Directory Free Newsletter Contact Log in


A forgotten genius remembered
Compiled by Fritz Burmeister

In 1975, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) created the “Tesla Award” for out standing contributions in the field of electrical power generation and transmission. At the Boeing Co. that resulted in the use of a new unit for magnetic flux density or the magnetic field, for those of us who worked in the field of Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC). The Tesla, equivalent to 796,000 Amperes per meter, now the new unit to be used in our calculations, had been established in 1960 at the General Conference
for Weights and Measures in Paris, in honor of the great inventor/engineer Nikola Tesla.

But who was Nikola Tesla, whose 150th anniversary of his birthday is being observed this year? Did his name fall through the crack, or was it intentionally suppressed? Textbooks on electrical engineering made no mention of him, nor could his name be found in any technical journal. It is said that he rated only a footnote in history at the Smithsonian!! He must have been the “scientist forgotten.”

Nikola Tesla was born in a village called Smiljan in the province of Lika, Croatia in 1856. After elementary and secondary education he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Prague and started working in his field in Hungary, Germany and France. Specializing in development of electrical power equipment and distribution networks, he came to America in 1884. Virtually penniless he landed a job with Thomas Edison, America’s great inventor. With his vivid imagination to the point of
displaying eccentric tendencies and his stubborn defense of the idea that in the future alternating current (AC) will replace direct current (DC), advocated by Edison, Tesla failed to gain an early stronghold in the scientific community.

But direct current attenuates rapidly over distance. Every two miles or so, Edison had to give his system a boost by inserting a high voltage supply, rendering the system inefficient. In contrast, AC power, by virtue of its cyclic nature, can be amplified to voltage levels that minimize power loss when current flows over long distances. Needless to say, the two geniuses locked horns, each defending his system. And when Edison reneged on a promise for a monetary award, the couple parted company.

His subsequent working relationship with George Westinghouse was decidedly a happier one. Westinghouse realized the potential to electrify America and for that matter the rest of the world with Tesla’s alternating current technology, and bought all US patents held by Tesla for generators, motors and transformers. It was the beginning of a perfect partnership and the start of Tesla’s most productive years.

His inventions are too numerous to mention and the details in many cases are beyond the scope of comprehension for the average reader. These include the development of the induction motor and related devices based on the rotating magnetic field as well as the polyphase power distribution system. The makeup of modern day household appliances and industrial equipment is based on these inventions. Life today, without alternating current devices is unthinkable, particularly when our dependency on electricity comes “to light” during a power failure. One of Tesla’s great achievements was also the design and installation of the first power system in Niagara Falls. N.Y.

In the US Tesla held over forty patents, covering the entire system of polyphase  AC power generation. But his inventive mind did not stop there. He laid the groundwork in other fields of technological development, for instance, in the field of X-rays, robotics. Ionized gases and charged particle beams. He also pioneered wireless communication, which resulted in a heated dispute with Marconi, who was credited with the invention of radio. Tesla had demonstrated his basic design using radio waves in 1898 at Madison Square Garden with a radio-controlled boat, which he patented. Marconi, however, patented his wireless system in 1897, and in 1899 established a wireless connection between England and the Continent.

So, it is conceivable that a dispute existed between the two inventors. Tesla lost his ensuing quarrel in the patent courts. Researched material, however, mentioned that Marconi’s patent was deemed invalid by the courts in 1943, six years after his death, and the year in which Tesla died.

In the later years Tesla’s inventions were bordering on the fantastic. For example, he claimed having invented a “Teleforce” or “Death Ray,” capable of destroying enemy airplanes, tanks and land forces at a distance of 250 miles! To him that was the key to make wars unthinkable and impractical.

Nikola Tesla was sometimes called the greatest inventor of all times. But he became a myth, a scientist who was both admired as well as ostracized by his contemporaries. His visionary genius took him beyond the acceptable limits of basic research. He had looked way ahead in time. It was Tesla, not Edison, who developed the basis for our electrical power system in use today, and it was Tesla who laid the basic groundwork for computer technology and satellite communication. This man deserved more recognition than was granted him in his lifetime.

He died in New York in 1943 of a heart failure. Immediately after his death the FBI ordered to confiscate all his papers which were declared Top Secret by the War Department. Some of his personal effects are now housed in the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, which also displays the urn with his cremains. In his honor, a bronze statue was erected by the City of Niagara Falls, N.Y.

“Science is but a perversion of itself, unless it has its ultimate goal the
betterment of humanity.”

                                                                                            Nikola Tesla

© 2006 All content property of European Weekly unless where otherwise accredited