- By Petra Zivic
- BBC World Service
Nikola Tesla’s inventions made it possible to deliver this text to the device you are reading it on.
“I don’t just see Tesla as the father of electricity or global communication,” historian and filmmaker Michael Krause told the BBC. “He had ideas that were ahead of their time – he was a visionary who contributed to the evolution of humanity.”
But in the late 1890s, as Tesla walked across the stage at Columbia College in New York holding tubes of light in his hands to show off his newly invented oscillating transformer, the world was still largely in darkness.
Electricity was the thing of the future and most people had to go to places where it was on display to see it in action”, describes historian Iwan Rhys Morus in his book “Nikola Tesla and electric future”.
But that would soon change.
Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in the Habsburg Empire of Austria (his hometown of Smiljan is in present-day Croatia, although his family is Serbian), but he would leave at a young age for the bright lights of a New World metropolis.
When he arrived in New York in 1884, he went to work for the famous inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison.
“He came from an ancient world and became one of the protagonists of modern times,” said Krause.
When he stepped onto American soil, the electrical and mechanical engineer – and futurist – had just a few cents in his pocket and the project for a flying machine, according to another biographer, Inez Whitaker Hunt.
But it wasn’t a flying machine that made Tesla famous. For years he perfected AC motors.
And he arrived in the United States at exactly the right time, when a struggle between different types of currents had just come to life.
electrify the world
The world is growing and needs more energy. So a race begins to find the most efficient way to produce and transport electricity to power machines and light up.
“There were two competing electrical transmission systems,” Morus told the BBC.
The battle pitted an American businessman and engineer, George Westinghouse, against Tesla boss Thomas Edison over whether alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC) would be used for the transmission of electricity.
Thomas Edison’s company invested in direct current, which flows only in one direction and over short distances, at a single voltage.
Alternating current, on the other hand, flows in multiple directions, can travel greater distances, and voltages can be stepped up or down. As it can travel greater distances, it takes energy to more places.
“It’s a bit like comparing a horse and buggy to a jet plane,” Tesla biographer Mark Cypher told the BBC’s landmark Witness podcast.
When Tesla arrived in New York he already had a “jet plane” in his pocket – he had experimented with alternating current while working in Europe and built his first induction motor in 1883.
But because Edison insisted on direct current transmission, the two men parted ways, and Westinghouse soon bought the patent rights to Tesla’s AC motor and transformer system.
Tesla’s design allowed power to be transmitted over great distances cost-effectively and is still in use today.
Tesla the showman
“We still use AC electricity, and the process of generating and transporting electrical energy is still based on Tesla’s ideas,” Ivana Zoric, curator of the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, told the BBC.
Indeed, Tesla’s system remains the primary method of generating, transmitting, and distributing electrical energy, and many current electrical devices are based on another of his inventions.
“Induction motors were very innovative back then and today they are still used in industry and in many household appliances – even electric cars,” explained Zoric.
In 1891 he invented the Tesla coil, a device that emits magnificent flying currents of electrical energy in an attempt to transmit electricity wirelessly. It is also still used today in radio and television sets and other electronic equipment.
Two years later, Tesla and Westinghouse win the lighting competition for the Chicago World’s Fair, which celebrates the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Europeans, and Tesla becomes a superstar.
“When people realized the power of invention, Tesla was given the task of building a power plant at Niagara Falls,” said Zoric.
It was the world’s first hydroelectric plant and Tesla owned nine of the thirteen patents used to build it.
“People knew who the amazing Mr. Tesla was and he took advantage of that,” Morus said.
He quickly created his own laboratory and began experimenting in the field of wireless communication and energy transmission.
It also opens its doors to the public, demonstrating its refined charisma, according to Morus.
“He was trying to sell his unique vision of this kind of wireless, free energy world, and he’s trying to sell himself as the individual who will be able to deliver that future.”
a wireless future
As the world relied on sending messages over wires, Tesla began experimenting with wireless signal transmission.
But for all his new experiments he needed funds, which he managed to get in the early 1890s from the American financier JP Morgan, and he began to build his world wireless transmission tower on Long Island.
Its ultimate goal was to provide global communication – a wireless system that would allow instant global communication via video and voice, where information would be available to everyone, anywhere.
But Morgan then withdrew his support.
“Unfortunately, his biggest dream, the international system to provide electricity and communication systems to the people, did not materialize because it did not yet exist or because the technology did not exist. no”, emphasized Klause.
Tesla continued to work on various projects, but funding was often lacking and many of his ideas remained in his notes, as he could not understand that science and engineering are highly collaborative processes involving many people.
“Tesla made the major mistake. He really thought he was the only one who could achieve the electric future. He wasn’t interested in collaborating and working with other people,” Morus said.
He became famous as an eccentric, a man obsessed with a phobia of germs whose speculations about communicating with other planets were heavily criticized.
Tesla died in 1943 in a hotel room in New York, where he spent the last decade of his life.
“In 1951, Tesla’s business was shipped to Belgrade, Serbia, thanks to the efforts of his nephew,” said Zoric.
Four years later, the Nikola Tesla Museum opened in Belgrade and still attracts thousands of visitors every year. It also attracts hundreds of researchers as it houses 160,000 Tesla documents including plans, sketches and photographs.
And although Tesla’s archives are accessible online, many of his personal effects remain in the vaults, as the museum does not have enough space for exhibitions.
“We currently maintain Tesla’s bed, his refrigerator, his wardrobe, 13 of his suits, 75 ties, over 40 pairs of gloves, among other things,” Zoric said. “We hope to be able to display them once we have a bigger space.”
In 1956, a year after the museum opened, a unit for measuring the strength of magnetic fields was named Tesla.
Streets, schools and an airport in Serbia are named after him, and in both Serbia and Croatia, Tesla appears on bills and coins.
The famous American automaker is named after the inventor and, in 2018, SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster car to Mars aboard the Falcon heavy rocket.
But what would Tesla think of our future?
“I think Tesla would say today that humanity is more focused on comfort than on the future and the problems it might bring,” Zoric said.