A Love Letter to the Past: Tesla

15Nov12

Nikola Tesla, was arguably the most prolific inventor of the past two hundred years. However, he is also one of the least appreciated. People always wax philosophical about Newton, Bohr, or Einstein; however, Tesla was more like the prolific artist whose works were kept squirreled away in a disused barn.

He had the brains and the looks to conquer the world, but he was defeated by the ultimate enemy: consumerism. More specifically, Thomas Edison. Edison, who is erroneously credited with inventing the lightbulb (to be fair he added tungsten), was very adept at marketing his ‘discoveries,’ and by extension, discrediting Tesla’s ideas. Specifically, and famously, Edison publicly electrocuted animals to prove that his direct current (DC) was safer than Tesla’s alternating current (AC). Ironically, Tesla, when he was employed by Edison, had been the one who solved Edison’s design flaws for the DC generator. Tesla found himself one of the casualties of the War of Currents between Edison (DC) and George Westinghouse (AC). Edison may have won short term, but today the US is powered using the AC current, because it can carry high voltages longer distances. Whereas, DC required more power plants, and cannot travel nearly as far. AC current is stepped down from the time it is created until it is consumed at someones home or office. DC won out initially because it was not economically feasible to use AC and convert the two back and forth.

Tesla, it can be argued, invented the radio, a project for which Guglielmo Marconi won the Nobel Prize for in 1911. Tesla was issued a patent for the radio in 1900 (three years after he submitted the application), after realizing that his Tesla coil was able to pick up and send strong radio signals. Marconi’s patent, which he submitted to in 1900, was rejected multiple times, and Tesla even noted that Marconi was using seventeen of his patents. However, much to Tesla’s chagrin, Marconi’s company was well connected and finically successful, and the US Patent Office overturned Tesla’s patent in 1904. After Marconi’s Nobel, Tesla sued him for infringement in 1915  a case which the US Supreme Court ruled on in Tesla’s favor in 1943 (side note to that, the Supreme Court wasn’t being altruistic, Marconi had been suing the US government for the patent, so they were basically able to dodge Marconi by giving Tesla’s original patent supremacy).

These are only some of the amazing advances that came about because of Tesla’s brilliance, perseverance  and imagination. There is no happy ending for him. He never married, was never awarded a Nobel Prize, and died penniless in 1943 (in the company of a pigeon who had glowing eyes, which he confessed to love).

His is hardly the first, nor will it likely be the last, tale of a great mind who is shuffled off into obscurity, never knowing their true worth. Our world would be a very different place, especially in reference to electrification and technological advances, without Tesla.

The Oatmeal has made this impassioned and handy poster “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.” He is getting a very hearty ‘hear, hear’ from my corner.

 

So raise your glasses to Nikola Tesla, and remember that you wouldn’t be reading this with out his pioneering work and vision.

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2 Responses to “A Love Letter to the Past: Tesla”

  1. 1 Natasha

    That was probably the greatest post I’ve ever read and the greatest video I’ve ever watched. All hail Tesla!

    • 2 sassociety

      Thanks! He was a pretty amazing person. I’m excited that the guy from the Oatmeal has been such a force in trying to establish a museum for Tesla.


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