Tesla – the Forgotten Genius
by Bruce Cathie
“Some day I will harness Niagara Falls.”
THIS WAS THE STATEMENT MADE BY THE greatest electrical genius that ever lived, to one of his fellow students, in Budapest, in 1882. Nikola Tesla, born 9 July 1856, was then aged twenty-five and about to commence a lifetime career in the advancement of electrical knowledge which was to transform the world.
If it were not for this one man, almost all modern-day electrical devices would not exist. It therefore seems strange that Tesla’s name is known to so very few students in our universities. Many times I have mentioned Tesla to groups of students, during discussions, and have been met with a blank stare, and the question — “Who is Tesla?”
His birthplace was a small village called Smiijan in the country now called Yugoslavia. His father was a minister in the local church. His mother was illiterate, but was known in the village as one who had a clever and inventive mind. It is said that she invented a considerable number of labor saving devices, which could be used in the home. In later years Tesla stated that he inherited his inventive genius from his mother.
In one stupendous lifetime he gave us the whole foundation upon which to build the industrial empires of the world. It was he who invented the alternating-current motors that power every factory and production centre. He that designed the transmission systems that enabled power to be sent out over vast areas of countryside from a central generating source; the mass production systems and robot control that freed man from the slavery of labor; the basis for radio and radar, and remote control by wireless; modern lighting systems by use of high-frequency currents. The list is endless. No limit has been found to the electronic marvels which can be produced from the basic discoveries which issued from this one fertile mind. The whole world owes Tesla its future — and he has been forgotten, because he was a man who lived before his time.
Tesla was one of five children and even at an early age showed signs of a lively mind. He found that in many things he could surpass other boys of his own age, and this tended to isolate him from his contemporaries. He found it hard to find others to share in his interests and his intellectual attainments were often in advance of his years. Nevertheless, it seems that he still got up to all the other foolish escapades that young boys find to fill in their time – myself included.
One of the more dangerous ones was trying to emulate a bird. He discovered that when he breathed deeply he began to feel very light and buoyant. He considered that this discovery, plus the application of daring and an old umbrella, should suffice to free him from the pull of gravity and allow him to sail through the air with a certain amount of grace and dignity. He climbed up on the roof of a local barn with the trusty old umbrella, breathed a few deep breaths and jumped off into space. The umbrella, not being aerodynamically designed, folded inside out and Tesla carried out a very undignified plummet to the ground. This cost him six weeks in bed, and much embarrassment.
His next accomplishment was the invention of a special frog-catching hook which was immediately copied by all his friends and helped to ensure the demise of most of the frogs in the village pond. Then followed a series of gadgets attractive to small boys, which included very efficient blowguns and popguns the size of small howitzers. Damage to local property caused the sudden end to the production of such warlike weapons, and punishment administered to the end of Tesla.
At the advanced age of nine years he con-structured his first motor. The prime mover of this wondrous machine was a formation of sixteen may-bugs. I suppose in a way they could have been termed galley bugs, as they had to perform in much the same way as the galley slaves of old to produce forward movement to the parts of Tesla’s machine. The design was quite ingenious. He glued two long thin bits of wood together to form a cross, much like the arms of a windmill. Another thin spindle was attached to this with a very small pulley glued to it.
This was connected by a belt made from cotton to a larger pulley on another thin spindle. The engines (or maybugs) were then glued four abreast, facing forward, on each of the four arms. The poor bugs, no doubt dismayed at such cavalier treatment, beat their wings at panic speed and turned the windmill at a surprising rate. It was Tesla’s intention to add more bugs, and thus more power to this truly remarkable machine, but a young friend decided to eat his jarful of spare bugs. This nearly caused Tesla to throw up, and he ended up destroying his invention in disgust.
The first stage of his schooling ended in 1870, when he was fourteen. The college he attended was called the Real Gymnasium, at Gospic. Already he was showing that he was well above the average in his abilities. He continued his studies at the higher Real Gymnasium, completing the full four-year course in three years. It was at this time that he became fascinated with physics and electrical experimentation and made the decision to devote his life to electricity. His father was anxious for him to enter the ministry and make a career of the church, but finally relented and promised Nicola that he would not prevent him from having his wish.
The boy had overworked himself so much with his studies that he had weakened his body and been attacked, first by malaria then a severe bout of cholera. When nearly at death’s door he whispered to his father, “I will get well again if you will let me study electrical engineering.” He was promised by his father that he would attend the most advanced engineering school in the world. Tesla was nineteen when he began his studies in electrical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute at Gratz, Austria.
It was at the Institute that particular insights into the mysteries of electricity by Tesla first began to show themselves. A Professor Poeschl was demonstrating a gramme machinethat could be used as either a dynamo or a motor. It was run by direct current and suffered a great loss of efficiency due to sparking at the commutator. (The commutator was necessary in all direct current machines to change the flow of electricity at the correct instant to obtain rotary motion.)
An argument developed between the professor and Tesla as to the design of the machine and the necessity to use direct current. Why cannot alternating current be used, suggested Tesla? This would eliminate the need for commutators and thus increase efficiency. The alternating current produced by the dynamos could be fed direct to the motors without the use of the reversing mechanisms.
The professor set up a special set of experiments to prove to Tesla that his idea was completely impractical and made the statement:
“Mr. Tesla will accomplish great things, but he certainly will never do this. It would be equivalent to converting a steady pulling force like gravity into rotary effort. It is a perpetual motion scheme, an impossible idea.”
Tesla had no answer to this at the time, but instinct told him he was right and that some day in the future he would create such a machine. He continued his studies at the University of Prague concentrating on mathematics and physics. Always in the back of his mind was the idea of the alternating-current motor, and in his imagination he contemplated many different methods of building such a device, each time to fail.
On leaving the university Tesla obtained a position with the central telegraph office in Budapest. His genius for invention was not long in being noticed and in 1881 he was placed in charge of the new telephone exchange. It was while working for this company that he had the first flash of inspiration that was to rocket him to short-lived fame.
He was walking with a friend late in the afternoon in the city park of Budapest. It was February 1882, and a glorious day. Tesla was in a particularly happy frame of mind and gave vent to his joy by prancing about, and reciting poetry. Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks and exclaimed, “Watch me! Watch me reverse it.” He appeared to be in some kind of a trance and his friend got quite alarmed at his antics, believing him to be ill. When Tesla finally calmed down he said, “No, you do not understand. I have solved the problem of my alternating-current motor.” He then explained how he could see the whole concept in front of him, as if in a vision.
A rotating magnetic field which would clutch the armature of a motor with invisible fingers and cause it to rotate in harmony with it. A concept sublime in its simplicity. There and then, he drew a diagram of his motor in the snow to show his friend the technical aspects of his invention. This moment was the beginning of man’s leap forward in the industrialization of the world. It was soon after this that Tesla was offered a position with the Continental Edison Company and spent much of his time improving the designs of the Edison direct-current motors.
He also invented a system for automatically regulating the dynamos. He had been promised a substantial fee for all the new innovations he had produced for the company, and when this was not forthcoming on demand, he immediately resigned. If the payment had been made at the time, Tesla would possibly have remained with the company and they would have benefited immensely from his genius.
It was suggested by a member of the company that Tesla should emigrate to the United States and work with Edison himself. There were not many opportunities left open to him in Europe, so in 1884 the young Tesla arrived in New York with four cents in his pocket and a mind bursting with new ideas. At this stage he had already worked out the whole alternating-current electrical system in his mind. This included step-up and step-down transformers for the most economical transmission of electric power, alternators, and alternating-current motors to supply mechanical power.
When he finally met the famous Edison, he gave him an enthusiastic description of his alternating current system, only to be told that he was “wasting his time messing around with such things. Edison was committed to the direct-current system and would not be swayed by the arguments put forth by Tesla. The whole of the Edison empire was built on the premise that direct current was superior to alternating current.
He spent almost a year working for Edison, again improving and inventing new techniques for the production of the Edison dynamos Promises had been made to him, for the second time to repay him adequately for his services. It is said that Edison had undertaken to pay $50,000 to Tesla when all the improvements were completed and the machines ready for production. When the time came for settlement, Edison treated the whole thing as a joke, so the disillusioned Tesla once again resigned.
It was now 1885. The fortune he was seeking in the promised land was not to come easily. He spent a year taking any menial job he could find just to keep himself alive. At one stage he even resorted to digging ditches. The foreman on the ditch-digging project was fascinated by the visionary descriptions of the new electrical innovations that Tesla related to him, and introduced him to as executive of the company named A. K. Brown. This man had enough faith to finance an experimental laboratory at 33-35 South Fifth Avenue, New York.
Tesla set to work and in a short time had a complete demonstration of his system ready for assessment. Included were alternating current generators, motors, transformers, transmission lines and lights. After examination by Professor W. A. Anthony of Cornell University, it was announced that the Tesla system was equal is efficiency to any of the best direct-current machines then in production. In 1887 Tesla applied for full patent rights for all of his electrical inventions. This was not approved by the patent office as the considered a single patent to cover such a great array of ideas was too unwieldy. They insisted that each important section be covered by a separate patent. Within the next six months seven USA patents were granted, and in 1888 twenty-two more were to follow.
The Institute of Electrical Engineers were now aware of this genius among them and invited Tesla to give a demonstration lecture on his alternating-current system in New York. This was a tremendous success. It was now recognized by the engineers of the world that there need be no limit to the transmission of power over long distances. The way was now open to develop the whole industry beyond men’s wildest dreams.
Tesla was thirty-two when he was approached by George Westinghouse, who offered him one million dollars for all his alternating current patents, plus certain royalties. Tesla agreed, on the proviso that the royalty was to be one dollar per horsepower. Although this royalty was later withdrawn because of financial difficulties in the Westinghouse empire, a bond of mutual trust remained between these two great men for the rest of their lives. Tesla, at last, was being given the credit he deserved. America was his to conquer.
The General Electric Company, founded by the Edison interests, saw the writing on the wall and for their very survival had to negotiate a license from Westinghouse to compete in the rapidly expanding electrical industry being built on the concepts of alternating current. No future remained for those who thought in terms of direct current only.
In 1890 the scientist Lord Kelvin was appointed chairman of the International Niagara Commission set up to determine the most efficient way of using the force of Niagara Falls to generate electricity. In 1892 Westinghouse won the contract for the Installation of the 5000-horsepower hydro-electric generators. The transmission system was contracted to the General Electric Company. The whole complex was designed according to the ideas of Tesla. The massive alternators with external revolving fields and internal stationary armatures were personally designed by him; the transmission line including the step-up and step-down transformers was constructed to Tesla’s two-phase concept. His childhood dream had been fulfilled — he had harnessed the power of Niagara Falls.
Now in his early thirties Tesla was a wealthy man and felt free he devote more of his time to pure research. Throughout his life he give no indication of any type of business sense. The mere making of money was never a primary object with him, and as long as he had the necessary funds to buy all the equipment he needed for his experiments he was happy. His whole makeup was that of the discoverer.
He was at one with the environment itself and had a compelling, restless urge to pry all the secrets from nature and harness them, in order to help his fellow man progress towards higher level of being. He had a vision of the cosmos as consisting of myriad octaves of electrical vibration. It was his desire to be able to understand the interplay of harmonic oscillations that formed the basis of the universe. The lower octaves he had already explored with his 60 cycle per second alternating current. He was now read to reach into the unknown and probe into the regions of ultra high frequency of light and beyond.
For these experiments he constructed a great range of electrical oscillators to produce high-frequency currents, and coils tuned to set frequencies or wavelengths in order to discover the characteristic of each energy level and the particular uses to which each could be applied. He found that the interlocking harmonics were similar to the musical scale and that his coils responded not only to the transmissions of the original waveforms, but resonated at harmonic intervals above and below the original frequency. He had discovered the harmonic nature of matter.
He felt ready to take the next step in the practical application of his theoretical discoveries. During an interview in 1894 he said:
You will think me a dreamer and very far gone if I should tell you what I really hope for. But I can tell you that I look forward with absolute confidence to sending messages through the earth without any wires. I have also great hopes of transmitting electrical force in the same way without waste. Concerning the transmission of messages through the earth I have no hesitation in predicting success: I must first ascertain exactly how many vibrations to the second are caused by disturbing the mass of electricity which the earth contains. My machine for transmitting must vibrate as often to put itself in accord with the electricity in the earth.
He had previously addressed a meeting of the National Electric Light Association and had said, in part:
I am becoming more and more convinced of the scheme, and though I know full well that the great majority of scientific men will not believe that such results can be practically and immediately realized, yet I think that all consider the developments in recent years by a number of workers to have been such as to encourage thought and experiment in this direction. My conviction has grown so strong that I no longer look upon the plan of energy or intelligence transmission as a mere theoretical possibility, but as a serious problem to electrical engineering, which must be carried out some day…
We now know that electrical vibrations may be transmitted through a single conductor. Why then not try to avail ourselves of the earth for this purpose? We need not be frightened of the idea of distance. To the weary wanderer counting the mile posts, the earth may appear very large; but to the happiest of all men, the astronomer, who gazes at the heavens, and by their standards judges the magnitude of our globe, it appears very small.
And so I think it must seem to the electrician; for when he considers the speed with which an electrical disturbance is propagated through the earth, all his ideas of distance must completely vanish. A point of great importance would be first to know what is the capacity of the earth, and what charge does it contain if electrified. Though we have no evidence of a charged body existing in space without other oppositely electrified bodies being near, there is a fair probability that the earth is such a body, for whatever process it was separated — and this is the accepted view of its origin — it must have retained a charge, as occurs in all processes of mechanical separation.
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