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Nikola Tesla

Page history last edited by Jeff Martinek 7 years, 9 months ago

Nikola Tesla

(1856 - 1943)



"The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention.  It is the most important product of his creative brain.  Its ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of the forces of nature to human needs."    - Nikola Tesla [8] 





Nikola Tesla was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1856.  His parents were both highly educated but Tesla credits his mother with his inventive talents because she often experimented with amateur engineering, creating such things as a mechanical eggbeater [5].  Tesla began inventing and had an interest in the mysteries of electrical power at a very young age.  Tesla immigrated to the United States in 1884 and became a citizen.  It was at this time that he began working with Thomas Edison [10].  Tesla often exhibited behaviors that would now be known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Mysophobia (fear of germs), and a rare disorder called Synthesesia.  He had a true photographic memory, often memorizing entire books to the letter. [10]  Tesla is recognized for such inventions as the Tesla coil, and AC electrical power, generation and motors, but many of the most recognizable inventions of today have had their root in his early works and notes.  Had Nikola Tesla never been born, "mankind would be 100 years behind where it is today" [11] Tesla had many brilliant contributions to society, but he also had some ideas that are still widely considered that of science fiction.  He spent some time working on weapons for who he claimed was the U.S government, developing such things as long range "death rays" and experimenting with time travel.  He claims to have had drawings and working models for many of these inventions. [7] The U.S. government does not report working with Tesla.  This has led to many conspiracy theories.  Tesla died penniless and alone in a hotel in New York City in 1943 [10]. Since and even before his death, Tesla's name and reputation were damaged by the "ages most powerful and wealthy men" such as Thomas Edison, whom Tesla feuded fiercely with over AC vs. DC power, and if you believe the conspiracies, the U.S. government [11]. 



Well Known Inventions


Nikola Tesla held almost 300 known patents in over 26 countries [10].  Perhaps the most well known, or at least the one most people think of when thinking of Tesla, is the Tesla Coil.  The most well known application, sadly, is the novelty "lightning globes" inside which arcs of electricity are attracted to a hand placed on the glass ball.  In actuality, the Tesla coil is a transformer.  It takes a relatively small amount of energy and turns it into a very high voltage.  Tesla reported getting up to 100,000,000 volts [12].  The most interesting aspect of the Tesla coil is that it is all free air transmission.  It does this without damage to living creatures in its path.  This invention is the inspiration for ideas in wireless transmission of energy still today. 






Besides the Tesla coil, Nikola Tesla had many other practical inventions.  Transformers that are on utility poles and next to builds all over the world were invented by Tesla.  Many of these are well known items that the average person uses every day.  The induction motor was invented by Nikola Tesla.  An induction motor is perhaps the most widely used invention in history.  It is in virtually every household appliance on Earth. [12]  In fact if you think of something that uses electricity, and moves in some way, it uses an induction motor.  Electricity as the modern world knows it, which is the kind that runs residences, industry and business, was conceptuallized and brought to fruition by Tesla. This is where the trouble with Thomas Edison became vicious.



Relationship to Thomas Edison


Tesla met Edison soon after coming to the United States.  Edison was a hero to Tesla, who saw him as incredibly smart, having all of these ideas without formal education.  Tesla began working for Edison, who had already "invented" the incandescent light bulb and was running several invention factories.  Tesla impressed all he was around and figured out how to make several things work that Edison had deemed a lost cause.  Soon, Edison began to notice Tesla's talent and tasked him in redesigning the entire Edison Motor and Generator line to be more efficient "in both service and economy" [1].  Edison promised Tesla "fifty thousand dollars" if he could do it.  In a few months, Tesla had successfully accomplished the task.  When he asked Edison for the money, Edison replied that he was just joking and that Tesla had mistaken his "American Humor" [2].  Nikola Tesla fluently spoke 8 languages [4], so the idea that he had misunderstood infuriated him.  Edison made most of his money by selling his electrical products, which other people had invented for him to people all over the world.  These products all had one thing in common; they relied on a future grid of direct current electricity.  Nikola Tesla, after severing ties to Edison, Tesla invented Alternating current Energy, and with it the induction motor.  This started a "war of currents" [3].



Alternating Current vs. Direct Current


The basic difference between  Alternating Current (AC) and Direct Current (DC) is in its transmission.  DC is found in nature.  Static electricity and lightning are both DC electricity.  The problem with DC is that it is, as its name suggests, direct.  It only flows on one wavelength.  It is either on or off.  This is important because it limits its ability to be transmitted from one location to another.  DC is only capable of traveling about 2 miles over wire without regeneration.  AC on the other hand is cyclic. [12]  It turns on and off as an oscillating sine wave.  It is positive and negative, on and off, and can be made to be a number of frequencies.  The standard in the U.S. today is 60 Hz, or 60 cycles per second.  This quality makes AC much more easily transmitted.  DC has its uses.  Batteries are DC, so cars and toys use this form of power.  Edison imagined that the DC generators he built would supply every house.  If society used DC, power today and had the same demand that we do in today's time, towns would need a giant DC power plant at every corner at minimum.  Rural homes and factories would need several generators to run.  With AC, this problem is solved.  Another advantage to AC is that it creates induction, which is a movement of magnetic energy, also known as Eddy currents, that constantly expand and collapse around an AC current.  This is important because it creates movement that can be utilized, such as in an AC motor.  In a DC motor, there must always be contact between the moving parts and the source of power.  Today, brushed are mounted around the motor shaft, which rub against the energized part as it spins.  Because of the Eddy currents in AC power, you simply need to attach magnets to the motor shaft and put it inside an energized coil of wire.  AC motors are much more efficient and require much less energy to run because of the ability to eliminate brush friction.  This was an obvious fact to most academics at the time, but Edison was a very wealthy man and had a lot of his wealth relying on DC becoming the current of choice. [3]  Thomas Edison spent untold amounts of money discounting Tesla and his AC ideas.  Luckily, from a technology standpoint, George Westinghouse stepped in and financially backed Tesla on the development of the induction motor [3].  AC eventually won out, and the world is in the age of light.





"The time will come when the comfort, the very existence, perhaps, of man will depend upon that wonderful agent."

-Nikola Tesla on Electricity [6]



World-Changing Ideas


Many of Nikola Tesla's idea materialized as patented and implemented inventions.  Perhaps his most significant contribution to society lies in those ideas for which he only laid the foundation.  Tesla has been called the "Father of Wireless" [6].  His greatest vision was the free and wireless transmission of electrical energy.  He imagined, made plans for and quite possibly built apparatuses that we now call radio, radar, remote control, cellular communications, x-ray imaging, and vertical take-off and landing aircraft, all before the turn of the 20th century. [7] A few of these inventions were actually demonstrated by Tesla.  In 1898, at Madison Square Garden in New York, Tesla operated a remote control boat at an electrical exhibit.  The boat was completely wireless and worked in the same way that R/C cars do today.  Tesla was too ahead of his time though.  The crowd laughed and mocked him and claimed that the boat contained a trained monkey [2].  It is currently on display in the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.  There are no monkeys inside.  In 1893, Tesla addressed an auditorium at the National Electric Light Association in St. Louis, and described the precise methods for radio transmission [1].  When Guglielmo Marconi made his famous transatlantic radio transmission in 1901, he used 17 Tesla patents in his device [10].  Marconi had stolen the idea for radio from Tesla, and it wasn't until after his death in 1943 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "Tesla had anticipated all other contenders with his fundamental radio patents" [1] Nikola Tesla was granted funding to create towers to transmit wireless energy and communications infinite distances.  Tesla claimed to have a working model in , but lost funding due to the stock market crash of 1901 [10]. Tesla also built a working tower in Long Island, New York but it was destroyed by Marines in 1917 on fears that the Germans were using it to spy [10].  Some of Tesla's published ideas are only recently becoming a reality.  Tesla was the first to hypothesize solar energy for example [9].


International Wireless Transmission Tower

Long Island, New York  1904







Publication photo, patent drawing, and original (museum) of R/C boat






Tesla's other inventions include highlights such as the "death ray", which used high energy, which would, as he claimed, be able to "cause armies of millions to drop dead in their tracks" [6].  It is not known if this device ever actually existed, but a man named Harry Grindell-Matthews was commissioned during WWI by the British government to build a similar machine.  Grindell-Matthews demonstrated massive destructive forces at 60 feet, and said he could extend the range to "6 or 7 miles.  Grindell-Matthews could not divulge the specifics of his work, but credited Tesla, who he had met in America in 1924.  The British called off the project. [6]  Nikola Tesla also reportedly developed a process to achieve unlimited and free power using the Earth as a capacitor [7]. These ideas, considered "crazy" by most colleagues and certainly the public, led to his reputation as a bit of a "mad scientist." Conspiracy theories developed and still exist, though, after whatever models and drawings Tesla had of these fantastic inventions were destroyed in mysterious lab fire in 1895. Adding to the speculation, the FBI confiscated Tesla's entire estate, and with it, all of his unpatented and unpublished papers upon his death in 1943. The FBI's statement on the matter from Col. Ralph E. Doty Chief of the Military Intelligence Service, claims that they did it under authority of the War Department and The Office of Alien Property (OAP) as a "matter of extreme importance" [6] Most of these papers are still missing or classified today.



This is the original FBI file on Nikola Tesla - teslafbifile.pdf



Implications for Media Ecology


The effect Nikola Tesla has had on Media Ecology is enormous.  His quote under his picture at the start of this article, which happens to be the very first sentence in his autobiography, really sums up the complete history of Media Ecology.  Every advancement in Media Ecology, from the development of phonetics to the photograph, from the radio to the internet, every step owes its existence to the mind of man and the human need to create, conceptualize, and improve.  Tesla calls this need of man, a desire to have mastery over nature.  In so many ways, humankind has done that.  Each step along the way thought impossible by the generation before.  


Tesla, aside from exemplifying everything that is advancement of the human race, has directly added, in an intellectual sense, to a considerable number of the medium studied in Media Ecology.  His patents are everywhere.  Where his patents are not part of something, it is likely that his ideas are.  Historians that are uninfluenced by history written by those with money and power, could argue very strongly that Nikola Tesla invented the radio, cell phones, WiFi, remote control, and lasers.  Further, anything that plugs in would not exist as the world knows it today, without the contribution of Nikola Tesla.  Were it not for Nikola Tesla and his tireless use of his mind, the world may indeed be 100 years behind.  It is truly no wonder that many of his admirers refer to him as "The man who invented the 20th century."      





[1] Cheney, Margaret. Tesla: Man Out of Time. New York: Touchstone, 1981.


 [2] Jonnes, Jill. Empires of Light. New York: Random House, 2003.


 [3] McNichol, Tom. AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.


 [4] O'Neill, John J. Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla. Kempton: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2008.


 [5] Public Broadcasting Station. PBS: Tesla - Master of Lightning. April 2004. 2 December 2012.


 [6] Seifer, Marc J. Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1998.


 [7] Tesla, Nikola and David H Childress. The Fantastic Inventions of Nikola Tesla. Kempton: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1993.


 [8] Tesla, Nikola. My Inventions. Mansfield Center: Martino Publishing, 2011.


 [9] Tesla, Nikola. The Problem of Increasing Human Energy. San Bernardino: BN Publishing, 2012.


 [10] The Wikipedia Foundation. Nikola Tesla - Wikipedia. 2 December 2012. 2 December 2012.


[11] TheNikolaTesla.com. The Life Story of Nikola Tesla. 31 August 2012. 2 December 2012.


[12] Vujovic, Ljubo. Tesla Memorial Society of New York. 2012. 2 December 2012.

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