Genius or dangerous visionary? The truth lies somewhere in the middle and Tesla deserves to be celebrated for casting light on the shadows of ignorance.
The date is historic: 10th July 1856. And the place (Smiljan, a small town in Croatia) too. That was the birthplace of Nikola Tesla, a man remembered as one of the greatest inventors of the twentieth century. The most debatable and at the same time lauded figure of his time.
Tesla went down in history for his discovery of alternating current in contrast with the direct current theorised by his rival Thomas Alva Edison. In the same way as Leonardo Da Vinci, this man from Eastern Europe literally visualised the inventions which he would later patent (by the end of his life he would have 280 to his name). The power of his imagination was so immense that from childhood, Tesla had no need for models, sketches or prior experiments in order to verify his hunches. He just used his mind and that was all.
The War of Currents
At the turn of the twentieth century, Tesla was the winner of what was known as the “War of Currents”. There were two adversaries: Tesla himself, backed by the industrialist George Westinghouse, who was betting on AC (alternating current) and Edison who was a firm supporter of DC (direct current). The model proposed by Tesla was far more efficient and made it possible to light up large urban areas even from hundreds of miles away.
In 1893 the pair Tesla/Westinghouse had their first great success: they won the public tender for the illumination for the Chicago Expo by offering electrical power for the event at a far lower prices (reputedly a million dollars) compared with that presented by an increasingly disgruntled Edison. And the positive impact was such that from 1896 onwards, every great metropolis and factory the world over exclusively adopted alternating current.
To reach the sacred fire of science, Tesla adhered to a rigid code of conduct. He slept very little (two hours at most) and always ate at the same table away from others. He was terrified of germs and by his side – whether he was working or dining – there was always a pile of eighteen napkins. This was no random number because Tesla had an utter veneration for the number 3 and its multiples.
The Great Radio Controversy
One of his greatest professional disappointments was his defeat at the hand of the Italian Guglielmo Marconi in the field of radio broadcasting although, after his death, the Supreme Court in the United States ruled that Tesla deserved equal credit for the invention of the radio. Tesla, a brilliant hair metal group from Sacramento heavily influenced by blues and Aerosmith, brought the matter up again in 1989 with their album title ‘The Great Radio Controversy’.
The appearance on the scene of Marconi (who broadcast his first transatlantic radio message in 1901) was a heavy blow to Tesla’s experiments in the famous Wardenclyffe station on Long Island funded by the famous banker J.P. Morgan. The main tower (almost 25 metres high and entirely built out of metal) was the base for what would have become the Tesla wireless revolution but the project was finally shelved and in 1917 blown up with dynamite. It could have been the dawn of a new age. An attempt to radiate energy freely and free of charge without need for cables, power stations and permits.
Teleforce and final days
Tesla died in penury on 7th January 1943 at the age of eighty-six in an anonymous hotel room in New York. Among his last research projects was a teleforce which was instantly renamed “death ray” by his enemies. For the scientist, however, it was defence device intended for good since it would have stopped any war right in its tracks.
Naturally no practical project or diagram of the weapon was ever found. This lack of notes did not prevent the FBI from searching the room after his death. Or prevent the director J. Edgar Hoover from declaring that this supposed invention of the octogenarian Croat was the “most secret” case of his entire career. Yet another enigma within the puzzle that was Nikola Tesla.