Nikola Tesla: 73 years since a genius’ death

7 Jan 2016

Nikola Tesla (and Colorado Springs image below) via Wikimedia Commons

Nikola Tesla, one of the finest inventors ever and a key instigator of the modern age of electricity, died 73 years ago today.

Born in what’s now Croatia, Nikola Tesla is perhaps best known for being Thomas Edison’s arch rival and, while many colloquial history tellings credit the latter with pioneering the nascent electricity age, it is the former that we should credit as our true hero.

Having worked for Edison for a while in the 1880s, Tesla quit the company amid a payment dispute and the dawn of the current wars was upon us.

Edison, pioneering direct current (DC), suddenly had a genius competing against him, rather than working for him, and Tesla’s work commercialising alternating currents (AC) began. While DC could only send electricity one way, AC could send and receive, was cheaper and had a better brain behind it in Tesla.

This culminated in a battle to power the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, with Tesla’s AC winning the day, one of countless face-offs between the two men.

Inventor, innovator

While not necessarily inventing some of the things credited to him – AC, for example, already existed – Tesla did pioneer key advancements across the board.

The likes of lighting, X-ray, wireless power, radio, telephones, oscillators, remote control vehicles, motors, lasers, robotics and power generators are just some of fields Tesla’s mind revolutionised either immediately or over time.

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla’s Colorado Springs lab

Indeed, many major inventions made by others at the time (telephone and X-ray for example) were already studied by Tesla, with some evidence pointing towards him getting there first.

His experimentation with electricity, producing both visual and powerful results, helped people study the field in greater detail.

He designed the first hydroelectric power plant in the late 1890s, with the Niagra Falls construction immediately powering Buffalo – subsequent facilities were set up to power the city, too.

A tough 20th century

Dying in 1943, Tesla’s life in the 20th century was one of constant financial strife as corporate powers, bureaucratic quirks and his own neglect of the business side of his inventions culminated in the life of a type of struggling artist.

At the turn of the century, for example, he partnered with JP Morgan to build Wardenclyffe laboratory in Shoreham, Long Island.

The facility included the ‘Tesla Tower’, which was a ramped up Tesla Coil – an electrical resonant transformer circuit he invented around 1891 – that he hoped would ultimately provide wireless power to his surroundings. After funding disputes, though, it all ended in tears.

The full catalogue of Tesla’s achievements is documented excellently elsewhere on the internet, so, rather than waffling on, here’s a video of his 10 greatest inventions.

Oh, and if you still need convincing of his genius, this brilliant Oatmeal article should do it.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic