Our lives today are dependent upon a bewildering amount of technology, much of which we take for granted. Indeed, some of that technology is so pervasive that we forget it even is technology.
Perhaps that's one reason why so many have forgotten the name of Serbian-born inventor Nikola Tesla.
Tesla endured a frightening number of injustices during his lifetime. Let me tell you a story about Tesla, one of his inventions, and his extraordinary generosity, in hopes that he will not face the additional injustice of being forgotten by history.
In the distribution of electricity, alternating current has distinct advantages over direct current. Levels of voltage and current can be readily transformed with AC, allowing distribution of power over distances of hundreds of miles. DC power, on the other hand, is difficult to distribute in usable levels more than two miles between generator and user.
This was already well-known in the 1880s. Direct current, however, was still the predominant type of power being installed at the time. The reason, simply put, was that nobody had yet figured out how to build reliable AC motors and equipment. AC devices in use at the time used "commutators" - mechanical current-switchers - to operate, and frequently failed due to heat, vibration, and an excess of moving parts.
Some scientists and inventors had been trying for years to find solutions to these problems. Other inventors and financiers, who had invested in DC power systems, weren't interested in solutions. DC power was firmly under their financial control, and they saw anything that challenged DC not as an improvement, but as a threat.
Nikola Tesla, then twenty-eight, had recently been forced to give up his studies at the Austrian Polytechnic School in Graz due to lack of funds. In his studies there he had taken special interest in AC devices, and the flaws inherant in their design had returned to his thoughts often during the years.
One day in 1882, while talking to a friend in a Belgrade park, Tesla abruptly froze in mid-step and mid-sentence. A new concept of AC equipment, long forming in the background of his thoughts, had suddenly crystallized in his mind. His friend wanted to help him to a bench to sit down, but Tesla refused to relax until he had traced a drawing of a new AC motor design in the sand.
Six years later Tesla would present the drawing again, this time in an address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Far more than just a new motor, it was an entirely new principle for handling AC power, a "new scientific principle of stunning simplicity and utility", which was to sweep the world.
Those six years, however, proved to be difficult ones.
"Tesla came over from Graz and went to work for Thomas Edison. Edison couldn't stand Tesla for several reasons. One was that Tesla showed up for work every day in formal dress - morning coat, spats, top hat and gloves - and this just wasn't the American Way at the time. Edison also hated Tesla because Tesla invented so many things while wearing these clothes."
-Laurie Anderson, "Dance of Electricity", United States part 1
Thomas Alva Edison did not fully understand the light bulbs that he himself had invented. Though the carbon filaments would work from AC or DC current equally well, Edison himself believed his electric lights would only work with DC. It was to be years before he learned of his error. In any event, when Tesla first arrived in America in 1884, Edison had a large vested interest - both financial and emotional - in the DC power plants which he had been building, and which the "robber baron" J. Pierpont Morgan had been financing.
When Tesla arrived in the United States and sought Edison's backing for his new AC devices, therefore, Edison refused to listen.
"Hold up! Spare me that nonsense. It's dangerous. We're set up for direct current in America. People like it, and it's all I'll ever fool with."
Nonetheless Edison offered him a job, promising Tesla fifty thousand dollars if Tesla could redesign Edison's breakdown-prone DC generator designs. Tesla agreed and worked for the better part of a year redesigning the dynamos, also adding new automatic controls of Tesla's own design. The new generator designs were a vast improvement over Edison's originals. Upon completing the job Tesla went to Edison to collect the $50,000 promised for the task.
"Tesla," Edison replied, "you don't understand our American humor." And Tesla was never paid.
Tesla soon found himself unemployed, and for a time he worked as a laborer on a New York street gang to keep from starving. In time, however, he was fortunate enough to find a financial backer for his AC work. Soon he was able to apply for patents for his polyphase AC motors, distribution systems, and transformers. Word of the extraordinary patents reached the academic world, and so it came to pass that the inventor was invited to lecture before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Tesla's presentation and ideas were lauded at the time as remarkably new, lucid, thorough, and far-reaching in ramifications, and were discussed widely by engineers. So it was that Tesla came to the attention of business magnate George Westinghouse.
Westinghouse already understood the advantages of AC electricity, and had been one of its' early advocates. He had dreamed of someday being able to provide electricity throughout the country, but the technology to do so reliably had not yet existed. Learning of Tesla's successes, Westinghouse had found what he needed to make that dream a reality.
Westinghouse soon purchased the patents to Tesla's polyphase AC systems, and hired Tesla as a consultant as well. Westinghouse then began to develop AC systems across the country, systems which are now in use throughout the entire world.
The agreements between Westinghouse and Tesla called for the businessman to pay the inventor a royalty of two dollars and fifty cents - for every horsepower of AC equipment sold. Even a century ago, the royalties would be enough to make Tesla one of the wealthiest men in the world. (Were such royalties to be paid on equipment in use today, the royalties on AC generators alone would be worth more than seven and a half billion dollars.)
Dogs and cats began disappearing from the neighborhood around Edison's laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey.
Unable to challenge AC electricity on technical merits, Edison turned to using scare tactics instead. "Just as certain as death [AC power] will kill a customer within six months," he declared. Leaflets about the dangers of AC current were printed and distributed. Lobbying efforts were made in New York State to limit legal levels of electricity to 800 volts, making AC distribution impractical "as a matter of public safety". Perhaps most horrifying, though, were Edison's weekend demonstrations of the dangers of Tesla's work. Taking one of the frightened pets stolen from the streets of West Orange, Edison would place it on a sheet of metal, bring forth two wires attached to an AC generator, and announce to spectators, "Ladies and gentlemen, I shall now demonstrate the effects of AC current on this dog."
Edison's efforts to discredit AC electricity were, in the long run, unsuccessful. This did not, however, make Edison's lies or killings any less repugnant.
The race was on between Morgan and Westinghouse to detemine who would control the future of electricity in America. Morgan didn't care what kind of electricity was used, as long as he was in control of it - and he controlled Edison's DC patents. Westinghouse retained his faith that AC was the superior and more cost-effective system, and should be used for that reason, if no other.
One of Morgan's managers, Charles Coffin, proudly boasted of his tactics to gain ground for Morgan and Consolidated Edison (later to become General Electric). He described raising the price of Edison-built streetlights from $6.00 to $8.00, specifically to raise an extra $2 per streetlight to pay off local politicians. He also advocated getting generators and distribution systems installed quickly, the advantage being that "the users willingly pay our price [for power in the future] as they cannot afford to change the system."
Westinghouse made it clear that he and Coffin did not share their style of doing business.
The House of Morgan therefore went after Westinghouse in a different manner, spreading rumors to Wall Street investors that Westinghouse's finances were unstable. Investors began to shy away from providing Westinghouse with new capital, capital being the lifeblood of his efforts to implement AC. Eventually it became clear that, if AC and the Westinghouse business were to survive, the remarkable royalty contract between Westinghouse and Tesla would have to be drastically altered.
Westinghouse came to Tesla and described the situation. Tesla replied with these words:
"Mr. Westinghouse, you have been my friend, you believed in me when others had no faith; you were brave enough to go ahead... when others lacked courage; you supported me when even your own engineers lacked vision... you have stood by me as a friend...
"Here is your contract, and here is my contract. I will tear both of them to pieces, and you will no longer have any troubles from my royalties. Is that sufficient?"
The advantages of AC power, and the strength of Tesla's ingenious designs, soon made the difference. AC installations rapidly overtook DC, and Tesla's designs are now the standard used throughout the world.
The name of Nikola Tesla, however, is now largely unknown. He is rarely given credit for the vast variety of his inventions. Certainly he was not given sufficient reward for the benefits he gave us all freely; Tesla died in a New York hotel room, nearly penniless, in 1943.
Nikola Tesla was a pioneer in a staggering number of fields; AC power
was only one of them. He has also done significant research and development
in a wide variety of other disciplines, and his body of patents ranges
through such diverse fields as robotics, wireless communications, turbines,
fluid dynamics, radar, therapeutic equipment, VTOL aircraft, artificial
lighting, X-rays, and computer systems.
Though history books continue to give Guglielmo Marconi credit for the invention of radio, Tesla's lectures on wireless broadcasting precede Marconi's radio patents by some three years. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the matter in Tesla's favor, and struck down Marconi's patent claim, in 1943.
The developers of integrated circuits for modern computers have been surprised to discover that some of the basic logic gates they desired to implement and patent on silicon had already been implemented and patented, by Tesla, in 1903, using AC-based components.
Many of Tesla's experiments, such as his artificial creation of ball lightning, still baffle scientists today. It still remains to be seen what other scientific advances were anticipated by Tesla over a century ago.
Much more about Tesla has been written than this. A look at Bogdan Kosanovic's Nikola Tesla site would be a good place to start. As well, the following books are worth reading: