The First Electronic Church of America
Nikola Tesla, who discovered the rotating magnetic field, which is the basis of practically all alternating-current machinery, has been called the genius who ushered in the power age. He is also renowned for his invention of the Tesla coil, which is still used whenever anyone wants to make a spectacular display of high-voltage, high-frequency discharges. (Some people call it man-made lightning.)
Tesla's pioneering work in generators not only launched the power industry in the U.S. One day, at Niagara Falls, New York, he was able to generate more electricity with his machinery than the combined power of all the other generating stations then operating in the United States. He also developed for the yet-to-come wireless industry the transformers they needed to produce radio waves. Tesla went on to invent an arc-lighting system as well as innumerable dynamos, transformers, coils, condensers and other electrical apparatus.
But Tesla was no mere tinkerer. He was also a first class mathematician and physicist "whose blueprints were plausible, even though they were far ahead of the technical resources of his day." One friend said he belonged "to the passing age of heroic invention of which Edison was the most distinguished exemplar -- the age of technical poets who expressed themselves in generators, inductance coils and high voltages rather than in drama and verse and who were the real architects of culture."
Tesla was born at exactly midnight on July 9, 1856, in Smiljan, Lika, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, region of Croatia. His father was a Serbian-Orthodox priest and orator, his mother Djuka Mandic, an inventor. He gave those parents a good deal of pleasure with his own early, if failed, attempts at flying. Once, he tried to fly, puffing his cheeks and unfurling an umbrella, by jumping off the roof of a barn. He ended up in a heap on the ground below, unconscious for a few moments, but unhurt. He also experimented with a sixteen-bug-power flying machine, a light contraption made of splinters forming a windmill, with a spindle and pulley attached to live June bugs. When the glued insects beat their wings, as they did desperately, the bug-power engine was supposed to take off. Young Nikola abandoned this line of research forever when a young friend dropped by who fancied the taste of June bugs. Noticing a jarful standing near, he began eating them. Nikola threw up.
Nikola received a good mathematical education in his homeland, then began his engineering education at the Technical University of Graz, Austria, and, in 1879 and 1880, the University of Prague. His first employment was in a government telegraph engineering office in Budapest, where he put together his first invention, a telephone repeater. Later, he visualized the principle of the rotating magnetic field and developed plans for an induction motor, that would become his first step toward the successful utilization of alternating current. In 1882 Tesla went to work in Paris for the Continental Edison Company, and while on assignment to Strasbourg in 1883, he constructed, in after-work hours, his first induction motor.
In 1884, he set sail for the United States. At the age of 27, he stepped off the boat at the Battery in New York City with four cents in his pocket, some calculations for a flying machine, and a few of his own poems. He got immediate proof that America was indeed a land of opportunity. As he walked up Broadway, he met a group of workmen trying to repair an electric motor. They paid him $20 to fix it.
Tesla had come to the U.S. with high hopes of landing a job with Thomas Edison. Edison recognized his talent, and put him to work immediately at his lab in West Orange, New Jersey, designing motors and generators which would make wireless radio transmission possible -- at a time when Marconi had yet to make his mark.
In May 1885, George Westinghouse, head of the Westinghouse Electric Company in Pittsburgh, bought the patent rights to Tesla's polyphase system of alternating-current dynamos, transformers, and motors. The transaction precipitated a titanic power struggle between Edison's direct-current systems and the Tesla-Westinghouse alternating-current approach. Eventually, Westinghouse -- and Tesla -- won out. Westinghouse used Tesla's system to light the World Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. His success was a factor in winning him the contract to install the first power machinery at Niagara Falls, which bore Tesla's name and patent numbers. The project carried power to Buffalo by 1896.
After a difficult period, during which Tesla invented but lost his rights to an arc-lighting system, he established his own laboratory in New York City, where his inventive mind could be given free rein. He experimented with shadowgraphs similar to those that later were to be used by Wilhelm Roentgen when he discovered X-rays in 1895. Tesla's countless experiments included work on a carbon button lamp, on the power of electrical resonance, and on various types of lighting, including what later became fluorescent lighting.
Tesla preferred his workshop to society. He never married, ate sparingly, slept three hours a night and did not drink coffee or tea. Working as hard as he did, Tesla finally had enough inventions under patent to assure him the security he needed to go on for the rest of his life as "a lone scientist" with big ideas -- many of which proved to be far ahead of his time. He eventually held 700 patents. His Tesla coil is widely used even today in radio and television sets and other electronic equipment for wireless communication.
In Colorado Springs, where he stayed from May 1899 until early 1900, Tesla made what he regarded as his most important discovery -- terrestrial stationary waves. By this discovery he proved that the earth could be used as a conductor and would be as responsive as a tuning fork to electrical vibrations of a certain pitch. He also lighted 200 lamps without wires from a distance of 25 miles (40 kilometers) and created man-made lightning, producing flashes measuring 135 feet (41 meters).
Returning to New York in 1900, Tesla was talking about "wireless communication to any point on the globe" as he was beginning construction on Long Island of a wireless world broadcasting tower, with $150,000 capital from the U.S. financier J. Pierpont Morgan. Tesla claimed he secured the loan by assigning 51 percent of his patent rights of telephony and telegraphy to Morgan. He expected to provide worldwide communication and to furnish facilities for sending pictures, messages, weather warnings, and stock reports. The project was abandoned because of a financial panic, labor troubles, and Morgan's withdrawal of support. It was Tesla's greatest defeat.
Almost 40 years later, Tesla still had large dreams. On his 78th birthday, he announced that he had invented a "death beam" powerful enough to destroy 10,000 airplanes at a distance of 250 miles and annihilate an army of one million soldiers in an instant, which (in the words of tribute given Tesla by the Institute of Radio Engineers after his death on January 7, 1943) was one those "brilliant concepts, idealized dreams and aspirations so lofty as to be foredoomed."
A Serbian visitor to the U.S. once found a book of poems in the Chicago Public Library, written by the popular Serbian poet, Zmaj-Jovan -- translated into English by Nikola Tesla. Later, when this visitor was taken to meet Tesla in his New York offices on the twentieth floor of the Metropolitan Tower, he said, "Mr. Tesla, I did not know that you were interested in poetry." Tesla smiled wryly. "There are many of us Serbs who sing," he said, "but there is nobody to listen to us."
One wonders whether anyone was listening when Tesla indulged in his ruminations about metaphysics. He did ponder some ultimate questions, notably in his last interview with a New York writer, and we cite them here, not because they compel automatic assent, but because it is interesting to see that this inventor of huge dynamos could not help speculating about ultimates that could not be measured by a volt-meter.
In that last interview, he said, "Everyone must have ideals. If they do not...." He shook his head in despair, then went on to talk about religion. "Religion," he said, "is simply an ideal. It is an ideal force that tends to free the human being from material bonds. I do not believe that matter and energy are interchangeable, any more than are the body and soul. There is just so much matter in the universe and it cannot be destroyed. As I see life on this planet, there is no individuality. It may sound ridiculous to say so, but I believe each person is but a wave passing through space, ever-changing from minute to minute as it travels along, finally, some day, just becoming dissolved."
Tesla allowed himself only a few close friends. Among them were the writers Robert Underwood Johnson, Mark Twain, and Francis Marion Crawford. He was quite impractical in financial matters. An eccentric, driven by compulsions and a progressive germ phobia, Tesla had a way of intuitively sensing hidden scientific secrets and employing his inventive talent to prove his hypotheses. He was a godsend to reporters who sought sensational copy, but a problem to editors who were uncertain how seriously his futuristic prophecies should be regarded.
Tesla's papers, his diplomas and other honors, his letters, and his laboratory notes were eventually inherited by Tesla's nephew, Sava Kosanovich, and later housed in the Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade, Yugoslavia.