How Nikola Tesla Sparked the Electric Age

July 18, 2017

As we swim in invisible waves transmitting energy all around us, and spend our lives with wireless devices catching a hail of transparent messages, we live in Tesla’s world.

With the launch of Tesla’s Model 3 electric sedan, inventor Nikola Tesla is about to become more famous than ever—and for all the wrong reasons, being compared to Henry Ford, the car guy, not Thomas Edison, the electricity guru.

Tesla may have outdone Edison in wizardry, but not in business—Tesla died broke and broken. In a small, well-played part in The Prestige, David Bowie captured the eccentric, tortured, moralistic, futuristic Tesla. Today, as we wander around, swimming in invisible waves transmitting energy all around us, as we spend our lives addicted to wireless devices catching a hail of transparent messages, we live in Tesla’s world.

Although many say Tesla invented the twentieth century, it is more fitting to say he invented the twenty-first century, Kenny Breuer, Professor of Engineering at Brown University, explains. Breuer says most of Tesla’s inventions became “winners” later, “so for years no one really appreciated his achievements. Electric motors, wireless communication, wireless powering, those are all Tesla’s ideas that didn’t really dominate until the rest of technology could catch up with his brilliance.”

Fathoming a mind that generated more than 700 patents and countless applications, from the Tesla coil to remote control to radar to smart bombs, is overwhelming. Focusing on one defining moment in his madcap life illustrates his virtuosity. In 1899, he moved to Colorado Springs to prove something we take for granted today: you don’t need wires to move energy from source to destination; nature, properly managed, can do the trick.

By this time, midway through a life that began in Smiljan, Croatia, in 1856 and ended in Manhattan in 1943, Tesla was already immortal. He had immigrated to America, worked with Thomas Edison, broken up with Edison—and outdone Edison, conceptually if not practically.

Edison, associated with the phonograph, the light bulb, the Dictaphone, among so many other innovations, had in 1882 established the Edison Illuminating Company to bring 110-volt direct current into businesses and homes to power the incandescent lamps he had invented. In the ensuing War of the Currents, others, spearheaded by Edison’s competitor George Westinghouse, preferred AC to DC, alternating current to direct current.

Requiring a particular power source, direct current could only be transmitted within a limited area. Alternatively, Professor Breuer explains, “in an AC device, the voltage oscillates, alternating between positive and negative. In response, the current also oscillates, moving forwards then backwards through the circuit.” That makes transmitting power over vast areas, easy cheap, safe.

Tesla, who treated invention as artistry, was inspired by Goethe’s celebration of sunset in Faust to create what became the induction motor harnessing electromagnetic power to alternate current. Tesla arrived in New York in 1884 with four cents in his pocket but priceless assets: a sterling mind, a letter of introduction to Edison, and pride in his Serbian and European heritages. He would recall: “What I had left was beautiful, artistic and fascinating in every way; what I saw here was machined, rough and unattractive.” The letter, from an Edison business associate read: “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!”

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