Each time you plug an electrical anything into a wall outlet, each time you turn on your radio or even TV, you should thank the Serbian-born American engineer named Nikola Tesla.
I present him to you because last Thursday, July 10, was Tesla’s birthday, his 158th. It’s not necessarily an auspicious birthday – other than Elon Musk using the occasion to make a million dollar donation to transform Tesla’s Wardenclyffe labs in to the Tesla Science Center, which you can read more about here – but I’ll use any excuse to write about Tesla.
If the name sounds familiar, it may be because of a hard rock band who borrowed his name, or perhaps because of the electric car company that uses his name as an homage. Or, maybe, it’s because of his fictional portrayal by David Bowie in the 2006 film, The Prestige.
The real Tesla invented the AC (alternating current) motor and the technologies necessary to make AC power available to households across the country. He invented radio (not Marconi), which of course led to television. He invented radio control (RC), which your kids likely know all about. He demonstrated wireless power transfer, which can now be found in the wireless charger systems such as Qi (pronounced “chee”) and Duracell’s PowerMat. He (accidentally) also was responsible for the electric chair.
Why isn’t the real Tesla more familiar to you? Tesla lacked Thomas Edison’s promotional genius and didn’t invent actual consumer products – merely the power systems on which all electronics operate.
But while Edison was merely a really talented mechanic, Tesla (who once actually worked for Edison) was a university-trained electrical engineer. Edison knew what he wanted gadgets to do; Tesla understood how they worked, which led him to more profound foundational inventions, and why several engineering technologies are named for him and why he is considered the godfather of our modern society.
Tesla also was wildly eccentric – he loved pigeons and the number three – and some of his later ideas were seen as more crackpot than eureka or simply too far ahead of their time.
Tesla’s technical training allowed him, as the story goes, to envision precisely how an AC motor would work, including all its parts, in a literally blinding flash of insight while walking through a park in his native Serbia. It would take him more than a decade, however, to see this mind-picture turned into reality.
It wasn’t until this first boss, Edison, invented the light bulb, that AC became necessary. Edison, not being an engineer, relied on DC, or direct current. DC is low power (today it’s used in batteries) and flows in only one direction. This means it can’t travel far through wires without amplification.
AC, alternating current, is high-power so can travel far without amplification, and can flow in two directions, so is more flexible. But generating and AC is far more complicated – and dangerous – than DC.
Edison promoted easier and safer DC. To demonstrate AC’s lethal aspects, he called in reporters to witness the electrocution of animals via AC, including an elephant. Edison’s development of the electric chair was designed to demonstrate just how deadly AC power could be.
But DC required noisy and smelly generating stations inside of city limits. Tesla and his AC equipment maker George Westinghouse demonstrated to municipalities wishing to wire their towns with electricity safe generating stations that could be located miles away how safe.
One of the first Tesla/Westinghouse AC power stations was built at Niagara Falls in 1893 to supply power to Buffalo, NY, 20 miles away. There’s a statue of Tesla outside the still standing original generator house on the Canadian side of the Falls.
You can read a more about Tesla in the excellent new biography by W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age.
In the meantime, happy (belated) birthday, Mr. Tesla.