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Nikola Tesla

"Is nature a giant cat? If so, who strokes its back?"

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  Nikola Tesla (1856 - 1943)

Nikola Tesla, the eccentric - and unbelievably under-rated - genius known as the ‘wild man of electronics’, was without doubt one of the greatest minds in the history of the human race.

Admittedly, he also had more loose screws than a Mechano set.

If it weren't for this slightly manic genius, you wouldn't be reading this page, you probably wouldn't be doing it in a brightly-lighted room - and you certainly wouldn't be reading it on your computer.

Tesla invented the alternating-current generator that provides your light and electricity, the transformer through which it is sent, and even the high voltage coil of your picture tube. The Tesla Coil, in fact, is used in radios, television sets, and a wide range of other electronic equipment - invented in 1891, no-one's ever come up with anything better.

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Born in Austro-Hungary (now Croatia) in 1856, Tesla constructed his first induction motor in 1883 and immigrated to America in 1884 - arriving in New York with worldly goods totalling four cents, a pocket full of poems, carefully worked calculations for a flying machine, and a head full of strange dreams.

Tesla began working with Thomas Edison, but the two men were worlds apart in both their science and cultures (the fact that Tesla's alternating-current concept posed a direct threat to sales of Edison's direct-current devices probably didn't help) and they soon went their separate ways.

Letting Tesla go wasn't the brightest thing Edison had ever done, though - George Westinghouse promptly snapped up the patent rights to Tesla's alternating-current motors, dynamos, and transformers. The buy-out triggered a power struggle which eventually saw Edison's direct-current systems relegated to second place, and the DC motors installed in German and Irish trains only a few years before, rendered obsolete.

But not without a fight. Advocates of direct-current power - desperate to discredit their alternating-current competitor - claimed that AC current was hazardous to humans. In support of their argument, DC defenders took the novel approach of using a standard Westinghouse (AC) generator to discharge death sentences in New York State.

An interesting approach (to say the least), although futile in the long run.

In 1893 Westinghouse used Tesla's alternating-current system to light the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Edison was not a happy man. His company, General Electric, had also bid for the lighting contract, but the GE proposal would have cost roughly twice as much and have produced less light for a lot more heat.

In a snit, Edison tried to ban the use of 'his' light bulbs with Telsla's electrical system, and urged General Electric to bar the use of the company's lamps in any Westinghouse exhibits.

Despite Edison's tantrums, Westinghouse soon gained a contract to build the massive turbines at Niagara Falls, and alternating-current was firmly entrenched.

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Tesla went on to set up his own lab.

Within a short time, he had pre-empted Wilhelm Rontgen's discovery of X-rays with his own experimental shadowgraphs; the relays, vacuum tubes, and transistors of future decades with his electric logic circuits; even the wireless radio - the principles of which were described by Tesla in minute detail years before Marconi transmitted his first morse code message.

Tesla, on hearing of Marconi's efforts, is said to have remarked to a friend: "Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using 17 of my patents." If so, Tesla changed his mind eventually, suing Marconi for patent breach.

The court eventually found for Tesla after examining some circuit diagrams he had designed in 1893, and Marconi's patents were declared invalid in 1935. Unfortunately, the law suit dragged out until a few months after Tesla's death and he never saw a penny in compensation.

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Always, Tesla returned to electricity - Tesla loved electricity, and was fascinated with lighting, speaking often of some future world filled with electric light.

In a determined effort to prove the safety of his new alternating-current lighting system, Tesla would often light lamps by using his own body as an electrical conductor, to the somewhat muted cheers of an uneasy audience.

Turning to studies of resonance, by 1898 Tesla had designed an oscillator that generated half a million volts.

Convinced he could develop enough power to: "split the earth like an apple" and disinclined - for reasons he no doubt thought good ones at the time - to destroy New York City, Tesla moved his experiments to Knob Hill near Colorado Springs, in a structure that included a roll-back roof to prevent fires from the sparks sent out while he tinkered with transformers.

The first time Tesla tested one of his inventions at full power, the roar was heard for more than 16 kilometres (10 miles).

Unfortunately, Nikola's test also blacked out the entire city of Colorado Springs and set the power generator on fire. Amicable relations were restored when Tesla paid to replace the generator.

(The people of Colorado Springs must have been a tolerant lot. Tesla's experiments would sometimes result in sparks coming up through the ground of the city and sparking from fire hydrants - one experiment grounded out the plumbing of the entire city.)

Tesla's Magnifying Transmitter, an early type of Tesla Coil that measured 16 metres (52 feet) in diameter, could transmit tens of thousands of watts without wires.

Tesla managed to light 200 lamps, without wires, from 40 kilometres (25 miles) away. But his proudest achievement was the production of man-made lightning. The Magnifying Transmitter could produce incredible electrical flashes measuring up to 41 metres (135 feet).

Unfortunately, when Tesla left the lab in 1900, the structure was demolished and the contents sold to pay debts. Very little survived of some of Tesla's most amazing inventions.

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In January 1900, capitalised by financier J P Morgan, Tesla returned to New York to work on his ‘wireless world broadcasting tower’. Even before Marconi's morse code 's' hit the airwaves, Tesla was determined that his invention wasn't going to be limited to dots and dashes.

Tesla planned on linking the world together through its telephone and telegraph systems, transmitting pictures and text from one end of the globe to the other in minutes, and delivering mail between special terminals, using electronic messaging.

Labour disputes and financial panic got in the way, and Tesla's Long Island construction was abandoned when Morgan withdrew funding. It was Tesla's greatest disappointment, and a loss to the entire world.

Once again, much of Tesla's work was lost when the Wardenclyffe Tower was dismantled for scrap towards the end of World War One.

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During the Panic of 1907, Tesla ensured the survival of the Westinghouse company by giving up patent payments for a nominal sum. By doing so, he also ensured his own financial ruin.

When World War One began in 1914, Tesla lost his payments from European patents. By 1916, he was living in poverty and had filed for bankruptcy to escape a massive tax debt.

Soon afterwards, Tesla began to show symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The symptoms became pronounced very quickly, and what was left of his already 'eccentric' reputation was soon in tatters.

Still, he wouldn't give up. Tesla turned down an attempt by European friends to raise funds and continued to exist on a modest pension from Yugoslavia. He moved into a small hotel room and continued to research.

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At the age of 81, Tesla challenged Einstein's theory of relativity, announcing that he was working on a dynamic theory of gravity that would do away with the calculation of space curvature.

The theory was never published, but a similar theory involving gravity waves - developed in the mid-1990s - is used in the study of plasma cosmology (which explains properties of energy and the structure of the universe by studying the electromagnetic effects of plasma).

In 1943, at the age of 86, Tesla offered his much-vaunted 'Death Ray' to the US War Department. There's some confusion on whether the 'ray' consisted of laser or particle beams (both of which Tesla had been mulling over for years), or if a working prototype had been developed.

Tesla couldn't share the details. In a coincidence that raises the hackles of conspiracy theorists to this day, Tesla died sometime between that evening and when his body was found three days later.

Nikola Tesla - one of the greatest geniuses of any age - died of heart failure, alone and destitute in a shabby hotel room.

And then the FBI nicked everything he owned.

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Financial restrictions meant that many of Tesla's ideas were limited to written notes - notes which even today are studied by engineers for unused ideas. But for a man of his time, with his limited resources, the list of Tesla's achievements are awe-inspiring.

Even apart from the first AC motor, the radio, the Tesla Coil, vacuum tubes, X-rays, and hydroelectric generators, Tesla had time to develop:

  • The loudspeaker
  • Fluorescent lights
  • Radar
  • The rotary engine
  • Microwaves
  • The basis for diathermy (deep heating tissues through the use of high-frequency electrical current), and
  • An 'automatic mechanism controlled through a simple tuned circuit' - remote radio control.
And to ponder:
  • Missiles
  • Particle beam weaponry
  • Satellites
  • Nuclear fission, and
  • Robots.

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In the best tradition of mad scientists, Nikola Tesla had his less than rational moments. To be blunt, Nik's cheese quite often escaped his cracker.

Totally incapable of understanding even basic finances, this was also a man with a germ phobia of which Howard Hughes would have been proud. Tesla believed extraterrestrials had contacted him in Colorado Springs. He suffered from hallucinations, night tremors, and a terrified loathing of women wearing earrings.

He also had the rather anti-social habit of spending his time at dinner parties calculating the cubic contents of his plate.

Okay, so Nikola Tesla was as loopy as they come - he was also the most brilliant fruitcake that ever existed.