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Nikola Tesla - Pioneer in Electricity and Rival of Thomas Edison

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An article in The Buffalo News  on December 6, 2015 caught my eye.  It was entitled “A Sudden Interest in Nikola Tesla Means Inventor May Get His Due.”  Tesla is probably more known in the Buffalo area than anywhere else, since electricity from Niagara Falls first brought power to lights, trolleys and engines in Buffalo on November 16, 1896.

                             

Nikola Tesla

                                                              Nikola Tesla - Wikimedia

Feud with Thomas Edison

Nikola Tesla had an ongoing feud with Thomas Edison on how electricity should be transmitted, either by direct current (DC) favored by Edison, or alternating current (AC) favored by Tesla.  Thus began the war of the currents between AC and DC. Tesla and George Westinghouse emerged the victors because AC was a superior technology.  It has contributed to the progress of both America and the world.  The difference between the two men can be attributed to the fact that Tesla discovered amazing things and then forgot to write them down.  Edison would contact the patent office the minute he or any of his employees found something.

Nikola Tesla’s Origins

Tesla emigrated from Serbia to the United States in 1880.  He had studied Math and Physics at the Technical University of Graz, and Philosophy at the University of Prague.  In the United States, he worked for Thomas Edison as an electrical engineer, but frustration and disagreements with his employer forced him to quit.  Edison was already famous for perfecting the light bulb.  His company, which eventually became General Electric, worked on machines which used direct current, allowing electricity to travel just one way.  When Tesla was a university student in Graz, he had used electricity in its normal state, as alternating current.  He had an idea for sending AC electricity farther and stronger than DC, which he hoped to implement in the United States.  He became a United States citizen in 1891.

                              

Thomas Edison

                                                          Thomas Edison - Wikimedia

AC versus DC

Edison was totally against alternating current.  He thought it was dangerous.  Tesla disagreed and toured the country, sending thousands of volts through his own body to prove that it was safe.  In the late 1880’s, he had been granted more than 30 patents and received an invitation to address the American Institute of Electrical Engineers on his work.  This brought him to the attention of George Westinghouse in western New York, who bought one of Tesla’s patent and backed him up financially.  Together they were responsible for lighting the 1891 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  They also won the bid to set up AC hydroelectric power at Niagara Falls.  Three thousand power plants in existence at that time became obsolete.  Tesla and Westinghouse began their successful partnership for the nationwide use of electricity in America.

Backing from Famous Financiers

Although it is not well known, Nikola Tesla continued to work on creations which became the forerunners of the cell phone and computers.  In 1901, he moved his Research Lab to Long Island.  He received backing from J. P. Morgan for a 187-foot tower designed for transmitting wireless transatlantic messages.  He was soon out of cash because another friend and colleague, John Jacob Astor IV, had gone down on the ill-fated Titanic.  Tesla had been living at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel through the generosity of Astor, but was handed a bill for $20,000.  In payment, he exchanged his Long Island Lab property.  Because Nikola Tesla had no wife or children, he died virtually in obscurity in a hotel room in New York City in 1943.

 

Niagara Falls

                                                               Niagara Falls - Wikimedia

Current Interest in Tesla

The reason for the current interest in Tesla in the western New York area is the work of a group of entrepreneurs who are planning construction in spring 2016 on a project called “Tesla City.”  A restaurant and brewery will be opened in an old railroad way station where Tesla’s first electricity was put into service in 1896.  An exhibition honoring Nikola Tesla will be housed there also.  A second group will erect a museum in the last remaining building of the power station that was responsible for powering lights that were 400 miles away.  A third group on Long Island is planning an environmental center depicting Tesla’s life.  It will be situated in Tesla’s former Lab where he built the 187-foot tower destined for a worldwide wireless communication system.

For many years, the only tribute to Tesla in western New York had been a statue of him in Niagara Falls State Park.  His name has never been exalted in the way that Edison’s had been, and now his system is used worldwide.  Marc Seifer, the author of “Wizard:  The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla,” states that “Nikola Tesla is the single most important person for helping to slow down global warming.”

Tesla was a pioneer in many electronic fields. He has registered over 700 patents. He invented the Tesla coil in 1891, which is widely used today in radio and television sets and other electronic equipment. In 1901, Marconi had achieved wireless communication between Britain and Canada, earning him the Nobel Prize in 1909.  However, in 1943 the U. S. Supreme Court rendered Marconi's most important patent invalid, recognizing Tesla's more significant contribution as the inventor of radio technology.

Elon Musk, a businessman responsible for much of the rejuvenation happening in Buffalo, New York at the present time, is the owner of our new Solar City as well as SpaceX, a spacecraft company in California.  He named his electric car “Tesla” which stimulated a lot of interest in the inventor. Tesla was also a pioneer in the research into the radio, X-rays, radar, lasers, robots and fluorescent lights.  He is, perhaps, about to get his due.

In 1915, the New York Times announced that Tesla and Edison were to share the Nobel Prize for Physics, but neither man received the prize.  It was rumored about that Tesla refused the prize because he would not share it with Edison.

                                  

John Jacob Astor IV

                                                       John Jacob Astor IV - Wikimedia

Honors Given to Nikola Tesla

In 1894, both Columbia and Yale University conferred honorary doctoral degrees on Nikola Tesla.  New York State and many other states have proclaimed July 10th, Tesla’s birthday, as Nikola Tesla Day.  On his 75th birthday in 1931, the inventor appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, as Man of the Year.  The United States Postal Service honored Tesla with a commemorative stamp in 1983.

It would appear that Nikola Tesla’s genius was recognized worldwide during his life.  If his star has faded in recent years, the efforts of the Niagara Falls entrepreneurs will certainly bring his name back into prominence, and rightly so.

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Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age
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Bibliography

  1. Michelle Kearns "A Sudden Interest in Nikola Tesla Means Inventor May Get His Due." The Buffalo News. 6/12/2015.
  2. "Nikola Tesla." History.com. 12/12/2015. 12/12/2015 <Web >
  3. "Tesla Biography." Tesla Memorial Society of New York. 12/12/2015. 12/12/2015 <Web >

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