Many who remember him would call him insane. Many, a prodigious Prometheus. Larry Page, founder of Google, calls him his hero. He amazed the US patenting office and raised hairs at Wall Street, but never successfully commercialised his inventions nor received the proper recognition for many of his greatest creations
Although never winning the Nobel Prize, Nikola Tesla, a Serb born engineer of meagre beginnings, still deserves honourable mention in the Nobel Prize series for several reasons. His alternating current system for one still keeps the world alight to the present day. His other inventions and theories on radar, remote control, X-rays, radio transmission and more, all represent engineering feats of revolutionary capacity, opening new vistas of scientific advancement since their inception. Further, due to a revival of public fame over recent decades, Tesla has probably received more funding and support from the public today than he ever did when seeking it at the time of building his inventions. The most famous funding failure was the Wardenclyffe tower . It was designed by Tesla as a broadcasting system able to provide electricity to the world wirelessly, which had been dismantled before its completion in 1917. One quantifying example of Tesla’s current fan base is from crowd sourcing – a highly popular method for raising funds from online communities. In 2012, Matthew Inman, creator of the comic website ‘The Oatmeal’, raised more than half a million pounds in less than a week to build a Tesla museum on his old New York laboratory grounds where the Wardenclyffe tower once was (see Oatmeal’s campaign website- ‘Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum’).
War of the currents
Many have speculated as to why Tesla never won the Nobel Prize, but it is believed to have a lot to do with his fierce rivalry with Tomas Edison. This was known as ‘the war of the currents’. Reasons for their rivalry amongst others were their approaches to how electricity should be carried. Edison, who unlike Tesla was a businessman at heart, promoted a system of electrical power distribution known as direct current (DC). This electric distribution, via his company the ‘Edison Illuminating Company’, was aimed to capitalise on his earlier invention of the incandescent light bulb. However DC’s rule as the standard electric distribution system was short lived. Tesla’s refinement of alternating current (AC) eventually lead to this method of power distribution being selected as the new global standard.
AC vs. DC
Rumour has it that Tesla conceptualised the application of AC in 1882 at the age of 24 when he was walking in a Budapest park and was struck by the image of a functioning AC electric induction motor. Tesla realised, based on Faraday’s Law of electromagnetic induction, that if one can rotate a magnetic field around a stationary wire coil, AC voltage can be produced across the wire. This means AC current switches the direction of charge repeatedly in cycles, as opposed to DC which is unidirectional. So in the famous cartoon for example, when Jerry hands Tom a DC live wire, Tom is unable to let go. Whereas if Jerry were to hand him an AC wire, due to the rapid reversal of current, Tom would have enough time to relax his muscles and pull away.
The winning factor AC has over DC, regardless of its potential dangers, (see Edison’s efforts to electrocute a circus elephant with AC) is its transmission of electricity. Unlike DC, AC uses transformers, which means high voltages can be used to compensate for the increased resistance over long distances. These voltages can then be transformed back to domestic voltages without the use of thick cables or cumbersome local generators, which are required with DC. Presently, 21st century technology is changing this playing arena significantly, potentially leading to a comeback for DC. Indeed, the Three Gorges dam in China is the largest power plant in the world and uses high-voltage DC transmission.
Legend has it, if Edison were to be awarded first the Nobel prize for physics, then Tesla would refuse an offer (and vice versa). People claimed this refusal of allowing the other scientist to be awarded the Nobel prize, or to share the award between them, meant that neither would win the accolade. The closest Tesla got to receiving Nobel recognition was for his efforts toward radio communication. However, this was awarded in 1909 to Guglielmo Marconi for his work on the same topic (he was the first to signal the letter ‘s’ in morse code over the Atlantic using wireless transmission in 1901). Ironically before knowing Marconi was to receive the Nobel Prize, Tesla’s response to Marconi’s achievement was ‘Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents.’ It was realised more than three decades later though that Tesla’s patent history meant he should have in fact been included in winning the aforementioned prize.
Before developing a passion for inventing, Tesla was a poet, writing pieces such as “Fragments of Olympian Gossip” a jestful portrayal of the science of his day. His imagination as an extreme visual thinker, allowed him to cast, analyse and modify blueprint after blueprint in his mind of the next great invention. Unfortunately at the end of his years, his eccentricities became better known than his new engineering visions. Tesla was known to be highly reclusive, have a famously high regard for pigeons and further, be someone unafraid of speaking out about his views on extraterrestrial life. In his letter to New York times in 1909, ‘How to signal to Mars’, he writes ‘Of all the evidence of narrow mindedness and folly, I know of no greater than the stupid belief that this little planet is singled out to be the seat of life, and that all other heavenly bodies are fiery masses or lumps of ice. Most certainly, some planets are not inhabited, but others are, and among these there must exist life under all conditions and phases of development.’
Although Tesla never won a Nobel Prize, he should still be classed as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. His unconventional methods were indeed inspiring. For example, he proposed wireless energy transmission using electrical energy captured from the earth’s ionosphere- an upper part of the atmosphere where the aurora borealis occurs. In 2003, inspired by Tesla’s original AC motor design, Elon Musk-also founder of SpaceX and PayPal, cofounded the new electric sports car company ‘Tesla Motors’. A silicon valley based company, now set to create waves with the avant-garde concept of designing vehicles environmental friendly yet still of high performance.
It seems great admirers of Tesla, like Elon Musk (Tesla Motors, SpaceX) and Larry Page (Google) have taken on board the failures of Tesla, realising, like Edison, you need to profit to innovate, so you can innovate some more. The question now, when one considers the current technological advances, the global energy demands and the effects on nature and climate by man, is- who will be the next great Tesla, to transform our technology age with a new way of thinking?