More than seventy years after his death, Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla is finally getting his due. He grew up in the area now known as Croatia with a mother who invented small household appliances. This may have spurred his interest in electrical systems and given rise to his own passion for innovation. Tesla immigrated to the United States in 1884 and soon began working with another inventor, Thomas Edison, before parting ways in less than amicable circumstances. While Edison was known as a powerful figure who focused on career advancement, Tesla was the awkward foreigner who simply wanted to invent. He was poor at self-marketing and had consistent trouble finding the money needed to finance his work.
Conspiracy theorists, take note: Upon his death in January 1943, it has been claimed the government emptied his laboratory and apartment, confiscating his unpatented work for their own use. Whatever may be true, this much is sure: Nikola Tesla made some amazing contributions to the world through his work with electricity and energy, and the world continues to profit enormously from his genius mind. In celebration of the anniversary of his birth, we share below are a few of his best-known inventions.
Tesla is perhaps best known for his work with Alternating Current (AC), which caused at the time of its debut at the 1893 World’s Expo a war between his vision and that of ex-partner Thomas Edison. The Direct Current (DC) that Edison had been working on (and which was backed by General Electric) was costly over large areas and produced dangerous sparking from its required converter. Nevertheless DC advocates set out to discredit Tesla’s AC, going so far as to electric animals at demonstrations to rove the danger. Tesla’s response was to shoot electricity through his own body. The proof was in the pudding, however, and Tesla’s won out, providing power generation and distribution across the North American continent.
Taking his AC theories one step further, the inventor created a motor utilizing magnetic poles that reversed them without mechanical aid, as was required by DC motors, which caused an armature to whirl around the motor. Within two years, he would use create AC generators and transformers.
Tesla developed and used fluorescent light bulbs in his laboratory 40 years before their official invention. At the World’s Fair, he bent glass tubes into the names of famous scientists and lit them using his fluorescent techniques.
This self-named device uses polyphase alternating currents—another Tesla invention—to create a transformer able to produce very high voltages. It is based in part on the concept that the Earth is a magnet that can generate electricity utilizing frequencies as a transmitter. On the other end, a receiver was required, much like a radio.
Though credit for the creation of the radio was given to Guglielmo Marconi, Tesla was later proven as the true inventor of this device, having first sent a wireless transmission from his lab in New York City to a boat on the Hudson River 25 miles away in 1897. He showed that radio signals were simply a frequency that needed transmitter and a receiver, as he demonstrated to the National Electric Light Association in 1893. Tesla in fact invented all of the parts we associate with radio, including antenna and tuners.
You can thank Tesla for being able to switch channels on your television set without getting off the couch. He introduced the world to radio control (remote control) in 1898, when he demonstrated the use of radio signals to operate a four-foot model boat. Radio signals controlled switches attached to large batteries, which then energized the boat’s propeller, rudder, and running lights.
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