(Original Article Published 14/1/2014)
“Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have worked, is mine.” – Nikola Tesla
They say that the history books are written by the winners. Maybe that’s one of the reasons most people aren’t that familiar with the name Nikola Tesla. He was a Serbian-American born during a lightning storm in the 19th century, and was a true genius in every sense of the word. Ask someone who invented the light bulb and they’ll probably come up with the name of Tesla’s great rival, Thomas Edison. The irony is that Edison didn’t actually invent the light bulb – in fact he perfected the work of others to develop a more reliable and commercial design. Tesla and Edison, great rivals, fought directly for supremacy in the way electricity was distributed. Okay, maybe this doesn’t sound as significant as the invention of the light bulb, but it’s just as fundamental to our modern world. Towards the end of the 19th century, a fierce battle was raged for the future of electrical distribution by the two scientific giants, Edison in the corner supporting direct current (DC), and Tesla in the other championing alternating current (AC). Despite Edison’s significant campaigning for the adoption of the DC system (which included electrocuting animals to prove how dangerous AC was), there’s a major problem with DC – over any significant distance it’s hugely inefficient. If the world had adopted Edison’s approach we would have needed countless hundreds of thousands more power stations than we have today. Thankfully, Tesla’s much more efficient AC system won through and it’s that which forms the backbone of modern electricity distribution grids. It might be understandable if the world had overlooked Tesla for this single contribution to humanity, but his talents didn’t stop there. There are numerous areas that Tesla pioneered, including: radio, radar, x-rays, hydeo-electric generation, the modern electric motor, recording of radio waves from space, and even early experiments in cryogenic engineering. The list goes on and on. In other words Tesla was a true genius in every sense of the word. Tesla had an astonishing mind and was a true visionary, not bound by current thinking and trends. An example of this maverick approach is one of his final inventions where he experimented with wireless power. Tesla constructed the Wardenclyffe Tower, a device intended to use the Earth and its ionosphere as giant electrical conductors. To realise this extraordinary idea, Tesla intended that receiving stations would be constructed around the world which could draw power from this wireless power grid. This might sound like an absurd concept, but many took it seriously including financier, J.P. Morgan, no less. He helped to fund Tesla’s experiments, but despite early promise, the development work proved prohibitively expensive, and during the stock market crash of 1901, Tesla’s funding dried up. It it hadn’t, maybe our world would be very different today, with power beamed into our homes and vehicles. It sounds crazy, but who knows, maybe in the future someone may go on to prove the feasibility of Tesla’s early pioneering work. So why do we remember Edison but not Tesla? It’s a good question. Maybe it’s because he laid the ground work that others capitalised on to the point that they are credited with their invention. Also, whilst Tesla’s contemporaries enjoyed huge financial success (and some might say were better businessmen), Tesla died alone and broke in a New York hotel room. Maybe, this underlines that he was more an ideas man, rather than someone concerned with commercially exploiting his inventions. Whatever one believes about Tesla’s life, without doubt he made a major contribution to scientific progress. Certainly, if he hadn’t have lived, we would have felt the impact on our modern world. But at least now we are starting to recognise the significance of Tesla’s contribution and how his genius touches all our lives to this very day. At the very least, we owe him a debt of gratitude.