Next year, humanity will celebrate the 150th birthday of Nikola Tesla. Medgadget editor Ivor Kovic, a medical student from Rijeka, Croatia reports for the Good Old Days…
Nikola Tesla, one of the greatest inventors of all time, was born on July 9, 1856, in the village of Smiljan, in the province of Lika, Croatia – then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was, and remains to be, a hot topic among Croatians and Serbs, but not always for the right reasons. Discussions about who “owns” Tesla are still present. Maybe you already noticed that some web sites claim he was Serbian, while others say he was Croatian. To offer peace and to silence those restless voices we can quote Tesla himself – “I am equally proud of my Serbian mother and my Croatian homeland”. The truth is that the whole mankind has many reasons to be proud of Tesla and his inventions, which forever changed our way of life. It seems that some positive changes are happening after all.
Recently, the Croatian government declared year 2006, in which we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Tesla’s birth, to be Nikola Tesla year. They also started with the reconstruction of Tesla’s village, the church, his house and the brook he used to play in as a child, where he came upon his first scientific ideas. In the initial phase of the project they will invest $5 million to transform the village of Smiljan into a shrine of Nikola Tesla, with a museum and a theme park.
But, who was this genius who ushered in the age of electrical power? He most definitely adored science and gadgets and was known for his eccentric lifestyle. Some of his phobias included pearl earrings worn by women, never staying in a hotel room or floor whose number was divisible by three, and insisting on a large number of napkins at every meal with which he would meticulously polish his silverware. Tesla had a good number of friends, one of which was Samuel Clemmons, also known as Mark Twain.
He had a vivid imagination and an intuitive way of developing scientific hypotheses. Here is how he explained his creative process:
“Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made the actual drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop. The inventions I have conceived in this way have always worked. In thirty years there has not been a single exception. My first electric motor, the vacuum wireless light, my turbine engine and many other devices have all been developed in exactly this way.”
Tesla completed his elementary education in Croatia and continued his schooling in the Polytechnic School in Graz and finished at the University of Prague. He worked as an electrical engineer in Germany, Hungary and France before emigrating to the United States in 1884.
Arriving in New York City with four cents in his pocket, Tesla found employment with Thomas Edison in New Jersey. Differences in style between the two men soon lead to their separation. In 1885, George Westinghouse, founder of the Westinghouse Electric Company, bought patent rights to Tesla’s system of alternating-current. The advantages of alternating-current over Edison’s system of direct-current became apparent when Westinghouse successfully used Tesla’s system to light the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Tesla established a laboratory in New York City in 1887. His experiments ranged from an exploration of electrical resonance to studies of various lighting systems. To counter fears of alternating-current, Tesla gave exhibitions in his laboratory in which he lighted lamps without wires by allowing electricity to flow through his body.
When Tesla became a United States citizen in 1891, he was at the peak of his creative powers. He developed in rapid succession the induction motor, new types of generators and transformers, a system of alternating-current power transmission, fluorescent lights, and a new type of steam turbine. He also became intrigued with wireless transmission of power. Tesla was at the same time one of the pioneers of radio technology: He discovered the remote control system, lighting system using arcs, and designed high-frequency alternators as the basis of radio station transmission; he generated unsuppressed electromagnetic waves, discovered and patented the radio transmission resonance principle, elaborated his idea of interplanetary communication using ultrashort radio waves, while he also had an idea of how a complex radar system should look like. He postulated the ability to locate objects in the air or in the ground by using radio waves. Today, we call it RADAR, and when used to peer into the human body, the MRI.
In 1900, Tesla began construction on Long Island of a wireless broadcasting tower. The project was funded with $150,000 capital from financier J. Pierpont Morgan. The project was abandoned when Morgan withdrew his financial support. Tesla’s work shifted to turbines and other projects, but his ideas remained on the drawing board due to a lack of funds. Tesla’s notebooks are still examined by engineers in search of unexploited ideas.
Tesla eventually died, literally pennyless, on January 7th, 1943. It is rather sad that a man who gave the world so much, received so little for his efforts. History books have been unkind as well. Even today, many texts still credit Marconi with the invention of radio, despite the Supreme Court decision which overruled the Marconi patent, awarding it to Tesla. In many parts of this country, people still refer to the electric utility as the ‘Edison Company’, even though they use the Tesla-Westinghouse alternating current system, not Edison’s direct current. At the Niagra Falls power generating station, a small statue of Tesla is purposely left unilluminated at night. It has been said that Tesla is the Forgotten Father of Technology. Tesla himself once commented:
“… The present is theirs. (skeptics of the day) The future, for which I really worked, is mine.”