Ten Crazy Little Known Facts About Tesla

Think “Tesla” in 2015 and you’re more than likely to imagine American entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors, and its well-reported, risky challenge to the status quo by making its electric vehicle technology patents freely available to competitors. Crazy.

Some film aficionados (or fans of wunderkind British director Christopher Nolan) may also remember the Oscar-nominated 2006 movie The Prestige, a film about magicians and the lengths to which they will go to create “the ultimate illusion”—incidentally involving an invention by Nikola Tesla, feats of Houdini-esque daring, and a whole bunch of top hats. Also, pretty crazy.

Pop culture references aside, what else do we actually know about Tesla? A few (relatively) little-known things:

1. Tesla was orthodox

Known for his unorthodox technological achievements as an American, Tesla was born in the late 19th century in Croatia, then part of the Austrian Empire, into an Orthodox family. His father was an Orthodox priest, and his mother was the daughter of an Orthodox priest.

2. Tesla was greased lightning

Appropriately, Tesla was born during a lightning storm. This was seen by some as a bad omen; although history would prove them wrong in terms of his scientific contributions, Tesla himself encountered many personal challenges throughout his life.

3. Tesla is used every day

We know about Tesla’s development of AC (alternating current); but he also registered up to 700 viable patents in his lifetime, an amazing amount of research and work that is the basis for many things we use today—including the ubiquitous smartphone. Read more about the great AC/DC (direct current) “power wars” in The Origins of Power Generation.

4. Tesla is still classified

Though much of his research and personal effects were eventually returned to surviving family members, or donated to museums for posterity, Tesla’s possessions were confiscated by the Office of Alien Property (yes, that was really a thing) soon after his death. The infamous so-called “missing papers” of Tesla’s, including schematics for a rumoured “death ray” technology, are considered by some to remain a classified asset of the U.S. government.

5. Tesla wasn’t infallible

Many of his ideas were brilliant and ultimately workable, but not all of them. One example was an 185-foot tower built on Long Island to suck electricity out of the air and send it through the earth. It did not work, Tesla eventually became broke, and the tower was torn down in 1917.

6. Tesla really cared

Tesla may have been a man of science, but he was also an environmentalist and humanist who believed energy sources should be renewable, and who placed the good of humanity as a whole above his own personal gain. The latter attitude, while noble, worked against him more often than not—as documented in Tesla’s Monumental Genius: The First to Tap the Power of Niagara Falls.

7. Tesla was a pool shark and a high roller

Like the hustlers in The Colour of Money, Tesla was an accomplished pool player who played almost every night, regularly pocketing a few quarters each time—about $15 in today’s money. He also lived at the Waldorf Astoria at the height of his popularity and success, although his fortunes turned later in life.

8. Tesla was a funny guy

As a well-known personality, Tesla was friends or neighbours with quite a few other famous people in his day, including Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. He reportedly referred to the decorated writer Kipling as an “inkspiller” after having dinner with him, and gave Twain the scare of his life when he invited the famous novelist to try his “earthquake machine,” which had Twain literally running for the bathroom.

9. Tesla was obsessively compulsive

Unsurprising for a genius, Tesla had a few quirky habits of his own. He was a chronic insomniac and a germophobe, disliked round objects (he reportedly refused to speak to women who wore pearls), and couldn’t bear to touch hair, which must have been a tough one.

10. Tesla remembered everything he saw

A huge contributor to the Tesla mystique was undoubtedly his photographic memory, which meant he could recall or reproduce with uncanny detail, anything he saw—books, images, landscapes, people’s faces. He also reportedly was able to visualize his ideas in three dimensions (a real-life precursor to today’s previsualization technology), an invaluable asset as an inventor.

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Tesla’s Monumental Genius: The First to Tap the Power of Niagara Falls

The crowd delighted in the illuminated brilliance of the first fully electrified World’s Fair. For Nikola Tesla it was a momentous occasion that should have cemented his position as the foremost inventor and engineer of his era.

But the fever and fury between the technology espoused by Edison and that by Tesla was not without collateral damage. George Westinghouse, the first man to back his belief in Tesla with a financial commitment, had exhausted his monetary reserves in winning both the technical and the legal battle with his rival Thomas Edison. Edison had been absorbed into General Electric while Westinghouse continued on, bloody and beaten. Tesla, meanwhile, had his sights set on larger achievements.

Since his childhood, Tesla had dreamed he would tap the vast, immense power of Niagara Falls. He envisioned he would be the first to use its potential. He would succeed where others had tried and failed. Given the ferocious energy that seemed contained within the cascading water, finding a way to use it could prove revolutionary.

From a technical standpoint, what made AC power a successful form of transmission over vast distances was its ability for voltages to be increased substantially. Those high voltages diminished line loss. It gave feasibility to the idea electricity generated in Niagara Falls could be consumed in New York City. An idea pioneered by Tesla with the work he accomplished on expanding the application for electromagnetic induction.

(Michael Faraday was the first to discover electromagnetic induction in 1831. Mr. Faraday was the first to detect a current flow in a copper wire that shared a common iron core and publish his findings on the principle of electromagnetic induction. Tesla expanded the idea to the modern industrial transformers the electrical power generation industry uses today.)

In 1893 Westinghouse was awarded the contract to harness Niagara.

The financial backers of the War of the Currents (a clash of Direct Current and Alternating Current technologies) cooperated for the sake of profiting from the new venture. Five prominent financiers (J. P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor, Lord Rothschild, and W. K. Vanderbilt) came together trusting that Tesla could deliver on his promise. J. P. Morgan, in particular, had been moved by Tesla’s display at the World’s Fair in Chicago.

J. P. Morgan steered the investors through almost five years of a difficult construction process: Digging into the bedrock under Niagara Falls to install power turbines A process that only one person never doubted would work: Tesla himself. The rest of the players, in particular George Westinghouse, had their confidence shaken, both literally and figuratively.

Despite being one of the backers of Tesla’s vision, J. P. Morgan was manipulating stocks and undercutting Westinghouse to achieve his real goal: bringing all hydroelectric power under his control. He was starving out Westinghouse in the hopes he could acquire the rights to Tesla’s precious patents.

In 1896, just as power was first being transmitted to Buffalo, George Westinghouse approached Tesla with a difficult decision. Would he consider revoking the generous royalty agreement the two men had agreed to? Tesla was close to achieving his goal: New York City would soon be awash in lights. 10 power turbines were nearing completion on the Falls and Tesla had no reason to doubt he could achieve even greater feats of engineering.

George Westinghouse was the first person to have placed such enormous faith in Tesla and his (as yet) unproven technical blueprints. Without hesitation, Tesla rescinded the agreement. It was an act of generosity that would have considerable repercussions on his finances and his legacy.

The Origins of Power Generation

We know Marconi and we know Edison. But we don’t know the man who superseded both Marconi and Edison as being the crucial link in modern electrical transmission.

To find out where we’ve come from we need to go back. Way back. To the beginning where electricity started to transform itself into a usable commodity.

Foregoing some of the insights of experimenters along the way we’ll actually settle on the late 1880s. Here is where things start to get interesting. Interesting because there is a divergence of belief about the technology. Thomas Edison, favouring Direct Current power, built his business using DC. However, DC power generation has limitations. It’s bulky. It isn’t very safe. It doesn’t transmit large amounts of power over great distances. His vision is for a power generating station seated within the cityscape at regular intervals in order to overcome these shortcomings.

In the midst of the challenge of convincing the consuming public (and potential investors) that his system is safe, along comes a Serbian immigrant with four cents in his pocket and a letter of recommendation. The letter lands Nikola Tesla a job. The job is more of a challenge. Edison will pay Tesla $50,000 to help him solve some of the problems of DC power – arcing. In short order, Tesla solved the issue and demanded his payment. Edison rescinded the offer, claiming it was a joke. Tesla immediately resigned.

But his exploits did not go unnoticed. A certain Mr. George Westinghouse recognized the potential where Edison did not. Edison didn’t fully understand AC power and didn’t wish to understand it. That disregard was another reason the two men couldn’t work together. Tesla’s work was just starting to comprehend the many possibilities of Alternating Current.

Westinghouse gave Tesla a job and purchased a complete system of patents from Tesla that included his ideas for: Generators, transformers , transmission lines, motors and lighting. Every modern understanding we possess today comes from Tesla’s ideas. Westinghouse also agreed to a royalty payment of $2.50 for every horsepower of electricity sold.

But Thomas Edison would not go down without a fight.

The showdown of the ‘War of the Currents’ took place at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Both Westinghouse and General Electric (financier JP Morgan had absorbed Edison into GE in 1892) were invited to submit bids to make the event as the first one that would be fully illuminated by electricity. The Westinghouse bid was successful: it was much cheaper than Edison’s DC system. Tesla’s higher voltage transmission meant less bulky cabling and therefore 50% less cost.

The 1893 World’s Fair was lit by 100,000 incandescent light bulbs powered by 12- 1,000 hp AC Generators. 27 million people attended and 80 percent of all electrical devices manufactured after that historic event were Alternating Current.

But winning the War of the Currents was just the beginning.

Resource: http://www.pbs.org/tesla/