Nikola Tesla, Forgotten Genius of Radio


Others have received credit for ideas developed by Tesla, a brilliant, eccentric engineer and scientist who battled Thomas Edison, worked for George Westinghouse and befriended Mark Twain.

The names are familiar. Faraday, Crookes, Edison, Marconi, Armstrong, Sarnoff, DeForest. All were great pioneers in the early development of electrical science and its offspring, electronic communication. And all are members of an elite fraternity of men whose achievements have been recorded for future generations to study. But there is one name that is not familiar; it is found in few history books. It is the name of the man who, in the year of his death, received validation from the U.S. Supreme Court that it was he, and not Marconi, who discovered radio communication.

The name is that of Nikola Tesla, a strikingly handsome and incredibly intelligent Yugoslavian immigrant who once refused to share the Nobel Prize in physics with Thomas Edison because he considered Edison to be a mere tinkerer, and because Marconi had been awarded the prize three years before.

Tesla discovered principles which led to the development of devices for wireless telegraphy, radar, television, diathermy, X-ray treatments, electrical lighting and remote control weapons. He also designed an endless number of electrical coils and motors for industry. He even predicted the advent of the wristwatch radio. the electron microscope and the atom-smashing cyclotron.

Tesla's accomplishments were such that T.A. Behrend, representing the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, had this to say about Tesla when the organization awarded the Thomas A. Edison Medal to him (against his will) in 1917:

Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr. Tesla's work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric trains and cars would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead and idle — so far reaching is his work that it has become the warp and woof of industry.

Earliest Memories

Tesla was born at the stroke of midnight between July 9 and 10, 1856, to Rev. Milutin Tesla and Diouka, his wife, in the village of Smiljan, then in the Austro-Hungarian border province of Lika, now a part of Yugoslavia. His father was a minister in the Serbian Orthodox Church and his mother, although illiterate, possessed an unusually retentive memory and a remarkable ability to invent labor-saving devices. Tesla always credited his mother as the source of his inventive insight. Although many of his ancestors were dark-eyed, TesIa's eyes were blue. He claimed that as a result of the excessive use of his brain. his eyes became lighter in color. Tesla was 6'2", slender, and had unusually long thumbs, then considered a sign of strong intellectual ability. Tesla spent his early years in the agricultural area near the Adriatic Sea and from time to time exhibited early flashes of genius which were to mark his later life.

Mental Workshop

Tesla's intuitive flashes enabled him to solve the most difficult mathematical, mechanical, and electrical problems with ease. He later described the sensations that accompanied these visions.

A long time ago, when I was a boy, I was afflicted with a singular trouble, which seems to have been due to an extraordinary excitability of the retina. It was the appearance of images which, by their persistence, marred the vision of real objects and interfered with thought. When a word was said to me, the image of the object which it designated would appear vividly before my eyes, and many times it was impossible for me to tell whether the object I saw was real or not.

The visions caused discomfort for Tesla, who tried in vain to control and banish them. For a time, when he was 12 years old, he succeeded, but they returned.

Tesla wrote, “A visual impression, consciously or unconsciously received, invariably preceded the appearance of the image. Gradually the desire arose in me to find out every time, what caused the images to appear...”

Tesla eventually determined through “every thought and every act of mine” that he was an “automaton,” responding to external stimuli and thinking and acting accordingly. From his experience, Tesla conceived the art of “teleautomatics,” which is the ability to remotely control devices by radio.

However bothersome these visions were to Tesla, who devoted much thought to their origin, they enabled him to see exact blueprints of all his inventions before they had been drawn or utilized for actual models. In fact, as a result of his visualizing power, and the frequent infringements on his patents, Tesla seldom made notes on any of his experiments. Instead, he would verbally describe the minute details of an electrical apparatus to his assistants, who would be expected to remember every specification and to construct the working model in the laboratory.

Tesla finished high school in Gospic, Yugoslavia in 1870, at age 14. He so distinguished himself as a scholar that the trustees of the local library asked him to classify the books in their collection, but Tesla became ill with a still-unknown illness which confined him to bed. During this severe illness, one of several which Tesla was to suffer, he read a book by Mark Twain which greatly cheered him. He later credited Twain with saving his life and years later, when the two were close friends, Twain wept when Tesla related the story to him.

By this time, Tesla had become so intensely interested in pursuing engineering studies that he retreated to a hideaway in the mountains while his father, a member of a well-known military family, negotiated his reprieve from military service. Tesla used the time to regain his health and to prepare for his studies at the Polytechnic Institute in Gratz, Austria. There, Tesla astounded a professor by refuting the professor's contention that a commutator was needed for Gramme machine. which could be used as a dynamo or a motor. Tesla announced that if alternating current were used, the commutator would be unnecessary, and the machine would be improved. Although the professor belittled Tesla's idea, the young man, by the age of 27, built an alternating current device which proved his theory.

The concept was revealed to him in a vision while he was walking with a friend. The superiority of alternating current over direct current was an argument that Tesla continued to wage all his life.

Tesla graduated from the University of Prague shortly after his father's death. He traveled to Budapest in the hope of securing a job at a central station there where Alexander Graham Bell's new invention, the telephone, was to be installed. He failed in this endeavor, but did find employment as a draftsman in the Central Telegraph Office of the Hungarian government. By the age of 25, he was in charge of engineering for a new telephone exchange. It was here that he devised his first invention — a telephone repeater, or amplifier — which was the forerunner of the loudspeaker in radio sets. Tesla then concentrated on designing dynamos, motors and transformers for a complete alternating current system. By designing a system which operated on three or more alternating currents simultaneously, he multiplied the effectiveness of the two-phase system he had designed to disprove the professor's theory. The work resulted in his famous polyphase power system, which harnessed the power of Niagara Falls in 1895, and provided nine million horsepower for industrial uses.

Employment in Paris

The telephone company which employed Tesla was sold, and through a letter of recommendation, Tesla found employment with the Continental Edison Company in Paris, which had been organized to build dynamos, motors and lighting systems under Thomas Edison's patents.

While at Continental Edison, Tesla was to encounter the first of many financial difficulties that were to hinder his freedom to obtain materials for his experiments. As a troubleshooter, Tesla improved some dynamos manufactured by the company and invented some automatic regulators. Although Tesla rescued the company from an embarrassing situation caused by an explosion in a powerhouse being dedicated by Emperor William I, he never received a promised increase in compensation from his company. Tesla was greatly disappointed that his alternating current motor, which demonstrated his discovery of the rotating magnetic field, would not be recognized for its commercial possibilities. At the suggestion of Charles Batchellor, a friend and former assistant of Edison, Tesla decided to leave for New York, where he hoped to sign on as an assistant in Edison's laboratories.

Just as Tesla's train was leaving the station, he discovered that his small bag, containing a bundle of clothes, rail and steamship tickets and a small amount of money, was missing. He jumped aboard the moving train, and found that his loose change would cover the railroad fare. When no other passenger claimed his reservation on the ship, he was permitted to embark. Tesla arrived in New York with four cents, a book of poems he had written, some of his technical articles, and designs for a flying machine.

Alternating vs. Direct Current

Tesla was impressed by Edison's ability, but evidently the feeling was not mutual. According to one of Tesla's biographers, “Edison was an inventor who got results by trial-and-error methods. Tesla calculated everything mentally and solved his problems before doing any ‘work’ on them. As a result, the two great men spoke an entirely different technical language.” In addition, emotions ran strong over the direct current vs. alternating current arguments, and Edison laughed when he first heard of Tesla's polyphase design.

It was during this time that Tesla reportedly outlined a plan for increasing the efficiency of Edison's dynamos to the elder inventor, and according to Tesla, Edison offered him $50,000 if he could do it. Tesla designed 24 dynamos and patented many of them. But when he tried to collect his money months later, Edison reportedly replied, “Tesla, you don't understand our American humor.” What Tesla thought was a specific promise was actually a joke. Tesla resigned.

It was the spring of 1885, and after a brief and painful experience as an engineer for a group of promotors who compensated Tesla with a stock certificate which he later discovered was of little value, the genius found himself out of work and out of money. He was forced to work for one year as a day laborer and he later described the period as one of “terrible heartaches and bitter tears.”

But by 1887, the Tesla Electric Company, formed with the support of a Western Union employee, was organized, and a laboratory was established not far from Edison's lab.

Within six months, Tesla filed his first patents for an entire system of dynamos, transformers, distribution systems and motors for an alternating current system. These inventions were followed by more inventions, and soon Tesla was famous. He delivered his first lecture before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers May 16, 1888. It described the theory and practical application of alternating current to power engineering, and it became a classic.

The lecture caught the attention of George Westinghouse, who already had made a fortune from his own air brake and electrical devices. Westinghouse offered Tesla one million dollars for his alternating current patents, plus one dollar per horsepower royalty. But Tesla had difficulty fitting himself into a business structure with many engineers who disagreed with his choice of 60 cycles as the standard alternating current frequency: up until that time engineers primarily used 133 cycles as the standard. Tesla left Westinghouse's employ and used his short-lived wealth to do further work. In four years lie was granted 45 patents.

The controversy between Thomson-Houston (Edison's company) and Westinghouse boiled. Westinghouse found his company in financial difficulty, and his lawyers advised him to cut off the $1 per horsepower royalty to Tesla. Westinghouse objected, but Tesla agreed to end the contract. An estimate near the time of Tesla's death placed the amount of royalties that would have been paid to him under the original agreement at $12 million.

Tesla then began to turn his attention to the work of Kelvin, Hertz and Maxwell. The only difference between light and electric current was frequency, he reasoned. In 1892 he delivered more lectures on “Experiments with Alternating Currents of High Potential and High Frequency.” In these lectures Tesla described today's neon and fluorescent lamps, and mysterious X-rays he had observed.

At this time, Tesla's mother died, and he became ill for several weeks. During his enforced period of rest, he took stock of himself and decided he didn't like what he had become. As an internationally-famous scientist, he had given and attended lavish parties. He vowed to return to his laboratory for more serious pursuits.

Thomas A. EdisonThomas A. Edison (above with 1880 "Edison Effect" lamps) and Tesla disagreed on use of alternating current. Edison supported direct current, but lost the argument.In 1893, for the Chicago World's Fair, Tesla designed an electrical display which allowed 1.000,000 volts to pass through his body. Not only did the Tesla system provide all electric power for the fair, but also the high-voltage display proved to Edison that alternating current was not deadly, as Edison had contended. Tesla's showmanship brought him even more admiration from the public. He was fond of performing his electrical feats while dressed in white tie and tails. His jet-black hair, light blue eyes, and tall, slender build provided a magical figure for those who watched in awe as sparks danced from his fingertips.

One of the crowning achievements to Tesla's career was the design of a power system to harness Niagara Falls. Both Westinghouse and General Electric submitted proposals to install Tesla polyphase generating systems (GE had previously secured licenses to use the patents). By 1896 the project, with portions supplied by both manufacturers, was finished. It was the largest electrical engineering undertaking up to that time.

Wireless System

By March, 1893 Tesla decided to pursue full-time his dream of a “worldwide system of intelligence and power.” During the winter of 1894, he built a transmitting and receiving station for sending messages through the earth without wires, and for transmitting electric force the same way.

But disaster struck on March 13, 1895. Tesla's laboratory burned, destroying the equipment he had designed in preparation for the first distance demonstration of his wireless system. There was no insurance on the laboratory, and Tesla was wiped out financially. With $40,000 contributed by a member of J.P. Morgan's financial group, Tesla set up a new lab four months later. (Morgan earlier had supported GE.) But Tesla refused further offers of money. By the spring of 1897, Tesla was ready to make his long distance wireless tests.

A boat traveling up the Hudson River successfully received transmissions from Tesla's laboratory 25 miles away. Two months later, in September, 1897, patents describing radio broadcasting and receiving were issued to Tesla. In 1892, Tesla described an electronic tube he had designed in 1890 for use as a detector in his radio system. The tube was designed 20 years before Lee DeForest developed a similar device. In 1893 he described his full system of radio broadcasting in lectures before the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia and the National Electric Light Association.

In his lectures on high frequency and high potential currents given in England and America in 1892-93, Tesla said that he was “daily more convinced of the practicability” of transmitting “intelligible signals or perhaps even power to any distance without the use of wires.”

Tesla suggested that the earth was a “charged body.” He set out to determine at what period the earth's charge, when disturbed, oscillates with respect to an oppositely electrified system or known circuit. The pursuit of this knowledge he termed of great “importance to the welfare of the human race.”

Writing in the June 1900 issue of Century magazine, Tesla said, “So, at least I have interpreted my observations, from which it appears that the earth. with its adjacent insulating and outer conducting envelop[e], constitutes a highly charged electrical condenser containing, in all probability, a great amount of electrical energy which might be turned to the uses of man, if it were possible to reach with a wire to great altitudes.”

In 1899, with an offer of land and electrical power from Leonard E. Curtis of the Colorado Springs Electric Company, and a $30.000 gift from John Jacob Astor, owner of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Tesla set out to build a laboratory to test his theories. The building itself was 100 feet on a side, and the walls were 25 feet high. A pyramidal 80-foot wood tower rose from the middle of the roof. A 200-foot mast extended through the center of the tower, and a copper ball three feet in diameter was mounted on the top. The mast and the ball were connected by a heavy wire. Primary and secondary coils were housed inside the lab. Colorado is known for the intense electrical discharges created in storms that roll over the Rocky Mountains, and on July 3, 1899, Tesla conducted an experiment that he “would never forget.”

A dense mass of strongly charged clouds gathered in the west and toward evening a violent storm broke loose, which after spending much of its fury in the mountains, was driven away with great velocity over the plains. Heavy and long persistent arcs formed in regular time intervals... Many times, in regularly recurring intervals, the same actions were repeated until the storm which, as evident from simple computations, was moving with nearly constant speed, had retreated to a distance of about 300 kilometers [about 180 miles]. Nor did these strange actions stop then, but continued to manifest themselves with undiminished force... No doubt whatever remained: I was observing stationary waves.

The experiment not only demonstrated that the earth was filled with electricity, but that the electricity could be disturbed, so that resonance could be produced. Tesla was elated. His next step was to actually produce lightning.

As a Tesla biographer records: “Tesla's eyes almost popped out of his head as he saw full-fledged bolts of lightning darting into the air, accompanied by a barrage of tremendous crashes of thunder. Those lightning bolts were now half again the length of the building, more than 135 feet long, and the thunder was being heard in Cripple Creek 15 miles away.” But the lightning suddenly ceased, and Tesla discovered that he had overloaded the generator at the electric company powerhouse, burning out a dynamo which would have to be rebuilt before his experiments could continue. But Tesla had proved that he could set the earth in electrical oscillation, thus providing a source of energy at all spots on the earth. The energy could be drawn off and made available to the public by use of a device which would contain elements similar to the tuning devices he had designed for radio. Heat and light could be provided to the home at nominal cost, and only a simple frequency changer would be necessary to siphon energy for the operation of motors.

Tesla was able to light 200 incandescent Edison lamps at a distance of 26 miles using his power transmission system. The lamps were 50 watts each, or about 13 horsepower, and Tesla claimed 95 percent efficiency for his method.

Tesla seated under massive arcs of electricity.Tesla (seated, making notes) succeeded in generating artificial lightning in his laboratory in Colorado Springs by using coils he designed for the purpose. The experiment proved his theory that the earth was a condenser, he said. Tesla never revealed the other principles he said he discovered in this laboratory, which has long since been destroyed.

Stationary waves would not only allow the wireless transmission of power and intelligence, Tesla reasoned, but they would also help “determine the relative position or course of a moving object, such as a vessel at sea, the distance traversed by the same, or its speed; or we may send over the earth a wave of electricity traveling at any rate we desire, from the pace of a turtle up to lightning speed.”

The export of power by such methods would become a chief industry for many countries, Tesla said. But he was again out of money, and his Colorado experiments were at an end. He returned to New York late in 1899 and by the turn of the century, he had secured $150,000 from J.P. Morgan to build a world wireless power and broadcasting station at Wardencliff, Long Island, in Suffolk County.

In a brochure he published, Tesla described his system this way:

The World System... makes possible not only the instantaneous and precise wireless transmission of any kind of signals, or characters, to all parts of the world, but also the interconnection of the existing telegraph, telephone and other signal stations without any change in their present equipment. By its means, for instance, a telephone subscriber here may call up any other subscriber on the Globe. An inexpensive receiver, not bigger than a watch, will enable him to listen anywhere, on land or sea, to a speech delivered, or music played in some other place, however distant.

The World System was based on the application of the Tesla transformer, the magnifying transmitter (which set up the electrical movements observed in Colorado), the Tesla wireless system, the art of individualization (Tesla's selective signaling device) and terrestrial stationary waves.

Using this system, Tesla foresaw universal distribution of news in “connection with the press,” transmission of “secret and non-interferable government” messages, interconnection of all stock tickers, a world system of musical distribution, universal registration of time, facsimile transmission, universal navigation service for ships, teleprinting, and “reproduction anywhere in the world of photographic pictures.”

Money Troubles

But Tesla, ever intent on discovering new principles, made no attempt to reap the financial return from his inventions, and in 1905 creditors forced him to close the Wardencliff lab. The tremendous tower he started was never completed, and a copper hemisphere 100 feet in diameter and 50 feet high was never placed on top of the tower. An unpaid engineering firm eventually removed the 300- horsepower dynamos that had been installed.

Tesla opened an office in New York City and tried to revive his lab, but contributions from Thomas Fortune Ryan, the financier, and H.O. Havemeyer, a sugar refiner, were applied to unpaid bills. Tesla's assistants could not be induced to talk of his business affairs, and the great scientist always refused offers of help from financial managers.

After his World Wireless System plan failed, Tesla returned to work on a design for an alternating current rotary engine. When other scientists began to look to the atom as a possible source of power for industry, Tesla criticized their efforts. Until shortly before he died, Tesla attacked the validity of Albert Einstein's work. Tesla, unlike Einstein, would not believe that energy could be obtained from the atom. And so, Tesla, who had been on the forefront of electrical technology for years, was ignored by those in the mainstream of scientific thought who were moving into the Atomic Age.

However, he continued to make pronouncements of discoveries he had made. Some were simply too impossible for other scientists to believe. Tesla's “death ray,” which he predicted would end all wars by providing an invisible beam of protection around the borders of a country, fell into this category. So did his claim of ability to communicate with minds on other planets.

Tesla's eccentricities also began to cast doubt upon his reputation. He was fastidious to an incredible degree, often using two dozen napkins during dinner, which he always ate at a special table used only by him. He required sterilized utensils and in his later years milk was the staple of his diet. Tesla's "germ phobia," as it has been described, probably stemmed from his early bouts with cholera, malaria and other unknown illnesses.

Tesla never married. He once told an interviewer that the “inventor has so intense a nature, with so much in it of wild, passionate quality that, in giving himself to a woman, he would give up everything, and so take everything from his chosen field. It is a pity too; sometimes we feel so lonely.”

Just as Tesla was ahead of his fellow scientists in many ways, he was also ahead of society.

The female mind has demonstrated a capacity for all the mental acquirements and achievements of men, and as generations ensure that capacity will be expanded; the average woman will be as well educated as the average man, and then better educated... Women will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.

Views of that sort were certainly not generally accepted in the years following World War I.

Daily Habit

Although Tesla tried to convince others that he had eliminated love from his life, he had many friends who continued to check on him from time to time. One peculiarity noticed by his friends and associates was his daily habit of feeding pigeons. Tesla ordered his secretaries to prepare his bird seed, and if he could not make his rounds, he would pay and tip a Western Union messenger boy to do it for him.

It was during a trip to feed the pigeons one evening after midnight in 1937 that Tesla was hit by a taxicab while crossing the street near the Hotel New Yorker, where he lived. He refused to consult a doctor, although he had three broken ribs and other injuries. By the fol!owing spring he was able to resume his daily walks.

Shortly before he died on January 7, 1943, Tesla told a strange story to two science writers. According to the story, Tesla particularly cared for one pigeon who would regularly visit his hotel room. When the pigeon died, Tesla said. “something went out of my life. Up to that time I knew with a certainty that I would complete my work, no matter how ambitious my program, but when that something went out of my life I knew my life's work was finished.

A maid, disobeying Tesla's orders to leave him alone, opened the door to his room and found him dead. The scientist had died nearly destitute. The discoverer of principles purposefully had left the commercial development of his patents to others. As a result, the fortunes reaped from the exploitation of those patents lined the pockets of other men, who became famous. The money that Tesla so desperately needed to keep his laboratories alive had disappeared 20 years before his death.

George Westinghouse supposedly had followed Tesla from hotel to hotel, taking care of his unpaid bills. By the time he was 86, Tesla had nearly been forgotten, and some of those who still remembered him thought him mad. But this did not cause him despair.

“The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result,” he had written in 1900. “He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter — for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.”

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