Newspaper and magazine articles related to Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla Articles

Newspaper and magazine articles related to Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla - Last of the Pioneers?

June, 1959
Page number(s):

Remington Rand Univac
Division of Sperry Rand Corporation
St. Paul, Minnesota

It has been observed that a student might well complete his formal engineering education without ever having heard of Nikola Tesla. Yet, if we examine the record of engineering progress during the last half-century he is invariably associated with major developments in the electrical sciences. A Slav whose name has fallen somewhat dissonantly upon American ears, Tesla worked apart from the established engineering fraternities which would have helped to preserve a remarkable record of achievement. In tribute to Tesla for his outstanding accomplishments the International Electrotechnical Commission announced, on the eve of the world-wide observance of the Tesla Centennial Anniversary in 1956, that the unassigned unit of magnetic flux density in the MKS System be named in his honor. Introducing the new unit, "Tesla," Chairman Dunsheath conveyed the Commission's expression to the Centenary symposium held at Beograd (1) that, "By giving this great scientist's name to a unit of such extreme importance we have paid him the warmest tribute we can."

At the age of 31, Tesla announced a polyphase system of alternating current power transmission based upon his discovery of the rotating magnetic field principle. Alternating current had been known and used for lighting purposes, but the system had no motor. Essence of the Tesla System was an induction motor, a machine of ideal simplicity that did not require the costly and troublesome commutator of direct current machines. Alert to developments which would augment the company's entrance into the electrical domain, George Westinghouse immediately obtained exclusive rights to the Tesla patents and provided the polyphase system with its first practical demonstration in furnishing power for the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Prior to this time an international commission had been established to survey the various possibilities of harnessing the power of Niagara Falls. Industrial America had begun to build on direct current power systems, which were fostered, developed, and given great impetus by Thomas Edison. On the basis of their operation, Lord Kelvin, heading the International Niagara Commission, favored direct current. It was an era of laissez-faire. Edison had issued the order that no electric power company with which he was associated would offer the alternating current system to the public. "My personal desire," wrote Edison, "would be to prohibit entirely the use of alternating currents. They are as unnecessary as they are dangerous" (2). However, the direct current systems had severe distance limitations, and in late 1893 the Tesla polyphase alternating current system was chosen on the basis of its incontestable merits.

By 1895 Niagara had been harnessed, giving birth to the great industrial power systems of the world. The polyphase system represented a most distinct advance in the electrical arts, there being few instances when sweeping technological changes have been implemented so rapidly. Although the tides of development would have dictated the inevitable reduction of the rotating magnetic field principle, it had remained to Tesla to evolve a workable concept amidst the partial attempts and unsuccessful apparatus of other artisans. His contribution embraced the entire field of constant speed synchronous, induction, and split-phase motors, and was of such completeness that no basic changes have appeared in the system since its introduction, nor have any claimants been successful through the long history of litigation marking the Tesla patents.

Greener Fields

Although a promising success was predestined for the alternating current power system, Tesla did not choose to guide the new industry in its growth. Rather, having worked for one year with Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, he experienced so great a longing to resume his interrupted investigations that, notwithstanding the very tempting proposition offered, he returned to New York to again take up his laboratory work on the phenomena of alternating currents of vastly increased frequency and voltage. It is in this field where we find Tesla's name more familiarly associated, and the one invention which perhaps more than any other has served to perpetuate his name is the high frequency resonant transformer, or "Tesla coil." This piece of apparatus provided a means whereby high frequency currents could easily be generated and studied and was soon to be found in every experimental laboratory.

The first announcement of Tesla's researches came in 1891; when he began a trio-series of demonstration lectures delivered in America and in Europe to familiarize the public with his findings (3). The lectures themselves were literally brilliant, necessitating an array of special apparatus for the extensive repertoire of experiments. He showed to struck audiences that it is possible to pass relatively large amounts of high frequency current through the body with little sensible effect, and demonstrated for the first times high frequency induction heating, neon and fluorescent lamps, resonance and impedance phenomena, and methods of conversion to high frequency currents. Owing to pressing demands by several foreign scientific societies, he ventured to Europe, where he lectured twice in England and in France. On returning to America he appeared in 1893 before the Franklin Institute at Philadelphia and the National Electric Light Association at St. Louis. Tesla presented new concepts in the electrical art forming the nucleus of what has become the modern electronic age. In recognition of that pioneering lecture before its body, the Franklin Institute recently adopted the Resolution,

° Nikola Tesla stands with Benjamin Franklin in electrical achievements which have contributed much to the good of all mankind.

In his lecture before the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Tesla set forth technical arguments bearing on radio communication which had far-reaching implications. His lectures of the following year expanded upon those ideas to embrace the essential elements of antenna and ground circuits coupled with transmission and receiving circuits similarly tuned. The employment of an aerial conductor and ground connection was a feature not utilized by the contemporaries Lodge and Popov, nor employed by Slaby and Marconi until 1897, when their respective results were achieved.

Professor Slaby first acknowledged Tesla as the "Father of the Wireless" (4):

I have been engaged for some time in investigations in telegraphy without wires, which you have first announced in such a clear and precise manner in your "Inventions." It will interest you as the father of this telegraphy to learn.... ° °

Such a declaration precipitated others, but the discovery provided an opportunity for the application of multifarious "devices" which served but to detract from the basic work. In 1915 Tesla appeared again in the courts on fundamental issues, this time in an effort to prevent Marconi's attempt to establish a broad claim to all basic radio patents. Tesla's inability to obtain a favorable judgment had transcending effects upon the course of commercial radio development, and set a precedent for succeeding litigation involving other workers in the art. Tesla attributed his failure to the status of technical knowledge of the times, and to the unkind hand of fate; less than a year following Tesla's death the U. S. Supreme Court, in an historic but little noted decision (5), declared the Marconi "four tuned circuit" patents invalid on the basis of prior work and anticipation by Tesla and John Stone, the patents which had established Marconi as the master of radio.

New Vistas - Old Problems

With a conviction that alternating currents of tremendous magnitude would reveal novel and unsuspected properties, Tesla established an experimental station at Colorado Springs in 1899 unrestricted by the limits imposed in his New York City laboratory. There he discovered standing waves induced in the earth's static charge by impinging strokes of lightning which led him to generate such waves by artificial means and utilize the tremendous resonant action. Tesla produced electrical discharges surpassing in intensity those of natural lightning, an experiment which has not been duplicated since that time. Though the exact nature of the experiments conducted at Colorado Springs has not been completely disclosed, the basis for this grandiose research was to establish foundations in wireless power transmission. Returning to New York in 1900 he constructed a gigantic tower and power plant on Long Island to demonstrate in a practical way the results of these investigations, but mounting expenses unforeseen at the outset and a severe illness forced the abandonment of the project. The deserted tower and plant stood for many years as resolute landmarks of a bold dream-wireless power had not been practically demonstrated.

In contrast to the splendor of earlier projects, Tesla conducted in following years a comparatively retiring program of varied research activity. An important contribution from this period however was the application of a novel principle in mechanics to turbines and pumps. Dispensing with blading, the weakest element of a conventional turbine, the Tesla turbine has a rotor of closely spaced smooth discs to which energy is imparted by drag properties of fluid flow along logarithmic spiral stream lines. Following tests, Tesla remarked in a letter (6), "This result means an immense revolution in mechanics and there is scarcely a department which will not be profoundly affected." Notwithstanding the desirable characteristics of the spiral-flow turbine, it has not been developed commercially, although a revival of interest has occurred in recent years. The inherently high rotational speed imposed restrictions on its initial application and construction, and Tesla's financial inability in later years to undertake the development task himself also contributed to its present obscurity. The day of the lone pioneer and wealthy patron had passed, and for Tesla the adjustment to working with a developmental staff was untenable.

The past half-century of engineering and scientific progress has brought with it a marked change in processes of development. As a classical symphony did not emerge by group effort, neither were the achievements of early pioneers in science the product of a research staff. So interwoven have become the concerted efforts directed toward common goals that personalities per se are no longer forerunners in the advancement of the art. Tesla was perhaps the last member of that society of "true pioneers," but whether the new pattern of scientific research will provide a new breath of life, to discovery only future reflection will tell. In nearly all instances Tesla was unable to profit directly from his work, the advanced nature of which restricted immediate and practical utilization, but through private support he was able to conduct a program of research activity greatly exceeding the financial bounds of many other groups. His creativity seemed limited only by the ability of one man to advance alone and develop new principles. Though perhaps giving freer vent to the expression of his ideas, it is clear that such isolation prematurely retarded later successes.

Tesla passed on January 7, 1943, in the quiet of a remarkably brilliant career. The concept of the rotating magnetic field as applied to the polyphase system of alternating current power transmission is a lasting monument to his inventive genius. In all the literature of high frequency phenomena, perhaps none has stirred the imagination so much as his writings. The work of this prolific savant whose life was so intimately dedicated to the enrichment and betterment of mankind through discovery is indeed an inspiration in these times.


1. Motivated by the observance of the Tesla Centenary throughout the world, the Nikola Tesla Museum has published in English the anniversary volume, "Nikola Tesla, 1856-1943; Lectures-Patents Articles." 830 pages, Beograd, 1956. Included are five of the most important lectures delivered by Tesla in America and Europe, complete facsimile drawings and specifications of his major patents, and twenty-five articles on science and philosophy written by him between 1891 and 1917.
2. Thomas Edison, "The Dangers of Electric Lighting." North American Review, November, 1889, page 632.
3. "The Inventions, Researches and Writings of Nikola Tesla" with special reference to his work in polyphase currents and high potential lighting, by Thomas Commerford Martin. 496 pages, The Electrical Engineer, New York, 1894. (Reproduced as contribution to the electrical industry by the Lee Engineering Co., Milwaukee, 1952.) Includes the three lectures by Tesla on the phenomena of high frequency alternating currents delivered during 1891, 1892, and 1893.
4. Professor A. Slaby in a letter dated December 1, 1898, to Tesla. Original in Nikola Tesla Museum, Beograd.
5. "United States Reports," Vol. 320. Cases adjudged in The Supreme Court at October term, 1942, and October term, 1943.
6. Nikola Tesla in a letter dated October 13, 1908, to his private secretary. Original in collection of writer.

° May 15, 1957, at a stated meeting honoring the Tesla Centenary.

° ° Ich beschaeftige mich seit laengerer Zeit mit der Erforschung der Telegraphie ohne Draehte, welche Sie zuerst in ihren "Inventions" . in so klarer und zutreffender Weise begruendet haben. Es wird Sie als Vater dieser Telegraphie interessieren zu hoeren....


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