January 2008

Credit where credit is due

By Jim Talbot

Nikola Tesla invented the 20th century.

Born in Serbia in 1856, Tesla immigrated to America in 1884, and became an American citizen in 1891. 

Every time you plug into an electrical outlet, you are taking advantage of his work that initiated and made commonplace the generation and transmission of polyphase alternating current (AC), along with the complementary AC induction motor. 

His multiphase electric generators created a rotating magnetic field in the stator circuits of the induction motor, forcing the magnetized armature to follow in lock step. 

Prior to the AC motor, a local steam engine often drove multiple machines in a factory via a complicated system of belts and pulleys. I once worked with Standard Pressed Steel (later SPS Technologies). Early on, it made the hangers (of pressed steel) for all those factory pulleys. 

With the introduction of the AC motor and regionally centralized generators, each machine could be individually powered. 

Tesla first imagined the AC motor in 1882 before coming to America. He had the unusual ability to mentally visualize his innovations in great detail, virtually making prototypes unnecessary. 

In bringing polyphase AC electrical power to life, he and George Westinghouse had to beat back Thomas Edison and General Electric who were promoting direct current (DC). Edison had a great knack for publicity and self aggrandizement. 

The competition of AC vs. DC essentially ended in 1893 when the Niagara Falls commission awarded a contract to Tesla and Westinghouse to build an AC polyphase hydroelectric generator. 

Two years later, the Niagara powerhouse electrified Buffalo. One local customer-later Alcoa-took advantage of the electrical power to make aluminum, which eventually led to the development of the aircraft industry.

For the use of his AC patents, Tesla's arrangement with Westinghouse provided him $2.50 per horsepower sold. This would have quickly made him the Bill Gates of his time, vaulting him to billionaire status. But when the company ran on hard times, Tesla tore up the contract rather than see his friend and benefactor go under. 

Anyway, he was busy following up on other ideas and innovations involving alternating current, especially at ultra high frequencies and voltages. 

  • Tesla's patents for radio and resonant tuned circuits predate Guglielmo Marconi's by several years. In 1943, shortly after his death, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Tesla's basic patents in this field, effectively recognizing him as the inventor of radio.
  • In 1898, Tesla demonstrated wireless remote control of boats, using coded pulses. Tesla patents in this area include techniques for preventing jamming of radio controlled military vehicles. 
  • Tesla patents granted in 1903 include the basic principles of the logical AND circuit, which is so basic to today's computer technology. 
  •  In 1916, while dealing with a mountain of debt and failure to pay taxes, he published the basic principles of radar. However, technology had not advanced sufficiently to carry out these ideas until 1935.
  • The International Unit for Magnetic Flux Density is the Tesla (T=W/m2).  He discovered the rotating magnetic field in Budapest in 1882.  With this monumental discovery, he laid the foundations for electro-magnetism. All MRI machines in the world are calibrated in units of Tesla.

The list of his accomplishments goes on. 

Tesla has been acknowledged as the inventor of the fluorescent light bulb, the vacuum tube amplifier, the bladeless turbine, and the X-ray machine. His wide-ranging ideas came so frequently and abundantly he could not follow up on them all. Often he would describe them during lectures and demonstrations, leaving it to others to bring them to fruition. 

He wasn't always right. 

He thought Einstein's theories of gravity and space-time were off the mark. He did not think atomic energy would ever become possible. He became obsessed with the wireless and free transmission of electric power. 

Nevertheless, Tesla had extraordinary foresight. 

He once said to a reporter: "It is most probable that the household's daily newspaper will be printed 'wirelessly' in the home during the night." 

Sound familiar?


Jim Talbot (jtalbot@comcast.net) is a former InTech editor and is a technical publicist and writer living in Pennsylvania.