Tag Archives: George Westinghouse

The Cult of Nikola Tesla

The name of Nikola Tesla is associated with crazy conspiracy claims that have nothing to do with his real work.

By Brian Dunning via Skeptoid

Nikola Tesla, aged 37, 1893

Nikola Tesla, aged 37, 1893

No personality in the history of science has been pushed further into the realm of mythology than the Serbian-American electrical engineer Nikola Tesla. He is, without a doubt, one of the true giants in the history of electromagnetic theory. As an inventor he was as prolific as they come, with approximately 300 patents having been discovered in at least 26 countries, but many more inventions as well that stayed within his lab and were never patented. As remarkable as were his talents was his personality: private, eccentric, possessed of extraordinary memory and bizarre habits, and with a headlong descent into mental illness during his later years. Tesla’s unparalleled combination of genius and aberrance have turned him into one of the seminal cult figures of the day. As such, at least as much fiction as fact have swirled around popular accounts of his life, and devotees of conspiracy theories and alternative science hypotheses have hijacked his name more than that of any other figure. Today we’re going to try and separate that fiction from the fact.

First, a very brief outline of his life; but in order to put it in the proper perspective, we have to first clear up a popular misconception. Tesla did not invent alternating current, which is what he’s best remembered for. AC had been around for a quarter century before he was born, which was in 1856 in what’s now Croatia. While Tesla was a young man working as a telephone engineer, other men around Europe were already developing AC transformers and setting up experimental power transmission grids to send alternating current over long distances. Tesla’s greatest early development was in his mind: a rotary magnetic field, which would make possible an electric induction motor that could run directly from AC, unlike all existing electric motors, which were DC. At the time, AC had to be converted to DC to run a motor, at a loss of efficiency. Induction motors had been conceived before his birth, but none had ever been built. Tesla built a working prototype, but only two years after another inventor, Galileo Ferraris, had also independently conceived the rotary magnetic field and built his own working prototype. Rightfully fearing that his own obscurity as a telephone engineer was hampering his efforts as an inventor, Tesla arranged to move to the United States. He did so in 1884, getting his famously ill-fated and short-lived job in Thomas Edison’s laboratory.

The tycoon George Westinghouse, who understood the potential of AC and induction motors and was actively seeking them, gratefully purchased some of Tesla’s patents as soon as he learned about them. Royalties from Westinghouse fattened Tesla’s wallet, and a number of highly public projects on which they collaborated made him a celebrity, including the 1893 illumination of the World’s Fair with alternating current, and the subsequent creation of the Niagara Falls power plant. It was as a result of this windfall that Tesla set up his own laboratories and created his most intriguing inventions. Let’s run through a list of some of the seemingly magical feats attributed to Tesla, beginning with . . .

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Nikola Tesla Wasn’t God And Thomas Edison Wasn’t The Devil

Alex KnappBy Alex Knapp via Forbes

“It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.” – Mark Twain
Image: theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla

Image Courtesy: theoatmeal.com

The Oatmeal is a fantastic comic that I recommend that you make a habit of reading. However, even the greatest can go astray, and I’m pained to admit that The Oatmeal has done so regarding someone I regard very highly, and that’s Nikola Tesla. Alas, The Oatmeal has fallen prey to Tesla idolatry, confusing his genius for godhood and of course, setting up the now all-too-common ‘Edison as Tesla’s arch-villain’ narrative.
There are quite a few errors and misconceptions about both Tesla and Edison in this comic. But they’re errors that I’ve seen before and they are often repeated, so it’s worth the time, I think, to address some of the big ones.

Tesla Didn’t Invent Alternating Current And He Wasn’t A Major Power In The War Of The Currents

Let’s start with the first thing the comic says: “In a time when the majority of the world was still lit by candle power, an electrical system known as alternating current and to this day is what powers every home on the planet. Who do we have to thank for this invention that ushered humanity into a second industrial revolution? Nikola Tesla.”
This is just wrong. Alternating current was developed in principle by Michael Faraday and in practice by Hippolyte Pixii in the early 19th century. Practical devices employing AC in the medical world were developed before Tesla was even born. Contemporaries of Tesla working for George Westinghouse developed practical methods of distributing AC power from power plants before Tesla came to work for Westinghouse. Tesla himself actually studied the use of AC in college – he had an electrical engineering degree.

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