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article number 536
article date 03-10-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Crazy or Genius? Just Who was Nikola Tesla?
by Frank Jenkins, President IEEE Power Engineering Society, N. Y.

From the 1976 book, Nikola Tesla, Life and Work of a Genius

* * *

Nikola Tesla, the man, engineer, inventor, humanist and innovator; all of these are intermingled in the character of this amazing person. I could spend my entire time just naming some of the seven hundred patents issued to Nikola Tesla.

He is a man little known to most people in this country today, even to electrical engineers. This is amazing considering the magnitude of the discoveries he made in the world of electricity.

To give a little insight into Nikola Tesla, the man, it will help to first review the course of his early life and work. He was born July 10, 1856 in Smiljan, Yugoslavia to the home of a Serbian Orthodox minister and his wife.

Though Nikola’s mother was unlearned, he credited her with being the source of his inventive ability because she had devised many labor-saving instruments for the family of seven. She possessed an unusually good memory, being able to recite thousands of verses of poetry and long passages from the Bible. In addition to Nikola, her four other children also inherited some of her remarkable abilities.

Nikola displayed some of his innovative genius in his younger years, whether fashioning his own fishing hook or by devising a blow gun. He even became somewhat of a town hero at seven when he was able to unkink the intake hose of the new fire engine as it was being demonstrated. He later indicated it was an intuitive flash that prompted him to dive into the river to check the suction hose.

Some of his other early inventions included a water wheel, and little “engine” powered by June bugs glued to the arms of a tiny windmill.

Some of Tesla’s mental agility showed itself in his early study of mathematics in school. He was so quick at mental arithmetic that he was often accused of cheating. His almost infallible memory made it easy for him to learn foreign languages and memorize poetry and verse.

The young Tesla was constantly awed by spectacular demonstrations of power and strength in Nature. For instance, once he and some friends were throwing snowballs down a snow covered slope trying to get them to pick up speed and size as they rolled. One, in fact, did continue rolling until it became a large ball, eventually causing an avalanche which stripped the mountainside of trees and snow.

During his life Tesla became convinced, by such natural demonstrations, of the tremendous forces locked up in Nature waiting to be released. He was always looking for ways to trigger the release of the vast amounts of energy in his later experiments.

Tesla completed his primary and secondary studies, distinguishing himself as a scholar. His parents wanted him to follow in his father’s footsteps as a clergyman. Fortunately for mankind, however, Nikola’s desire to study engineering prevailed. At the age of 19, he entered the Technical University at Graz in Austria to study electrical engineering.

It was during Tesla’s second year at the University that something extremelly important happened. Tesla witnessed the demonstration of the newly acquired Gramme Machine, which could operate as either a generator or a motor. It was a direct current machine with commutators and their inherent sparking.

Tesla voiced his objection on these commutators and exhibited confidence that they could be eliminated. The professor silenced Tesla with a convincing argument against such a “preposterous” idea, but Nikola maintained his conviction. He later said that though he could not demonstrate his belief at that time, it came to him by what he called instinct. To quote Tesla, “Instinct is something which transcends knowledge.”

Not until four years later in 1882 did Tesla solve the problem of eliminating the commutators which by that time had become an obsession with him. In the meantime, he had attended the University of Prague and was working for the newly formed telephone exchange in Budapest.

Young Nikola Tesla.

Something of Tesla’s genius is seen in the way in which he discovered the solution to his problem. He was walking in the City Park of Budapest reciting by memory Goethe’s ’Faust’ to a former classmate when the whole concept of a rotating electrical field came to him like a lightning flash.

As was often the case with Tesla, he could see the alternating current motor so vividly in his mind that it was difficult for him to determine if it were real or just a mental picture. He was able in his mind to see his new motor running, reversing, starting, and stopping without sparking.

In the next two months, Tesla evolved most of the types of motors later associated with his name, as well as the whole polyphase system of alternating current generation and transmission. Two years later he finally got sufficient support to demonstrate his system. In the meantime he had not put one line on paper! He had worked out and remembered the finest details and dimensions.

1888 was an historic year for the electric power industry because that is when Tesla was granted all the patents relating to his motors and polyphase system. Tesla delivered his classic lecture, “A New System of Alternate Current Motors and Transformers,” to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in May of 1888.

Tesla’s battle for acceptance was not over, however. At this point George Westinghouse purchased all the related patents for one million dollars plus royalties.

Over the next several years, Tesla’s alternating current system slowly gained acceptance over direct current, though not without a fight.

It took such displays of showmanship by Tesla as passing one million volts of high frequency current through his body to prove that a-c is safe. This he did at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, which was lighted by Westinghouse using Tesla’s a-c system. The harnessing of Niagara Falls in 1895 was the challenge that brought about the first widespread introduction of the polyphase system.

It is almost impossible to comprehend the extent of the effect Tesla’s system has had on the electric power industry and therefore mankind. He viewed his a-c motor as something to do the work of the world, setting man free from his slavery to hard tasks.

Beyond this, his polyphase system gave the power system geographical freedom. Unlike direct current, his alternating current could be sent great distances economically by stepping it up to a higher voltage. How vital this freedom is even today when our energy needs are so great.

The polyphase system provides the whole basis for electrical interconnection of our power networks, even across national boundaries, allowing us to generate power where it is most economical and transmit it to the points of need.

As was discussed this morning, Nikola Tesla’s genius was not limited to the transmission and use of electric power. Based on his conclusion that everything in Nature operates on the principle of vibrations that correspond to alternating current, he delved into high frequency phenomena such as light.

He gave a very spectacular demonstration and lecture on high frequency currents and their use in artificial illumination, to the American institute of Electrical Engineers in May of 1891. With his high frequency currents he was lighting bulbs and tubes brilliantly, producing spark discharges five inches long and electrical sheets of flame. Effects such as these had an emotional appeal to his audience.

Tesla received acclaim in the early 1890’s because any man who could produce two developments of the magnitude of his polyphase system and his high frequency demonstration, within a two-year period must be more than a mere genius.

In 1896 Tesla performed some little mechanical vibration experiments in which he one time accidentally succeeded in creating a small earthquake. It seems his small mechanical oscillator set up some vibrations in nearby buildings through the foundation of his own building. The vibrations became rather destructive when mechanical resonance was achieved.

Another of Tesla’s spectacular performances was his demonstration of both a “wireless” and a robbot-like boat, in Madison Square Garden in 1898. He was able to control his boat by means of his remote control wireless system. He even described radio-controlled rockets long before their advent.

Tesla spent about one year in Colorado Springs studying natural lightning and in some respects creating his own in the form of discharges over 130 feet long.

Dramatic time-lapse picture of electrical discharges produced in Nikola Tesla’s Colorado Springs lab.

As a result of his experiments in Colorado, Tesla became convinced that he could send both messages and power around the world without wires. He sought to increase the earth’s potential by artificial means at one location and withdraw the energy elsewhere on the globe.

He succeeded in lighting 200 incandescent lamps — total of 10 kW — at a distance of 26 miles without wires.

In the very early 1900’s, Tesla undertook a project on Long Island at a location he named Warderclyffe, financed by J. P. Morgan. The project was supposed to be for wireless transatlantic communication. When Marconi succeeded in transmitting the letter "S” across the Atlantic with much less complex equipment, it became apparent that Tesla’s true intention was to transmit power, not just communications.

Tesla’s funds for the project ran out and Morgan chose not to provide more. In 1906 Tesla was forced to close the facility without having succeeded in reaching his goal.

After this Tesla withdrew into seclusion, unable to work in the restricted commercial R&D environment. Without funds, he was unable to physically realize what he saw in his mind.

His grandiose dreams often drew ridicule since he was no longer able to demonstrate their practicality. He once said, “I will never have any money unless I get it in amounts so large that I cannot get rid of it except by throwing it out the window!”

Nikola Tesla died on January 7, 1943 in New York, alone, as he had preferred to live.

* * *

Of course, this short biography does not tell the whole story of Nikola Tesla. A look at his lifestyle, beliefs and idiosyncrasies will give some insight into what motivated him and what drove his brilliant mind.

It should be apparent at this point that no woman was mentioned in Tesla’s life. That, in simple terms, is because he never married. In fact, he refused to share the smallest fraction of his life with any woman, with the exception of his mother and sisters.

He had a deep respect for his mother and admired his sisters for their intelectual abilities. One sister actually had a greater ability for memorizing long passages from books than did Nikola.

He was not unattractive, but was a quite qualified bachelor in terms of his appearance, personality and wealth, which he had acquired through the sale of his patents to George Westinghouse. It was by his own choice that he excluded women from his life. He planned to devote his whole life to his work and would allow no person to distract him.

Tesla was aware that this devotion led to loneliness but apparently his intense satisfaction with a successful experiment was reward enough. He in no way looked down on women, but actually idealized them in his own objective way.

He was convinced that women would inevitably emerge not only as equals to men but as superiors in terms of education. He stated, “Women will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.” He did fear, however, that with their new fields of endeavor, women would eventually dull their “feminine sensibilities” and choke out their maternal instinct.

Ageing and smiling Nikola Tesla during an interview.

Tesla as usual seemed to have great insight into the future even if his conclusions may prove inaccurate in this case. John J. O’Neill in his biography of Tesla stated, “Tesla’s story paradoxically proves that even the most successful life, if it does not include a woman, is a dismal failure.”

As mentioned before, Tesla had a flair for the dramatic. Whenever he gave a lecture, it was always more than just a lecture. Audiences came to expect awesome demonstrations of new concepts to accompany his lectures. He had set extremely high standards for himself, never repeating previously presented experiments, but always presenting new material. The lectures would last two or three hours.

In the 1890’s during his years of fame and fortune, Nikola staged elaborate dinners at the Waldorf- Astoria, serving rare foods and exquisite wines. Following each of these dinners Tesla would invite his guests to his laboratory near Washington Square. There he would amaze these friends with fantastic displays of globes and tubes glowing in unfamiliar colors, objects whirling as if by magic, and sheets of flame issuing from large coils.

Bear in mind that this was all new in his era. Of course, it was always quite spectacular to see him light a lamp, explode a lead disc or melt a wire held in his hand by passing tremendously high voltage and high frequency currents through his body. For those of us who have accidentally passed 110 volts through our bodies — it’s painful, certainly not exciting.

It should come as consolation that Tesla was always cautious when working with potentially dangerous circuits. He would always keep one hand in his pocket to keep the current from passing through his heart. In his entire career he was injured only once.

Tesla was very cautious about protecting his body in another way as well. He had an extreme germ phobia, probably as a result of two very serious bouts with cholera in his youth. He always had his own private washroom in his office enabling him to wash his hands on the slightest pretext. After washing he would dry his hands with a clean towel.

He made every effort to avoid shaking hands with anybody. He used his collars and handkerchiefs only once and would always throw away gloves after wearing them for a week. Except for his elaborate dinners Tesla would eat alone, using two dozen napkins to clean each dish and piece of silverware.

He did not drink coffee, tea or cocoa, feeling they were bad for his health, but he did drink whiskey as a source of energy and as a means for prolonging his life. He believed whiskey would allow him to live to be one hundred and fifty.

Tesla felt that prohibition infringed on his rights, declaring it would reduce his life-expectancy to one hundred and thirty years. In this respect he was truly an optimist.

Tesla was quite aware of his idiosyncrasies but they were so much a part of him that it would have been impossible to rid himself of them. They caused problems for him but they were an essential part of his character.

He was not an easy person to work for because he expected almost as much from his help as he did from himself. Since he could depend entirely on his memory for all details, he believed others could too if they tried hard enough. He required his machinist to work from memory.

He was unable throughout his life to cooperate with others in acquiring knowledge and conducting research, and for that reason did not work long for Westinghouse or Allis-Chalmers, but preferred to work independently.

In Tesla’s later years, the commercial experimental organizations had taken the place of the self-supported inventor. The money was not available for him to physically realize what he worked over in his mind.

Perhaps a man such as Tesla could not survive in today’s commercial environment. He was a free and original thinker who would probably be too restricted today.

Tesla’s greatest handicap was no doubt the fact that he could not be bothered with minor, though profitable projects. He was so engrossed in his big projects that he would not exploit the little ones which would have proved sufficiently profitable to finance the big projects.

For example, Lloyds of London asked him to rig up a wireless set, ship-shore in 1896 to report the international yacht race. Tesla refused the offer, claiming that any public demonstration of his system on less than a world-wide basis would be confused with the amateurish effort being made by other experimenters.

Technically he could have accomplished the project without difficulty and would have benefited financially. But Tesla would not settle for a minor role, and ended up virtually empty-handed and unrecognized in this area.

Electricity transmission without wiring. Tesla’s ideas will continue to be incorporated in new inventions.

In this way it was after his own doing that he did not receive recognition for his inventions. Even in the case of his rotating magnetic field patents, he did not receive full credit publicly for a long time outside the United States. In this case he was even wrongly called an imitator in one London journal.

Even though Tesla eventually did gain recognition for his rotating magnetic field discoveries in the technical circles, the long period of controversy tended to deprive him of his deserved public acclaim.

Most people would classify Tesla as an inventor. It is interesting to note however that he made a very definite distinction in his own mind between an inventor of useful appliances and the discoverer of new principles. The discoverer to Tesla was a pioneer who opens up new fields of knowledge into which thousands of inventors swarm to commercially apply the new information.

He declared himself to be a discoverer whereas he considered most of his contemporaries to be inventors. This attitude probably influenced Tesla’s decision not to accept the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1912. He and Thomas Edison were chosen to share the award but Tesla refused.

Another contributing factor may have been that Marconi had received the award three years earlier and Tesla had done a great deal of basic research in wireless communication anticipating Marconi’s work without recognition. This statement is substantiated by a decision of the U. S. Supreme Court in 1942 invalidating Marconi’s basic radio patent.

Tesla apparently felt the award would not give the proper view of the relative value of his work. His difference of opinions with Edison went back to the days of the battle of alternating versus direct current.

In 1917 Tesla was awarded the Edison Medal by the AIEE. It was only after a great persuasive effort by B. A. Behrend, that Tesla agreed to accept the award. Behrend, who developed the circle diagram mathematical technique, had been one of the first electrical engineers to grasp the significance of Tesla’s alternating current discoveries.

It had been nearly thirty years since Tesla had announced his rotating magnetic field and alternating current system, and the time lapse alone was an indication of the institute’s failure to properly honor Tesla.

Part of Tesla’s feeling is shown by his statement to Behrend, “You would bestow an outward semblance of honoring me but you would decorate my body and continue to let starve, for failure to supply recognition, my mind and its creative products which have supplied the foundation upon which the major portion of your Institute exists.”

Tesla did finally accept the medal but one cannot help but emphathize with his feelings. Even the majority of the engineers who witnessed the medal’s presentation were of a younger generation who came after Tesla’s original discoveries. They grew up learning from textbooks that almost completely omitted Tesla’s name.

Of course there are two sides to every story. There are understandable reasons for the lack of recognition. Nikola Tesla did stage fantastic demonstrations and his contributions to science were enormous, but as has already been mentioned he was uninterested in small commercial ventures that would publicize his name.

Nor did he keep written records of his theories and experiments but kept everything in his brain. Until he could dramatically present his big results, they remained unknown to anyone else.

In addition, any demonstrations he did perform normally contained multiple concepts that tended to overshadow each other.

His laboratories were surrounded by great secrecy and security. For instance, his lab in Colorado Springs was fenced off with signs warning, “KEEP OUT — GREAT DANGER." He publicly announced, “I have an instrument at my station which is capable of killing thirty thousand people in an instant.”

Knowledge of Tesla’s work was quite limited, even within his labs because very few, if any, of his helpers were told his overall objectives. He never trained pupils to carry out his work after him. Perhaps his secrecy was in part responsible for his lack of recognition.

One more aspect of Tesla’s personality was his desire to work at night. In fact, he so preferred the night that even during the daytime, the shades in his office would be drawn to stimulate night conditions. The shades were raised only during a lightning storm so Tesla could sit back and enjoy the awesome show of nature’s power. He truly enjoyed such a “show”.

Mark Twain becomes personally involved during a visit to Nikola Tesla’s lab.

Nikola Tesla was not incapable of love and emotion even though he did not direct these feelings towards women. He would daily go walking in the park to feed pigeons. If for some reason he was unable to make his pigeon feeding rounds, he would pay a messenger boy to feed the birds.

Beyond this he would feed and care for pigeons in his hotel rooms, which when one considers his germ phobia and extreme cleanliness, is amazing. At one point there was even one bird of particular concern to him — a white female with grey-tipped wings.

It is difficult to explain how he viewed that pigeon, but he did say that he had purpose in life as long as he had her. He said that when she died, something went out of his life and he knew his life’s work was finished. As strange as this seems, it does show a sort of mysticism in Tesla’s life apart from the apparently cold objectivity that was so visible.

When trying to understand what motivated and drove Tesla, we see that even though he enjoyed elegant living, it was not a desire for money. He wanted and had to fight for his deserved recognition but had that been his overall goal he could have done a better job with a good public relations and business manager.

No, within Nikola Tesla was the admirable quality of wanting to help mankind.

His initial thoughts when he discovered the rotating magnetic field were to build the motor and give it to the world. He would set men free from hard tasks with his motor. When he later demonstrated his wireless remote control boat in 1898, the Spanish American War was under way. His ideas extended beyond boats to the possibility of guided missiles.

Tesla viewed the remote control of boats as a means of certain and unlimited destructiveness. He believed this would be a deterrent to war and would bring about and maintain permanent peace.

Since he opposed war, he was willing to apply his genius to devise ways to prevent wars by supplying protective devices, to even the smallest countries. Unfortunately, there is nothing to stop men from making a defensive weapon an offensive weapon. The developments from Tesla’s discoveries have benefited man in so many ways just as he desired, even if wars have not been prevented.

Nikola Tesla proved to be a great inspiration to both older contemporaries and to younger men entering the field of electrical engineering. He was eccentric, but had an amazing mind capable of discovering new scientific truths and applying them.

Let me quote some statements about Tesla by his fellow scientists and engineers. The letter introducing Tesla to Thomas Edison from Charles Batchelor, a manager at Continental Edison Company in Paris, stated. “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.”

While working for Thomas Edison, Tesla so enjoyed the work that he worked eighteen hours a day seven days a week, prompting Edison to say, “I have had many hard-working assistants, but you take the cake.” This was a true compliment from a person like Edison.

Lord Kelvin, the English scientist who headed the commission responsible for finding a way to harness Niagara Falls, declared, “Tesla has contributed more to electrical science than any man up to his time.”

The Franklin Institute in 1957 adopted the resolution, “Nikola Tesla stands with Benjamin Franklin in electrical achievements which have contributed much to the good of all mankind."

Tesla had very few close friends, one of whom was Robert Underwood Johnson. They met in 1893 and Tesla often enjoyed the company of the Johnson family.

Johnson once overheard another party guest talking with Tesla. The lady writer asked, “And you, Mr. Tesla, what do you do?” Tesla responded quietly, “Oh, I dabble a little in electricity.” The lady smiled condescendingly and said, “Indeed! Keep at it Mr. Tesla and don’t be discouraged. You may end by doing something some day.”

Imagine saying that to the one who helped harness Niagara Falls. Even today that is about the extent of our recognition of Nikola Tesla, the man who contributed so much to our electrical industry and beyond that, our world.

SPECIFICATION forming part of Letters Patent No. 517,900, dated April 10, 1894.

[line 40] I employ the energy of steam or gas under pressure, acting through proper mechanism, to maintain in oscillation a piston, and connect with or cause to act upon such piston a spring, preferably, an air spring, under such conditions as to automatically regulate the period of the vibration, so that the alternate impulses of the power impelled piston and the natural vibrations of the spring shall always correspond in direction and coincide in time.
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