic field that used power more efficiently in a basic design that is still the core of most electric motors.
In 1896, Tesla designed the power-generating system at Niagara Falls, a big advance for his AC system. Entire cities eventually ran on AC power, after Westinghouse won a battle against Edison, the leading DC proponent. Their conflict is the subject of “The Current War,” a coming movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison.
Tesla developed radio technology and tested it from 1892 through 1894. He called radio an “oscillator” through which electricity is converted into high-frequency radio waves, enabling energy, sound and other transmissions over great distances.
He envisioned a system that could transmit radio and electricity across the globe. After successful experiments in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1899, Tesla began building what he called a global “World System” near Shoreham on Long Island, hoping to power vehicles, boats and aircraft wirelessly. Ultimately, he expected that anything that needed electricity would get it from the air, much as we receive transmitted data, sound and images on smartphones. But he ran out of money, and J.P. Morgan Jr., who had provided financing, turned off the spigot.
Although the main Tesla lab building on Long Island is being restored by a nonprofit foundation — the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe — the World System broadcast tower he built there was torn down for scrap to pay his hotel bill at the Waldorf Astoria in 1917.
The Wardenclyffe foundation is raising money for the restoration of the complex — named a world historical site by the American Physical Society — and has been aided by a crowdfunding campaign and $1 million from Musk.
Tesla’s ambitions outstripped his financing. He didn’t focus on radio as a stand-alone technology. Instead, he conceived of entire systems, even if they were decades ahead of the time and not financially feasible.
“He proved that you could send power a short distance,” said Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Center. “But sending power a long distance is still proving to be a hurdle. It would be monumental if it could be done.”
In 1943, several months after Tesla’s death, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in a long-running dispute over radio patents. But the victory was largely symbolic and was, in any case, too late to help Tesla.
Another Tesla invention combined radio with a remote-control device. We’d now call it a robotic drone.
Shortly after filing a patent application in 1897 for radio circuitry, Tesla built and demonstrated a wireless, robotic boat at the old Madison Square Garden in 1898 and again in Chicago at the Auditorium Theater the next year. These were the first public demonstrations of a remote-controlled drone.
An innovation in the boat’s circuitry — his “logic gate” — became an essential steppingstone to semiconductors.
Tesla’s tub-shape, radio-controlled craft heralded the birth of what he called a “teleautomaton”; later, the world would settle on the word robot. We can see his influence in devices ranging from “smart” speakers like Amazon’s Echo to missile-firing drone aircraft.
Tesla proposed the development of torpedoes well before World War I. These weapons eventually emerged in another form — launched from submarines.
Tesla failed to fully collaborate with well-capitalized industrial entities after World War. His supreme abilities to conceptualize and create entire systems weren’t enough for business success. He didn’t manage to build successful alliances with those who could finance, build and scale up his creations.
His achievements remained incomplete. He created the AC energy system and the basics of radio communication and robotics but wasn’t able to bring them all to fruition. His life shows that even for a brilliant inventor, innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It requires a broad spectrum of talents and skills. And lots of capital.