Nikola Tesla Feature Image

Born on July 10th, 1856, Nikola Tesla is widely regarded as one of the most influential engineers of all time. Without Tesla’s work in the fields of mechanical and electrical engineering, the world today would look very different. Most people are familiar with Tesla’s work in a very broad sense, but his accomplishments from over a century ago are still affecting and changing the world we currently inhabit. Tesla is, perhaps, known best for his work with alternating current (AC) systems, but this work only illuminates a small portion of the prolific engineer and inventor’s work. There are very few things in the modern world which Tesla wasn’t directly or indirectly responsible for creating.

“Shadowgraphs” (X-Rays)

Nikola Tesla X-rays

They say that some of the greatest inventions were created entirely by accident; Penicillin, potato chips, and as it turns out, even X-Ray technology were all accidents. It all started in 1884 when Tesla began investigating what he called “radiant energy of invisible kinds.” Years later Tesla would discover damaged film in his labs that were associated with his work involving a Crookes tube. Through this purely coincidental occurrence, Tesla is believed to have captured X-ray images a few weeks prior to Wilhelm Rontgen’s discovery of the X-ray in the December of 1895. It is believed that because the discoveries were made so close together, Tesla never pushed for his discovery to be acknowledged as the preeminent one. Rather, Tesla continued with his experiments, working to improve the process eventually leading to the X-ray imaging technology that is still used in the medical field today.

 

“Wireless Telegraphy” (Commercial Radio Transmission)

Nikola Tesla & Guglielmo Marconi Radio

In 1904 the patent office of the United States granted Guglielmo Marconi the patent that would label him as the inventor of the radio. However, four years earlier in 1900, the same patent office had granted Tesla two patents for his work with the same technology. In fact, it was even earlier, in 1893, that Tesla first demonstrated that radio signals need a transmitter and a receiver when presenting to the Nation Electric Light Association. It wasn’t until a few months after his death in 1943 that the Supreme Court would acknowledge Tesla’s patent number 645,576 for his radio technology. However, even this posthumous acknowledgment is tainted by the fact that the Supreme Court had ulterior motives as they wished to undercut Marconi who was suing the United States government for use of his patents in World War 1. The government avoided this lawsuit entirely by revoking Marconi’s patent and awarding it to Tesla.

“Teleautomaton” (Remote Control)

Nikola Tesla's Remote Controlled Boat

As an extension of his work with radio transmission, Tesla went on to invent and demonstrate what is recognized as the world’s first remote-controlled vehicle. In 1898 Tesla unveiled his invention in Madison Square Garden in New York City– the demonstration consisted of a small boat which Tesla controlled via a remote transmitter of his own design. The technology was so surprising to onlookers that many considered it to be a feat of magic or telepathy rather than a scientific accomplishment. While this technology went widely overlooked for years, the German Navy would go on to use remote-controlled boats called FL-boats (Fernlenkboot, literally “remote control boat”) that carried 700kg of explosives which were intended to be steered into enemy ships. This technology can now be found in everything from gaming controllers to military drones.

The Alternating Current Induction Motor

Nikola Tesla's AC Induction Motor

Tesla is a name that’s known around the world today, but typically people associate the name with Elon Musk’s electric car company of the same name. However, what most people don’t realize is that the company was actually named by its original CEO, Martin Eberhard, and CFO, Marc Tarpenning, after Nikola Tesla. Their inspiration likely comes from Tesla’s invention of the AC induction motor which occurred in 1887 and was patented in 1888 before being sold to George Westinghouse later that year. While Tesla’s invention was clearly a revolutionary idea that might have saved the world from a dependence on fossil fuels, his work was overshadowed by an economic crisis and the ensuing World War.

Pioneering Alternating Current Systems In America

Nikola Tesla & Thomas Edison "The War Of Currents"

While alternating current power systems had begun rapidly expanding in Europe, it was a different story in America, thanks primarily to Thomas Edison. Edison had invested much of his wealth in the direct current systems which he had been producing, and when Tesla and his company began publicizing his alternating current motor to the public, Edison kicked off what would come to be known as the “war of currents”. Essentially, Edison began a campaign of fear-mongering and propaganda against Tesla’s system with the goal of controlling the market with his expensive, dangerous and inefficient direct current system. Tesla and his compatriots would, however, come out victorious as the alternating current system of power distribution is currently used worldwide and has been largely unchanged since 1889 when Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky developed the three-phase electric generator and the three-phase electric motor.

Hydroelectricity

Nikola Tesla's Hydroelectric Power Plant at Niagara Falls, New York

Tesla may not have built the first hydroelectric power plant, a feat that can be attributed to Thomas Edison and H.J. Rogers, who built the world’s first hydroelectric power plant in 1882. This plant harnessed the power of Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin. Tesla did, however, build the first large-scale hydroelectric power plant. The major fault in Edison’s power plant was the fact that it utilized his direct current system which, aside from being dangerous and expensive, was inefficient and was therefore not a scalable model. When Tesla, along with his partner Westinghouse, built the first large-scale hydroelectric power plant in 1895 in Niagara Falls, New York, the pair provided energy to industries in Buffalo, New York, essentially ending the “war of currents.”

The Tesla Coil

Nikola Tesla with Tesla Coil

For most of his life, Tesla dreamed of developing a system with which energy and information could be transmitted wirelessly. In 1891, Tesla got one step closer to his dream when he patented the Tesla Coil. In one of the most iconic photos of Tesla, the inventor can be seen holding an illuminated fluorescent light bulb in his bare hand. What isn’t in the picture, however, is the Tesla Coil that produces a radio frequency electric field. The field ionizes the gas in the bulb causing it to glow. The same principles used in Tesla’s technology are used in radios, televisions, cell phones and wireless chargers today.