Nikola Tesla

Vile Gossip

My admiration for Nikola Tesla has nothing to do with any of the reasons Don Sherman, our crusty technical editor, absolutely worships him.

“Now’s the time to write about Nikola Tesla!” he fairly shouted at me. “We’re going to miss the boat again! Readers want to know! He invented the radio! He invented the lightbulb! He was a total whack job!” This is Sherman at his best, conducting impromptu tech home-schooling sessions in my office.

Say what? I asked. What about Marconi and Edison? (Truthfully, I could not be less informed on the subject of electricity and its inventive manipulators, but I grew up in a home powered by Detroit Edison, and Marconi is a frequent New York Times crossword answer, so for once, I was all over this.)

But Sherman doesn’t blow smoke. Or inhale. “He was the Energizer Bunny of the nineteenth century!” Sherman barked. He had my attention, and I bet more than a few of you nonscientist types are with me. It’s Google time, fellow numbnuts.

And whoa, Nellie! It was all better than true. It turns out that Nikola Tesla was the father of the age of electricity, not to mention his patent for – get ready for the only automotive reference in this column – the speedometer (Pat. 1,274,816, August 6, 1918). Let me recap:

Nikola Tesla was born in the Croatian region of the Austrian empire to Serbian parents in 1856. He spoke six languages and in 1884 emigrated to the United States. He met Thomas Edison within weeks and went to work for him the same day, despite a heated argument involving the superiority of Tesla’s envisioned system of AC power generation and transmission versus Edison’s alternative DC system. He quit a year later after improving a line of Edison’s DC motors, explaining, “For nearly a year, my regular hours were 10:30 a.m. until five o’clock the next morning, without a day’s exception . . . I designed twenty-four different types of standard machines with short cores and of uniform pattern which replaced the old ones. The manager had promised me fifty-thousand dollars on the completion of this task, but it turned out to be a practical joke. This gave me a painful shock, and I resigned my position.”

DC versus AC became the epic battle of the late nineteenth century. It was a battle that Tesla won. He’d discovered the rotating magnetic field in 1881 and built a successful running prototype of the induction motor in 1883 before he left for America. Post-Edison, Tesla started his own company, selling the rights to his AC patents in 1885 to his good friend George Westinghouse, who used the system in 1893 to light the World’s Fair at Chicago. By then, in order to save his company from bankruptcy, Westinghouse had cheated Tesla out of his royalties. If Tesla had continued to receive the $2.50-per-horsepower royalty on his AC system – the basis of modern America’s power grid – he would have undoubtedly been America’s first billionaire instead of dying broke in the Hotel New Yorker on January 7, 1943, at the age of eighty-six.

Edison’s patent on the incandescent lightbulb was blown out of a British court, which upheld the (exact same) work of Joseph Swan, patented one year earlier and published by Scientific American. The cheat. The U.S. Patent Office also invalidated Edison’s patent but based its ruling on the earlier work of William Sawyer. In 1891, Tesla patented the superior fluorescent bulb.

Tesla invented the radio in 1892, twelve years before Guglielmo Marconi’s patent, for which he won the 1909 Nobel Prize. The cheat. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the patent in 1943. Too late. Tesla had already died.

In 1898, Tesla patented a radio-controlled boat that changed directions based on transmitted radio waves for the first time in history. Tesla also built robots, invented the bladeless turbine, established the principles for radar, made X-rays of a man at the same time Wilhelm Roentgen was discovering them, and created a sleep-inducing machine. According to the Catalogue of Tesla Patents, he was awarded at least 272 patents in twenty-five countries.

In a comment completely devoid of hyperbole, Tesla fan and actor Stacy Keach, who gave voice to Tesla in a 2000 PBS documentary, said, “Without Nikola Tesla, the world as we know it today would not exist.”

Why doesn’t every American know about Tesla? Probably because most of his ideas were so advanced that he was thought of as a mad scientist, even lampooned in Superman cartoons. A cosmic death ray? Man-made lightning? Transmissions from outer space? Daily newspapers printed wirelessly in homes overnight? A wireless television and communication device that would fit in a shirt pocket?!? Clearly a nutcase.

But Tesla was never more sane than in 1926, when he gave an interview to Collier’s magazine predicting that the struggle for sexual equality “will end in a new sex order, with the female as superior . . . Women will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.” All bow down.

You can check my homework at the following fascinating Web sites: