Ten of Tesla’s greatest achievements and contributions to mankind.
1. Alternating Current
This is where the famous division between Tesla and Edison began. It was a division between cost and safety. Edison had been working on a DC current which was expensive to run over long distances, and also created dangerous sparks from the converter, or commutator. Edison and his supporters propagated this as a general ‘danger’ of electricity in order to create public fear over Tesla’s alternating current. They even went so far as to purposely electrocute animals at demonstrations, and through this Edison gave the world the electric chair. This scared people away from Tesla’s efforts even though he was offering safety at a lower cost.
Tesla reacted by showing that alternating current was perfectly safe, when he famously shot current through his own body to create light. This 1893 feud between GE (Edison) and Westinghouse (Tesla) was the finale in over a decade of dodgy business deals, stolen concepts, and patent suppression that Edison and financial backers exerted over Tesla and his inventions. In the face of all this, it is now Tesla’s system that provides power to North America today. We have Tesla to thanks for so many aspects of our everyday lives – including traffic lights, computers, toasters and smart phones.
Tesla obviously didn’t create light itself… but he did invent a system by which light can be harnessed and dispersed. Tesla made fluorescent bulbs forty years before the industry supposedly ‘invented’ them. At the World Fair, Tesla bent glass tubes to spell out famous scientists’ names – essentially making the world’s first neon signs.
His Tesla Coil is likely to be the most impressive and controversial of his inventions. It used the concept of electromagnetism – that the Earth itself is a magnet which can create electricity by using frequencies as a transmitter. This makes it abundantly clear why the power industry would have suppressed the Tesla coil, out of fear of profit loss.
The 1800s saw heavy research into electromagnetic and ionizing radiation. Tesla, however, looked into the whole breadth of these topics. Like most of Tesla’s contributions, his creation of x-ray technology came from his belief that everything we need to understand the entire universe is actually around us all the time – we just need to use our minds to develop devices to enhance our perception of what is around us. His research into radiant energy of ‘invisible’ kinds started in 1894, when he noticed that some film was damaged in his lab during previous experiments.
Many people think that Guglielmo Marconi invented the radio. This is not true – Tesla demonstrated the technology for a radio during a presentation for the The National Electric Light Association in 1893, and in 1897 he was granted two patents 645576 and 649621. However, in 1904 the US Patent Office changed its mind, and awarded the patent to Marconi. It’s likely that this decision was influenced by Marconi’s financial backers in the States, including Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie. The US Government was then able to avoid paying the royalties that were being claimed by Tesla. Finally, in 1943 it came to light that Tesla had invented the radio years before Marconi, and Marconi’s patent was overturned by the Supreme Court.
Tesla observed strange signals from his radio receiver in the lab, which he thought may have been communications from “another world”. The media jumped on this, and sensationalised the story, stating that Tesla was hearing signals from Mars. It has since been hypothesised that he may simply have intercepted Marconi’s European radio experiments, or signals from an unknown experimenter in wireless transmission.
5. Remote Control
The remote control was a likely extension of radio technology. The first remote controlled model boat was demonstrated in 1898 and awarded patent 613809. It used a number of large batteries, and radio signals to control switches, to power the boat’s scaled down propeller, rudder and running lights. The crowd at the demonstration claimed that the boat must be piloted by magic, telepathy, or a trained monkey hiding inside the boat. This technology was not used widely for some time, but it eventually gained traction in the military in its quest for remote controlled war. Radio controlled tanks were first used by the Germans in WWII. Tesla had originally tried to sell his idea to the US military for use as a kind of radio operated torpedo, but they didn’t show any interest.
6. Electric Motor
Tesla invented a motor with rotating magnetic fields in 1930 – this could have saved mankind from the monopoly of the big oil companies. However, his invention never had a chance to take off due to the economic crisis and the ensuing world war. Regardless, his invention has essentially transformed a range of things we now take for granted, including industrial fans, water pumps, power tools, disk drives in computers, and electric wristwatches. Tesla’s invention has finally been popularised with a car flaunting his name – 85 years later.
Tesla’s excessively enhanced scientific thinking led him to believe that all living creatures are motivated purely by external impulses. He stated – “I have by every thought and act of mine, demonstrated, and does so daily, to my absolute satisfaction that I am an automaton endowed with power of movement, which merely responds to external stimuli.” And so the idea of the robot was born. Tesla stressed that a human component should be ever-present, and that these human replications should have limitations in terms of growth and breeding. Regardless, Tesla embraced all that intelligence could deliver – he envisioned a future with intelligent cars, robot human companions and autonomous computer systems.
Tesla’s invention of the laser can be seen as one of the greatest examples of the coupling of good and evil in a man’s mind. In terms of the good, lasers have altered surgical applications in an irrefutably positive way. Lasers also led to the possibility of much of our current digital media. This innovative leap has also steered us towards science fiction. From the Star Wars style laser defense system, to the current Orwellian ‘non lethal weapons’ arsenal including laser rifles and ‘death rays’, there is vast potential for real development in both directions.
9. & 10. Wireless Communications and Limitless Free Energy
These two are inseparably linked, as they were the last straw for the powerful elite. Those in power couldn’t see the use of backing up an energy source that couldn’t be metered and controlled to create profit. J. P Morgan originally backed Tesla with $150,000 to build Wardenclyffe tower that would use the natural frequencies of the universe to transmit data. It would have been the world’s first wireless communication system, decades before our modern use of WiFi on computers and smart phones. However Morgan realised that while he was putting a huge amount of money into the tower itself, it would give people the means to harness free energy, and thus the system could not turn a profit. Nikola Tesla was committed to empowering the individual to receive and transmit data, and to use energy free of charge.
Tesla required more funds to continue the Wardenclyffe tower, but Morgan refused. Between 1901 and 1906, Tesla sent more than fifty letters to Morgan, demanding and even begging for further funds to complete the construction. Morgan had realised that there was no money to be made from Tesla’s free energy system and eventually wrote back stating “It will be impossible for [me] to do anything in the matter.” Without the necessary funds, the staff at the tower were laid off in 1906 and in 1915 the site fell into foreclosure. In 1917 Tesla was forced to declare bankruptcy, and the tower was taken apart to be sold as scraps to help Tesla pay the debts he had racked up.
Since Tesla forfeited the site, ownership has passed through several different people, and numerous attempts have been made to preserve it – efforts in 1967, 1976 and 1994 all failed to have the property declared a national historic site. In 2008, the Tesla Science Centre group was created with the purpose of buying the site and transforming it into a museum dedicated to Tesla and his inventions. In 2009 the site went on the market for almost $1.6 million. The Tesla Science Centre toiled to raise enough funds for the purchase. Public interest grew in 2012 when the Tesla Science Centre collaborated with TheOatmeal.com to create a comic in an Internet fundraiser. You can see it here – http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla . They received enough donations to take over the site in 2013, and the restoration works are still in motion.