Nikola Tesla The electric power pioneer who made our lives

Nikola Tesla: The electric power pioneer who made our lives easier

  • Petra Zovic
  • BBC World Service

8 hours ago

Nikola Tesla with an early Tesla coil

Credit, Getty Images

Nikola Tesla’s inventions helped bring this text to the device you’re reading it on.

“I don’t just see Tesla as the father of electricity or world communications,” historian and filmmaker Michael Krause tells the BBC.

“He had ideas that were ahead of their time he was a visionary who made his contribution to the evolution of mankind.”

But when Tesla took the stage at Columbia College in New York with glowing tubes in the late 1890s to present his newly created oscillating transformer, the world was still largely in the dark.

“Electricity was the future, and most people had to go to places where it was exhibited to see it in action,” says historian Iwan Rhys More in his book Nikola Tesla and the Electrical Future (“Nikola Tesla eo Futuro Electric”, freely translated). ).

bright lights

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Illustration of Nikola Tesla (18561943) giving a lecture in Paris

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in the Habsburg Empire of Austria (his hometown of Smiljan is now in Croatia, although his family was of Serbian origin). He moved to the bright lights of a New World metropolis at a young age.

When he arrived in New York in 1884, Tesla was working for the famous inventor and businessman Thomas Edison.

“He came from an ancient world and became one of the protagonists of modern times,” says Krause.

When he set foot on American soil, the electrical and mechanical engineer — and futurist — had just pennies in his pocket and an idea for a flying machine, according to biographer Inez Whitaker Hunt.

But it wasn’t an aircraft that made Tesla famous. For years he had perfected AC motors.

And he arrived in the United States at just the right time, just as a battle between different currents had begun.

electrify the world

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Tesla in his Colorado Springs laboratory with his “Magnifying Transmitter” in 1899

The world evolved and needed more energy. There was a race to find the most efficient way to generate and transport electricity to power machines and lights.

“There were two competing electrical transmission systems,” More tells the BBC.

The battle was between an American businessman and engineer, George Westinghouse, and Tesla’s boss, Thomas Edison, to determine whether alternating current (AC or AC in English) or direct current (DC or DC in English) would be used for power transmission.

Thomas Edison’s company invested in direct current, which flows in only one direction and over short distances at one voltage.

But AC flows in many directions, can travel greater distances, and voltages can be stepped up or down. By reaching greater distances, energy is transported to more places.

Credit, Museum of Nikola Tesla, Belgrade


Tesla’s ashes and personal belongings are kept at the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.

“It’s like comparing a horse or a buggy to a jet plane,” says Tesla biographer Mark Cypher on the BBC podcast Witness History.

When Tesla arrived in New York, he already had a “jet plane” in his pocket. He had tested alternating current while working in Europe and built his first induction motor in 1883.

But because Edison insisted on direct current (DC), they parted ways and Westinghouse bought the patent rights to Tesla’s system of alternating current (AC) transformers and motors.

Tesla’s design was able to transmit energy over long distances inexpensively and is still in use today.

Tesla the “Showman”

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Tesla statue at his former research facility in upstate New York

“We still use alternating current, and the process of generating and transporting electrical energy is still based on Tesla’s ideas,” Ivana Zoric, curator of the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, told the BBC.

Tesla’s system is still the primary method of generating, transmitting, and distributing electrical energy—and many of today’s electrical devices are based on another of his inventions.

“Asynchronous motors were very innovative back then and are still used today in industry and in many household appliances even electric cars,” says Zoric.

In 1891 he invented the Tesla coil, a device that emits beautiful streams of electrical energy in an attempt to transmit electricity wirelessly. The invention is still used today in radio and television sets and other electronic devices.

Two years later, Tesla and Westinghouse were awarded the contract to illuminate the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America, and Tesla became a celebrity.

“Once people saw the power of this invention, Tesla was commissioned to build a power plant in Niagara Falls,” says Zoric.

It was the world’s first hydroelectric power plant, and Tesla owned nine of the 13 patents used to build it.

“People knew who the amazing Mr. Tesla was and he used that to his advantage,” says More.

He set up his own laboratory and began experimenting with wireless communications and power transmission.

He opened his doors to the public and showed he knew how to become a celebrity, says More.

“He was trying to sell his unique vision of a wireless, freeenergy world, and he was trying to sell himself as the person who would be able to deliver that future.”

Credit, Getty Images


Tesla opened his lab doors to the press to publicize his work on wireless energy

While the world still relied on sending messages over wires, Tesla began experimenting with wireless signal transmission.

But for his new experiments he needed funds, which he received from the American banker JP Morgan in the early 1890s. With that money, Tesla began building its wireless global transmission tower on Long Island.

His ultimate goal was to enable world communications a wireless system for instant global voice and video communications, where information is available to anyone, anywhere.

But until Morgan withdrew his support.

“Unfortunately, his biggest dream, the international system of electricity and communication systems, didn’t come true because he wasn’t ready yet or the technology didn’t exist yet,” says Klause.

Tesla continued to work on various projects, but he had no resources, and many of his ideas remained only in his notes because he could not understand that science and technology are processes that depend on collaboration and involve many people.

“Tesla made a fundamental mistake. He genuinely thought he was the only one who could shape the electric future. He wasn’t interested in working and collaborating with others,” says More.

Tesla gained a reputation as an eccentric, an obsessed man with a germ phobia whose speculations about communicating with other planets were the subject of criticism.

Tesla’s death

Credit, Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade


The Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade houses many of his personal belongings

Tesla died in 1943 in a hotel room in New York, where he spent the last decade of his life.

“In 1951, thanks to the efforts of his nephew, Tesla’s belongings were shipped to Belgrade, Serbia,” says Zoric.

Four years later, the Nikola Tesla Museum opened in Belgrade and today it attracts thousands of visitors every year. The museum also hosts hundreds of researchers as it houses Tesla’s 160,000 documents, including plans, sketches, and photos.

And although Tesla’s archives are accessible online, many of his personal belongings remain in the vaults because the museum doesn’t have enough space for displays.

“We have, among other things, Tesla’s bed, fridge, wardrobe, 13 of his suits, 75 ties, over 40 pairs of gloves,” reveals Zoric.

“We hope that when we have a bigger space, we can show everything.”

Credit, Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade


Tesla’s belongings, including furniture he used in the hotel room where he spent the last ten years of his life, are in the museum.

In 1956, a year after the museum opened, a device for measuring the strength of magnetic fields was named Tesla.

Streets, schools and an airport in Serbia were named after him. Tesla is present on banknotes and coins in both Serbia and Croatia.

The famous US carmaker is named after the inventor, and in 2018 the company SpaceX brought a Tesla Roadster vehicle to Mars with the Falcon rocket.

But what would Tesla think of our future?

“I imagine Tesla would say today that humanity is more focused on comfort than the future and the problems that may arise,” says Zoric.