Nikola Tesla: Person of the Century
By: Allen Bouchard
For: Edwin P. Calouro, M.A.
In: Hist 161
On: 20 December 2003
Nikola Tesla is a name that not many Americans know; however, we all benefit from his inventions every time we turn on a fluorescent light, listen to the radio, or watch a television. Tesla was born in Croatia on 10 July 18561. His father was a Serbia Eastern Orthodox Church priest and his mother came from a Serbian family
known for making craft tools. As he was born during a summer lightning storm, his mother said that he would be a child “of
light.”2 Whether her proclamation was prophetic or influential we will never know; however, the production and use of
electricity fascinated Tesla throughout his life.
Tesla held four Baccalaureate degrees from the Austrian Polytechnic Institute. The first of these degrees was
Physics, the second in Mathematics, and the final two in Engineering – one for Mechanical Engineering and the other
for Electrical Engineering. He also received a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Prague. He spoke seven languages
fluently and had learned the majority of them by the age of ten.3
After working for the Continental Edison Company in Paris, France for two years, he moved to the United States with a
letter of recommendation from his boss. This got him a job with Thomas Edison in New York City. Edison offered Tesla
$50,000 to improve his inferior direct current power generators.4 After spending a year on the project, Tesla requested
the payment from Edison, who rebuffed the request. This prompted Tesla’s departure from the Edison Company.
Tesla attempted to go into business for himself. He started Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing in 1886. However, the
company did not last long as Tesla planned to use an alternating current motor he had originally developed in 1882. His
investors did not approve of the plan and they forced Tesla to leave the company.
In 1888, he was able to present a one-fifth horsepower induction motor to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.
The reactions were not pleasant. Many electrical engineers believed that the reversing current of the AC signal would make
the motor unstable and cause it to break down. Tesla did have one influential and, more importantly, wealthy supporter in
George Westinghouse. After listening to Tesla’s suggestion of a polyphase AC system, Westinghouse signed a contract with
Tesla of “$2.50 for each kilowatt of AC electricity sold”5 by the Westinghouse Company.
The big break for alternating current came at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. An entire building was dedicated to
electrical exhibits. The Edison-backed General Electric Company proposed a one million-dollar contract to power the
electricity exhibits. Westinghouse offered to provide the more efficient high-frequency high-voltage AC power at half the
cost. Tesla also used the event to display his innovations in light. Among these were the neon light tube and a
phosphorescent light, which would eventually lead to flourescent lights.
This was just one of the many battles in the War of Currents. Edison, realizing that he could win on neither economic
nor efficiency issues, started a campaign of fear. He had one of his employees, Harold Brown, use the AC patents to create
an instrument of death: the electric chair. The electric chair was an attempt by Edison to create public association of
alternating current with death. The New York State Prison system adopted the device in 1888 and first put it to use on a
human in 1890.6
The final blow to Edison’s direct current was the Niagara Falls hydroelectric generator. Tesla, who had recently
developed a method of transmitting power over long distances, built the hydroelectric plant in collaboration with
Westinghouse, who had previously bought Tesla’s AC transformer and polyphase current patents. Lord Kelvin, who had once
advocated direct current, headed the commission that awarded the contract. The facility was five years in the making.
Tesla began to experiment with x-ray in 1897. Although he was not the first to do this, he was the first to
develop a single-electrode X-ray tube with no target electrode.7 He was the first to notice the hazards of X-rays and
to alert others of this issue.
In 1902, Tesla received the first radio patent. However, the fame of the radio was stolen from him when Guglielmo
Marconi began to popularize the technology and Tesla failed to legally fight Marconi’s patent violations. Consequently,
Marconi received the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics and a place in the history books as the inventor of radio. It was not
until 1943, mere months after Tesla’s death, that the United States Supreme Court came to the conclusion
that Marconi had infringed Tesla’s patents.
Tesla was also the first to detect extraterrestrial radio waves. He picked up these signals on the equipment in his
laboratory in Colorado. The scientific community met his 1899 announcement of this discovery with ridicule, as none believed
radio waves could originate in the cosmos. However, we now accept the existence of cosmic radio waves as fact and use
this knowledge to further our understanding of the universe.8
Tesla began to look at military applications of his ideas. He developed and patented a remote-controlled boat, hoping
that the military would want to use the technology for such things as guided torpedoes. The military was not impressed and
did not adopt the technology. Tesla’s first military contract was for turbines for the German navy. He backed out of the
contract when the US entered the World War I. In 1914, Tesla wrote to Woodrow WIlson revealing that he
had invented a Death Ray. The Death Ray is the cause of much speculation. Tesla had supposedly believed that the one time
he tested was the cause of the explosion at Tunguska, Siberia; however, most accredit the incident to a cosmological
Tesla did have two practical ideas for military application which are still in use today. The more practical of the two
is RADAR. He first published the foundations in 1917 and he proposed using radio waves to detect the speed and position of
distant objects, specifically submarines. It turned out that it was not practical for detection of submarines, but it
became much more usable when aircraft came into frequent use. His final patent was also of practical military use: a
VTOL system for aircraft. The military, afraid of losing the ability of putting aircraft in
the sky should enemy bombers take out a runway, more readily accepted this idea than his previous proposals. The two known
VTOL aircraft in existence today are the Boeing V-22 Osprey, which uses rotors, and the British Airways AV-8B Harrier, which uses jets.9
Without Nikola Tesla, the world would be without inexpensive, efficient electricity: this alone would make him the Man
of the Century. However, he has given us so many other gifts, and we have refused more than he has given us, that it is
impossible to disregard his contributions. It is no wonder that he is called “The Man Who Invented the Modern World”10
and a “Man Out Of Time.”11
Word Count: 1,162
1 “Nikola Tesla”, Wikipedia
3 “Nikola Tesla - Unsung Prophet of Electrical Age”[sic], Pitara.com
4 “Nikola Tesla”, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikola_Tesla
5 “Nikola Tesla - Unsung Prophet of Electrical Age”[sic], Pitara.com, http://www.pitara.com/magazine/features/online.asp?story=123&page=1
6 “Electric Chair”, Wikipedia, http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_chair
7 “Nikola Tesla”, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikola_Tesla
8 “Nikola Tesla and the Exploration of Cosmos”[sic], Wikipedia, http://www.teslasociety.com/cosmos.htm
9 “Vertical take-off and landing”, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VTOL
10 The Man Who Invented the Modern World, Robert Lomas
, Headling Book Publishing, 1999
11 Tesla, Man Out Of Time, Margaret Cheney
, Touchstone Books, 2001