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Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla

15 July 2009

Last week Google’s search page carried one of its famous cartoon adornments which appear occasionally to mark a special day in history. This one featured a sparking Tesla coil in celebration of its inventor, Nikola Tesla’s, birthday. But beyond the Tesla Coil, many people know very little about the great man, whose work kick started The Second Industrial Revolution. Perhaps its time this electrical engineer received more recognition…

Born to Serbian parents on 10 July 1856 in what is now Croatia, Tesla studied Electrical Engineering in Austria before working for a telegraph company in Budapest and then moving to the France in 1882 where he invented the induction motor. Not a bad start.

He moved to the US two years later where he began work for Thomas Edison’s ‘Machine Works’ company, re-designing Edison’s direct current generators, but quickly fell out with Edison following a pay dispute.

Tesla then began his own company, Tesla Light & Manufacturing which gave him the opportunity to work properly on his ideas for an AC polyphase system which would allow transmission of AC current over long distances. By 1887 he had created his first brushless AC induction motor and developed his ideas for the Tesla coil.

During this same period he became interested in the idea of transmitting electricity wirelessly over long distances, which although hasn’t become a widely used system, certainly is an example of Tesla’s inventiveness.

His pioneering work continued with X-Rays but more importantly with his polyphase power systems, for which his first patents were granted by the time Tesla was 36. Polyphase AC and the three phase induction motor are the things Tesla developed for which we should be most grateful. They drove the Second Industrial Revolution and its legacy is still felt to a massive degree today. This is perhaps best summed up by this extract from "The Man Who Invented The Twentieth Century" by Dr Robert Lomas:

"I sit here surrounded by Tesla’s legacy: my electric-powered computer at my side in my study, lit by fluorescent electric light, heated by water pumped by an AC induction motor, listening to music broadcast on my mains-powered radio. As my scanner and Internet modem sit on desk, ready to send and receive pictures and messages round the world, I am using Tesla’s legacy.”

It is perhaps due to his eccentricity that Tesla is not as highly regarded today as Edison. Even in his own day he was considered a bit of a mad scientist, and some of his claims were, to be fair, quite outlandish. But that should not detract from his achievements which directly lead to our ability to have mains electricity which completely underpins almost every part of our existence today. Tesla, surely, must be regarded today as one of the Chief Architects (and Engineers) of the modern world.

For more proof of this, here is a list of some of his patents: the AC motor, the bifilar coil, various devices that use rotating magnetic fields, the alternating current polyphase power distribution system, legal priority for the invention of radio, radio frequency oscillators, devices for voltage magnification by standing waves, robotics, logic gates for secure radio frequency communications, devices for x-rays, apparatus for ozone generation, devices for ionized gases, devices for high field emission, devices for charged particle beams, methods for providing extremely low level of resistance to the passage of electrical current, means for increasing the intensity of electrical oscillations, voltage multiplication circuitry, devices for high voltage discharges, devices for lightning protection, the bladeless turbine, and VTOL aircraft.

Happy Birthday, Nikola Tesla!

Richard Scott
Editor - Electrical Products & Applications Magazine
+44 (0) 1732 359990

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