Friday, July 24, 2015

Tesla before he was a car

Charles Batchelor was one of the most trusted assistants of Thomas Alva Edison. While in Europe in 1884, Batchelor met a young man and was greatly impressed, and wrote a letter of introduction to Edison: “I know two great men, one is you and the other is this young man.”

And thus he introduced Nikola Tesla to Edison. The two men worked together, but became rivals who appreciated one another's genius. Edison hired teams of researchers.Tesla worked largely alone. Edison made tons of money. Tesla went bankrupt and suffered a nervous breakdown. Revisionists have made Tesla a hero and Edison a villain. But they were just men, who brought light to the world, using both AC and DC.

Neither man invented them, but both are in use today, AC for long-distance transmission, DC for short. AC brings electricity to the house; DC transmits it to most appliances.

Born a Serb in Smiljan, Croatia, in a lightning storm as midnight stuck on July 10, 1856, Tesla faced controversy from the start. The midwife told his mother lightning was a bad omen, to which his mother replied, “No. He will be a child of light.”

He was a genius with a photographic memory and a keen understanding of electricity. He also had a rational fear of germs having suffered cholera as a teenager, and an irrational fear of pearls. Perhaps an oyster bit him when he was young. Brilliant his first year at Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, Austria, (now Graz University of Technology) he worked too hard and in his third year he gambled away his tuition. Incredibly, he won the money back and repaid his family. But he left school and his family, and went to work as a draftsman. He suffered his first nervous breakdown. His professors were right about pushing himself too hard.

After recovering, he moved to Prague, where he audited classes at Charles-Ferdinand University before landing a job with the Budapest Telephone Exchange, essentially as an electrical engineer. A move to France followed and then, at 28, a move to New York City where he worked for Edison. At one point, Edison told Tesla he would pay $50,000 for an improved design for his DC dynamos. It took Tesla months to do this but he did. He asked Edison for the $50,000, but Edison refused, saying, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.”

Then I don't either. The shabby treatment of Tesla was contrary to Edison's share-the-wealth deals with Batchelor and other researchers who received shares of the various companies Edison formed to market their inventions. Tesla quit soon after.

He struggled for years but finally founded Tesla Electric Company with two backers in 1887. His first major patent was the induction motor, which ran on alternating current, which was the preferred method of transmission in Europe. Inventor and financier George Westinghouse was using AC to transmit electricity in Boston. Using Tesla's induction motor, Westinghouse developed the Tesla Polyphase System for AC transmission.

Edison backed by J.P. Morgan swore by direct current. The War of Currents posed a major problem for wiring the United States. But Edison had safety concerns which while overblown were sincere. However, his publicity tactics were blunt, as he arranged to have the first man electrocuted in New York state done in by AC. Edison was very much pro-life and proud of the fact that he never invented any war machine.

The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago pretty much decided the war, as Westinghouse won the bid to transmit electricity for the affair. Westinghouse used the event to demonstrate the safety and reliability of AC. Morgan switched to AC, formed General Electric and shoved Edison to the side. Edison had plenty of other pursuits, including what became the Edison Trust, a monopoly on film-making and film showing in the United States. A bunch of garment makers and fur traders who formed movie companies sued. Once the Supreme Court busted the monopoly, the plaintiffs moved to California and formed Hollywood in a town with the same name.

The year 1893 also marked a historic lecture by Tesla at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on radio transmission, which Edison attended. Although nearly deaf, Edison sat in the back to listen. But Tesla recognized his once mentor and now rival. He had Edison stand and the audience applauded him. Tesla then outlined the heart of radio transmission in that speech.

Later, Tesla designed the first hydroelectric power plant, harnessing the power of Niagara Falls. It took three years to build. Homes in Buffalo were first lit by Niagara Falls on November 16, 1896. A statue of Tesla on Goat Island overlooks the falls today. But, for Tesla, victory in the War of Currents resulted in his relinquishing his royalties for the induction motor, as Westinghouse renegotiated their deal and paid him a flat fee.

In 1891, Tesla invented the Tesla Coil, which helped his experiments in electrical lighting, phosphorescence, X-ray generation, high frequency alternating current phenomena, electrotherapy, and the transmission of electrical energy without wires.

Tesla began to explore invisible light -- X-rays -- which was one of the pursuits of Edison as well. But just as Tesla neared a breakthrough, his New York laboratory burned down in 1895, which cost him all his work. The next year, William Röntgen's discovered of X-ray and X-ray imaging -- radiography -- in Germany.

After the fire, Tesla moved to Colorado, but returned in 1900 when Morgan backed his efforts to create a worldwide wireless communication system. He planned to broadcast "wireless telegraphy" from a tower in Shoreham, New York. He called the tower Wardenclyffe Tower. But Guglielmo Marconi's radio based telegraph system was better. In 1906, Morgan pulled the plug on financing the project and Tesla suffered a nervous breakdown. He had taken out a mortgage in 1904 with George C. Boldt, proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, who eventually foreclosed and sold the steel from the tower for scrap.

The second nervous breakdown became more difficult for him. The man who had invented the induction motor, the rotating magnetic field, the Tesla coil, and the radio controlled torpedo filed for bankruptcy after losing Wardenclyffe. The end of World War I led to the end of his patent royalties from Europe. Over time, he began losing his mind coming up with wilder schemes and even talking to pigeons.

He never married and he died alone in a hotel in New York on January 7, 1943.

But later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court vindicated Tesla's genius when it voided four key patents held by Marconi, saying he based the patents on that speech in Philadelphia on radio transmission 50 years earlier. Tesla's work is found in every radio or television broadcast, as well as every X-ray thanks to the Tesla Coil. He was a remarkable visionary.

In the Age of the Internet, Tesla received a newfound respect, but at the expense of Edison, which is unfair. Both men were important, and clearly Tesla was the smarter of the two, but Edison was the wiser. He hired geniuses. Tesla worked alone.

As for Charles Batchelor, he became the first treasurer and general manager of GE. After retiring in 1899 at age 54, he worked for Edison on development of an ore-mining process, which never succeeded, before moving on and selling securities. He died on New Year's Day 1910 at age 64, having been born on Christmas Day 1845, his greatest scientific achievement being the introduction of Tesla to Edison. Not bad.

The first volume is available in paperback and on Kindle here.

And here you can follow the progress of the sequel.