Nikola Tesla was one of the most complex men in the history of science, equal parts visionary, inventor, engineer, and all-around tinkerer. Although the names of Edison and Einstein are better known, the contributions and innovative thinking of the Serbian-born Tesla did much to shape the modern world. Like Einstein, Tesla’s name is often evoked whenever we think of solitary genius, a notion that stands in stark contrast to the collaborative efforts of mainstream science today. Here are five interesting aspects of Tesla’s life and legacy.
5. Wireless Energy Transfer and the Tesla Coil
One of the most visible legacies to Tesla’s unique visions is the unfinished Wardenclyffe Tower, a massive incomplete construction on Long Island that was dedicated to Tesla’s idea of wireless communications and energy transfer. Begun in 1901, Tesla moved his laboratories here, and although the project turned into a financial debacle and eventually was shut down, the enormous foundations of the lighthouse-style structure still remain. It’s fascinating to imagine what kind of a steam-punk world would have came to pass in the early 20th century had large Tesla transmission towers become reality. The Wardenclyffe Tower did, however, become a symbol of the device that will forever be associated with the man: the Tesla coil. This is an innovative method to produce a high frequency alternating current with high voltage but a low current … and yes, the Tesla coil became a staple of every bad science fiction and horror movie in the 1950s.
4. Nobel Prize Controversy
Tesla was involved in notable feuds with two other great visionaries of his day, and in the end, that may have cost him a Nobel Prize. One such battle was with Guglielmo Marconi over the invention of the radio. Tesla’s patent for the invention of “wireless telegraphy” was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court, but it’s been said that Marconi won the Nobel in 1909 because of the failure of the Wardenclyffe Project. Tesla was also involved in a long-running feud with Thomas Edison concerning the future of commercial electricity (see item No. 1). When both men were mentioned as possibilities to share the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1915, they each made it clear they would not accept if it meant sharing. As a result, neither man ever won the coveted honor. To be fair, it was a highly competitive era in science, and even Albert Einstein failed to win a Nobel for either of his revolutionary theories on Special or General Relativity, but he instead won the 1921 award for his studies on the photoelectric effect.
3. Tesla’s Ion Drive and Modern Spacecraft
One of Tesla’s more fascinating ideas that he never saw to fruition was his idea for a “wingless aircraft.” Tesla theorized an aircraft could be propelled by an ion-driven reaction engine and controlled by various ground transmission stations. This would alleviate the need for wings, ailerons, and the like. This sounded like science fiction in Tesla’s time, but NASA today uses ion-thrust to propel spacecraft, most notably the Dawn mission to the asteroids Ceres and Vesta. First pioneered and space-tested by the Deep Space 1 spacecraft launched in 1998, an ion-drive provides a low steady thrust that requires relatively low mass-to-thrust ratio and thus has a low mass penalty for the spacecraft.
2. Tesla’s Eccentric Claims
Tesla, like many great minds, was not without grandiose claims, especially in his later years. We often remember great names such as Einstein, Mendeleev, and Tesla for what they got right, and not for the many blind alleys they went down to get there. In a more enlightened age, it’s always fun to speculate on whether such great overachievers may have suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, or were merely industrious by nature. Certainly, the mystique surrounding Tesla provides fuel for the legend. For example, Tesla claimed to have developed a dynamic theory of gravity as an alternative to Einstein, which he never published. He also conceived of a plan for a directed-energy weapon that may have predated ideas for the laser.
Tesla obtained around 300 patents in his lifetime, a number bested only by a few peers, such as Edison. The fact that the FBI classified Tesla’s papers after his death only added to his legend. Like many great minds, stress may have gotten to Tesla in his later years as he became obsessed with the number 3. He died in relative anonymity in a 33rd floor room in the New Yorker Hotel in 1943.
1. Tesla’s Enduring Legacy
The list of inventions that Tesla pioneered reads like the history of the 20th century: Radio, radar, the induction motor, the Tesla coil, alternating current dynamos, arc light systems, and electric vehicles were all conceived by Tesla. He also developed concepts such as the use of X-ray machines, telegeodynamics, robotics, and early computer-logic principles. These ideas often came to him in a flash of inspiration. Like Howard Hughes shortly after him, Tesla was a visionary who was far ahead of his time. For example, Tesla demonstrated a concept for a radio-controlled boat at an exhibition in Madison Square Garden in 1898.
Tesla’s greatest legacy, of course, is his development of the system to make alternating current the standard for the commercial transmission and use of electricity. That put him directly at odds with Edison, who thought direct current should remain the standard. Tesla turned out to be right, and years later Edison admitted that his stance on direct current was the worst mistake he ever made. Today, we can thank Tesla for the transmission lines that make 21st century life possible, that charge our IPhones and keep our air conditioners humming in the summer. Tesla’s fertile mind would’ve loved and recognized such innovations as wireless communications, satellites, and automated drone aircraft. Tesla stands as one of the handful of innovators who single-mindedly propelled us forward into the technological future.