Thursday, December 07, 2006

An electrifying genius

Something strange happened to me on December 2, 2006. I was going to a dinner party and stopped to buy a bottle of wine for my hosts. There were two people working in the store, a man and a woman. The man was speaking to the counterwoman while I was, in great ignorance, looking for a bottle of Burgundy. I heard a familiar word from the man’s mouth. “Tesla”. I turned around and listened.

“So, everybody thinks that Marconi invented radio, but actually, it was Tesla”. I walked across the store and up to the man. I put out my hand and he shook it.

“I have been waiting for over twenty years,” I said, “to meet someone other than myself who has any interest in Tesla and I just wanted to shake hands with you”. We spoke a little bit about our joint interest and moved on. I know that sounds a little strange, but I promise you, it happened just like that.

That night, at the dinner party, I was looking at my host’s bookshelves, when I saw a Tesla biography. It turns out that Charlie is a Tesla fan. Two in one day. After twenty years or so seemingly alone in this interest, it seemed highly coincidental, but it was nice.

If you asked random people who was the scientist or engineer most responsible for our electrified world, they would probably say Edison. He should get a lot of credit. Tesla’s biographers often deride Edison for his behavior concerning Tesla, and rightfully so. But, sometimes these authors disparage Edison unfairly because he was a businessman, not just a scientist, and because of his bad treatment of Tesla. There is more than enough credit to go around, and Edison should get his due. But everybody knows about him -- we learn about him in high school -- almost no one talks or has heard about Tesla.

Nikola Tesla was born in Croatia, a country better known these days for its ethnic struggles, in 1856. His family, though, was Serbian, not Croatian. The Southern Slavic countries were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in any event. Tesla was educated there and showed signs of brilliance. He was also a sickly lad and somewhat unusual.

He came over to the United States in 1884 and began working for Edison, who used him extensively. Tesla claims Edison cheated him out of a promised $50,000 bonus, which, in those days, was a huge sum. Soon enough, Tesla branched out on his own, and made a series of inventions and discoveries that changed the world. Here are some of the more interesting ones.

Radio. The man in the wine shop was absolutely correct, at least according to the United States Supreme Court. We all learned that Marconi invented the radio in high school. My guess is, if there is a trivial pursuit card asking who invented it, the answer on the back would be Marconi, and your fellow game players would say you were wrong if you answered Tesla. Tesla clearly patented his inventions first, in fact years before Marconi. What Tesla did not have, and Marconi did, was powerful connections. A few years later the United States patent office reversed itself and gave Marconi priority. Tesla’s subsequent lawsuit went nowhere.

In trying to build a demonstration for wireless transmission of electric waves, Tesla undertook to build a giant tower to transmit wireless electricity in Suffolk County. There is still a tiny street known as Tesla Way in Shoreham, near the spot the tower stood upon. He was not successful and lost his funding. In the meantime, Marconi demonstrated his inventions, derived in part from Tesla’s and other scientists work, and became famous worldwide. Eventually, Tesla’s tower was scrapped and the property foreclosed upon. The laboratory, designed by architect, Stanford White, still stands, although completely gated off.

During World War II, litigation over who invented wireless transmission was heard before the United States Supreme Court. They came out in favor of Tesla. Although Marconi certainly was a pioneer, and had his own merits, Tesla was first.

Why do we know Marconi, and not Tesla? Possibly it is because Tesla was also a very strange man, germ-phobic, a recluse and obsessive-compulsive to boot. He was interested in inventing things, not marketing them. Not surprisingly, he died in poverty, although he lived until his late 80s. If not for the inventor and businessman, George Westinghouse, who promoted and commercialized some of Tesla’s inventions, we might never have heard of Tesla at all.

Alternating current polyphase distribution system. That may sound a little technical and not very important, but it is. You can supply electricity using direct (DC) or alternate current (AC). Edison championed DC, and Westinghouse, favoring Tesla’s inventions, alternate current. AC won out, with its efficient manner of long distance transmission. With the help of Tesla’s specialized motor, it could be delivered long distance. Edison went to war over this, even publicly electrocuting animals and one inmate on death row, to show how dangerous AC power could be. The battle was over in 1893 when Westinghouse won the job for and then successfully lit the Chicago World’s Fair.

X-rays. History credits Wilhelm Rontgen with this discovery. He did. But once this was announced, he received copies of X-rays taken by Tesla, who had beaten him to it, and simply moved on, with no fanfare.

Hydroelectric power. Tesla designed the hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, for the first time, harnessing water power and transforming it into electric power. Don’t look in the falls for any signs of a power plant. The plant actually uses current from the river before it reaches the falls, and then turns it into mechanical and finally electric energy.

Tesla coil. Tesla invented a type of coil which could be used to generate high frequency electricity and producing interesting electric effects. Think Baron von Frankenstein animating the monster for a visual aid.

Radio and the AC distribution system are sufficient to make Tesla one of the elite scientists of all time. But, the list of inventions goes on and on. Sometimes it is difficult to tell legend from reality because Tesla thought outside the box like no one else except maybe Einstein. He is credited from time to time with “Death rays” and vibrating machines that could knock down a city. These do not appear to be true stories, although he probably conceived them. He also claimed to know how to build a flying machine which ran on electo-magnetic energy. When he died in 1943, the FBI took possession of his papers for security reasons. They didn’t really want the Nazis to get hold of a death ray.

More certainly, Tesla also demonstrated wireless boats, established principles upon which RADAR was built, began the fields of robotics and electrotherapy, designed bladeless turbine engines, patented the spark plug and many other more esoteric inventions. He was an amazing, if truly bizarre man, who died alone in a hotel.

However, he also had some rather spectacular failures including massive operations on Long Island and in Colorado Springs. It was at Colorado Springs that he claimed to have received the first extraterrestial communications. It seems unlikely, but they were probably the first collection of cosmic radio rays.

The public doesn’t seem to have much enthusiasm for Tesla anymore, although at one time he was quite famous and even put on
a live show in which he sat calmly and unharmed in the middle of thrashing bolts of electricity.

However, Tesla has a unit of measurement in physics named for him, as well as a crater on the moon and a minor planet. He sometimes appears as a character in novels or other works of fiction, including the recent Thomas Pynchon novel. Some biographies and books about his inventions have been written.He is celebrated in Serbia, where he is depicted on their currency. They have a Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, which I visited in the late 1980s (just before all that unpleasant stuff started happening).

Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest scientists of the 19th and 20th centuries, His life began before our Civil War and only ended during World War II, during most of which time he was extremely prolific. He did not believe the atom could be split, and was too old and eccentric to work on the project anyway. When he died in 1943, it was only months before the Supreme Court would give him credit for priority in radio.

It is truly a wonder that we do not know Tesla as we do Einstein, Edison and Marconi. Perhaps that is due to his strange behavior. Perhaps it is just an accident of history. More likely, bad marketing.

In any event, 2006 was Tesla’s 150th birthday. Very little has been written about this uncommon man. Before the year is up, we should celebrate him.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .