25 April 2012

"T" is for...


   Nikola Tesla, a man who was both a certifiable genius and just plain certifiable.

   Born in Smiljan, Croatia, Tesla was educated at Graz and Prague, worked for the Continental Edison Company in Paris, and emigrated to the United States in 1884. There he worked briefly for Thomas Edison until the poetic Tesla and the pragmatic Edison fell out. Tesla then went on to sell his patents for a series of alternating current devices to the Westinghouse Electric Company, making Tesla a relatively wealthy man able to set himself up in his own laboratory.  

    So far so good; sounds like the biography of many a successful Victorian electrical engineer. But Tesla was a first-class ego case with aristocratic pretensions. He was a tremendous showman who excelled at giving spectacular demonstrations of what electricity could do. He was an intuitive genius who could visualize all sorts of revolutionary new devices even though he didn't fully understand the principles behind them. He had a remarkable memory, coupled with an intense dislike of writing things down, so that much of his work has come down to us as a mystery. He was a man with no money sense who was able to persuade many an investor into pouring money into his schemes. He was also a visionary who, as time went on and his professional fortunes ebbed, became prone to wilder and wilder assertions about what marvels he would perform and how he could single-handedly change the world.
   Tesla's real achievements combined with his flamboyant dreams made him a regular source for reporters looking for sensational copy and a lightning rod for nutcases who were convinced that he was really an emissary from the planet Venus.
Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943)

   The thing that makes Tesla such a compelling, yet sad case is that he was genuinely brilliant and had carved himself a real place in history with his accomplishments.  His contributions to the field of electrical engineering are on a scale to rival that of Edison and Steinmetz and we enjoy the fruits of his labours every time we flick on a light switch.  However, his lonely work habits, refusal to write things down, and flat-out eccentricities have made him one of those figures that historians cross the street to avoid.

AC Induction Motor

   Tesla's first great invention was the AC induction motor. An electric motor works by flipping the field of an electromagnet, causing the attraction/repulsion of the magnets to spin the armature around.  Tesla was the first inventor to come up with a practical way of using AC power to achieve the same reversal of polarity; only this time it's done with clever wiring. Unlike DC, where the electrical current always flows in one direction, AC current flows in both directions. By wiring some of the magnetic sections of the motor one way and then their neighbour sections in reverse, the polarity would reverse automatically with the current.

    The trick was how to supply current to the armature itself without burning out the contacts with the high voltages that AC power required. Tesla's answer was to use induction. In Tesla's motor, the induction field set up by the AC current feeds power to the armature without any direct wiring needed.

AC Power

   But the really neat thing about electrical motors is that if you get one working you also have a perfectly good electrical generator in one of technology's rare twofers.  An electric motor works by taking electricity in and turning it into motion.  But if you take a motor and spin it, out comes electricity.  All this means that when Tesla perfected his motor, he was well on his way toward building a new generation of AC dynamos that form the basis of our modern electrical grid. When Westinghouse bought up Tesla's patents, it sparked (get it?) a commercial war between Westinghouse and Thomas Edison, who was a great backer of DC.  There followed years of bitter propaganda battles - Edison invented the electric chair to demonstrate the dangers of AC power - but in the end the AC system won out.

The Tesla Coil

    Curiously, despite his achievements, Tesla never had a very good theoretical grasp of what electricity actually is.  He tended to ignore developments in physics.  In fact, he greeted Einstein's theory of relativity with downright hostility.  For Tesla, electricity wasn't a thing of electrons and energy states, but of fluids, vibrations, and harmonics in a system which he seemed to understand, but which made his explanations the thing of which headaches are made.

    Whatever his theory, Tesla still managed to get results.  He was fascinated with high frequency electricity, but mechanical generators could only go so fast before they started to fly apart. So, he developed devices that could provide higher and higher frequencies without moving parts. The most famous of these was the Tesla coil; this high-voltage transformer is familiar to anyone who has seen an old Frankenstein movie where they were used to generate the electrical arcs that are apparently necessary if you're going to be a respected and card-carrying member of the Society of Mad Scientists. They also produce an electrical field that lights fluorescent tubes and similar devices at a distance, a spectacular parlour trick that led Tesla down more than one rabbit hole.


   Tesla's interest in high frequency electricity had other benefits.  A number of his circuits were basic to radio technology.  Because he didn't understand how electromagnetic radiation worked, Tesla thought that sending messages through the air required transmitting huge amounts of energy, so he never produced a working system, but his patents did predate those of Marconi by several years and Tesla was awarded precedence by US Supreme Court in 1943.

Remote Control

   Another of Tesla's certified firsts was in the field of teleautomation, or remote control to me and you.  In 1898 Tesla demonstrated a peculiar little tub-shaped boat which he was able to control at a distance with a small box.  That may not seem like much today, but this first ever exhibition of radio remote control caused a sensation at the time.  Tesla was able to start and stop his little boat, steer it, and make its lights flash.  With his more advanced model, he could even make is submerge on command.  As an added fillip, Tesla's boats were designed with interlocking circuits that prevented hijacking of the boat by more powerful transmitters. The circuitry he used is similar to that used by cell phones to prevent signals from crossing over today.

Broadcast Power

   In the 1890s, Tesla was playing about with sending high-voltage currents through evacuated glass tubes and he discovered that a tube containing rarefied gas could conduct current rather well.  But for Tesla, this wasn't good enough. He leapt from a simple laboratory observation to declaring that he'd discovered the secret of transmitting electricity to all the world without wires. He reasoned that since he could send electricity through a tube of rarefied gas, and that the Earth's ionosphere was also composed of rarefied gas, then it would be a simple matter to send electricity up into the outer reaches of the atmosphere and charge the entire planet like a gigantic Leyden jar that could be tapped on demand.  With such a system, dynamos, batteries, and the like would all be a thing of the past. Anything from a pocket torch to an aeronef to a battleship would have literally unlimited power at its disposal regardless of large it was, how long it ran, or where it was located. Sadly, it just didn't work.

Superimposed photo of Tesla in his laboratory.


   Many of Tesla's claims in the real world were never realized: death rays, earthquake machines, etc. But in the realms of Victorian Science Fiction, well, he's practically a galvanic god. Tesla's inventions led to handheld death rays, aeronefs, broadcast remotes, automatons, and all manner of wonders. In my VSF universe, he is currently working with the United States government to develop military applications of his technology, including wireless telegraphy!

[Editor's note: A great deal of the above was taken from Tales of Future Past. The author there did such a great job of balancing Tesla's genius with his lunacy, I just couldn't resist.]


Elderac said...

And some people say that one of Tesla's experiments was responsible for the Tunguska blast.

Great choice for the letter T.


The Haggis said...

Great post. I'm working my way through your generous alphabet posts. Very interesting and as a fellow blogger, I really appreciate how much work went into these.

I was going to wait until the end to comment, but couldn't wait after this one. GREAT STUFF, and thanks for helping to spark the imagination!