The Feats and Foibles of Nikola Tesla

July 10 is Nikola Tesla Day. It’s understandable if you weren’t planning to celebrate — maybe your ears are still ringing from the July 4 fireworks display. Or maybe it’s because you had no idea there was a day to mark the birth of one of the unheralded geniuses of the modern age.

Born in 1856 in Smiljan, part of modern- day Croatia, a young Tesla revealed an unusual capacity for visualization and a turbo-charged mind that could memorize entire books. Already bred for innovation, he received another nudge down that path from his mother, Djuka, who tinkered with her own homemade inventions to help with daily chores.

At the Austrian Polytechnic School at Graz, Tesla became obsessed with the concept of alternating-current (AC) electricity; eventually, he realized its potential as an upgrade over the direct-current (DC) form that powered Thomas Edison’s lighting systems, and he conceived his induction motor as a means for introducing the idea to reality.

After immigrating to the United States in 1884, Tesla went to work for Edison for a spell, before finding investors who also gave him room to develop his visions. The most important of these was George Westinghouse, whom recognized in Tesla the engine that would allow him to compete with Edison’s DC system for widescale electrical distribution.

This led to the so-called War of Currents, which featured the mind-boggling spectacle of Edison demonstrating the dangers of AC by electrocuting animals and one convicted murderer. Despite the opposition, the Westinghouse Corporation won the bid to power the 1893 World Columbia Exposition, giving Tesla the platform to dazzle a global audience with the capabilities of AC power.

This was just one in a string of triumphs intended for Tesla during this period. In 1891 he patented what started to be known as the Tesla coil, providing a means for generating high-voltage and high- frequency currents. He was instrumental to the design of a hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls, dabbled in X-Rays before its official discovery and pioneered the field of robotics through the invention of the remote control. Along the way he engaged in a race with Italy’s Guglielmo Marconi to build up a successful radio apparatus, with Marconi using several of Tesla’s patents to get his components.

At the height of his powers, Tesla convinced the ultra-wealthy and influential banker J. P. Morgan to finance a wireless communication program that could enable the relay of news, music, stock reports and the like across massive distances. Construction at the Long Island site coined “Wardenclyffe” commenced in 1901, and, as if to symbolize Tesla’s ability to reach to the heavens pertaining to inspiration, a 187-foot transmission tower soon loomed within the proceedings.

Sadly, the forces that make the world go round succeeded in dragging Tesla back to Earth. Allegedly strong-armed simply by Edison backers, the U. S. Patent Office in 1904 overturned its patent for Tesla and awarded Marconi credit for inventing radio. Around this time, Morgan pulled his funding meant for Tesla’s wireless communication project, transforming the once impressive Wardenclyffe tower into a giant playground designed for seagulls.

Tesla’s situation wasn’t helped by simply his reputation of being eccentric. He claimed to have received signals coming from space and conceived of a way just for mankind to alter the weather, which was all par for the course for your friendly mad scientist down the street. Eventually this individual drew more attention for the purpose of his obsessive-compulsive and germ-phobic habits, which included the demand with respect to 18 napkins to be placed at his dining table. And this was before he revealed he had fallen in love with a pigeon, which unleashed a stream of light from its eyes as it died in his arms.

The eccentricities tended to overshadow a still highly fertile brain. During World War I, Tesla put forth the idea of transmitting high- rate of recurrence radio waves to detect ships at sea, two decades before the first practical radar system was introduced. In 1928, he was issued a patent for a flying apparatus that precluded the invention of the present day vertical take-off and landing machine (VTOL).

In his final years, Tesla was best known with regards to his entertainingly bizarre interviews, and for conceiving a ground-defense system that would beam concentrated particles into the sky to shoot down enemy planes. It became referred to as his “ death ray, “ an ironic twist for a war-detesting scientist who have envisioned it being used to deter large- scale strife. He passed away in his New York hotel room in 1943, and although the U. S. Supreme Court upheld his original patent for the radio a few months later, the record of his impact mysteriously receded from public memory.

For Tesla fans, the designation of a day to celebrate his achievements represents a pathetic thanks, the equivalent of a “I visited Niagara Falls and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” keepsake. Although his reputation has enjoyed a revival in recent years, it seems this curiosity of a man, always regarded as ahead of his time, is still waiting for the time he receives his proper due.

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