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Nikola Tesla (1856-1943)

Part 2 - The Production Years

In 1893 Tesla and Westinghouse got the contract to install all the electrical and lighting systems for the Chicago World's Fair. This was the the first World's Fair with electricity and would prove that alternating current was the electrical system of the future. After the World's Fair everybody believed in Tesla's alternating current and soon the whole country had switched to Tesla's system.

Westinghouse won the coveted contract to harness Niagara, bidding half of what Edison bid for the installation of a DC system. Tesla's success on the World's Fair was a factor in winning the contract to install the first power machinery at Niagara Falls, which bore Tesla's name and patent numbers. In 1895, the Niagara AC power system enjoyed a flawless inauguration, transmitting electricity to Buffalo twenty-two miles away, a complete impossibility in the suddenly outmoded world of direct current. No longer a curious luxury reserved for the urban upper class, electric power in the home would now be commonplace. For the first time in his life, Nikola Tesla was an indisputable success.

Nikola Tesla in 1922Tesla Lab Institute Tesla's New York laboratory was a hive of continuous activity, with a small staff of assistants working solely from their employer's verbal instructions. His distaste for putting ideas down on paper, coupled with his tendency to get bored with a completed invention and move on to the next challenge, led Tesla to toss aside a large number of creations that he never even bothered to patent.

Once, when exhaustion left Tesla in a state of temporary amnesia, his assistant filed for patents on many of the unregistered inventions on Tesla's behalf, and had the master sign the papers while still incapacitated. Tesla's shunning of documentation was of some benefit when fire destroyed the lab in 1895, right after the success at Niagara. The loss was a setback, but not a catastrophic one, since the most valuable of the laboratory's assets remained intact in Tesla's brain.

The wireless transmission of energy would become the ultimate pursuit of Tesla's career. He discovered that a vacuum tube held in proximity to a Tesla coil would burst into illumination, without wires, without even a filament inside the glowing tube. Electrical resonance was the key to this discovery. By determining the frequency of the needed electrical current, Tesla was able to turn a series of different lights on and off selectively, from yards away.


As the years passed, Tesla's vision of wireless energy grew even grander in scope. He solved one of the problems implicit in his first theory, which was that transmission of power through air over long distances would result in a significant loss of energy. Rather than using air as a medium, he decided to send energy through the ground. This makes little sense in conventional electrical terms, whereby the earth's surface is regarded as, literally, "the ground" -- a sinkhole used for discharging excess current from a conductor. But Tesla found that if it were charged highly enough, the ground could become the conductor itself. In this way, the entire planet could be transformed into a colossal electric transmitter.

In 1899, as logistics prevented him from conducting the necessary experiments within the confines of New York City, Tesla headed west. A Colorado attorney named Leonard Curtis, who had previously defended Tesla in court, offered to help Tesla set up a testing facility in Colorado Springs. Curtis was also an officer of the local power company, and provided electricity to Tesla at no cost.

Tesla and his assistants built a one-of-a-kind laboratory on the outskirts of town, which looked like a large barn topped by a 180-foot metal tower. This was Tesla's "magnifying transformer," which he called the greatest of his inventions. The towns people of Colorado Springs were naturally curious about what this great inventor was up to, and respected the signs around the perimeter of the compound reading "KEEP OUT -- GREAT DANGER!"


Still, they soon felt the effects of Tesla's apparatus. Sparks leapt from the ground as people walked the streets, singeing their feet through their shoes. The grass around the Tesla building glowed with a faint blue light. Metal objects held near fire hydrants would draw miniature lightning bolts from several inches away. Switched-off light bulbs within 100 feet of the tower spontaneously lit.

And Tesla was only tuning up his equipment. These were the side effects of adjusting the magnifying transformer into perfect resonance with the earth. Once it was properly calibrated, Tesla was ready to conduct his career's boldest symphony, using the entire planet as his orchestra.

Late one night in the fall of 1899, Tesla fired up his machine at full blast, in hopes of producing a phenomenon he called resonant rise. His tower pumped ten million volts into the earth's surface. The current raced through the earth at the speed of light, powerful enough to keep from dying out over the course of its journey. When it reached the opposite side of the planet, it bounced back, like ripples of water returning to their origin. Upon returning, the current was greatly weakened; but Tesla was sending out a series of pulses which reinforced one another, resulting in a tremendous cumulative effect.

At ground zero, where Tesla and his assistant stood bedazzled, the resonant rise manifested itself in an unearthly display of lightning that still stands as the most powerful man-made electrical surge in history. The returning current formed an arc of lightning that stretched skyward from Tesla's tower and progressively grew to an incredible 130 feet long. Apocalyptic crashes of thunder were heard twenty-two miles away. Tesla had been concerned that there might be an upper limit to generating resonant surges, but now he believed the potential was limitless. The demonstration did come to an unexpected halt, but that was because the power surge caused the overloaded Colorado Springs power generator to burst into flames. Tesla received no further free power from the plant's furious owners.

He returned to New York in search of backing for the global implementation of a resonant energy system. Now cognizant of the business world's inevitable reluctance to support giving away free energy, Tesla pitched his new project as a means of transmitting communication, rather than electrical power. George Westinghouse passed on the idea. Tesla next proposed it to J. P. Morgan, the wealthiest man in America, who had previously declined to finance the inventor. The idea of a monopoly on world communications intrigued Morgan, and he enabled Tesla to build a new laboratory on Long Island. Named Wardenclyffe, it was to be a bigger and better version of his Colorado facility.

The project was abandoned because of a financial panic, labor troubles, and Morgan's withdrawal of support. It was Tesla's greatest defeat. Two years later a man named Marconi came out with a wireless radio in London. His equipment was exactly what Tesla had demonstrated in St. Louis two years earlier, and had been published around the world. Marconi said he had never read about Tesla's design, so Marconi was credited with inventing the radio. However, twenty years later they went to court and Tesla won. He is now recognized as the real inventor of the radio.

The first Tesla invention with a proposed military use was his automaton technology, with which the labor of human beings could be performed by machines. Specifically, Tesla produced remote-controlled boats and submarines. He demonstrated the wireless ship at an exposition in Madison Square Garden in 1898. The automaton apparatus was so advanced, it used a form of voice recognition to respond to the verbal commands of Tesla and volunteers from the audience.

In public, Tesla spoke only of the humanitarian virtues of the invention: it would lessen the toils and drudgery of mankind and keep human lives out of harm's way. But Tesla actually had his hopes on a contract with the U.S. military. In a presentation before the War Department, Tesla argued that his unmanned torpedo craft could obliterate the Spanish Armada and end the war with Spain in an afternoon. The government never took Tesla up on his offer.

Tesla eventually landed a successful military contract, with the German Marine High Command. The product here was not unmanned sea craft, but sophisticated turbines which Admiral von Tirpitz used to great success in his fleet of warships. After J. P. Morgan cut off his support of Wardenclyffe, this foreign contract was Tesla's only substantial source of income. Upon the outbreak of World War I, Tesla chose to forfeit his German royalties, lest he be charged with treason.

Nearly broke, and finding the United States on the brink of war, Tesla dreamed up a new invention that might interest the military: the death ray. The mechanism behind Tesla's death ray is not well understood. It was apparently some sort of particle accelerator. Tesla said it was an outgrowth of his magnifying transformer, which focused its energy output into a thin beam so concentrated it would not scatter, even over huge distances. He promoted the device as a purely defensive weapon, intended to knock down incoming attacks, making the death ray the great-great grandfather of the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Six years later, the onset of the First World War caused Tesla to reconsider. He wrote to President Wilson, revealing his secret death ray test. He offered to rebuild the weapon for the War Department, to be used purely as a deterrent. The mere threat of such destructive force, he claimed, would cause the warring nations to agree at once to establish lasting peace. The only response to Tesla's proposal was a form letter of appreciation from the president's secretary. The death ray was never reconstructed, and for that we should probably all be thankful.

Tesla made one one further attempt to aid in his country's war effort. In 1917, he conceived of a sending station that would emit exploratory waves of energy, enabling its operators to determine the precise location of distant enemy craft. The War Department rejected Tesla's "exploring ray" as a laughing stock. A generation later, a new invention exactly like this helped the Allies win World War II. It was called radar.

Tesla's work then shifted to turbines and other projects. Because of a lack of funds, his ideas remained in his notebooks, which are still examined by engineers for unexploited clues. In 1915 he was severely disappointed when a report that he and Edison were to share the Nobel Prize proved erroneous. Tesla was the recipient of the Edison Medal in 1917, the highest honor that the American Institute of Electrical Engineers could bestow.

From the April 1895 Century Magazine Tesla allowed himself only a few close friends. Among them were the writers Robert Underwood Johnson, Mark Twain, and Francis Marion Crawford. He was quite impractical in financial matters and an eccentric, driven by compulsions and a progressive germ phobia. But he had a way of intuitively sensing hidden scientific secrets and employing his inventive talent to prove his hypotheses. Tesla was a godsend to reporters who sought sensational copy but a problem to editors who were uncertain how seriously his futuristic prophecies should be regarded. Caustic criticism greeted his speculations concerning communication with other planets, his assertions that he could split the Earth like an apple, and his claim of having invented a death ray capable of destroying 10,000 airplanes at a distance of 250 miles (400 kilometres).

Tesla's ideas seemed to grow markedly weirder in his later years. Forever restless, and untethered by concerns of practicality and marketability, Tesla's mind spawned a vast miscellany of odd inventions. Many of these were never developed beyond the concept stage, and the ideas seemed to grow markedly weirder in the final years of Tesla's life. Invention was normally a deliberate process for Tesla, his every intention and goal fully formed before he and his crew lifted a finger. But there were times when he stumbled upon a new discovery by mistake. Tesla performed his first experiments with resonance technology at his New York laboratory by firing up a small oscillator, which caused a minor amount of vibration. Suddenly, an alarmed squad of police officers stormed into the lab, demanding that Tesla stop at once. Manhattan was shaking for miles around. Tesla had not taken into account how resonance waves grow stronger the further they travel from their source. He had unintentionally created what became known as Tesla's earthquake machine.

Tesla in his lab in New York Tesla also applied his resonance engines in bizarre forms of physical therapy. He created machines that flooded the human body with electrical currents and strong vibrations, intended to soothe aches and promote healing. And Tesla wasn't just the inventor of the "electrotherapeutic" device -- he was also a client. He reportedly became somewhat addicted to administering the treatment to himself, insisting that a session with the machine rejuvenated him on his long stretches of work without food or sleep. Tesla once let his friend Samuel Clemens try out the healing machine. The author is said to have enjoyed the experience tremendously, until the vibrations brought him a case of spontaneous diarrhea. Tesla marketed this invention, and the Tesla Electrotherapeutic Company was one of the few commercial enterprises of his old age that was marginally successful.

Tesla gained another accidental revelation during his testing of the magnifying transformer in Colorado Springs. One evening during the construction of the device, the apparatus began to sound out a series of precise clicks, similar to Morse code. Tesla was convinced that these were signals being sent by extraterrestrial life. Tesla had expressed his belief in life on Mars, and now he thought he had proof. He later conceived of transmitters for communicating with Martians, espousing his view that the establishment of peaceful relations with our neighbors from outer space was among the most pressing duties that lay before humanity.

On his 75th birthday in 1931, the inventor appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. On this occasion, Tesla received congratulatory letters from more than 70 pioneers in science and engineering including Albert Einstein and Mark Twain. These letters were mounted and presented to Tesla in the form of a testimonial volume.

In his later years, Tesla was fascinated with the idea of light as both a particle and a wave, the fundamental proposition of what would become quantum physics. This field of inquiry led to the development of his death ray. Tesla also had the idea of creating a "wall of light" by manipulating electromagnetic waves in a certain pattern. This mysterious wall of light would enable time, space, gravity and matter to be altered at will, and engendered an array of Tesla proposals that seem to leap straight out of science fiction, including anti-gravity airships, teleportation and time travel.

Nikola Tesla died on January 7th, 1943, at the age of 87 in Hotel New Yorker, in Manhattan. He was virtually penniless, living at the dilapidated Hotel New Yorker in a room that he shared with a flock of pigeons, which he considered his only friends. Immediately after Tesla’s death, Tesla scientific papers vanished from his hotel room in Hotel New Yorker. Tesla papers were never found. Tesla papers contained scientific data and information about “Death Rays”, which could be used for military purposes.

Other pages on Tesla: Article, Biography Part One, Biography Part Two, Patents, Photographs, Statue, Transmitter