Culture 6 min read

A Belated Birthday: Nikola Tesla's Innovative Legacy

You've probably heard of Nikola Tesla and yes: he is more than just the inspiration for Elon Musk's electric car company. Celebrate his birthday today with a dive into his life and his contributions to science including...a death ray?

Nikola Tesla is one of the greatest inventors of the modern era. Here we celebrate his legacy. | Image by vkilikov | Shutterstock

Nikola Tesla is one of the greatest inventors of the modern era. Here we celebrate his legacy. | Image by vkilikov | Shutterstock

Yesterday was the birthday of Nikola Tesla, one of the greatest inventors of the modern era. Here we celebrate some of his greatest achievements.

Nikola Tesla is one of the world’s most important inventors you might not have heard of thanks to Edison.

Elon Musk drew inspiration from this guy’s very name for his revolutionary battery and electric car brand. So, who is the inventor behind the inspiration?

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Dinner with Tesla and Bowie is my own personal dream. Maybe in the afterlife. | Buena Vista Pictures via Pinterest

It all Started With an Unfulfilled Promise From Edison

As other Tesla biographers note, Edison used Tesla to re-design direct current generators.

Direct current is what made Edison a contender in the “War of the currents“. But Edison’s “innovations” often came from people like Tesla and Lewis Latimer.

Edison had originally promised to pay Tesla about $50,000 USD. But after Tesla completed his work, presumably making Edison more money, Edison reneged on his promise.

Without contributions from other inventors, Edison likely wouldn’t have had products. After all, Latimer was the one who developed carbon filaments for modern light bulbs. Shouldn’t he be the one we learn about in history class along with Tesla?

Okay, okay, I’m getting off track with the Edison bashing. Let’s backtrack to Tesla’s background in electrical engineering and how he ended up in the U.S.

Along with alternating current, Tesla also invented “come to bed” eyes. | Pixabay

Inventor, Scientist, Futurist, and Immigrant

Nikola Tesla hailed from what is now modern-day Croatia. Originally part of the Austrian Empire, Tesla grew up there, receiving an education in physics and engineering.

He emigrated to the U.S. in 1884 and became a naturalized citizen. It was then that he went into business with Edison, having previously worked with an arm of Edison’s company in Paris.

The aforementioned swindling happened, so Tesla sought new opportunities.

He eventually partnered with Westinghouse Electronic to work on his idea for alternating current (AC). Specifically, he wanted to make an AC induction motor which Westinghouse would eventually license in 1888.

After this success, Tesla began experimenting in other realms including:

  • x-ray imaging
  • oscillators and generators
  • electrical discharge tubes
  • wirelessly controlled boats
  • wireless lighting
  • wireless electric power distribution

In fact, Tesla announced that wireless communication may be possible with his devices in the future from as early as 1893.

In 1895, Tesla designed the very first AC hydroelectric power plant for use in Niagara Falls. It powered Buffalo, New York the next year, furthering AC’s reputation as a leading power alternative to Edison’s direct current (DC) system.

Tesla coils have been background props in sci-fi B movies for generations now. | Pixabay

The one Invention Everyone Knows About

Sometime in the late 19th century, Nikola Tesla developed the “Tesla coil”. This is what led Tesla to claim that his devices could one day deliver wireless communication.

It works by resonating voltage and current across a circuit using a capacitor. It produces some pretty insanely cool light shows, as you can see.

But people used Tesla coils as inductors in radio transmissions antennas early on. Tesla also used his coils to further study x-rays, radio, fluorescence, electromagnetism, and wireless power. No big deal, right? Just your average weekend project for Tesla.

Tesla imagined his inventions finding uses decades into the future, imagining our modern wireless society over a century ago. | videoblocks.com

The Industry 4.0 Mindset in the 20th Century

Tesla’s life fell into disarray as Edison’s smear campaign against him ramped up.

Due to feeling threatened, Edison tried to make AC appear as dangerous compared to DC. Though Edison claimed to be for innovation, his actions against Tesla signaled that he cared about profits more. However, sources in this PBS article contest assertions of sabotage.

Despite this, Tesla continued to work into the 20th century.

In fact, he wanted electricity to reach everyone, enabling communication. He developed a wireless global communication system which would use a very big electrical tower.

This tower would share information and provide free electricity to people around the world.

In 1901, Tesla’s investors for the project included J.P. Morgan — yes, as in the one from J.P. Morgan Chase.

However, a direct rival named Guglielmo Marconi leveraged steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s financial support. His advances in radio tech forced Tesla to abandon his free electricity project.

Two years later, Tesla had to declare bankruptcy and sold the tower for scrap to pay debts.

Tesla’s Death Ray was one of his later inventions and signified the beginning of his more “outlandish” ideas. | Sketches via Futurism

Wait…so What About That Doomsday Machine?

Right, so Tesla debuted his “death ray” in 1934 to the U.S. military, calling it “Teleforce”. Tesla explained that it was a “particle beam projector” — the first of its kind to be seen as legitimate.

He suggested that the device could target something 250 miles/400 km away. That means that, at any point on the battlefield, it could level entire squadrons of soldiers. It could even take out aircraft fleets up to 10,000 in number.

Not much highly credible information exists about the supposed death ray. But Futurism compiled information on it, saying that an attempt thought to be a failure might have just hit very far off target in Siberia, causing significant damage.

The article alleges that, due to the gross mistargeting and subsequent devastation, Tesla chose to dismantle the invention, ultimately abandoning it.

Tesla joined the table of unrecognized artists upon his death, like Vincent Van Gogh | BBC

Posthumous Success and Recognition

Much like the artist Vincent Van Gogh, Tesla received recognition after his death for his accomplishments.

Remember that radio tech rival from earlier? After Tesla’s death, the U.S. Supreme Court shot down four of his key patents. They awarded Tesla recognition for radio innovations.

Unfortunately, Tesla’s dream of free worldwide electricity has not yet come to pass. But, as with some of the most popular science fiction, it may become a reality in the future.

While the mythos behind the name and man might sometimes be too grand, no one can ignore Nikola Tesla’s contributions to science and, indeed, his forward-thinking mindset.

What would Tesla think of Elon Musk’s use of his name for Musk’s electric car venture?

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Juliet Childers

Content Specialist and EDGY OG with a (mostly) healthy obsession with video games. She covers Industry buzz including VR/AR, content marketing, cybersecurity, AI, and many more.

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