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Nearly everyone reading this grew up learning that Thomas Edison invented electricity, and a lot of people still believe that today. They are wrong. Edison was a coked-up patent thief who, in the style of many other rapacious businessmen, took credit for things through media manipulation and relentless salesmanship.
Don’t mistake any of that for sour grapes on my part – Edison is a fascinating person. But not as fascinating as this week’s subject of Awesome Men Throughout History, a man whose contributions to electromagnetism paved the way for much of Edison’s fame. That man is Nikola Tesla.
Tesla was born in 1856, and was, to be polite, a delicate child. He was sickly, prone to depression and nervous fits, and had glimpses of synesthesia, all of which interfered with a traditional schooling schedule. He tried to study electrical engineering at Austrian Polytechnic in Graz (go Diodes!), but left without receiving a diploma, becoming so reclusive that his friends thought he’d drowned in the Mur River. Tesla resurfaced in Budapest, where he became the engineer for Hungary’s first telephone system, and his work with amplifying sound may have led to the world’s first loudspeaker.
Plagued by demons or not, Tesla was a genius. He was a very good student who memorized entire books as a child, and his synesthetic visions were often pictures, usually in precise detail, of inventions he’d been working on or problems he’d run into. It’s been said that Tesla could do most of the drafting for his inventions and patents in his head before taking them into the laboratory.
Tesla came to the United States in 1884, when Thomas Edison was developing an electrical system with direct current, which can’t travel long distances and requires a lot of infrastructure, even for small areas. Tesla, meanwhile, had been developing an alternating current system that was much more efficient, and even helped redesign Edison’s project until he realized how badly Edison was ripping him off and quit. He went on to form a partnership with Edison’s chief rival, George Westinghouse, who had a friendlier ear for Tesla’s ideas about alternating current; Westinghouse used it to light up the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and turn Niagara Falls into a hydroelectric powerhouse. Their partnership made Tesla a celebrity.
It also made the modern world possible, really. Electricity is delivered to our homes and businesses via alternating current systems, and the same is true for most audio signals. Additionally, the individual motors in things like refrigerators and hair dryers use alternating currents. And it all comes back to one guy, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.
Of course, because Tesla was crazy, he had other ideas that didn’t pan out so well. He turned down a contract with Westinghouse that would have made him one of America’s first millionaires, and his weak grasp of patent law led to a lot of his research being stolen. In his later years, his ideas about “teleforce” weapons (known today as directed-energy weapons) and an ion-propelled aircraft that ran without an engine pretty much sank his reputation in the scientific community. His obsessive-compulsion got worse with age (he was physically repulsed by jewelry and obesity), and showed signs of senility in the years leading up to his death. He would also regularly go for days without sleeping, and once spent 84 straight hours working in his laboratory. I’m not a doctor, but that probably had something to do with his mental deterioration.
But for all his quirks and terrible business instincts, Tesla’s ideas about alternating current were game changers. And the lives of Tesla Coil fans would be that much more pathetic without him.