Nikola Tesla Articles
Nikola Tesla: Incredible Scientist
His genius sparked a revolution in electrical invention
One morning, some years ago, lower Manhattan began to shake. It was like an earthquake. Water pipes burst, plaster fell from ceilings, windows cracked. The vibration grew stronger. People rushed into the streets from the neighboring tenements.
Police headquarters in Mulberry Street had little doubt as to where it was all coming from. A squad rushed to the loft building on Houston Street where Nikola Tesla had his laboratory. They had had experience with Tesla before.
They didn't wait for the elevator but took the stairs. As they burst into the laboratory the building was swaying as if the walls might crash at any moment. They saw a tall man pick up a sledge hammer and smash a small machine attached to a column in the middle of the room. At once the noise and vibration ceased.
Tesla was always secretive about his inventions and he refused to reveal anything about the now hopelessly shattered machine which had caused the miniature earthquake. There have been many attempts by other scientists to explain the violent effects it produced that morning, but none of the explanations were very convincing.
Tesla later described what he called his "telegeodynamic oscillator," presumably a similar machine. "It is so powerful," he said, "that I could now go over to the Empire State Building and reduce it to a tangled mass of wreckage in a very short time. I could accomplish this result with utmost certainty and without any difficulty whatever. I would use a small mechanical vibrating device, an engine so small you could slip it in your pocket. I could attach it to any part of the building, start it in operation, allowing 12 or 13 minutes to come to full resonance. The building would first respond with gentle tremors and the vibrations would then become so powerful that the structure would go into resonant oscillations of such great power and amplitude that rivets in the steel beams would be loosened and sheared off. The outer stone coating would be thrown off and the skeleton steel structure would collapse in all its parts."
In the face of claims of this sort and Tesla's refusal to give details and specifications of his discoveries, the natural impulse of the average man is to label him a charlatan. Before going further it will be well to emphasize that in spite of his eccentricities and all evidence to the contrary, there is no question that he was one of the greatest scientists. Whatever the layman may think of him, other scientists have no doubt of his quality. His achievements were recognized during his lifetime by all the world's scientific societies. He was awarded the Nobel prize and refused it.
As he grew older he became even more suspicious and secretive. He never trusted his assistants with any information about his projects. They simply followed his instructions with very little understanding of the purpose of their work.
He never put anything of importance on paper; all details of his inventions he carried in his head. When he was found dead in his hotel room, in 1943, agents of the FBI immediately impounded all the material in his safe because of reported secret inventions that would be of use in the war.
Probably Tesla's lifelong reticence and distrust of the men with whom and for whom he worked. were due to certain disillusioning experiences he had had as a young man. There is considerable evidence that he was victimized more than once by the men over him.
Tesla was born in 1857 in what is now Yugoslavia. As a young man he worked in the telegraphic engineering department of the Austrian government and later as engineer for an electrical company in Budapest. From there he went to the Continental Edison Company in Paris.
There was a serious accident at the railway station in Strassburg where the Continental Edison Company had established a power house and an electric lighting system. During its dedication in the presence of the Emperor William, an explosion due to a short circuit blew out a wall and caused extensive damage. Threatened with the repudiation of a contract and a lawsuit as well, the company sent Tesla to Strassburg to soothe ruffled tempers and get the installation in working order. He was promised, according to his own story, a bonus of several thousand dollars if he succeeded. However, when the time came for him to collect his bonus, he could find no one in the company who had authority to carry out the agreement. One of his friends in the company, a man named Batchellor who was also a friend of Thomas A. Edison, suggested that America would be a much better place for a brilliant young man to have a successful career. He gave Tesla a letter of introduction to Edison.
Tesla sold his books and few possessions to raise money for his pas sage to America. As his train was about to pull out of the Paris station, he discovered that his luggage had vanished and also his wallet containing his money and steamship ticket. He hesitated as to what he should do; but he knew he would miss the boat if he didn't. take that train. He had enough loose change in his pockets to pay his railway fare; and when he explained the situation to the ship's officers, and no one else turned up. to claim his reservations, he was permitted to sail.
He arrived in New York with no money but with Batchellor's letter to Edison still in his possession, and he soon had a job at the Edison laboratory in West Orange.
There have been several versions of the beginning of Tesla's trouble with Edison - trouble which had reverberations down the years in the electrical industry. Edison was a shrewd business man. Tesla was a foreigner, not too familiar with the English language, touchy by nature or by experience and never an easy man to work with.
Some of the facts were undisputed. Tesla was a valuable man in the design and operating departments of the Edison plant and repeatedly was promoted, but with no substantial increase in salary. He found many ways in which the dynamos Edison was making could be improved in design to increase output and lower operating costs. He outlined his plans to Edison who told him to go ahead, adding, "There's $50,000 for you if you do it."
What happened is related by John J. O'Neill in his biography of Tesla, Prodigal Genius:
Tesla designed 24 types of dynamos, eliminating the long core field magnets then in use and substituting the more efficient short cores, and provided some automatic controls on which patents were taken out. Months later when the task was finished and some of the new machines built and tested and found measuring up to his promises, Telsa asked to be paid the $50,000. Edison replied, "Tesla, you don't understand our American humor." Tesla was shocked to discover that what he thought was a specific promise was being tossed aside as merely a standard practical joke of the day. He received not a penny of compensation for the new designs and inventions, nor for the tremendous amount of overtime, beyond the none too generous weekly pay. He resigned his job immediately.
Undoubtedly the Strassburg and Edison experiences embittered Tesla. Times were hard and he could not find another job. For a year he worked as a day laborer, digging ditches. Finally the foreman of the gang on which he was working became impressed by what Tesla told him of his inventions. Through this man, an officer of the Western Union Telegraph Company became interested. A corporation known as the Tesla Electric Company was formed. Its laboratory was on the street which is now West Broadway. Here, in these modest quarters, started the war which split the electrical industry for years and in which Tesla was ultimately the victor.
While it lasted it was a tremendous war between the advocates of systems of direct and alternating electric current. Edison was on the direct current side. He had power houses operating in several cities and he was backed by J. P. Morgan.
Alternating current was no more than a scientific curiosity until Tesla's inventions made its use possible. He had discovered the fundamental principles on which his system was based - that of the revolving magnetic field - before he left Europe. Now he produced three systems of alternating current machinery, dynamos, motors, transformers, distribution systems, for which he was granted seven patents in 1887. The following year he was granted five more and an additional 18 later.
Direct current could be supplied only within a mile of a power house. Tesla's motors, however, used alternating current which could be transmitted hundreds of miles.
The electrical industry quickly realized that a revolution was in the making. Tesla was invited to deliver a lecture before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. This time he put reticence aside and described in detail the electrical system which today is in operation all over the world and which makes present day civilization possible.
Tesla needed a man with vision and money to commercialize his system. The man appeared in the form of George Westinghouse, head of the Westinghouse Electric Company of Pittsburgh. Ten years older than Tesla, he had made a fortune out of his airbrake and other inventions. He hunted up Tesla.
"I will give you one million dollars cash for your alternating current patents, plus royalty," he said.
"If you will make the royalty one dollar per horsepower, I will accept the offer," Tesla replied.
"A million cash, a dollar horsepower royalty,” Westinghouse repeated.
"That is acceptable," said Tesla.
"Sold," said Westinghouse. "You will receive a check and a contract in a few days.”
This transaction, and the million dollars, undoubtedly restored - temporarily - Tesla's faith in human nature.
There is some dispute about the bonus feature of the contract. According to Tesla's story, Westinghouse got into trouble over this clause. Extended operations in a period of financial depression made a reorganization of the Westinghouse Company and a merger with several smaller concerns concerns advisable. Plans were worked out but made contingent on the cancellation of Tesla's bonus contract. Westinghouse put the matter up to Tesla. Tesla, grateful to Westinghouse, agreed. He thus relinquished millions of dollars in royalties.
Westinghouse officials dispute some features of this story, but it is fairly certain that the first million dollars was all that Tesla actually received for his patents.
In 1891, Tesla was sitting on top of the world. He was young, rich, distinguished. At the Waldorf and Delmonico's certain tables were always reserved for him. He gave fabulous dinner parties with the most prominent people in the city as his guests. After dinner he would conduct them to his labora tory where he put on exhibitions that were much more astonishing than those of professional magicians.
Many have told of what happened on these occasions. Doubtless some of the weirder machines he exhibited had no other use than to startle his visitors. However, there was no deception when he allowed hundreds of thousands of volts of electricity to pass through his body to light a lamp or melt a wire which he held in his hand.
His fame went round the world. European scientific societies invited him to lecture before them. The Westinghouse Electric Company, using Tesla's system, supplied all the electricity for lighting and power at the Chicago World's Fair of 1892. Tesla had an enormously popular exhibition of his own at the Fair.
The successful harnessing of Niagara Falls by the installation of his polyphase generating system added to Tesla's reputation. In 1894-95 he built what was probably the first radio transmitting and receiving station. His objective was not only to send and receive messages without wires but to transmit power in the same way. Messages were sent from his laboratory on Houston Street in New York to a Hudson River boat 25 miles north of the city. There is no question as to the date because the results of his experiments were announced officially in the Electrical Review of July 9, 1897.
One of Tesla's most sensational projects was to light up the whole sky at night so it would be as bright as day. He believed this was possible because while the air at sea level pressure is practically a nonconductor of electricity, when it is rarefied as it is at a considerable height above the earth, like other gases under the same conditions, it is an efficient conductor. His plan was to conduct high frequency currents to a height of 35,000 feet where they would cause the entire atmosphere to become luminous. The apparent hitch in the scheme was a method of conducting the high frequency current to the place where it was supposed to go to work. Tesla claimed that he had devised a way to do this; but he never revealed what it was. This secret died with him, as did others.
Things were now going badly with him. After he received his million dollars from Westinghouse he began to live like a prince - and he continued to do so all the rest of his life, whether or not he had any money. It was sometimes difficult when he was actually penniless, but he proved that, for him, it was not impossible.
He received immense sums from friends for his research, but he was not interested in commercializing his inventions. He intended to do so, sometime in the future; but always he was so intent upon new discoveries that he couldn't bother to make money. He fully expected to live 150 years, so there was no hurry. On several occasions he was evicted from hotels because he couldn't pay his bills. Usually when things got as bad as that, some friend would give him 25 or 50 thousand dollars and a new era of wonderful laboratories and extravagant living would ensue.
At the first Electrical Exhibition in 1898, Tesla built a large tank in the middle of the arena and in this he placed an iron hulled boat furnished with a radio receiving set and numerous motors. A metal rod extending upward received the radio impulses he sent from the far end of the arena. Any visitor could tell him what he wanted the boat to do-start, stop, back, steer in a certain direction - and immediately the boat would execute the maneuver.
Tesla went on to develop, on the same plan, a robot man. For this, he was granted a patent. He tried without success to interest the War Department in his wireless-controlled machines.
He wrote: "In 1896, I designed a complete machine capable of a multitude of operations, but the consummation of my labours was delayed until later in 1897. This machine was illustrated and described in my article in the Century Magazine of June, 1900, and other periodicals of that time, and when first shown in the beginning of 1898 it created a sensation such as no other invention of mine has ever produced.
"In November, 1898, a basic patent was granted to me, but only after the Examiner in Chief had come to New York and witnessed the performance, for what I claimed seemed unbelievable. I remember that when I later called on an official in Washington with a view of offering the invention to the government, he burst out laughing upon my telling him what I had accomplished. Nobody thought then that there was the faintest prospect of perfecting such a device...
"In an imperfect manner it is practicable with the existing wireless plants to launch an aeroplane, have it follow an approximate course and perform some operation at a distance of many hundreds of miles. A machine of this kind can be controlled mechanically in several and I have no doubt that ways it may prove of some usefulness in war...
"By installing proper plants it will be practicable to project a missile of this kind into the air and drop it almost on the very spot designated, which may be thousands of miles away."
This was written many years ago, remember.
Tesla had constructed larger and larger oscillators in his Houston Street laboratory, until with one producing 4,000,000 volts he arrived at the limit of safety for a city building. He needed a structure in the wide open spaces where he could build even larger coils. As usual he was broke. However, one of his friends - Crawford, of the drygoods firm of Simpson and Crawford came to his rescue with a gift of $10,000. Curtis of the Colorado Springs Electric Company offered him land for a laboratory and all the electric power he would need.
This was the beginning of the Colorado Springs project about which so much has been written and about which so little is actually known. He needed still more money, and another friend, John Jacob Astor, came up with $30,000.
Tesla took several of his assistants and proceeded to Colorado Springs. The fantastic building he constructed to house his giant oscillator has often been described. Its most striking feature was an 80 foot tower from which projected a mast 200 feet high, surmounted by a copper ball three feet in diameter.
The first time he started his new oscillator Tesla was successful in producing tremendous voltages; but in doing so he burned out the generator in in the Colorado Springs power house 25 miles away.
O'Neill recounts what Tesla told him he was trying to do at Colorado Springs:
With the earth set in electrical oscillation, a source of energy is provided at all spots on the earth. This could be drawn off and made available for use by a suitable simple apparatus which would contain the same elements as the tuning unit in a radio set, but larger, (a coil and a condenser), a ground connection and metal rod as high as a cottage. Such a combination would absorb at any point on the earth's surface, energy from the waves rushing back and forth between the electrical north and south poles created by the Tesla oscillators. No other equipment would be needed to supply light to the home provided with Tesla's simple vacuumtube lamps, or to produce heating effects.
According to stories current in Colorado Springs at the time, Tesla succeeded in transmitting power considerable distances without wires. On one occasion, he lighted a bank of 300 electric bulbs 25 miles from the laboratory.
That he got sensational results of some kind is indicated by the fact that, when he returned to New York in 1899, J. P. Morgan supplied $150,000 to build a broadcasting station at Wardencliff, Long Island, for what Tesla called his World Wireless System. Tesla had discovered or developed something at Colorado Springs that made the $150,000 investment at least a good gamble. It was probably the Wardencliff venture in prospect that accounted for the aura of secrecy that surrounded Tesla's activities in Colorado Springs.
As it turned out, $150,000 was not enough to complete the station and, predictably, Morgan declined to invest more. The half finished building, never used, remained standing until the government destroyed it at the beginning of the first World War because its tower made it too conspicuous a landmark.
Tesla's devoted secretary, George Scherff, tried many times to persuade him to permit the commercialization of some of his discoveries which would be sure moneymakers. Tesla's reply was always the same: "Mr. Scherff, that is small-time stuff, I cannot be bothered with it. Wait until you see the magnificent inventions I am going to produce and then we will all make millions."
After the Wardencliff fiasco, Tesla turned to the development of a turbine engine which he believed to be as great an improvement on the steam engine in use as his alternating current system was superior to the direct current system. He built an experimental engine which weighed only ten pounds, was small enough to go into a derby hat and developed 30 horsepower.
Later, a large machine was built at the Waterside Station power house of the New York Edison Company, but there were unexplained complications after a successful initial test. The project was dropped. Tesla believed this was due to the influence of Edison. The old feud persisted.
He then succeeded in interesting the Allis-Chalmers Company in his turbine engine and went to Milwaukee to superintend the construction of the machine. Here he promptly antagonized the com pany's engineers with whom he had to work. Things finally became so unpleasant that he simply walked out, leaving everything up in the air, nothing accomplished. There is no question that his artistic temperament was costly to himself as well as to the men associated with him.
The Nobel Prize for physics was awarded in 1912, jointly to Tesla and Edison. It would have meant $20,000 for each of them and as usual Tesla was broke. But he refused the prize. He considered the placing of Edison, “a mere inventor,” in the same category as Tesla, a discoverer of new principles, an insult.
In 1917, he was awarded the highest American engineering honor, the Edison medal, and refused it. It is given each year by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers for outstanding achievement. This time however he was persuaded by friends to accept the honor.
The presentation of the medal was made by B. A. Behrend, one of the great electrical engineers of his day. In his presentation speech he summed up expert opinion as to Tesla's genius. He said,
Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr. Tesla's work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead and idle... His name marks an epoch in the advance of electrical science. From that work has sprung a revolution in the electrical art.
In 1933 Tesla announced the discovery of what was popularly called the “death ray." This caused a sensation, but he never demonstrated the ray nor gave an inkling of the principles on which it worked.
During the later years of his life, Tesla was frequently out of money. Always when his friends learned of his predicament some one of them came to his rescue. After 1936, he received $7,200 a year from the Yugoslav government in the name of the Tesla Institute of Belgrade. With his extravagant habits, this was not enough to keep him out of difficulties, but it afforded him a measure of security.
The men who knew him have told of his curious eccentricities, perhaps natural in a man who had always lived alone, with no one but himself to think of. For example, he bought a new pair of gloves each week and threw away the old ones no matter what their condition. He bought one new necktie each week. He never had handkerchiefs laundered but discarded them after use. He demanded the exclusive use of a table in the dining room of whatever hotel he honored with his presence. When a meal was served he used two dozen napkins. After wiping each dish with one, he dropped the napkin on the floor.
He demanded a fresh towel every time he washed his hands. He never shook hands with anyone; if his hands were seized, he would be upset for hours.
Tesla's friends agree that no woman ever influenced his life. But he loved pigeons. Several times his difficulties with hotels were complicated by the fact that pigeons flocked to his room by hundreds to be fed. In at least three instances he was notified that he would have to give up feeding pigeons in his room or leave. He left. It is said that when he stopped before the Public Library in New York and gave a low whistle, flocks of pigeons would fly down from all directions, covering the sidewalks and even perching on him.
Toward the end of 1942 it became evident that Tesla was not going to achieve anything like the 150 years of life he had anticipated. He stayed in his hotel room and refused to see even his old friends. He insisted that he wasn't ill but that he wanted to be left alone.
On Tuesday morning, January 5, 1943, he gave orders to the maid who attended to his room that he was not to be disturbed under any circumstances. Friday morning when there was still only silence from the room she became alarmed and risked his anger by entering it.
Tesla was dead. Police and the coroner were summoned. Death was declared due to natural causes. Agents of the FBI promptly appeared and seized all Tesla's papers.
It is interesting to speculate about the secrets Tesla carried with him to the grave. In his later years he would not reveal any details of his discoveries and projects. His reply to inquiries was invariably the same: secrecy was necessary until he could obtain patents; he couldn't apply for patents until he had made working models; he couldn't make working models because he had no money.
Quotations from Prodigal Genius, by the late John J. O'Neill, used with permission of Mr. O'Neill and his publisher, the Ives Washburn Company, Inc.