Heroes of History: Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla, probably calculating how to teleport cats to Venus or something.

Thomas Edison is responsible for stealing and taking credit for many of the amenities we use to day: electricity, the electric light bulb, portable music (he’s credited with creating the record player), microwaves… some newspaper guy named him “The Wizard of Menlo Park”.

In reality, he was actually just a shrewd businessman, and by “shrewd business man”, I mean “lying, thieving jerkwad”.

Thomas Edison, circa 1900

Let’s talk about the lightbulb. Edison’s patent on the bulb happened in 1879, but electric light bulbs (or incandescent lamps) were being toyed around with as much as 50 years earlier than that. Here’s a list of guys you’ve never heard of: Jean Foucault, Humphrey Davy, J.W. Starr, and Heinrich Goebel. Who are they?

They’re dudes that worked on the lightbulb before Edison did. In fact, the last guy on that list, Goebel, came and tried to sell it to Edison, who turned him down. Then Goebel died. And Edison bought the patent off of his widow, probably for a deeply discounted price.

Also a bargain shopper!

So why am I talking about Thomas Edison when the article is titled “Nikola Tesla”? Because Tesla invented just about everything else that Edison is known for.

In 1884, Tesla was a young inventor. He’d moved to America from Croatia probably for the same reason everyone did: the streets were paved with cheese, or whatever. This is speculation, but he’d probably heard of Edison, maybe idolized him a little bit, and wanted to get a job with his company. So he did. Edison hired him and they promptly started arguing. Tesla said he could improve Edison’s stuff, and Edison called him on it, offering him $50,000 if he could.

Tesla did, slaving away for months on Edison’s stuff, and made some huge improvements, then went to Edison and asked for his money.

“Tesla, you don’t understand American humor.”

That’s a quote. That’s what Edison said in reply when Tesla asked for his money. “Oh, haha, it was a joke.”

Tesla invented Alternating Current (AC), which is the type of electricity we use when you plug something into a wall. It’s able to send huge amounts of electricity long distances without turning wasting it by turning into heat, unlike Edison’s Direct Current (DC), which could only be used over short distances and wasted most of its energy by turning to heat along the way. We don’t really use that anymore.

Tesla’s was better. Anyone who understood that could see it. Edison, though, couldn’t stand that, so he went around providing demonstrations as to how “dangerous” AC was by killing things with with it. Including an elephant.

Edison waged a full-on intellectual war on AC that probably set the use of electricity back decades, but on his deathbed, he said his only regret, his biggest mistake, had been in trying to develop direct current, rather than the superior alternating current system that Tesla had put within his grasp.

Tesla invented the radio, primitive radar, spark plugs, devices to for x-rays, developed ways to send electricity through the air and power inventions from across great distances, he was working on an actual “death ray”, and theorized the cell phone nearly a century before it came about, and he said this:

“The household’s daily newspaper will be printed ‘wirelessly’ in the home during the night.”

With a little modification, that sure sounds like the internet, doesn’t it?

Tesla, contemplating his awesomeness

Nikola Tesla was a genius and a marvelous showman, presenting his inventions in ways what delighted audiences, much like a magician, but fueled with bright, sparking science. Unfortunately, he was a terrible businessman, a little obsessive compulsive, and a bit of a shut in. All of this combined led to him dying alone and with a mountain of debt. And you’ve probably never heard of him.

That’s him hanging out with Mark Twain.

There’s a bit of a movement online to educate people to how awesome Tesla was, and maybe get him the recognition he deserves. Maybe you should look him up… and perhaps take another look at all that stuff your teachers told you.

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