January 1, 2006
By Olga Markovich
Engineer, scientist, and inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) is often called the "forgotten genius" and his name is definitely not a household word. Nonetheless, biographies, novels, and plays have been...
Engineer, scientist, and inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) is often called the “forgotten genius” and his name is definitely not a household word. Nonetheless, biographies, novels, and plays have been written about him, a movie directed by Ken Russell is in the production stages, and a heavy-metal rock band bears his name.
Nor is Tesla forgotten in the annals of engineering science. Members of Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) passed a resolution at their last annual general meeting to designate 2006 as the Year of Nikola Tesla.
Exactly who was Tesla and why should PEO honour his memory?
Serbian by origin, Tesla, was born in 1856 in the province of Lika, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Obsessed with mathematics and the sciences, he entered the renowned Austrian Polytechnic School at Graz to study mechanical and electrical engineering. There, in a physics class, he first saw the Gramme dynamo, which employed DC current to operate as a generator and when reversed became an electric motor. Tesla began to visualize a motor that used alternating electrical current for transmission and distribution. In 1883, while working for the Continental Edison Company, he constructed, in his after-work hours, the first induction motor.
In 1884, the 6’4″ immigrant arrived in New York City with four cents in his pocket, a few handwritten poems and many ideas about the wireless transmission of energy and remote control. He met Thomas Edison and told him about his plans for an alternating current motor. Both Tesla and Edison could go for days without much sleep. But there the similarities ended. Tesla relied on moments of inspiration while Edison was a trial-and-error man. Edison was self-educated while Tesla had a formal European education. Edison believed in DC while Tesla favoured AC.
They soon parted company, beginning the “war of the currents” which resulted in life-long animosity and acrimony between them.
When industrialist George Westinghouse purchased Tesla’s patents, things came to a head. Would Edison’s direct current or Tesla’s alternating current be the chosen technology for the future industrial development of North America?
In time, Westinghouse and Tesla, won the bid for illuminating the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition making it the first all-electric fair in history. In the Great Hall of Electricity, the Tesla polyphase system of alternating current power generation and transmission was displayed to awestruck crowds. After that more than 80 per cent of all electrical devices in industry used alternating current. Lord Kelvin, head of the International Niagara Falls Commission, for example, insisted that AC current be used to harness the power of the falls and awarded Westinghouse the contract to build the powerhouse.
When J.P. Morgan tried to manipulate the stock market to buy out Westinghouse’s Tesla patents, Westinghouse pleaded with Tesla to forego his generous royalties so that the Westinghouse Company could be saved. Tesla tore up the contract to save the man who had believed in his invention, but the gesture meant he was forever after beset with financial difficulties.
Over the course of his life, Tesla’s inventions included : a telephone repeater, the rotating magnetic field principle, the polyphase alternating-current system, the induction motor, alternating current power transmission, the Tesla coil transformer, wireless communication, radio, fluorescent lights, and more than 700 other patents.
At his funeral in 1943, Tesla was acknowledged as “one of the outstanding intellects of the world who paved the way for many of the technological developments of modern times.”
Olga Markovich is editor of Canadian Industrial Equipment News in Toronto.