Spark of genius

Read time 13min 10sec

A figure at once tragic and brilliant, Nikolas Tesla lived as a visionary in what he called at the time “a blind, faint-hearted, doubting world". His work was dismissed and exploited in equal measure, and he still isn't publically acknowledged as having made what are among science's greatest discoveries.

Celibate his entire life, Tesla was a chronic insomniac, spoke several languages, and was responsible for a list of inventions that boggles the mind. But then, his eccentricities also meant he was mistreated and misunderstood, at times hailed as a genius, at others shunned or swindled out of credit and profit. He suffered intense hallucinations, phobias and obsessive compulsions, and in later years professed to be in love with a pigeon. But if madness is so often the bedfellow of genius, then we owe Tesla's idiosyncrasies a great debt, for they formed the same mind that conceived technological advances that have transformed the world as we know it, from robotics and wireless communications, to nothing less than the universal transmission of electricity.

This week marks the second in a series of features exploring the unsung heroes of technology, their innovations and eccentricities, breakthroughs and downfalls, and the way they have shaped the way we live, whether society acknowledges it or not.

Born in 1856 to an Orthodox priest and an unschooled but highly intelligent mother, Tesla grew up in the Serbian village of Smiljan, in modern-day Croatia. His inventive mind manifested at an early age, demonstrated by creations like a miniature motor powered by June bugs (the beating of the glued-on insects' wings propelled the engine) and a functioning pop-gun assembled from tubes and pistons. Tesla's eccentricities were equally present, however, and he suffered intense hallucinations during his childhood years, along with 'blinding flashes of light', sensory afflictions which he later learned to control and employ for visualising inventions in great detail.

AC vs DC

These terms describe different features of the relationship between electrical and magnetic fields.
A magnetic field near a wire causes electrons to flow in a single direction along the wire because they are repelled and attracted by the poles of the magnet (direct current).
But DC power can only travel short distances across wires. Alternating current power, however, can be sent over long distances at high voltage, travelling farther without losing energy. Instead of applying the magnetism along the wire steadily, a rotating magnet is used.
When the magnet is oriented in one direction, the electrons flow toward the positive pole, and when the magnet's orientation is flipped, the electrons turn as well.
AC generators replaced Edison's DC system because AC is safer to transfer over longer distances and can provide more power. Source: Wisegeek

Tesla excelled at science and mathematics at school, and despite his father's urgings to enter the priesthood, Tesla went to study electrical engineering at the Graz Polytechnic Institute in Austria. It was here that he first encountered a machine that sparked one of the most significant discoveries of his career, and indeed, of the scientific establishment as a whole. The Gramme dynamo used direct current (DC) to act as both a generator and electric motor, and Tesla began thinking of how to improve the design using alternating currents (AC). While at university he had expressed scepticism about DC being the sole means of electric power, but his lecturers dismissed these ideas as fanciful rantings.

As was his father's wish, Tesla went on to attend the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague in 1880, but never completed his studies, leaving after his father died. During this time Tesla suffered a nervous breakdown, becoming bed-ridden and plagued by visions, as well as a sensitivity to sound that made it feel as if he could “hear the ticking of a watch with three rooms between me and the time-piece...The whistle of a locomotive 20 or 30 miles away made the bench or chair on which I sat vibrate so strongly that the pain was unbearable.”

He recovered, however, with a renewed sense of vigour and passion for his work. And so it was at 24, while living in Budapest and working as an electrical engineer, that the answer to the AC question came to Tesla “like a flash of lightning”. In his autobiography he recounts a sharp and clear vision coming to him while walking in the park with a friend, upon which he proceeded to sketch the design with a stick in the sand. He would present the same design to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers six years later.

After his Budapest discovery, Tesla went to work at the Continental Edison Company in Paris, and while on assignment in the French city of Strasbourg set about creating his first induction motor - an invention that would soon change the way the world used electric power.

Power battles

Upon the advice of his superior at the Edison Company, Tesla travelled to America in 1884, arriving with a handful of mathematical calculations, plans for a flying machine, and a letter of recommendation. He was 28 years old. Soon, Tesla was employed at Edison Machine Works, where he began to work on improving the DC systems - a task Edison reportedly promised Tesla $50 000 for “if you can do it". But months later, when Tesla had completed the job and enquired about payment, Edison told him: “When you become a full-fledged American you will appreciate an American joke.” A disgusted Tesla promptly resigned.

Fortunately, a group of investors saw promise in Tesla's ideas and agreed to finance the Tesla Electric Light Company, with plans for him to develop a new lighting system. The young inventor saw this as an opportunity to finally work on his AC motor, and spent hours in the lab building components for the AC polyphase system - now used as the means of power generation and transmission the world over. The investors weren't interested in the AC system, however, and eventually fired Tesla, taking all the money and leaving him with a stack of worthless stock certificates.

Broke and unemployed, the gifted scientist resorted to digging ditches for a period of time - the most depressing of his life - during which he suffered "terrible headaches and bitter tears" and questioned the value of his education.

However, the inventor was put in touch with a new group of investors, and in late 1887, Tesla filed for patents for his AC dynamos, motors and transformers. George Westinghouse, head of the Westinghouse Electric Company, bought the patent rights from Tesla, as well as offering him shares in the Westinghouse company and royalties for power sold. Tesla accepted and spent a chunk of the money on a new lab. Westinghouse went on to use Tesla's AC systems in the construction of a hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, which in 1893 became the world's first large-scale AC power system. By 1896, the project was carrying power as far away as Buffalo (32km).

Equipped with a lab of his own, Tesla's mind found an outlet for its feverish activities, and he set to work on a great number of experiments. They included what would later be known as X-rays, neon and fluorescent lighting, and the Tesla coil - now used in every radio and TV set in the world. The inventor enjoyed showing off his high-voltage discoveries, often dazzling visitors with displays of man-made lightning, as well as letting electric currents flow through him while wearing cork-soled shoes for insulation. He became something of a celebrity, renowned for his inventive genius, and gave many public talks and academic lectures.

Yet, in the words of his friend and science writer Kenneth Swezey, Tesla “never quite left his world, the thoughts and problems on which he was working”. His mind was always on the next discovery, the next big breakthrough.

His friends, which included writers Robert Underwood Johnson and Mark Twain, were close and few, perhaps due to Tesla's rather bizarre quirks. His germ phobia and obsession with the number three, for example, meant he used to ask for 18 napkins (a figure divisible by three) so he could polish his plates and cutlery until they were spotless. If he read one book by an author, he had to read them all, and his photographic memory allowed him to recite whole works by heart. He was repulsed by jewellery and round objects, and couldn't stand the thought of touching hair or shaking people's hands, often making up an excuse about having been hurt in the lab to avoid physical contact.

He also shunned any thoughts of romance, despite many admirers, remaining celibate for 86 years and seeing it as a boon to his career.

He never quite left his world, the thoughts and problems on which he was working.

Kenneth Swezey

For Tesla, work was the one passion that remained constant, and he toiled day and night, sparing only one or two hours for sleep, which he considered a waste of time. (In earlier years he could play cards for literally days on end, sometimes spending more than 48 hours in a single stretch). His work at the turn of the century led to what would become the inventor's ultimate obsession - the wireless transmission of energy.

Wireless world

While Tesla was experimenting with his new coils in New York, he discovered he could transmit messages wirelessly, and in 1895, was ready to transmit signals across a distance of 50 miles. Meanwhile, in England, Guglielmo Marconi had been working on a similar radio model, although his device was inferior in range. But Before Tesla could file the patents for his design, his lab burnt down, destroying all his work.

Marconi continued with his endeavours, borrowing heavily from Tesla's designs, and eventually transmitted long-distance signals using a Tesla oscillator. Tesla filed his own patents in 1897, which were granted in 1900, and Marconi's patent applications in the US were repeatedly turned down due to Tesla and others' earlier work. But patents notwithstanding, Marconi's company began doing well on the stock market, mostly due to family connections, and he became widely acclaimed as the inventor of radio, transmitting and receiving radio signals across the Atlantic Ocean in 1901.

At the time, one of Tesla's employees remarked that Marconi had gotten ahead of Tesla, to which the inventor replied: "Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using 17 of my patents." But in 1904, the US Patent Office reversed its previous rulings and gave Marconi a patent for the invention of radio, leading to Marconi winning the Nobel Prize in 1911. Tesla was devastated. Despite being nominated several times in later years, Tesla never received a Nobel himself.

His thoughts still firmly set on wireless energy transmission, Tesla attempted to demonstrate its potential in 1898, unveiling a remote-controlled boat in Madison Square Garden. The feat both intrigued and frightened audiences, some of whom thought he was controlling the boat with his mind. He patented the little 'teleautomaton', which became the first device anywhere to function via wireless remote control. In reality, it was the birth of robotics, but despite Tesla's belief that many such machines would eventually perform tasks for mankind, society at the time didn't see any practical applications for these wirelessly controlled automatons.

It was while experimenting in his lab in Colorado Springs, where Tesla stayed between 1899 and 1900, that he made what he considered one of his most significant discoveries: terrestrial stationary waves. He came to believe that when lightning struck the earth, it set up powerful waves of energy that traversed the planet, and if harnessed, these massive electrical vibrations could supply unlimited amounts of power to any place on earth. While busy with these experiments he also became convinced he had received signals from space, after noticing repetitive radio signals that differed from his earth-bound ones.

Long before modern climate concerns, Tesla was a proponent of renewable power, writing an article for Century Magazine in which he described tapping energy from sunlight, water and wind. Spotting the article, tycoon JP Morgan met with Tesla, who described to him the idea of a "world system of wireless communications”. This broadcast system would transmit news, music, stock market reports, private messages, military communications and even pictures to any part of the world. He believed that the greatest good would come from “technical improvements tending to unification and harmony - and my wireless transmitter is pre-eminently such”.

Morgan invested $150 000 in the project, and Tesla returned to New York in 1900, to begin construction of a wireless broadcasting tower on Long Island. The scope of the project soon grew to colossal proportions, however, coupled with a stock market crash that doubled the cost of building materials. When Tesla asked for more funding, Morgan refused, and the project was abandoned. Newspapers called it "Tesla's million dollar folly".

Tesla was humiliated and defeated, and experienced a nervous breakdown, protesting: “It is not a dream. It is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive... blind, faint-hearted, doubting world."

Twilight years


Later in life, Tesla worked on what he called a “teleforce” weapon, which the media dubbed the "peace ray” or “death ray”.
Tesla described it as a kind of particle ray accelerator, which he thought could be used for ground-based combat or anti-aircraft purposes.
Tesla hated war, and sought to find technological ways to end it. In 1934, when the threat if war was descending on Europe, a front-page article in the New York Times reported that Tesla's invention would create such a tremendous jolt of energy that it could bring down a fleet of 10 000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 250 miles.
Tesla stated that the death ray would make war impossible by offering every country an “invisible Chinese wall”.

In his later years, Tesla worked on bladeless turbine engines and conceptualised a direct energy weapon, as well as an electro-mechanically-powered flying machine. But for all his fame and scientific accomplishments, Tesla eventually became a recluse, retreating to a New York hotel room and entertaining futuristic dreams. During his final years, he subsisted on a diet of milk, bread, honey, and vegetable juices, and would walk to the park everyday to feed pigeons. Tesla became increasingly senile, even professing to be in love with one of his prized birds: “But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different...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.”

He died penniless, alone and in debt in his hotel room on 7 January 1943, the same year in which the US Supreme Court finally overturned Marconi's patent for the radio, acknowledging the earlier work done by Tesla. Hundreds attended his New York funeral, and a flood of messages came from figures including prominent politicians and scientists. After Tesla's death his belongings, including papers, letters and laboratory notes, were seized and following a long bureaucratic tussle, were inherited by Tesla's nephew, and later housed in the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade.

A superficial look at Tesla's life will conjure a picture of him as the stereotypical mad scientist - an insomniac locked in his lab with bolts of electricity surging through the air, claiming he was hearing from aliens. But a deeper look reveals a gentle, poetic soul who was too busy with discoveries to pause and be patted on the back. A man who pioneered modern electrical and wireless technologies that were far ahead of his time - many of which society wouldn't come to recognise as groundbreaking for decades to come. Tesla is impossible to box or label, but if there's any maxim that describes his legacy, it's one by New York builder Robert Moses, which captures both the triumph and tragedy of Tesla's life: “You can get an awful lot done in the world if you're willing to let someone else take the credit for it."

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