Nikola Tesla was simply a genius, yet he died as a destitute, lonely and forgotten man in 1943. He was an idealist with the grand vision of free wireless electricity and communication. He is the father of alternating current and was perceived as a threat to Thomas Edison and his direct current power transmission. He was an inventor and engineer who owned more than 250 patents in his lifetime. As with many incredible minds, he was a peculiar man whom likely had severe autism, but there is no doubt he was ahead of his time.
Free Wireless Electricity
Tesla strived to create a world where electricity was freely available to all, proposing the ‘World Wireless System’ (WWS). The WWS was more than electricity transmission. He predicted many electronic applications which could be used to describe the modern electronic environment. In 1906 when he proposed the WWS, his predictions were unfathomable, yet he had a special ability to see what others couldn’t.
Tesla’s WWS claimed that someone could access electrical energy without wires. Potentially a light bulb could be planted in the ground and would illuminate. Using Earth as a giant conductor and disturbing the earth’s electrical charge, Tesla believed electrical waves could be transmitted any distance around the globe.
In Colorado Springs, Tesla built a laboratory for high-voltage, high-frequency experiments. A 15 m diameter Tesla coil produced the largest man-made voltages, high-frequency, alternating current electricity ever witnessed. It was in Colorado Springs where he placed light bulbs in the ground up to 30 m away from the Tesla coil and they produced light, even when switched off.
When thinking of the modern electronic environment, things like mobile phones, computers, GPS and the internet probably spring to mind. Tesla predicted that instantaneous voice messages could be sent to any location on earth using a receiver smaller than a pocket watch – think of a Whatsapp voice message or Skype. He anticipated mobile phones being used to talk to someone anywhere, at anytime, and with a hand-held transmitter and receiver. He envisioned what emails do for us today – allowing us to send documents, letters, photos, drawings, etc. Extraordinarily he was able to anticipate the modern GPS through a universal navigational system. On a macro scale, Tesla envisaged the modern electronic environment.
Powerful businesses whom had built empires and could see rewarding profits in the electricity industry were worried about Tesla’s proposed free electricity system. Tesla was a terrible businessman choosing to sell royalties to his patents for lump sum amounts of cash rather than steadily becoming a very wealthy man. There is some thought that some of these powerful businesses purposefully halted Tesla’s projects in order to protect themselves.
The Battle of the Currents – Edison Vs Tesla
The War of Currents describes the fight for electrical transmission, at the end of the 19th century, between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Tesla developed an alternating current induction motor and George Westinghouse saw the benefits of alternating current (AC) while Edison was fearful of losing his investment in direct current (DC). Eventually AC was adopted as the universal system of electrical transmission due to it’s capability of reaching far distances relatively cheaply, although not before many animals were killed.
Edison was business minded and discovered the need for a system to light businesses and homes. By 1882 he had an established network in New York and was competing with the gas lighting utilities. You can thank Edison for power meters being used for measuring energy consumption because he invented them. The problem with DC is that resistance is proportional to the current. This means to send power further, thicker copper wires must be used which is additional costs. Thus, DC had a relatively short transmission range and unfortunately for Edison, practical transformers were developed which allowed AC to be sent across large distances.
A transformer can ‘step up’ voltages at a power station and due to Ohm’s law the current is decreased. The power can travel along cables with relatively small resistance before reaching a substation where a ‘step down’ transformer can begin to return the electricity to a usable state. The power is sent from the substation to your house where another ‘step down’ transformer reduces the voltage to the well known mains voltage of 240 V. This swung the advantage into the AC court and Tesla helped Westinghouse with the AC system.
Edison’s embarked on a mudslinging campaign against Tesla and Westinghouse highlighting the dangers of AC and the high voltages used. Edison staged public executions with dogs and horses, euthanizing them with AC. Publicly Edison was anti-capital punishment however he secretly financed the first electric chair and made for certain that it would use AC to euthanize. “Westinghoused” became slang for death by electrocution. In a last ditch effort to persuade the public of AC dangers, Edison electrocuted a circus elephant.
The defining point in the battle was when Westinghouse won the contract to power Buffalo using Niagara Falls. By 1896, Buffalo was running successfully on AC and Edison and General Electric finally agreed AC was the better system.
Tesla had a brilliant, photographic memory similar to the great Leonardo da Vinci. Some people suggest he was capable of memorising complete books or diagrams. He could work on a diagram from memory without writing or drawing on paper. He spoke 8 languages! – Serbo-Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin. Tesla never slept more than 2 hours at a time. He devoted his life to his work and questioned whether his devotion to work was worthwhile towards the end of his life.
Tesla never had a girlfriend or experienced coitus but he adored pigeons. He fed pigeons at the park near his hotel every single day. One particular pigeon fascinated him: “I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them, for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings, that was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her, and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.“