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Tags: Nikola Tesla | alternating current | AC | electric motor | inventor

Happy 160th Birthday, Nikola Tesla

Richard Grigonis By Tuesday, 12 July 2016 03:40 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

July 10th was the 160th anniversary of the birth of Nikola Tesla, an ethnic Serb who was born in a Croatian province of the Austro-Hungarian empire and emigrated to the United States.

To attempt to merely list the accomplishments of Tesla would require a large pamphlet. Most of the inventions we ascribe to others were in fact devised by Tesla.

His greatest achievements were discovering the rotating magnetic field principle that made the synchronous AC induction motor possible (the idea came to him in a flash in 1882 as he strolled through Graz City Park), and his 1880s patents involving multi-phase alternating current power distribution, which enabled the power of Niagara Falls to be harnessed and transmitted at high voltage to Buffalo, New York starting in 1896.

Indeed, the power system we use today is little changed from Tesla’s original patents. His championing of alternating current, aided by George Westinghouse, put him in direct competition with Thomas Edison and General Electric, who were pushing Edison’s own patents and power distribution system based on direct current. The nasty “battle of the currents” ended with the victory of AC over DC.

Some of Tesla’s claims (such as his invention of radio) are a bit overblown, but he did contribute to many of its underlying technologies. When someone once asked Einstein what it was like to be a genius, he replied, wryly, “I don’t know. Ask Nikola Tesla.”

Even so, the genius of the man cannot be denied.

There are many tales about Tesla — and now I’d like to add my own.

Long ago, when I was a very young man, there was tale a very old man who lived in Kearny, New Jersey. “Bennie” as he was known, purported to be the last assistant of Tesla.

One interesting thing about him was that he claimed to know how Tesla did one of his “tricks” for visitors to his laboratory.

If someone famous were visiting his lab in New York, Mark Twain, say, Tesla would reach into his lab coat and pull out a clenched fist. Opening it, what appeared to be a flame danced on his palm. He would then close his hand and put it back into his lab coat pocket, his visitors stupefied.

The ability to do the trick came about because the early, proto-industrial labs in those days had samples of everything. For example, if one visits Edison’s lab at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey, once sees shelves and shelves of chemicals and other materials, both natural and artificial.

Tesla had a collection of stuff in his lab too. Once day, as the story goes, he was tuning one of his devices, filling the lab with electromagnetic oscillations of some sort. When he tuned the device to a specific frequency, he noticed a flickering on one of his shelves. It was from a collection of crystalline minerals.

One of the crystalline rocks was flickering in response to the electromagnetic oscillations.

This gave Tesla an idea. Whenever a VIP visitor came to his lab, he put the item in his pocket and tuned the device to the proper frequency, thus enabling him to perform a sort of neat magic trick.

Many of Tesla’s grand ideas were unworkable, such as those regarding global wireless power transmission, which would be difficult if not impossible to meter and would have to be free — a fact that would eventually discourage Wall Street investors such as J.P. Morgan, who had at first enthusiastically funded the construction of Tesla’s Wardenclyffe laboratory and its 185-foot tower in Shoreham, Long Island.

Tesla died penniless in Room 3328 on the 33rd floor of the Hotel New Yorker, Manhattan, where he had lived from 1933 until his death in 1943. He had a suite in Room 3328 and he had kept his scientific papers in Room 3327, including plans for a “death ray.”

He spent his final days feeding pigeons from his hotel window.

After Tesla’s death, the FBI raided the place and confiscated the papers. Legend has it that the papers were used to help initiate development of today’s advanced directed energy weapons, the modern-day version of the comic book “death rays” of Tesla’s era.

Today, there is a commemorative plaque in the Hotel New Yorker. Additionally, the corner of 40th Street and 6th Avenue in downtown Manhattan has been named “Nikola Tesla Corner,” complete with a street sign, because of its proximity to the location of Tesla’s laboratory at 8 West 40th Street.

Take a trip to Belgrade, Serbia, and you'll doubtless land at Nikola Tesla Airport.

If any member of the American general public today knows the name of Tesla at all, it is perhaps for Elon Musk’s electric car start-up company, Tesla Motors. The Tesla Roadster uses an AC motor which, like all AC motors, is a descendant of Tesla’s original 1882 patent.

Moreover, movie buffs may remember the late David Bowie’s brief portrayal of Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film, "The Prestige."

Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. He is the author of "Computer Telephony Encyclopedia," (2000) and was founding editor-in-chief of Jeff Pulver’s Voice on the Net (VON) magazine from 2003 to 2006. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis — Click Here Now.

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July 10, 2016 was the 160th anniversary of the birth of the great inventor, Nikola Tesla.
Nikola Tesla, alternating current, AC, electric motor, inventor
Tuesday, 12 July 2016 03:40 PM
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