The nineteenth century was the time of great inventors and great inventions. Along the way, Thomas Alva Edison became one of the best-known and most admired inventors in history. Nikola Tesla is arguably less well-known.
Only recently has he attracted renewed attention thanks in part to the electric car company that bears his name.
A brief history of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison
In 1884, when Tesla was 28 years old, he sailed for New York with only four cents in his pocket. His money and some of his luggage were stolen on the way over.
Like other immigrants, Tesla came to America for work. He had been hired as an engineer at Edison Machine Works in Manhattan.
Tesla admired Edison, recalling: “One of the great events in my life was my first meeting with Edison. This wonderful man, who had received no scientific training, yet had accomplished so much, filled me with amazement.”
Edison was also impressed with the young engineer, remarking to an assistant: “…this is a damn good man!”
It didn’t take long, however, for things to turn sour as the two men disagreed over how electricity should be delivered to the masses.
In 1879, Edison created the first practical incandescent lightbulb and then built a system to carry electricity so people could use his new invention.
He opened up his first power plant in New York in 1882 supported by his Direct Current electrical system known as DC. A network of underground cables would carry electricity from a generator to homes and businesses.
But his DC generators kept failing.
So he hired the young Serbian engineer to improve them. Tesla saw the weaknesses of direct current which travels through a power line in one direction at a constant voltage. But there’s a critical flaw: it can only go up to a mile before losing power.
Tesla felt he had come up with a better solution: Alternating Current (AC).
AC periodically changes direction and can also vary its voltage.
The crucial advantage is that it can travel hundreds of miles without losing power.
Yet when Tesla tried to convince Edison of the advantages of AC, his boss wasn’t having any of it. Edison didn’t want to lose the royalties he earned from his DC patents.
Tesla claimed Edison promised him $50,000 if he could improve on his DC generators and when he did, Edison refused to pay up and is said to have responded: “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor”.
So Tesla quit after just a few months on the job, writing in his diary: “Goodbye to the Edison Machine Works”.
War of the currents
Tesla set out on his own hoping to find investors interested in his concept for an AC motor that he had patented.
Yet he struggled.
Alternating current was a totally new technology. Not something anyone had ever seen before. He even briefly had to resort to digging ditches just to survive. But there was one person who took a chance on him.
Entrepreneur George Westinghouse saw the potential of AC.
He believed AC was THE missing link in long-distance power transmission. So he purchased Tesla’s AC patents for $60,000 and offered Tesla stock and royalties of $2.50 for each horsepower of electricity sold.
All of this is worth millions today.
Edison tried to do everything he could to discredit Tesla’s AC system so that DC would be the preferred choice to power homes.
He found an ally in J.P. Morgan, at the time the most powerful banker in America. This would lead to the birth of General Electric.
The battle against Tesla and Westinghouse is now known as the War of the Currents. And in many ways, it was a propaganda war launched by Edison to try to convince the public that AC was dangerous.
He zeroed in on the fact that alternating current operated at much higher voltages than direct current.
When the state of New York commissioned an electricity salesman named Harold Brown to build the electric chair, Edison paid him behind the scenes to use his rival’s AC generators secured through a second-hand dealer. Brown also used AC to electrocute dogs at Edison’s laboratory in New Jersey, which Edison recalled in articles he published, writing: “I have myself seen a large healthy dog killed instantly by the alternating current.” Other animals were not immune to his schemes.
Edison’s company electrocuted a circus elephant named Topsy using AC and produced a film about it.
His anti-AC crusade may or may not have also come from a genuine concern about safety.
He wrote a letter warning the president of his electric light company of the danger of AC, declaring: “Just as certain as death, Westinghouse will kill a customer within six months after he puts in a system of any size.”
Sure enough, there were several accidental deaths due to the high voltages of AC in the late 1880s in New York and several other cities.
In one incident, telegraph lineman John Feeks’ body was left hanging in tangled wires in front of a horrified crowd.
His death led to laws to move AC lines underground in New York City.
Tesla felt that the only way to show AC was safe was to demonstrate it on himself.
In a dramatic display at Columbia University, he grasped a brass ball in each hand and touched the terminals of a high-voltage, high-frequency transformer now known as a Tesla coil. 250,000 volts raced across the surface of his body.
A newspaper reported that he was surrounded by “…tongues of electric flame.”
In 1893, Tesla and Westinghouse scored a big win when they beat out Edison to light up the Chicago World Fair using alternating current. The first all-electric fair in history.
Three years later, Tesla lit up the city of Buffalo using AC motors powered by the waters of Niagara Falls. This was Tesla’s childhood dream.
As a kid, he saw an image of the Falls and told his uncle that one day, he’d go to America and capture the energy of Niagara.
The first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls would mark the beginning of the electrification of the world.
When he gave a speech at the opening ceremony, Tesla said: “It is a monument worthy of our scientific age…”
“It signifies the subjugation of natural forces to the service of man, the discontinuance of barbarous methods, the relieving of millions from want and suffering.”
Today, almost every home in the world is powered by AC whereas DC powers smaller items, anything that uses batteries: from your electric toothbrush to the clock on the wall.
Despite the success of AC, Tesla never went on to the fame and fortune that Edison enjoyed. Because Edison was not only an inventor.
He was a businessman, honing his craft at the age of 13 when he started selling candy, newspapers, and vegetables on trains and turned an amazing profit of $50 a week in his day – about $1,600 today. Edison would likely have made a different choice when confronted with the challenging situation that Tesla faced next.
The war of the currents took a financial toll on Westinghouse whose company racked up millions of dollars in debt. When Westinghouse begged Tesla to lower his royalty rate in order to save the company,
Tesla did more than that. He tore up his contract – relinquishing his royalties altogether. It’s estimated that Tesla willingly walked away from $12 million in royalties in his day which today would be worth well over $300 million.
Those royalties were so valuable they would have accrued over time to turn Tesla into the world’s first billionaire. In return, Westinghouse paid him a lump sum of $216,000 for the right to use his AC patents forever which is roughly $5 million today.
Tesla’s decision would hurt him dearly because he ended up short of cash to fund his other grand ideas.
Who Invented Radio?
He had discovered that his powerful coil made it possible to send and receive radio signals. But in 1895, a fire broke out at the building housing his New York lab as he was about to transmit a signal 50 miles to West Point, New York. The blaze destroyed everything: his models, designs, notes, and tools.
The timing was terrible because Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi was also developing radio in England, sending Morse-code-based signals.
Tesla still managed to beat Marconi to the punch by filing American patents for the radio first, in 1897.
When Marconi tried to do the same a few years later, the U.S. Patent Office turned him down because his were too similar to Tesla’s. Repeated applications were rejected. But Marconi did attract the attention of none other than Edison who invested in him and became a consulting engineer at Marconi’s company.
The Italian’s greatest achievement came in 1901 when he received the first radio signal sent across the Atlantic from a transmitter in southwest England to St John’s Newfoundland in Eastern Canada. This won Marconi international fame. And he had to use Tesla’s patents to achieve it.
But Tesla didn’t mind.
When one of his engineers said: “Looks as if Marconi got the jump on you.”
Tesla replied: “Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents.” Unfortunately, no patent is truly safe.
In 1904, the Patent Office decided inexplicably to rewrite history by awarding Marconi a patent for the invention of the radio, reversing its earlier decisions. It gave no reason. But it didn’t hurt that Marconi had the financial backing of Edison and other influential people.
In 1909, Marconi won the Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the radio.
Tesla was furious.
And sued the Marconi Company for infringement. The radio incident led Tesla to lose business opportunities. For example, Tesla had a grand vision for wireless electricity. His proposal initially caught the attention of J.P. Morgan who put up $150,000 to build a giant transmission tower in 1901.
Tesla believed the 187-foot, 57-meter tall Wardenclyffe Tower in Long Island, New York was the start of a system that could deliver electricity without wires around the globe. And anyone with the right equipment could tap into it.
He imagined a scenario where “…it will be possible for a businessman in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere.”
It was incredibly prescient to envision telecommunications infrastructure much like today’s Internet more than a century ago. But Tesla’s vision would never bear fruit.
Electricity can indeed be transmitted through the air but it’s impractical because of the amount of power needed to make it happen. So, Tesla appealed to Morgan for more money. It was all for naught.
Morgan was throwing money in the other direction toward Marconi. Wardenclyffe Tower was never completed and would eventually be demolished, along with Tesla’s vision.
Tesla was devastated and had a breakdown, lamenting: ”It is not a dream. It is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive—blind, faint-hearted, doubting world!”
Tesla began to withdraw from that world.
He showed signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder which compelled him to do things in threes, including living in a hotel room that was divisible by the number three.
He spent the last decade of his life living out of a hotel paid for by the Westinghouse Corporation which kept him on as a consultant.
He was broke.
And befriended pigeons.
Death and legacy
Edison on the other hand continued to reap immense rewards. Businesses and partnerships filled his life. By the time he died in 1931, he patented a record 1,093 inventions. There was the lightbulb, of course, but also the motion picture camera and the early record player called a phonograph.
Today – he is considered one of the world’s greatest inventors. It was only after Tesla’s death that he got a modicum of justice for all that he had lost.
When Tesla sued Marconi, the case dragged on in court for years. Six months after his passing in 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Marconi’s radio patents were invalid and awarded the patents for the radio to Tesla.
But it had a selfish reason for doing so.
Marconi’s company had sued the U.S. government for patent infringement during World War I. So to avoid the lawsuit altogether, the Supreme Court deemed Tesla the inventor of the radio.
Today, at the site where Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower once stood, is a science museum dedicated to the man whose dreams were not to be.
The Tesla Science Center was made possible thanks to the financial support of thousands of Tesla fans, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Tesla’s prediction of transmitting data without wires came true in the early nineties. The internet has changed our lives yet at the same time, it’s important to stay protected online.