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Several times, the universe sees the wonders of prodigies and geniuses once in a lifetime. Celebrated prodigies are believed to have a natural ability that grows over their lives. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Wolfgang Mozart, Leonhard Euler, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Albert Einstein are among the most celebrated minds in history. In recent times, Steve Jobs joins a lengthy line of inventors, physicists, and engineers who have altered humanity's perception of the cosmos or existence. Like many of these men, the genius and intuitiveness of Nikola Tesla was remarkable and is celebrated as a pioneer in the engineering studies of more polyphase transmission of electricity on alternating current.
Tesla changed the face of the planet through his contributions to science by inventing the alternating current and other in inventions related to the generation, distribution and utilization of electric power. Electricity has become an irreplaceable source of power that has seen the sparking of subsequent innovations that rely on it; almost everything utility of the late 20 and 21st centuries (Vujic, Marincic, Ercegovac, & Milovanovic, 2001). People would hardly ever know things such as the X-rays, computers, the Internet, airplanes, and robotics without alternating electricity or Tesla. Every technology of the 21st century feted for pushing the advancement of human life runs on alternating current: the interconnected networks forming the World Wide Web and the many homes and industrial appliances. Alternating current became a more viable and reliable type of electricity in use after a stable design of the induction motor was made available. Tesla has been an influential inventor in the world of technology and is still respected and recognized today in industries and manufacturing firms.
Tesla’s Early Years
Nikola Tesla was a Serbian scientist born on July 10, 1856, in Croatia, The country was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the mountainous Balkan peninsula in a village called Smiljan, Lika county (Carlson, p.13). His father, Milutin Tesla was a priest of the Eastern Orthodox Church while his mother, Duka Tesla, belonging to a lineage of priests, was skilled in crafting home-made tools and mechanical appliances, including a mechanical egg-beater. She also possessed a strong ability to memorize Serbian epic poems, a gift that was transferred to her son Nikola. He credits most of his work and genius to his mother’s influence and eidetic memory to his mother (Cheney, 2001). His father was also a gifted writer and poet, a trait that was passed onto the young Tesla. Tesla immersed himself in his father's library at a young age.
Nikola was the fourth born of five of the Tesla family. Three of his siblings were sisters, Angelina, Milka, and Marica, and a brother, Dane, who died in a horse-riding accident in 1863 (Nikola was five years of age) (Carlson, p.13). The shock of the loss unsettled Tesla, who reported seeing visions, this was the beginning and first signs of his lifelong illness.
Tesla began his education at home and was later enrolled in a primary school in his village, studying religion, arithmetic, and German. He moved to Gospic, near his father’s parish to complete his primary and middle school (Carlson, p.13). The young Tesla then moved to Karlovac, far in the north, for high school studies at the Higher Real Gymnasium, Carlstadt in Croatia (Tesla, 2011). It was during his high school education that he gained interest in the physics of electricity, thanks to the demonstrations given by his physics professor. Nikola said that he wanted, “to know more of this wonderful force” (Carlson, p.13). He was excellent in various subjects. His ability to perform integral calculus mentally was remarkable and even amazed his teachers, who thought that he was cheating in examinations due to his speed of completion. He was passionate about mathematics and sciences and set out to be an engineer. However, his father had different plans. He wanted Tesla to serve at the parish as a priest. When he fell sick from Cholera, he made his father confess that he would allow Tesla to study engineering at the Austrian Polytechnic School at Graz, which was his wish. It would mean that the father’s plans for him to become a priest failed.
He joined the Austrian Polytechnic in 1875 after being successfully selected on a Military Frontier Scholarship. Tesla selected majored in mechanical and electrical engineering. He passed all his exams with the highest grades possible (Tesla, 2011). At the same time, He studied other languages and was able to speak nine languages in the end. Furthermore, Tesla was an exceptional student in his day as was able to know the works of Shakespeare, Goethe, and Spencer by heart (Palmer, 2009). In his college years, he worked on a mechanical machine, and he developed a keen interest in alternating current as he understood that direct current was not efficient enough since it operated on a direct and continuous flow of electrons from negative to positive poles. It could not be stepped up or down. Hence, it was impractical for power distribution and could not generate frequencies needed to run various equipment (Thibault, 2013).
He was highly interactive; he started a Serb culture club, for which he received the dean of technical faculty’s commendation through a letter to his father, stating, “Your son is a star of first rank” (O'Neill, 2007). His physics professor, Poeschl, once showed his class a new Gramme dynamo during his second year of studies which worked as a generator and motor powered by a direct current. Tesla suggested the needlessness of the commutators. He suggested that the possibility of creating a Gramme dynamo without the inefficient commutators which often sparked. Tesla understood that such a machine could hardly possibly operate with direct current. He, therefore, challenged himself with the idea of generating alternating current. In the same period, he imagined of using cataracts and falls to achieve this goal, and on seeing a steel engraving of the Niagara Falls, he told his uncle that he would travel to America to capture energy way (Cheney & Uth, p.9). He was able to achieve the goal thirty years later.
While at school, his principle was to work tirelessly, and it hardly mattered which day of the week it was; he would work between 3 a.m. and 11 p.m. every day, all week long (Tesla, 2011). His professors became worried that his health would be affected out of his constant hard work and recommended that his father remove him from school through letters, which he found after his father’s death. He became addicted to gambling and eventually lost his scholarship by the end of the second year (Tesla, 2011). His family had to pay for his tuition. After being sent to college, he gambled away the money and was able to gamble it all back and even gained profit, which he returned to his family. At the end of the year, he was unprepared for examinations and his request for an extension of the semester was denied. Therefore, he did not receive his grades, which caused him to drop out of the University (Seifer, 2001). He left Graz in 1879 and cut communication with his family so that they would not know of his decision to drop out of the Polytechnic. He moved to Maribor to work as a draftsman, for which he earned a monthly salary of 60 florins.
Changes and Meeting Thomas Edison
After the death of his father, Tesla moved to Hungary and started working in a telephone company where he encountered the works of Edison. In this place, he learned many things relating to electromagnetic charge but soon moved to Paris where his work started taking shape as he would take machines apart with the aim of understanding how they could be improved. One of his developments during this time was the carbon disk speaker triggered by induction, still found in today's telephones. He went ahead by advancing the systems of alternating currents and managed to design regulators for many companies. This offered him an opportunity to work under Edison, where he would learn and get a chance to enhance his inventions as well. It was, however, in 1893 that he succeed to illuminate Chicago World's Fair by designing over 250,000 proficient light bulbs (IEEE, 1989). Niagara Falls Commission also authorized Tesla to generate AC from the Niagara Falls creating the first AC hydroelectric station. Still rising beyond his colleagues, Tesla developed a remote controlled boat in 1898 that later inspired the creation of fax machines, stereos, TV remotes and garage door openers (IEEE, 1989).
Tesla’s currents vs Edison’s current
Tesla faced competition from Thomas Edison who invented the direct current. Edison felt that Tesla was a threat to his businesses of selling electric power; therefore, criticized Tesla’s work and argued that AC was insecure, but Tesla defended his invention by running current through his body (Seifer, 1996). Tesla demonstrated his Alternating current system during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1883 after being chosen to provide the lighting during the function (Kent, 2014). Modern alternating current has changed the world since it is the basis of other technologies such as computers and establishment of industries all over the world.
George Westinghouse, a Pittsburgh industrialist, and inventor of the rail road air breaks thought of the possibility of long-distance electricity transmission, upon hearing of Tesla’s invention. He visited Tesla’s lab seeking to purchase his patent for, “$60,000, which included $5,000 in cash and 150 shares of stock in the Westinghouse Corporation. He also agreed to pay royalties of $2.50 per horsepower of electrical capacity sold” (Cheney, 2011, p.40). He consented to sell the patent and used the money to create a new laboratory so that he could continue inventing more technologies. The alternating current technology caused a disruptive industrial war in the USA concerning whether it would be chosen for standard distribution model for electricity in place of Edison’s direct current
In a bid to protect his business interests, Edison launched a propaganda war against Westinghouse’s alternating current distribution current. Westinghouse wondered, “I remember Tom [Edison] telling them that direct current was like a river flowing peacefully to the sea, while alternating current was like a torrent rushing violently over a precipice. Imagine that! Why they even had a professor named Harold Brown who went around talking to audiences... and electrocuting dogs and old horses right on stage, to show how dangerous alternating current was” (Hume, 2009). Alternating current was used to perform the first execution by an electric chair at the Auburn State Prison in New York. Professor Harold Brown, of the Western Electric Manufacturing Company of Chicago, obtained a Westinghouse generator to demonstrate how dangerous alternating was by using it in electrocution. William Kemmler, a murder convict, was the person with whom the new method would be tested. He was electrocuted on August, 6th 1890 in an “awful spectacle, far worse than hanging” (Cheney, 2011, p.45). This method of electrocution was referred to as ‘Westinghousing.’ This action managed to create bad press for the alternating current technology. However, its reputation was overturned when the Westinghouse Corporation won the bid to supply electricity to The Chicago World’s Fair, making it the first all-electric fair in history. This fair was also referred to as the Columbian Exposition, as a celebration of 400 years of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Westinghouse won the bid on the fact that it proposed complete distribution for half the million-dollar budget that General Electric would use in DC power transmission (Cheney, p.46). Moreover, Westinghouse proposed a more efficient system.
On May 1, 1893, the work of Tesla and Westinghouse on the “City of Light” was showcased as president Grover Cleveland lit a hundred thousand incandescent lamps on the fairground’s neoclassical building with a single push of a button. Twelve new thousand-horsepower AC generation units in the Hall of Machinery were used for the occasion (Cheney & Uth, p.33). The system relied on Tesla’s more poly-phase system of AC generation and transmission to shine the light on the ground with twenty-seven million people in attendance. This occasion marked the importance of alternating current as a power for the future (Cheney & Uth, p.33). Orders for AC electrical devices increased to over 80% of the total devices demand (Cheney & Uth, p.33).
Developments of the Hydroelectric Power at Niagara Falls
One of Tesla’s biggest achievements was the designing of the Niagara Fall’s hydroelectric power plant. The project was supposed to provide electricity for the Buffalo city in New York (Kent, 2014). While it was Tesla’s teenage dream to harness power from the Niagara Falls, the Americans also dreamed of the same; a technological optimism that would produce “an honest day’s work” after the pioneer sawmill built in 1725. However, no tangible mechanisms of power extraction had been devised until Tesla’s inventions came to reality (Cheney & Uth, p.55). He had promised his uncle to harness power from the cataracts of Niagara Falls once he visited America and the plans were put in motion following the 1893 award of the contract to build a powerhouse at the site (Niagara Falls). The contract was awarded to the company after a failed bidding process that was headed by the International Niagara Falls Commission, which turned down all applications. Some of the proposed technologies included the use of pneumatic pressure systems that utilized ropes, pulleys, and sprints and Edison’s proposal and endorsement of DC transmission, which was initially backed by Lord Kelvin, A famous British physicist. However, Kelvin shifted his stand to support alternating current transmission after attending the Chicago Exposition and witnessed the marvels of Tesla’s invention (Tesla, 2011). He recommended to the commission that they apply Westinghouse’s technology to harness power at the Niagara.
Since this installation, alternating current became the mainstream source of power for the 20th and the 21st centuries. Other technologies such as the dynamos, radar system, induction motors, remote control and X-ray technologies, and the rotating magnetic field are some of the remarkable inventions that emerged either from Tesla’s brilliant ideation or his personal innovation.
The whole period of construction of the Niagara Falls power plant was difficult for the implementers but was more unnerving for the investors considering the amount of money that was invested. Some of the investors included wealthy American and European businessmen such as J.P Morgan, Lord Rothschild, John Jacob Astor, and W. K. Vanderbilt. It was a trying period due to the financial meltdown that threatened the progress of the dams. However, the project approached its end as the economic situation alleviated (Cheney & Uth, p.58). Even though Tesla hardly doubted the outcomes of this grand project, the investors could hardly hold a similar belief but operated purely on faith that their investment would pay back. After the five-year period of installation, Tesla’s three-dimensional imagination of smoothly-running machines was still to be proven, and yet required more investment in money. However, his worries of a non-smooth practical application were unwarranted because on the midnight of November 16 1896, Buffalo was lit at the through of the switch. The Niagara Falls Gazette published a story that “The turning of a switch in the big powerhouse at Niagara completed a circuit which caused the Niagara River to flow uphill"" (Cheney & Uth, 1999, p.61)”After this successful implementation, orders from different entities began trickling in; first was the Street Railway Company, which needed the first one thousand horse-power electricity. The residents of Buffalo were able to access power after expressing interest to the local power company, whose orders amounted to a figure greater than five thousand horse powers. The number of generators was increased from one to ten that had been planned for, thus producing enough electricity to power New York City (Cheney & Uth, 1999, p.61). Every company, including Street Railway, subway systems and streets, and even Edison’s company switched to alternating current as a response to market demands.
The technology was promising greater gains and it, soon, became open to financial manipulation. General Electric and Westinghouse had been carried away by the war of currents and became starved financially and morally. This continued due to several years of legal processes and litigations that caused further financial loss, exposing the companies to takeover by moneyed businessmen. Robber Barons and J. P. Morgan positioned themselves in such a way that they could benefit from starving the Westinghouse company and purchasing the patents of Tesla’s technology. They did this by manipulation of stocks, which was possible considering their immense wealth that controlled the financial markets at the time (Cheney & Uth, p.63). Westinghouse pleaded with Tesla to renegotiate the initial contract that entitled him to generous royalties. His satisfaction in Westinghouse’s belief in his technology caused him to tear the agreement, hoping that many more inventions would come along. . This action saved the Westinghouse Electric Company from stock manipulation, but stripped Tesla of financial insurance. He later ran into financial difficulties (Cheney & Uth, p.63).
Birth of Robotics
Tesla, in his brilliance, wanted to show the potential of his extraordinary wireless energy transmission system. In 1898, he demonstrated the first-ever wirelessly-controlled device in the Madison Square Garden at an electrical exhibition (Tesla, 2011). At this time, Tesla was famous for his ingenious inventions. Therefore, many people were no longer surprised at his approaches to solving problems for humanity or introducing new technology. However, it was a new experience for many who saw the demonstration of the working of wireless control. A small, iron-hulled boat speeding across an indoor pond. Based on Tesla’s autobiography, the boat had a “borrowed mind” (Robotics: From Tesla in 1898 to Exits in 2011-2016). He wrote that, ""When first shown... it created a sensation such as no other invention of mine has ever produced"" (Cheney & Uth, p.79). The people’s reactions towards his inventions were hardly predictable as they hardly knew whether to laugh, cheer, or run. However, one thing is clear, that he understood how to introduce non-conventional technology to the people in the easiest of ways. For instance, he encouraged the audiences to ask the boat questions. When asked about the cube root of 64, the boat flashed its lights four times (Robotics: From Tesla in 1898 to Exits in 2011-2016). Few people understood about the mechanics of radio waves. As a result, many of them thought that Tesla controlled the boat with his mind. Instead, he used a small box with control levers to send the signals to the mechanism.
Tesla opened the boat to adoption in various fields including applications in vehicles and other things; it was a generalized invention. He envisioned the simultaneous direction of machines by one or more individuals by the use of tuned radio transceivers. When asked about whether the boat could be submerged or used to carry weaponry such as dynamite, Tesla became angry and said, “You do not see there a wireless torpedo, you see there the first of a race of robots, mechanical men which will do the laborious work of the human race” (Cheney, 2011, p.112). This device conceptualized the idea of robotics even though he is hardly given credit for it. The device was, however, too advanced for any real applications during that time.
Developments at Colorado Springs
Tesla’s obsession with the wireless transmission of energy intensified in the 20th century (Kent, 2014). He began conceptualizing a global communications system that could help in information interchange across different parts of the world using a large electrical tower that could transmit and receive signals. His grand vision was to provide free electricity for the masses through a wireless mechanism.
After much thought and research, Tesla came to a conclusion that it could be possible to transmit electric power at high altitudes wirelessly because the air was thinner and less resistive (Inventions & Experiments of Nikola Tesla). Therefore, in 1890, he began erecting a 142-foot-tall metal mast that was meant to support a large copper ball. The technicians began to assemble the wooden structure with the enormous Tesla coil that was supposed to send the electrical pulses across the air from Colorado Springs, where his lab was located (Tesla, 2011). Also, the conditions of the location chosen was ideal for the experiment due to the requisite surroundings.
In May 1899, after arriving at the Colorado Springs, Tesla inspected the land to be used for the project. It was located in the prairies outside the modern towns. He asked reporters that he would send a signal from the tower to Paris. However, he did not divulge any more information (Cheney & Uth, p.86).
While in enjoying the display of Colorado’s incredible electrical display, he measured various parameters of the equipment and the environment. He discovered that the earth was, ""literally alive with electrical vibrations"" (Cheney & Uth, 1999, p.86). His first thought was that lightning strikes on the earth set up an electric current that caused powerful waves from one side of the earth to another. Therefore, he hypothesized that he could transmit unlimited quantities of electricity to any point with no loss, considering that the earth was a conductor. The challenge in testing this hypothesis is that he would have to be the first person to create an electric pulse the magnitude of lightning.
The evening of experimentation came and each piece of equipment was checked carefully. Tesla instructed one of the mechanics, Czito, to open one of the equipment’s switches. The secondary coil being used began to crack and spark and an eerie blue corona was created in the atmosphere around it. The results satisfied him. He, thus asked Czito to close the switch (Inventions & Experiments of Nikola Tesla). A huge arc of blue electric pulse was released up and down the center of the coil to form the first man-made bolts of lightning that travelled over a hundred feet from one mast of the station (Inventions & Experiments of Nikola Tesla). These lightning bolts burned down El Paso Electric Company’s dynamo, causing a blackout in the whole city. The management of the power station, angry with the losses, demanded that Tesla pay for the damages incurred. Nikola continued with his experimentation at the Colorado Springs for nine months, keeping rich details of day-to-day occurrences and results. One question that remains to be answered to date is whether he achieve the goal of wireless transmission of electricity at the Pikes Peak (Cheney & Uth, 1999, p.90). Some reports recorded that he actually transmitted a signal that was powerful enough to light vacuum tubes installed on the ground over a range of miles (PBS, n.d). However, this occurrence can be attributed to the possibility of the properties of conductivity of the Colorado Springs ground.
Tesla received funding from J. P. Morgan among other investors that boosted his efforts in working on his wireless transmission project in 1901. However, the investors began to cash-strap the project and it collapsed. The site was soon declared closed after Tesla’s declaration of bankruptcy and all workers having been laid off (Kent, 2014). The tower was destroyed and all the salvageable property sold to repay debts that the project had incurred.
Tesla conceptualized a new idea to transmit ultra-low frequency signals within the atmosphere. His calculations showed a resonant frequency of 8 Hz. This idea was not taken seriously by the scientific community until the 1950s when many researchers discovered that the actual resonant frequency of the ionosphere was within the range of 8 Hz (Inventions & Experiments of Nikola Tesla). While thinking of transmission through the atmosphere, he concluded that the ionosphere, 80 kilometers above the earth, was ideal for transmission because it was likely to be highly conductive, a suspicion that was confirmed as true (PBS, n.d). However, he could hardly conduct this experiment because there was no possible way of sending electrical energy through the atmosphere to such high levels of altitude.
A lot of mystery surrounds the work of Tesla during the period he spent at Colorado Sprints. His notes do not have any detailed explanations to affirm his conviction in the ability to transmit electric power through the atmosphere. However, one thing was clear upon his return to New York, he had a firm belief that his dream could actually be achieved
In the later years of his life, Tesla, then a renowned electrical genius, suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder that had resulted from his incessant yet unique habits. This, among other factors such as financial struggles, led to a nervous breakdown. He ended up devoting his time to care for wild pigeons that resided in the parks in New York City. He often hallucinated about communicating with occupants of Venus and Mars (Jonnes, 2004).
Nikola Tesla died on the 7th January of 1943, aged 86 in New York City. After his death, many of his equipment, papers, and records of various experiments and conceptual ideas went missing, including his designs for the particle beam that was to be used as a weapon. A rich legacy lives after him to date, having earned respect and admiration from highly respected intellectuals such as Albert Einstein. During his lifetime, he had received congratulatory notes and correspondences from over 70 scientists and engineers who were pioneers in their respective fields (Time Magazine, 1931). He was featured on the 1931 Time Magazine Cover, to commemorate his 75th birthday. Some of the papers and works that had gone missing after his death are said to have been recovered and are in the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (Jonnes, 2004).
The Uncelebrated Achievement
In Memory of Tesla and his contributions to the society, it is worth noting that the bold and tenacious futurist is a renowned master and pioneer in physics due to his advanced knowledge of electricity, circuits, and mechanical designs, all of which are fundamental in electrical engineering. He talked about the death ray in 1930, a device that would make war obsolete (Blakemore, 2016). He was a peace-loving individual who thought about securing humanity as a whole. His thoughts on the death ray was based on the logic that it would protect every nation against invasion as it would instantly kill any invading armies to the tune of 8 million people around the world. This would result in peace as no nation would see the need to attack another (Blakemore, 2016).
Tesla and His Contributions to Modern Societies
Nikola Tesla is regarded as one of the most prolific physicists of all time. Since the 21stcentry entirely relies on electricity and wireless communication, it may be rightfully implied that Tesla is one of the most important engineers and physicists to live. The most remarkable quality about him is that he was humble and hardly sought material gain for his inventions. He barely cared for recognition, which many scientists admired. The fact that he was able to give up his patent and tear the agreement entitling him to royalties from the Westinghouse Electric Company shows a man who was complex in his personality and individuality.
Tesla invented hundreds technologies that resulted in three hundred patents (Šarboh, 2007). Many of his patents are recognized in many countries (more than 26), including Britain, USA, Canada and others. However, his impact is greater because the majority of the patents were not secured by patent protection; meaning that they became open-source technology to be utilized by anyone.
His biggest contribution to the world is the introduction of a polyphase alternating current system for the sake of distribution of power. It has become the industry standard for supply of electricity, both for domestic and industrial use. Considering that the Internet, X-ray, television, mobile phones, and a myriad of other devices and technologies function only with alternating current power, it may be right to say that Tesla is the most important inventor of the 20th and the 21st century. Remote controls and robotics were also established by his work. He was a visionary whose ideas were hardly implementable to full scale at the time due to lack of the advanced knowledge and intuition he possessed. He is a man who changed the world. Without him, the pace of advancement would have been slower than it has been. Alternating current has been responsible for the acceleration of technological innovation throughout the 20st and 21st centuries.
Scientists and engineers, among all scientists, have proven to be an integral part of technological advancements. Individual contributions from famous physicists, chemists and engineers have resulted in a far superior world than ever before. From wireless communication to nuclear energy, to electricity, computing, the Internet, and other remarkable and widely applicable technologies. All of them were introduced in the later part of the 19th century and significant strides made in the 20th century to distant the 21st century human beings from their ancestors of the previous centuries. In classifying these inventions, it is certain that electricity, quantum mechanics, computing, the radar, and robotics were invented for the future. Electricity is a common factor among them all. Considering that much of the work regarding alternating current was conducted by Nikola Tesla, he stands out as the most significant contributor to the modern life as it is; because very few things, which are integral to the 21st century can run without electricity.
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