Tesla : the forgotten hero

27 06 2009

Let me ask you a very stupid question – Have you ever heard the name Edison.
Let me guess your first reaction: “Come on man, who doesn’t know Edison?”
Then you think again, “You mean Thomas Alva Edison, right?”

Yes, Thomas Alva Edison ….world remember him as the greatest inventor with the likes of incandescent lamp, phonograph, cement making technology, motion picture camera, DC motors and electric power generation systems, battery ,carbon microphone & many more under his belt. He patented even more. And how can we be ignorant about someone who appeared in our lessons when we were in school (we had a lesson on him in both English & Hindi …& articles in many science texts!)

Now let me ask you – Have you ever heard the name Tesla.
A minority would say: “Yeah, another scientist!”
May be because you have heard it as the SI unit measuring magnetic flux density or magnetic induction (commonly known as the magnetic field “B”).That was in the honor of Nikola Tesla, a great inventor from Croatia who later became an American citizen.

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla

Tesla, one of the greatest inventors of all time, is literally unknown to many of us. He was an excellent student, a child prodigy & a superb electrical & mechanical engineer, and you would acknowledge this when you know that he is the man behind the Alternating current (A.C) that makes this world run today! “Tesla was born “at the stroke of midnight” with lightning striking during a summer storm. At the moment of his birth, the midwife commented, “He’ll be a child of the storm,” to which his mother replied, “No, of light.”

Aside from his work on electromagnetism and electromechanical engineering, Tesla has contributed in varying degrees to the establishment of robotics, remote control, radar and computer science, and to the expansion of ballistics, nuclear physics, and theoretical physics. In 1943, the Supreme Court of the United States credited him as being the inventor of the radio, but the world still remembers Marconi, standing evidence that many of his ideas were stolen by others.

young Tesla

young Tesla

Other than the previous mention of having an SI unit named after him, little do we know about him. He is virtually unknown thanks to the good boy called Edison. Tesla used to work under Edison just when he had invented the incandescent bulb
(Edison did not invent the light bulb. Joseph Swan was installing them in homes and landmarks in England years before Edison got his light bulb patented and working. Edison was buying out other people’s patents and when Swan eventually sued Edison and won, Edison had to take him in as a partner in Edison’s British company….WOULD YOU BELIEVE THAT !!!)

At that time, Edison wanted an electricity distribution system for houses so that he could popularize his inventions. He came up with a D.C distribution system but that had many holes in it & was not practical when it came to large-scale implementation. He promised Tesla a lot of perks if he could fix it. Tesla came up with a much better design that saved Edison $100,000, which was millions of dollars by today’s standards. But Edison turned his back over Tesla which made him quit the job & work independently. This was the beginning of the famous WAR OF CURRENTS.

4 years later he came up with A.C distribution system that’s used in our houses even now, eventually making Tesla the victor in the war of currents. This propelled Edison to try & discredit Tesla for the rest of his life. He tried his level best to frighten people by telling them that A.C could kill you while D.C is the safest option(which we know is absolutely false!).Guess what, it was Edison who invented the Electric Chair (used in death sentences) to frighten people of A.C.

In the days of War Of Currents

In the days of War Of Currents

You can google out more on War Of Currents to know more about the dirty tricks used by Edison to overshadow Tesla.
or try this excellent link:

Unlike DC, AC could be stepped up to very high voltages with transformers, sent over thinner and cheaper wires, and stepped down again at the destination for distribution to users. But Edison invested wildly on D.C & setup numerous D.C power stations in U.S making it easily available. He even roped in George Westinghouse, who was supporting Tesla, & tried to completely isolate Tesla. But  as they say- ‘truth can’t be covered for long’…eventually, A.C outplayed D.C in every manner possible & finally A.C replaced D.C in most instances of generation and power distribution, enormously extending the range and improving the efficiency of power distribution. Days before his death, Edison finally gave up & agreed that the feud with Tesla was the greatest mistake of his life.

Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison

Edison has received 1093 U.S patents on his name many of which are bought or stolen. Tesla was a slow learner in this case & have only 112 patents. Almost 100% of Edison’s patented technologies brought him fame & fortune where Tesla, often been cheated & being a humble guy didn’t bother about material things. This becomes very clear when you notice that he resisted the chance of becoming the world’s first billionaire (when George Westinghouse bought his A.C design & later owed Tesla more than $ 1million) because Tesla realized that if he kept his contract, Westinghouse would go out of business, so Tesla took his contract and ripped it up!

Some other factors that eroded Tesla’s recognition were:

  • Capital productivity. Edison built up sophisticated laboratory operations, employing some of the best and brightest people in the world, with Tesla among them for a while. Tesla built up similar labs while involved with Westinghouse and when on his own. The difference is that Edison did not hesitate to scale down or close operations from time to time as his organizational needs changed to remain solvent. Tesla had his creditors closing them for him.
  • Labour productivity. This is one of the greatest differences between Edison and Tesla. Edison always had several people involved with his projects while Tesla generally worked alone. Tesla might have had extremely high levels of personal productivity at times, but Edison had the advantage of having a virtual army at his disposal. For example, Edison was able to accumulate over 5 million pages of organized records while Tesla had relatively few and they were not as well organized as Edison’s. Edison and Tesla both had legendary work ethics, but only Edison had it instilled at an organizational level.
  • Media Custody : Edison had the media by his side. He would pay huge sums to news papers to print about his company & propagate false propaganda against A.C.
  • Network productivity. This is the Who’s Who test. Edison developed close relations with some of the most powerful and influential people around in his day, including Henry Ford, while Tesla also knew such people but tended to alienate most of them over time.

Tesla met his end in a hotel room of the New Yorker hotel in room no.3327 (he was obsessed by number 3,and mostly avoided room numbers that were divisible by 3,but not on that fateful day). Despite having sold his AC electricity patents, Tesla died in poverty with significant debts.

Tesla museum in Belgrade

Tesla museum in Belgrade

But all through his eventful life he never got the recognition that he deserved. And even after his death, the situation is no better (as you would testify yourself!).

So let us pay tribute to seemingly one of the greatest inventor s this world has ever seen.

“ The world, I think, will wait for a long time for Nikola Tesla’s equal in achievement & imagination.”
–  E. H. Armstrong




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