Famous Scientist Profile: Nikola Tesla…

Think about your favorite scientist. Okay, so realistically you probably don’t have an actual “favorite” scientist, but most of you probably thought Einstein, right? Not surprising. Albert Einstein is without a doubt the most notable and famous scientist of the last century, having reached a celebrity status that no scientist before him and very few after have even come close to. Now some of you more hip, savvy science-minded cats out there may have said Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson or Richard Feynman or others, but those guys are more famous for being science popularizers than scientists (well Sagan and deGrasse Tyson at least), and I’d say any of those three is perhaps in the parking lot of the same ballpark as Einstein. Einstein’s kind of a big deal, people know him. You have to be pretty “nerdy” to know Feynman. In any case, some might say that Einstein was simply a character that was created by the popular media of the day (photography, radio, magazines, early TV, etc.) which allowed a greater spread of information (the same way TV and the internet have helped Sagan and deGrasse Tyson), but the bottom line is that Einstein basically became the personification of genius. His name become synonymous with superior intelligence. Now that my friends, that’s notoriety.

Nikola Tesla: that mustache can’t hide the genius!

In any case, I guarantee that none of you answered the question of who your favorite scientist is with the man pictured above. That’s Nikola Tesla. And that’s really a shame because he probably had a more significant impact on the development of the modern era than any single person in history. And when you hear “Tesla”, you probably think of loud coil things that shoot out awesome sparks or fancy electric cars. But I’m sure you probably know very little about the actual genius and significance of the man that basically gave birth to modern electricity.

Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856 in Smiljan, a small mountain village in what is now Croatia, but what was then just part of the Austrian Empire. Nikola was born to Milutin Tesla, a Serbian Orthodox priest, and his wife Đuka, who interestingly enough never even learned to read. Nikola was the fourth of five children and the only surviving son (his older brother was killed while riding a horse when Nikola was 5). From very early on, it was clear that Nikola was special. While in school he could supposedly do integral calculus in his head, a feat so astounding that his instructors were convinced that he was cheating. (Note: I don’t know if you’ve ever done integral calculus, but it’s pretty difficult to do with a textbook and a calculator, let a lone doing in your head.) It also didn’t hurt that he supposedly had a photographic memory.

In any case, he attended to the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, Austria and studied to be an engineer. He never even finished his degree, but was genius enough that he had no problem finding engineering work without it. He ultimately moved to Budapest in 1880 and began working for the Hungarian National Telephone company.

Now around the same time, the guy who we all think of as the father of electricity, you know Thomas Edison (pictured below) was working like a madman in his Menlo Park, NJ laboratory, trying to supply the world with all of his new electrical inventions. By the way, Thomas Edison DID NOT invent the light bulb, in fact, in their book Edison’s electric light: biography of an invention, authors Robert Friedel and Paul Israel compiled a list of 22 inventors who came up with incandescent lamps before Edison. Edison’s light bulb was just way better. And he was able to produce and sell it. It’s similar to Galileo and the telescope: it wasn’t his invention, but he popularized its use for astronomy and history favors the victors, as they say.

Thomas Edison: American inventor & villain

Anyway, Edison was working like a crazy electrical fool in New Jersey, trying to supply the United States and Europe with his amazing new electrical inventions. In 1882, Tesla got a job in Paris working for the Continental Edison Company, basically improving Edison’s designs as they got shipped over to Europe from the States. In 1884, Tesla moved to the U.S. and got a job working for Edison. This must have been similar to Heisenberg working under Bohr in the 1930’s. Edison knew he had a prized asset in Tesla, and he exploited the bejeezus out of him. A perfect example:  In 1885, Tesla told Edison that he could vastly redesign and improve the horribly inefficient Edison motors and generators and Edison offered Tesla $50,000 if he could actually follow through with it. After a few months of work, Tesla succeeded and when he went to Edison to ask for the reward, Edison shrugged him off and said that he was only kidding. Edison did offer him a raise though, an extra $10 on top of his $18 a week salary. Tesla promptly refused and quit.

After that Tesla bounced around from electric company to electric company and for stints had to work as a ditch-digger to make ends meet. He partnered up with George Westinghouse and for awhile worked at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. In fact, it was while partnering with Westinghouse that Tesla helped to supply electricity to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The success of that feat was huge because the pair were able to successfully demonstrate the safety and reliability of alternating current (AC) to Americans who were being lied to about it by Edison. Oh right, so here’s where you find out about the other side of Thomas Edison, the side the history books and encyclopedia articles don’t tell you. Edison was totally the villain in this story. In the “War of Currents”, Edison became a fierce rival of Tesla and Westinghouse because he was trying to sell/promote the direct current (DC) system of supplying electricity, as opposed to the alternating current system that Tesla came up with. You can click here to get a quick explanation of the differences in AC and DC currents, but it basically boiled down to the fact that AC was more efficient because it operates with a lower current, so there is little power and energy dissipation, even over exceptionally long distances. Anyways, Edison, with his crazy fame, power, and influence over the American people, began a huge smear campaign against Tesla and alternating current, even going so far as to electrocute puppies as a “demonstration” of how dangerous AC power could be. Even though Tesla’s AC system was more efficient (and is now what we all use in our homes today), Edison’s smear campaign took its toll and is probably one of the biggest reasons why Americans have very little idea who Tesla even is, let alone the impact he had on the world.

Nikola Tesla would often run alternating current (AC) through his own body to demonstrate to the public that it was not as unsafe as Thomas Edison claimed.

In addition to the invention of alternating current (which in itself was amazing), Tesla is also recorded having come up with the idea of the radio before Guglielmo Marconi and radar before Robert A. Watson-Watt. He also supposedly discovered X-rays before Wilhelm Röntgen, theorized the electron before J.J. Thomson found it, built the first hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, experimented with cryogenic engineering way before anyone else, was the first person to record radio waves from outer space, discovered the resonant frequency of earth a half-century before anyone else, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…the list of amazing accomplishments goes on and on. Basically what it boils down to is that Nikola Tesla was AMAZINGLY BRILLIANT and super ahead of his time AND BARELY ANYONE EVEN KNOWS ABOUT HIM!! Oh and I almost forgot, he also died alone in a NYC hotel room, in love with a pigeon. I mean if that story doesn’t scream Academy-Award-winning caliber movie, I really don’t know what else does. I can see Robert Downey, Jr. playing an amazing Tesla.

Which is why I proudly celebrate Nikola Tesla Day every July 10 (you can still celebrate it belatedly), in memory of this truly awesome man. Oh and if you want a really amazing little recap of why Nikola Tesla is so awesome, I point you to possibly my favorite comic from The Oatmeal, entitled “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.” or the Tesla post on bad***oftheweek.com, with the disclaimer that both have some adult language.

<I apologize that these links here at the end have adult language, but I can’t censor them. And apparently people just get very emotional when talking about Nikola Tesla. In any case, I definitely feel that their benefits outweigh the negative of them including bad language.>

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2 Responses to Famous Scientist Profile: Nikola Tesla…

  1. Ugh. Didn’t know about Edison’s exploitation here too… He did villainous things in the film industry as well: Stealing and profiting from hundreds, if not thousands of films; ignoring existing patents in film stock, projector and camera technology and claiming it as his own… No doubt he was a smart man, but such a con man too. I’m team Tesla 🙂

  2. astroian says:

    Wow okay, to update on this:

    a) The creator of The Oatmeal is trying to help a campaign to buy the lands of Tesla’s New York laboratory and turn it into a Tesla museum. http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2408565,00.asp

    b) There is apparently a Tesla movie in the works. It’s supposed to be called Tesla, Ruler of the World and is slated to star Christian Bale as Tesla and Nicholas Cage as Edison. This has the potential to be amazing. http://tinyurl.com/c4pvndl

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