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Nikola Telsa (1856 – 1943)


Overview

Reputed as a mad visionary and showman. He claimed to have invented a ‘death beam’, attempted to communicate with life on other planets. Despite this he was instrumental in the development of the essential components for generating and distributing alternating current (AC).


Early Life

Telsa was born in the small village of Smilijan, in modern day Croatia. He was the son of a clergyman and his mother who had the knack of inventing useful tools for the family farm. From an early age he showed an interest in mathematics, mechanics and physics. At nineteen he entered University of Graz and from there went to the University of Prague to study philosophy. It was during his time in Graz he first became interested in the idea that electric motors could be run on a current more efficient than direct current (DC). Though ridiculed for the idea it became his obsession.


The Obsession

His first breakthrough came as he walked through a park in Budapest. He had been reciting lines from Goethe’s “Faust” when the idea of the induction motor, fully formed, came to him. He quickly etched his idea in the sand. They were basic diagrams and the idea involved the use of alternating current to create a rotating magnet that could drive a motor.

This idea represented an essential advance in combating a serious problem faced by the emerging electricity industry. In order to distribute electrical power efficiently over long distances it was crucial to be able to raise and lower voltage as needed. This was not possible with the DC system favoured by Thomas Edison. With the use of transformers, AC could be effectively manipulated and transported far from the source of the power. Telsa’s induction motor made AC feasible.


Telsa in the USA

In 1884 he sailed to the USA and began working for Thomas Edison. He proved himself to be a capable and tireless worker with no task being too great or small for him. The only problem being that Edison and Telsa strongly disagreed over the AC/DC debate. Telsa favoured AC while Edison strongly preferred DC.

Telsa left Edison’s workshop and worked for a company that made industrial arc lights. Finding this work unchallenging he soon resigned and supported himself by digging ditches and other odd jobs. However, in 1887, his luck changed when the Western Union Telegraph Company helped him to form a business. For the following two years he produced designs for split-phase, induction, and synchronous motors, generators and transformers.

At this point a businessman by the name of George Westinghouse took an interest in Telsa’s work. He provided the financial backing for Telsa to invest his time in the development of AC. All of this time Edison made public attacks on Telsa’s AC theory. He publicly portrayed animals being electrocuted by high voltage AC to display its dangers. He even went as far as to suggest that AC should be used in New York’s electric chair because of its lethality.

In spite of all the negative publicity AC won out over DC. The Hydroelectric power station built on the Niagara Falls in the mid 1890’s was a testament to Telsa’s dream. It provided long range distribution using his system.


Other Projects

Telsa worked on various other innovations and predicted that we would be able to communicate and transmit energy without the use of wires. He also foresaw the use of radar. He designed and built a model of a radio controlled ship and devices that could create artificial lightening bolts. He was also an early advocate of harnessing solar and geothermal power.


Death

As he got older Telsa became more eccentric and he developed a germ phobia. He lived alone and eventually withdrew from society. Near the end of his life he lived in a run down New York hotel room where he spent much of his time feeding his pigeons. He died peacefully in his room in 1943.