The name ‘Tesla’ may conjure up thoughts of electric cars, perhaps David Bowie’s character from the 2006 film based on Christopher Priest’s novel ‘The Prestige’, or (very much less probably) the SI unit of magnetic flux density. The name belongs, however, to an extraordinary, eccentric genius whose groundbreaking inventions, profound insight and visionary thinking made much of the modern world possible.
A Serbian born in Croatia in 1856, Tesla revolutionised the distribution of power by developing an ingenious system responsible for generating nearly all electricity today. This also made him one of the main characters in the ‘War of the Currents’, the titanic battle between two competing technologies where the prize was nothing less than lighting the world.
AC vs DC
In 1882 Thomas Edison was putting the finishing touches to his Wall Street power station, the very first of its kind and a development he believed would herald the age of electricity powered by his system of generation - Direct Current.
Having made electrical light more consumable by (co)developing the incandescent bulb, Edison realised that the key to bringing it to the masses was to generate electricity in a central station and then sell it to as many customers as possible. He’d developed the equipment to do this and had all the business and societal connections to get it off the ground but there was a problem - DC could be transmitted less than 2 miles and that meant needing to build power stations all over the country.
Meanwhile, Tesla had already made a profound discovery that made Edison’s system obsolete.
Linking Electricity and Magnetism
Tesla’s unique breakthrough was to harness a rotating magnetic field to create a motor that used alternating current (AC) instead of DC. Whereas DC needed to be transmitted using small voltages to limit losses to resistance, since Power = Voltage x Current the ‘Tesla Polyphase System’ could use significantly higher voltages to compensate for the reduced current used in order to use longer cables and transmit it much further than DC.
Part of the innovation was to introduce a transformer to ‘step down’ the voltage before it entered people’s houses, and it was the high voltage aspect of the AC system which provided the battle lines for the ensuing War of the Currents.
Arriving in the USA in 1884, Tesla briefly worked for Edison at his Menlo Park lab in New Jersey and tried to convince him that AC was the superior technology. Failing in his attempts he joined forces with the entrepreneur George Westinghouse, a believer in AC but who also thought that a practical motor could never be developed that would use it. Realising the genius that was Tesla’s invention Westinghouse licensed the system in 1888 and went to market.
But Edison wasn’t about to let his dream go. Claiming that his DC system was safer due to the lower voltages used he battled back, literally with shock tactics that included electrocuting stray animals with AC to show how much more dangerous it was and exploited the fact that authorities used AC to power the electric chair.
This was a highly effective strategy as the majority of the population didn’t understand electricity so the thought of pumping a high voltage killer into their homes seemed like lunacy.
Tesla had an answer though and would provide it in a series of spectacular open experiments where he demonstrated the safety of his system by passing hundreds of thousands of volts through his body to prove that, if handled correctly, AC was far superior to Edison’s DC.
Victory was confirmed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 which was powered by a 11,000 KW Tesla polyphase system installed by Westinghouse.
Prevailing over DC appeared to secure Tesla’s future fortunes but along with his genius went a deeply eccentric personality. A showman but also a recluse living in various hotels (and avoiding paying his bills) he believed in making progress through sheer force of will, operating on a few hours sleep a night and excluding all distractions from his work. He had a phobia of germs, developed an obsession for feeding pigeons and believed he would live to 140 despite surviving on a subsistence diet that eventually consisted of just bread and milk.
Connecting the World Through Wireless
His ultimate ambition was to build a ‘World Telegraphy Centre’ to wirelessly transmit ‘intelligence’ around the globe including Morse Code, light, power and later voice and pictures around the globe. As well as being free of charge the system would do away with all the infrastructure then being put in place for developing networks. Having torn up the royalty agreements he’d signed with Westinghouse that would’ve guaranteed him huge financial rewards he approached the financier JP Morgan to fund the development.
This was a calamitous choice; the project was never completed, thwarted mainly by Morgan who didn’t share Tesla’s altruistic values of utilising renewable energy and minimising the destruction of natural resources. Since a meter couldn’t be put on it he didn’t understand how free power would yield returns.
This failure together with increasingly ‘esoteric’ proclamations and unending priority disputes with other inventors who appropriated his discoveries saw Tesla gradually sidelined from mainstream science. He died in New York on Jan 7th 1943 aged 86.
An Unmatched Legacy
A true iconoclast, Nikola Tesla’s incredible creativity lay in multiple fields. He amassed over 700 patents, designing fundamental inventions in lighting, power distribution, mechanics, aerodynamics and artificial intelligence. He sought to alter the direction of the human race though his own brilliance and although he didn’t achieve his ultimate goal of wirelessly interlinking the world his achievements make him a giant of science.
“It is paradoxical, yet true, to say, that the more we know, the more ignorant we become in the absolute sense, for it is only through enlightenment that we become conscious of our limitations. Precisely one of the most gratifying results of intellectual evolution is the continuous opening up of new and greater prospects.”