Nikola Tesla: Genius, visionary, inventor extraordinaire! What did he invent? Well, just the Electric Age, developing the same power system that still lights up the world today. Oh, and also radio, X-ray imaging, radar, remote control, death ray and wireless communications with Other worlds.
Well…that is if you believe the hype once generated by the man himself, amplified by early 20th century media and perpetuated today by legions of admirers.
What did Nikola Tesla do?
Even 80 years after his death, Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) is still revered, possibly more than he was in life, as a rock star in the world of science, his name raised to almost the same dizzying heights as Newton. , Curie or Einstein. Even Discover staff members aren’t immune to Tesla’s mystique: after all, we put him right in the middle of our own list of the greatest scientists of all time.
Read more: Top 10 Scientists of All Time
Today, Tesla fans around the world still see him as a hero and a martyr, a nemesis of the mighty. thomas edison, tireless engineer of progress and prophet of modernity whose reach many times exceeded his reach. There is no arguing that Tesla possessed a commanding intellect and a dazzling vision of the future. But neither was the fact that he was also a born showman and an inveterate self-mythologist.
Taken together, those qualities make it sometimes difficult to separate truth from myth. But these are the facts we know that discredit, or at least clarify, some of the most persistent legends about the man.
What did Nikola Tesla invent?
Many stories about Tesla credit him with inventing the first alternating current (AC) motor, or sometimes even AC power itself. Without a doubt, the development of AC electricity changed the world. AC overtook direct current (or DC, championed by Edison) and its eventual acceptance paved the way for cheap, reliable, and widespread electricity in an era lit by candles and gas lamps.
But the claim that Tesla invented everything is crazy, we might even say shockingly, inaccurate. In 1888 Tesla developed and patented in AC motor, but it was not the first. Many scientists and engineers had worked on AC power generation: the oldest known generator dates to at least the 1830s.
Polyphase AC Motor
Academics and Tesla fans less prone to hyperbole will make it clear that Tesla’s great innovation was creating a polyphase ac motor, which could produce more power more efficiently and consistently than previous single-phase systems (and more than the DC system Edison was driving). But even here, Tesla was not the first. Many historians claim that the Italian physicist galileo ferraris first developed such polyphase motorbut kindly acknowledge that Tesla (and others) may have come to similar advances independently.
Certainly Tesla saw the potential of the motor and was quick to patent his own. In addition, his demonstration of his engine to a group of engineers was the first thing that attracted the attention of george westinghouse — Edison’s true adversary in the war of currents that would play out when the primacy of the AC over the CC was still in doubt. Westinghouse bought Tesla’s motor patent and together would begin to promote AC power as the dominant form of electricity, particularly with the installed in 1895 of a hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls.
The famous Tesla coil was not unique
A promotional image of Tesla in his laboratory, with one of the largest coils of the time. (Credit: Dickenson V. Alley (colorized)/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)
While it is true that Tesla patented his eponymous coil circuit in 1891, others were experimenting with similar devices before then. Eliu Thomson, for example (he and Edison would eventually co-found General Electric). But as with his polyphase AC motor, Tesla is credited with seeing many potential applications for the coil, including generating high-voltage electricity, sending and receiving certain types of radio waves, and even the possibility of wireless lighting.
Sold out conferences
It didn’t hurt that the Tesla coil also made quite an impression when you turned it on, and Tesla used his device to its fullest in several public demonstrations in the 1890s. These presentations made the man famous: his lectures sold out and for most of for the rest of his life he would be something of a media darling.
Furthermore, the theatrical effects of larger versions of this lightning-spitting coil will reverberate well into the next century. In the golden age of Hollywood horror and monster movies, it was practically a law that any set for a mad scientist’s laboratory had to include Tesla coils. you can still find them attracting inordinate attention in many museums and science centers.
Nikola Tesla vs. Thomas Edison
thanks to films, books and even popular comic books, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Tesla and Thomas Edison were arch-enemies on the level of Superman and Lex Luthor. In fact, there was a dramatic and sometimes bizarre struggle to determine whether direct current or alternating current would be the dominant form of electricity to light the world. However, that conflict had as much to do with business rivalries as with science, and Edison and Westinghouse were their main adversaries.
Read more: Edison’s cruel quest to show the dangers of alternating current
Here’s the real nitty-gritty of the relationship between the two: Tesla and Edison certainly knew each other: Tesla even worked for Edison briefly, then left to pursue his own interests, including AC power. But far from being combatants on opposite sides of the field of electricity, historical accounts paint a different picture of the two men, one of mutual respect.
In no less than a registration institution that The New York Times, Tesla praised the “great genius and enduring achievements” of his former boss. meanwhile edison once referred Tesla as “one of the greatest electrical geniuses the world has ever seen.” Hardly the words of sworn enemies.
Now you know what Nikola Tesla is known for
In the end, maybe Edison deserves the last word on Tesla. Like many great minds and change agents, Tesla’s actual claims about the immortality of science should not depend on whether or not he invented something entirely new. What matters is that his innovations, and his inexhaustible enthusiasm for furthering the uses of it, fueled human progress, while his life and his legend continue to inspire new generations of creators and thinkers.
Read more: How the US could have a fully renewable energy grid