" Even more impressive, however, is what Vujovic calls the start of the industrial revolution: Tesla's
AC induction motor [which] is widely used throughout the world in industry and household appliances…Electricity today is generated, transmitted and converted to mechanical power by means of his inventions. Tesla's greatest achievement is his polyphase alternating current system, which is today lighting the entire globe.
Tesla was certainly aware of the significance of his designs -- but he was not the only scientist developing new technology. He was constantly battling to obtain patents; getting them, losing them, and gaining them back again (such was the case with patent number 645576, "A System of Transmission of Electrical Energy," which was returned to Tesla post-mortum in 1943, having been granted in 1900 only to be taken from him and given to Guglielmo Marconi, and then returned -- acknowledging Tesla as one of the forefathers of modern radio communication). His ideas and patents, indeed, marked him as one of the premier engineers in the world -- but he was competing with other popular inventors, whose works -- if not as far-reaching and ahead of their times -- were certainly well-received. Tesla, however, was looking beyond public approbation -- to a certain extent. His System of Transmission of Electrical Energy was a unique step towards future communications:
As the main requirement in carrying out my invention is to produce currents of an excessively-high potential, this object will be facilitated by using a primary current of very considerable frequency, since the electromotive force obtainable with a given length of conductor is proportionate to the frequency; but the frequency of the current is in a large measure arbitrary, for if the potential be sufficiently high and if the terminals of the coils be maintained at the proper altitudes the action described will take place, and a current will be transmitted through the elevated air strata, which will encounter little and possibly even less resistance than if conveyed through a copper wire of a practicable size (Tesla 1900).
Tesla was already seeing beyond Edison's perfecting of Bell's telephonic communications by envisioning radio transmission. If Edison dismissed Tesla without respect (Tesla, in fact, dismissed himself from Edison's employ after feeling insulted by his wage), it was not without a sense of competitive distrust.
Tesla's writings, looking back at his endeavors, are somewhat dramatic, romantic, and self-aggrandizing, almost elevating his work to the level of the gods -- and they are the mark of a man seeking publicity. For example: "I grew frantic in my desire to harness this inexhaustible energy but for a long time I was groping in the dark. Finally, however, my endeavors crystallized in an invention which was to enable me to achieve what no other mortal ever attempted" (Tesla 1919). But his descriptions are vivid:
Imagine a cylinder freely rotatable on two bearings and partly surrounded by a rectangular trough which fits it perfectly. The open side of the trough is closed by a partition so that the cylindrical segment within the enclosure divides the latter into two compartments entirely separated from each other by air-tight sliding joints…a wooden model was constructed and fitted with infinite care and when I applied the pump on one side and actually observed that there was a tendency to turning, I was delirious with joy (Tesla 1919).
Before attending University in Prague, Tesla would already be envisioning "a direct current machine" and the workings of an alternator, motor, and generator.
Yet, as would happen throughout his life, Tesla would be plagued by detractors, insistent that his dreams were too big, useless, impractical and unworkable: "Not a few technical men, very able in their special departments, but dominated by a pedantic spirit and nearsighted, have asserted that excepting the induction motor I have given to the world little of practical use. This is a grievous mistake" (Tesla 1919). Tesla would time and time again prove the magnanimous nature of his work -- secluding himself entirely at Colorado Springs in 1899 where he worked briefly to cultivate his lightning experiments, showing that the earth was indeed a natural conductor of electricity. What was in his eyes one of his most important discoveries -- "terrestrial stationary waves…[proving] that the Earth could be used as a conductor and would be as responsive as a tuning fork to electrical vibrations of a certain frequency" was overshadowed, in a sense, by another stupendous claim of his, which was that he had received signals from another planet (Vujovic 1998).
Such eccentricities led critics to attempt to disparage what seemed largely irrelevant in their eyes. Tesla, however, contested:
A new idea must not be judged by its immediate results. My alternating system of power transmission came at a psychological moment, as a long sought answer to pressing industrial questions…Under such circumstances the progress must needs be slow and perhaps the greatest impediment is encountered in the prejudicial opinions created in the minds of experts by organized opposition (Tesla 1919).
Tesla's attempts to explain his efforts, which were indeed ahead of their time, did not always fall on deaf ears as he continued to find patrons for his work. J.P. Morgan's support led to the Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island in 1901, where Tesla shot spectacular lightning bolts into the air. (His work was much more comprehensive than lightning effects -- the Wardenclyffe Tower was meant to "be the first broadcast system, transmitting both signals and power without wires to any point on the globe. The huge magnifying transmitter, discharging high frequency electricity, would turn the earth into a gigantic dynamo which would project its electricity in unlimited amounts anywhere in the world" (Vujovic 1998). Morgan, however, withdrew his support and the Tower was destroyed in 1917. "The financier's classic comment was, 'If anyone can draw on the power, where do we put the meter?'" (Vujovic 1998))
Regardless, Tesla would go on to even more daring feats -- which is to say nothing of what he had already accomplished: For example, in 1896 Tesla had produced X-Ray photographs -- but they were made "at the same time as when Roentgen announced his discovery of X-rays. Tesla never attempted to proclaim priority. Roentgen congratulated Tesla on his sophisticated X-ray pictures, and Tesla even wrote Roentgen's name on one of his films" (Vujovic 1998).
His experiments in wireless communication and his visions of "guided missiles and weapons of mass destruction" were the product of an active mind that saw much more than the here and now (Vujovic 1998). He was a visionary on the verge of something great -- and both he and Edison were rumored to be recipients of the Nobel Prize in 1915, though neither won. But Tesla would eventually achieve recognition in the public sphere when at age 75 his image appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Ironically, Tesla was even awarded the Edison Medal in 1917, the same year his Tower, which might have been the world's greatest renewable energy supplier, was torn down for military reasons (WWI was in full swing). At the awards ceremony,
Vice President Behrend of the Institute of Electrical Engineers eloquently expressed the following: "Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the result 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 and our mills would be idle and dead. His name marks an epoch in the advance of electrical science" (Vujovic 1998).
Nearly twenty years later, Tesla would be drawing attention to himself once again -- but for an entirely different reason.
In 1934, the New York Herald reported that Tesla had announced "his invention of a beam of force somewhat similar to the death ray of scientific romance. It is capable, he believes, of destroying an army 200 miles away; it can bring down an airplane like a duck on the wing, and it can penetrate all but the most enormous thicknesses of armor plate" (Alsop). The article went on to describe Tesla's operations, ideas, and experiments, which would be confiscated by the government upon his death almost a decade later. A worker until the very end, Tesla never ceased imagining the impossible and then daring to make it possible.
In conclusion, Nikola Tesla was a visionary whose path was full of run-ins with the most famous scientists of his day, and the greatest entrepreneurs and financiers of his time. His range of inquiry was vast and his experiments and conclusions even greater. He obtained some 300 patents from around the world and never ceased attempting to engineer his uniquely envisioned designs. While being a man of mystery (to a certain extent), Tesla also maintained a desire for celebrity and recognition -- yet the myth that surrounds him to this…