Shared from the 1/2/2018 The Age Digital Edition eEdition

His name is a household word. Who was he?


Visionary engineer Nikola Tesla.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A Tesla is an electric car. Just about everybody knows that.

But it is less widely known that the car was named for Nikola Tesla, an electrical engineer who was once renowned as the prototype of a genius inventor.

While Tesla’s star began to fade long ago, Elon Musk, who named both his car and his company after him, has contributed to something of a Nikola Tesla revival.

In the age of Edison, Westinghouse, Marconi and JP Morgan, Tesla was a giant of innovation because of his contributions in the fields of electricity, radio and robotics.

‘‘It’s a sociological fact that Elon Musk took the Tesla name and launched Nikola Tesla into the stratosphere,’’ says Marc Seifer, the author of Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla.

‘‘Tesla’s risen to the surface again, and now he’s getting his due.’’

Tesla was on the cover of Time magazine in 1931, but died a poor man in 1943 after years devoted to projects that did not receive adequate financing. Yet his most significant inventions resonate today.

In 1884, Tesla came to New York to work for Thomas Edison with the hope that Edison would help finance and develop a Tesla invention, an alternating-current motor and electrical system.

But Edison was instead investing in highly inefficient directcurrent (DC) systems, and he had Tesla re-engineer a DC power plant on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan. The men soon parted company over a financial dispute.

But George Westinghouse provided funding for Tesla’s AC induction motors and devices, which soon came to dominate manufacturing and urban life. Unlike the DC motors of the time, Tesla’s motors didn’t create sparks or require expensive permanent magnets to operate. Instead, they used a rotating magnetic field that used power more efficiently in a basic design that is still the core of most electric motors.

In 1896, Tesla designed the power generating system at Niagara Falls, a big advance for his AC system. Entire cities eventually ran on AC power, after Westinghouse won a battle against Edison, the leading DC proponent. Their conflict is the subject of The Current War, a coming movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison.

Tesla developed radio technology and tested it from 1892 through 1894. He called radio an ‘‘oscillator’’ through which electricity is converted into highfrequency radio waves, enabling energy, sound and other transmissions over great distances.

He envisioned a system that could transmit not only radio but also electricity across the globe.

‘‘He proved that you could send power a short distance,’’ said Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Centre. ‘‘But sending power a long distance is still proving to be a hurdle. It would be monumental if it could be done.’’

Another Tesla invention combined radio with a remote-control device. We’d now call it a robotic drone.

Shortly after filing a patent application in 1897 for radio circuitry, Tesla built and demonstrated a wireless, robotic boat at the old Madison Square Garden in 1898 and again in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre the next year. These were the first public demonstrations of a remote-controlled drone.

An innovation in the boat’s circuitry – his ‘‘logic gate’’ – became an essential steppingstone to semiconductors.

Tesla’s tub-shaped, radiocontrolled craft heralded the birth of what he called a ‘‘teleautomaton’’; later, the world would settle on the word robot. We can see his influence in devices ranging from ‘‘smart’’ speakers like Amazon’s Echo to missile-firing drone aircraft.

Tesla proposed the development of torpedoes well before World War I. These weapons eventually emerged in another form – launched from submarines.

Tesla failed to fully collaborate with well-capitalised industrial entities after World War I. His supreme abilities to conceptualise and create entire systems weren’t enough for business success. He didn’t manage to build successful alliances with those who could finance, build and scale up his creations.

Tesla’s achievements were awesome but incomplete. He created the AC energy system and the basics of radio communication and robotics but wasn’t able to bring them all to fruition. His life shows that even for a brilliant inventor, innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It requires a broad spectrum of talents and skills. And lots of capital.

The New York Times

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