Monday, July 13, 2009

Remembering A Great Engineer

Today I am going to break from my usual cynical diatribes to remember the birth of the greatest inventor of the modern age. Who am I referring to - Thomas Edison? Alexander Graham Bell? Orville & Wilbur Wright? No - I am referring to Nikola Tesla, who's birthday was July 10, 1856. Happy 153rd Birthday Niky!

OK, unless you are an engineering history geek (like me) you're first response was probably "Who?" That's because Tesla also has the dubious distinction of being the most royally screwed man of all time. Tesla was screwed over by EVERYONE - fellow inventors, his employers, the US Government - everyone. You *might* recognize the name Tesla from the "Tesla Coil" your 7th grade science teacher used to thrill you, or perhaps from the movie "The Prestige" where Tesla was played by David Bowie. But Tesla was much, much more.

Nikola Tesla's list of achievements is staggering. He was granted over 275 patents, but many people think there were many more that are lost in the patent archives of the many countries where he filed his patents. Here's just a few of his greatest accomplishments:
  • The Induction Motor - used in every electric tool, vacuum cleaner, electric cars - anything that runs on AC electricity and spins, whirs, lifts or moves.
  • The Tesla Coil - in addition to being a really cool special effect for horror movies, it also led to the use of x-rays, fluorescent lamps and the high-discharge lights used on street lamps, large buildings and sports venues. It is also the basis for the wireless transmission of electrical power.
  • AC Power Transmission - the electrical power you depend on to have lights, television, computers and DVD players is made possible because Tesla figured out how to get the electrical power from the power plants to your house.
  • Harnessing of Niagara Falls - Tesla was the man behind the construction of the Niagara Falls power plant by Westinghouse, which provided AC electricity to all of New York City.
  • Radio Control - In 1898, Tesla demonstrated a remote controlled boat to the public and was granted a patent for "teleautomation" the same year. This led to the development of guided torpedoes, missiles and other remotely controlled devices. Please note that this was several years before Marconi was granted his patent for the wireless telegraph! Marconi actually used several of Tesla's patents in his wireless telegraph.
  • Spark Plug - Tesla received a patent for the "electrical ignitor" that allowed the spark plug to be developed for gasoline engines.
  • Radar - At the beginning of WW I, Tesla described bouncing high-frequency electrical energy off the metal hulls of ships in order to detect the ships at sea from a great distance. This was decades prior to the actual development of the first radar.
  • Particle Beam - As WW II was about to break out in Europe, Tesla wrote a detailed technical description of a directed energy weapon that he believed would make war obsolete. It was the first description of a charged particle energy weapon.
As brilliant as Tesla was, he was also completely unable to reap the benefits of his contributions to the world. He was cheated by Thomas Edison and never paid for his complete redesign of the previously inefficient Edison electric motors. After spending years fighting with Edison on AC power transmission and the creation of the Niagara Falls power generation plant, he gave away all of his royalty rights to George Westinghouse in order to keep the Westinghouse Corporation afloat and prevent the robber barons from taking the company. The US Government mysteriously allowed Tesla's patents for wireless radio to be infringed and co-opted by Marconi, allowing Marconi to become fabulously rich while Tesla received nothing. It seems as if everyone except Tesla became incredibly wealthy from his work.

In Tesla's later years, he became more and more eccentric - becoming obsessed with avoiding germs and caring for sick NYC pigeons. He became extremely secretive, and his ideas became increasingly more fantastic. Some of those ideas have never been fully understood, and unfortunately the mixture of hyperbole, science and lack of thorough documentation means that much of his brilliance has been lost or ignored. In 1943, just a few months after Tesla's death, the US Supreme Court ruled in Tesla's favor and agreed that he was the owner of several key patents used by Marconi to develop the radio. It was, of course, too late.

When we think of great inventors, we usually think of people of like Thomas Edison. But Edison was a brute force inventor - he was self-taught and he often did not understand the science underlying the devices he built. He succeeded by continuous & non-stop experimentation and achieved success only after many, many experimental failures. Tesla was exactly the opposite of Edison. Tesla was a brilliant mathematician and engineer. He developed his products after first studying and understanding the science involved. Edison distrusted and rejected AC power because he couldn't understand the principles. DC power was much simpler, albeit also much more limited in it's usefulness. Tesla was also believed to possess a photographic memory and to practice what was called "picture thinking" where he could visualize an invention in great detail before ever attempting to begin construction. There could not have been two more different styles than Edison & Tesla.

During the infamous "War of Currents" between Edison's DC power and Tesla & Westinghouse's AC power, Edison went after his former employee with a brutal and vicious propaganda campaign to discredit AC power. Edison used his wealth and political friends to portray AC power as hideously dangerous and a disaster waiting to happen. Edison filmed animals being electrocuted by AC power, including the killing by electrocution of a Coney Island circus elephant named Topsy. He also funded the development of the AC-driven electric chair for human executions, and lobbied to have execution by the electric chair be known as being "Westinghoused". Ultimately, despite Edison's efforts, Tesla's AC power was chosen as the superior technology. Unfortunately for Tesla, the years of fighting with Edison had left Westinghouse near collapse. Tesla tore up his extremely lucrative royalty contract in order to save the Westinghouse company. Westinghouse survived and flourished, while Tesla was left with financial problems for the rest of his life.

I know of no other historical figure quite like Tesla. No one else contributed as much to advance modern technology, yet received so little - certainly not wealth and not fame outside of engineering geekdom. I do believe the internet has dramatically increased the visibility and knowledge of Tesla and his accomplishments - and I think that is only fitting. I believe Tesla would be quite pleased that a worldwide network of interconnected data storage and computing machines is now available to nearly anyone in the world. I also think he would be disappointed that we still have to plug those devices in!

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