You’ve heard of Tesla Motors but if you don’t know the story behind the name, read on…it’s a good one.
His name is Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American inventor and engineer whose most famous invention was the alternating-current (AC) power transmission, which is still used in lighting the world today.
Enter Thomas Edison, who developed direct-current (DC) transmission which is used in almost all electronics and battery operated devices today.
AC: In an alternating current, (AC), electricity flows in alternating directions and voltage, enabling it to transfer through long distances. It can pack as much power as DC but is not as dangerous.
DC: Direct current (DC) flows in one direction and can’t be converted to high voltages. Power plants need to be located within a mile of the end user.
Tesla originally worked for Edison, the two improving on Edison’s DC based electrical works, which were becoming the standard in the country. They eventually parted ways, for what historians attribute to differing scientific-business beliefs. Edison was a power figure, said to be focused on marketing and financial success, whereas Tesla concentrated on inventions versus money.
Case in point.
In 1888 George Westinghouse, looking to supply the nation with long-distance power, purchased Tesla’s patents for $60,000 and royalties for what electricity was sold through the Westinghouse Corporation. Tesla and Westinghouse became direct competitors with Edison, who was trying to make DC transmission the standard. Edison waged a negative press campaign against them, and after steep litigation and competition between the two companies, Westinghouse, fearing financial ruin, begged Tesla to release him from the agreed upon royalties. Tesla, forever grateful to the man who he believed would never swindle him, tore up the agreement and walked away from the millions owed to him. With the billions that would have accrued, he would have been one of the wealthiest men in the world. In the end, he died penniless and in debt.
The Tesla society considers Niagra Falls, the first major hydroelectric power plant in the world, his greatest achievement. This was the final victory of Tesla’s Alternating Current over Edison’s Direct Current.
Fortunately, Tesla continued his work patenting several more inventions. In total, he filed more than 700 patents including fluorescent lighting, remote control and wireless communication.
Yes, I said wireless communication.
In 1901 he developed the idea for Smartphone technology. W. Bernard Carlson, author of “Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age,” explained in an interview with PBS, “Tesla may have had a brilliant mind, but he was not as good at reducing his ideas to practice,” Carlson said. “In the race to develop transatlantic radio, Tesla described to his funder and business partner, J.P. Morgan, a new means of instant communication that involved gathering stock quotes and telegram messages, funneling them to his laboratory, where he would encode them and assign them each a new frequency. That frequency would be broadcast to a device that would fit in your hand,” he explained.
“In other words, Tesla had envisioned the smart phone and wireless internet,” Carlson said, adding that of all of his ideas, that was the one that stopped him in his tracks. “He was the first to be thinking about the information revolution in the sense of delivering information for each individual user,” Carlson said.
“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 really worked, is mine”
What he lacked in money, he garnered in respect. The Tesla Society tells this story, “On his 75th birthday in 1931, the inventor appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. On this occasion, Tesla received congratulatory letters from more than 70 pioneers in science and engineering including Albert Einstein.”
After suffering a second nervous breakdown, Tesla continued to work in a consultative role, but his inventions became more and more outlandish. He became known as an eccentric and a recluse, living much of his life in New York hotels, paid for by Westinghouse. He spent a significant amount of time caring for wild pigeons in the parks of New York City, particularly one white female who he is thought to have loved like a person.
When she died in his arms, Tesla is said to have claimed that in that moment, he knew he had completed his life’s work.
“Of all things, I liked books best.”