Nikola Tesla: life at the speed of current


Ampere, Henry, Ohm, Tesla-what are they? Units of measurement? Yes, but not only that. They are also people, famous inventors, scientists, thanks to whom modern electrical science and industry, including electronics, exist. By publishing a story about the enigmatic figure of Nikola Tesla, who is still of great interest in scientific circles, we open a new rubric “History in Persons” and hope to tell about the followers of the famous scientist in the next issues.

…the hall filled to the brim with smart people. Bright flashes of cameras. A tall, dark-haired gentleman in an elegant suit is standing at a table with strange-looking implements as if on a stage. Two gas-discharging tubes appear in his hands. The assistant dims the lights and turns on the generator. The rarefied gas tubes glow brightly in the darkness with an electric current without wires.

The time of action is 1893. The place is the Electrotechnical Congress at the Columbus World’s Fair in Chicago. The protagonist is the famous electrical and radio inventor, physicist and engineer Nikola Tesla. That evening, visitors to the pavilion were treated to a cascade of experiments and experiments. A real show was played out, during which the scientist-inventor passed lightning through himself, demonstrated the effect of a magnetic field and put a fat dot on the experiment with the famous “Tesla’s Egg of Columbus“. On a table with a two-phase ring stator, hidden under a wooden disc, a steel rotor made in the form of an egg was laid out, which at the moment of voltage application began to rotate and, gradually accelerating, took the vertical position. The experiment clearly demonstrated the operation of the rotating magnetic field.

This is how Nikola Tesla, who had long ago studied the manners of the unsophisticated public, tried to attract public attention to his scientific developments. He counted on the interest of financial magnates, whose investments later largely determined the fate of his discoveries. The fate of the inventor himself is a story full of unexpected turns in the ascent to the heights of fame of a modest provincial genius.

Nikola Tesla was born in the small Serbian town of Smiljan on July 9, 1856, to the family of an Orthodox priest. Paradoxically, the appearance of the future inventor from a young age struck those around him with his demonic appearance: tall, thin, hollow cheeks, the gaze of burning eyes. After suffering cholera as a child, Nicola was occasionally haunted by strange visions, which, he said, outshone pictures of real objects in bright flashes of light. At those moments, Tesla fell into a state close to madness, losing touch with the present and instead getting a chance to foresee the future. Probably it was at such moments in the boy’s head that genius ideas were born, which, even at an early age, indicated his special way. A path that clearly did not coincide with his father’s desire to place his son in a religious school.

In 1875 Tesla entered the Graz University of Technology (now the Graz University of Technology), where he began to study electrical engineering. The observant young man had the audacity to criticize the operation of DC machines. For this he was mercilessly ridiculed by Prof. Jacob Peschl, who, in front of the entire course, called the idea of using alternating current in electromechanics utopia. However, it was his obsession with the idea that led the aspiring electrical engineer to Paris and then to Strasbourg, where fate brought him together with the inventor of electricity, Thomas Edison. Appreciating Tesla’s design of the electric motor, Edison offered him a job on his team and took him to New York in 1884.

Oh, America, the dream of discoverers, inventors and treasure hunters! Nikola Tesla dreamed of realizing his most fantastic plans there. In fact, of these ideas and 40 cents pocket change the entire baggage of the conqueror of the New World. The obstacle on the way to the ambitious goals emerged where it was not expected. An ardent supporter of direct current, Thomas Edison refused to support Tesla’s belief that alternating current was more efficient and less expensive. The great physicist intuitively sensed Tesla’s genius, but could not accept the concept of alternating current electric machines he put forward. The end of the relationship between the scientists, whose names have gone down in the history of physics, was the story of $50,000. That was the sum of money Edison promised to Tesla in the event that the latter managed to confirm in practice the simplicity of creating new machines and the benefits of their use. Tesla accepted the challenge and in a short time prepared twenty-four types of AC-powered devices. Edison was greatly impressed by this, but he paid no money, declaring his promise a display of “American sense of humor.”

After leaving Edison, Tesla worked for the famous industrialist and talented inventor George Westinghouse, in the service of whom Tesla managed to patent multiphase electric machines, an induction motor and a system for transmitting electricity through alternating multi-phase current. In 1888, based on his discovery of the rotating magnetic field phenomenon, Tesla created electric generators of high and ultra-high frequency, and three years later he created the resonator, which made it possible to obtain high-frequency voltage fluctuations with an amplitude of up to a million volts.

Tesla rented an office for his company in New York City on Fifth Avenue, not far from the building occupied by Edison’s company. A fierce competition broke out between the two companies, which was dubbed “the current war” by newspapermen. To Tesla’s credit, he emerged victorious from this struggle. By the way, it was largely due to, as they say now, competent PR. The inventor appreciated the benefits of poster demonstrations of his inventions. In 1900, one of the richest men in America – banker John Pierpont Morgan – became interested in Tesla’s projects. He listened attentively to the scientist’s tales about the possibilities of “collecting solar energy through a special antenna” and “controlling the weather with electricity” and risked to finance the construction on Long Island of the World Wireless Energy Transfer Center (the banker meant to create a telegraph radio communication node). Alas, the large-scale project was not destined to materialize. Tesla was primarily interested in wireless power transmission anywhere on the planet, while Morgan was interested in the commercial benefits of creating a transatlantic wave link. After failing, Tesla sold some of his patents for $15 million, set up a laboratory in New York, and completely switched to scientific research.

The reclusive scientist, nicknamed “the lone wolf” by journalists, avoided social receptions and women’s society. Many hours of walking stimulated, in his opinion, the flight of scientific thought. His obsession with work was truly fantastic. As the inventor himself claimed, he spent no more than four hours a night sleeping. Tesla considered his studies in linguistics (he knew eight languages perfectly), poetry (he wrote quite good poetry), music and philosophy as a rest.

Nikola Tesla lived a long life and died in 1943. His scientific work in the field of electricity has received well-deserved recognition in the world scientific community. His gift of foresight and extraordinary imaginative thinking allowed Tesla to predict the birth of many technical devices and phenomena. He predicted the appearance of electric furnaces, fluorescent lamps, electron microscopes, radio-controlled devices, a device for the radio detection of submarines and even foresaw the possibility of using high-frequency currents in medicine. The keys to the genius’s scientific developments his followers are trying to find in the few surviving notes of Tesla. Unfortunately, most of Tesla’s diaries have disappeared without a trace. According to some biographers, at the very beginning of World War II, afraid of the consequences of his knowledge for humanity, Tesla burned everything. Who knows, maybe that’s what happened…