Research Paper: Nikola Tesla

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¶ … Nikola Tesla, His Work and Impact on Society

Tesla

This paper discusses the history of Nikola Tesla, from his roots in modern-day Croatia to his work as a naturalized citizen in the United States. Integral to the examination of Tesla will be his relationship with other scientists who worked in his field of inquiry, from Edison to Roentgen to Marconi, as well as with patrons and supporters like J.P. Morgan. It will also be shown that unique to Tesla was his extraordinary way of visualizing and designing his inventions -- conceived like a "flash of lightning" and perfected almost entirely in the mind. Yet, despite his genius, Tesla was competing against scientists around the world for recognition as "the first" to develop specific models of electrical engineering. This paper concludes that Tesla's contribution to the field of electrical engineering is vast and significant and a key proponent in the Industrial Revolution. As the inventions of Tesla are still in use today in some form or another, Tesla may be regarded as one of the greatest inventors of all time -- despite his eccentricities.

A Survey of Nikola Tesla, His Work and Impact on Society

Introduction

Controversy surrounds the eccentric life of Nikola Tesla. From the mysterious circumstances concerning the curious distancing of himself from his family to his absolutely celibate, monk-like approach to scientific inquiry; from his feud with Thomas Edison to his reclusive research in Colorado Springs (the latter the focus of science-fiction dramas even today), Tesla displayed a passion and zeal for electrical engineering that resembled an obsession. Although he developed a slew of principles and electromechanical devices, such as remote control, the Tesla coil, fluorescent lighting, and modern radio, patent wars in the early twentieth century often saw Tesla's recognition slighted in favor of other scientists, such as Guglielmo Marconi. Best known for developing "the alternating current (AC) electrical supply system that included a motor and transformer, and 3-phase electricity" (Bellis 2011), Tesla's influence on modern technology receives more recognition now than in his own lifetime. An increasing interest in pop culture (in films such as the Prestige and Coffee and Cigarettes with Jack White, and the pop rock band Tesla) and work by the BBC, Orson Welles, congressmen, and cities has helped promote Nikola Tesla in the public eye (Vujovic 1998). Still wonderers are asking, "Who was he?" There is certainly more to Tesla than the fact that his face appears on the Serbian dinar bill. This paper will show just who Nikola Tesla was, what exactly he accomplished, and what effect it had on the world of science, engineering and society in general.

History

Tesla lived a long, creative, and productive life, most of it in the United States. Born in 1856 in modern-day Croatia, Tesla died in 1943 in a suite in New York City, having become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1891. His naturalization may have been an attempt to assuage some of the suspicion associated with his foreign ethnicity (Tesla fluently spoke seven different languages). Yet, despite the fact that he became an American citizen at 35, throughout his life Tesla had to contend with a kind of bigotry (from Edison), suspicion (from the government because of overseas sponsors), and political intrigue (his later works were confiscated by the military after his death).

A somewhat charming portrayal of the obsessive-compulsive Tesla is given in the 1980 Yugoslav film the Secret of Nikola Tesla (starring an aged Orson Welles as financial suitor J.P. Morgan). The film displays Tesla's cold relations with Edison, his OCD (washing his hands twenty times a day, each time drying them with a fresh towel), his refusal of coffee or tea ("These delicious beverages superexcite and gradually exhaust the fine fibers of the brain" (Tesla 1919)) -- his tolerance of whiskey (Welles' Morgan replies, "Well, that makes you seem almost human") -- and the question of whether he was a lunatic, faker, genius or all three.

The film accurately depicts the extraordinary and unorthodox way in which Tesla worked. While for Edison, genius was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, the ratio was much more balanced in Tesla's opinion (he also thought Edison would have saved himself a heap of trouble if he would have only employed a correct theory once in a while -- not an entirely boastful claim, as Edison was convinced that direct current was superior to Tesla's alternating current). Tesla, however, construed his inventions almost entirely in his mind, seeing images like a flash of white light. Such flashings had in fact troubled him since childhood, causing him to fall ill a number of times.

Intended, as he says, from childhood to be a cleric in the Orthodox Church, Tesla felt oppressed -- and this feeling may have been related to his bouts of illness. His grandfather had served in Napoleon's army, later joining the clergy as his son (Tesla's father) would. His mother, however, descended from a family of inventors and was "guessing one another's thoughts, discovering the defects of some form or expression, repeating long sentences or performing mental calculations" daily as a means of keeping the mind sharp (Tesla 1919). This mental agility had an impact on young Nikola, who would spend hours pouring over engineering principles, and whose work would ultimately depend upon it:

My method is different. I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever, the results are the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything (Tesla 1919).

No doubt, such statements were construed as boastful -- and the idea is noted in Papi?'s 1980 film. Tesla's "brushless, commutatorless," "forerunner of the 3-phase induction motor was" modeled and designed entirely in his head (Papi? 1980, Rippel 2007). The image came to him like a "flash of lightning" while reciting a poem in the streets of Hungary. Such was Tesla's genius. He quotes Goethe at length in his autobiography and displays a flair for the romanticism of nineteenth century poetry. If anything, he imagined on a grand scale: for example, before the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 "there were no poly-phase generators in existence" -- except for the one supplied by Nikola Tesla (Papi? 1980).

Inventions, Dreams, Competitors, and Business Partners

It was there, in fact, that Tesla and business partner George Westinghouse used alternating current to light their exposition. The Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company had put on display the "Tesla poly-phase system [which] consists, practically, of two or more alternating currents used to produce a rotating magnetic field" (Barrett 1894). Elsewhere at the fair were "experiments illustrating the remarkable results obtained by Mr. Tesla in the use of high-frequency, high-potential currents…the rate of alternation was increased from 7,200 per minute to 400,000 per second, by the use of condensers and an arc-breaking device" (Barrett 1894). A lightning effect was also produced at the show by Tesla, giving the most spectacular sight to visitors who saw -- and heard -- the display. The event led to J.P. Morgan and General Electric's employment of Tesla's system in the production of the power plant at Niagara Falls. Interestingly, Tesla had, as a schoolboy, envisioned just such an occurrence:

I was fascinated by a description of Niagara Falls I had perused, and pictured in my imagination a big wheel run by the Falls. I told my uncle that I would go to America and carry out this scheme. Thirty years later I saw my ideas carried out at Niagara and marveled at the unfathomable mystery of the mind (Tesla 1919).

The fact that Tesla's system had already been used to transmit electricity "over a distance of 160 km" certainly interested big business in Tesla (Papi? 1980). Yet part of the myth that has grown around Tesla (and purported in the Secret of Nikola Tesla) is his absolute indifference to money and his desire to produce free, renewable electricity -- an idea that might have appealed to consumers, but one not particularly appetizing to energy suppliers who saw energy production as a way of fattening one's wallet.

Tesla's imaginary powers and creative obsession were, from the start, motivated by an all-consuming desire to investigate, model, and produce. At the Real Gymnasium where he went to study at age ten, he was already pouring over ideas of construction: "In the second year at that institution I became obsessed with the idea of producing continuous motion thru steady air pressure" (Tesla 1919). The idea would develop into Tesla's 1882 discovery of the rotating magnetic field, "a fundamental principle in physics and the basis of nearly all devices that use alternating current" (Vujovic 1998). As Vujovic… [END OF PREVIEW]

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