Don’t ever say Serbia never did anything for you. If it wasn’t for Nikola Tesla, you might not be reading this now. Your cell phone would be little more than a paperweight, and the government wouldn’t have lethal orbiting death ray satellites with which to ensure your safety.
The young Serbian discovered the principle that drives almost every practical use of electricity today, the rotating magnetic field. The field is what powers generators and all forms of electrical motors. Although the generator had already been discovered, it was Tesla who figured out why it worked.
Tesla’s understanding of the rotating magnetic field led him to develop groundbreaking ideas about how to use alternating current, and one of his first inventions was the induction motor, a powerful device powered by AC. Tesla had big dreams of the mad scientist variety, including flying machines and other more sinister deals. As everyone knows, there’s only so far a mad scientist can go in Croatia, so in 1884, it was off to America!
Tesla worked for Thomas Edison briefly, but mad scientists aren’t widely known as team players, and the relationship was a bust. He was bought out by Westinghouse in 1885, when the titan of industry bought his patents for AC-driven motors. The first thing Westinghouse did with the technology was put Edison’s DC-powered gadgets out of business. That’s gratitude for you.
Tesla set up shop on his own and began inventing things, such as specialized lighting and a precursor to the X-ray machine. He liked to wow the marks by running electrical current through his body to light lamps. He was that kind of guy. This sort of behavior made him popular at high school assemblies and Masonic lodges.
In 1891, Tesla became a U.S. citizen, which as we all know is a free ticket to megalomania. He started to dream bigger. Within a few years, he was building massive hydroelectric generators powered by Niagara Falls. He invented the first remote control, and began researching wireless communications.
Around the turn of the century, Telsa made he considered his most important discovery even though no one has ever heard about it, it isn’t discussed in classrooms, and it doesn’t appear to have any practical applications except for James Bond villains.
They were called terrestrial stationary waves, and what that basically means is that you can a) transmit electrical current using the Earth as a conductor, and b) you can cause the Earth to vibrate on a frequency, much like a tuning fork. I’m sure you can see where this is going. Try to name five non-mad-scientist uses for such a discovery. Powering streetlights without wires? Yeah, OK, that’s pretty cool. Beaming lethal destruction around the globe? Whoops! Manipulating the weather? Controlling earthquakes?
Tesla saw great possibilities for his TS waves, including creating a worldwide integrated system of centralized control and distribution electronics, stock tickers and all manner of not-yet-invented communications technology, with provisions for secretly encrypted point-to-point transmissions. It was around this time that the government began to really take an interest in Nikola Tesla.
In his quest to test the limits of the terrestrial waves, Tesla began a period of extensive experimentation. during which he developed the Tesla Coil, a method for delivering high-voltage current which is still used in many TVs and other applications today.
Using the coil, Tesla asked himself: If the Earth can conduct electricity, and the electricity vibrates around the world in waves through the planet, just how much electricity can the Earth hold? A reasonable question! He could think of no better way to answer that question than by dumping as much electricity as he could generate into the ground, just to see what would happen.
Many a bad science fiction movie has opened with this sort of premise. Fortunately, the outcome of Tesla’s tests were more of an inconvenience than a cataclysmic world-ending event. Well, depending on your perspective anyway.
The area around his experiement became electrified, but not enough to kill anyone, and there were some very impressive bolts of man-made lightning which stopped when he blew up the town’s generator and caused a blackout over several miles.
There might have been one other small side effect. At almost exactly the same time that this experiment was taking place, a mysterious explosion rocked a remote section of Siberia, to the tune of about a 15-megaton blast (40 years before the first Atomic Bomb test). The explosion has never been satisfactorily explained, although it is commonly dismissed as a meteor or comet impact (a claim which doesn’t quite add up with the measured damage on the scene). Interestingly, Tesla had claimed he was trying to use to wave to send a communication to an Arctic expedition that can supposedly be located along a straight line path between Tesla’s lab and the site of the explosion.
During all this, Tesla was also pushing ahead with his investigation of the uses of radio waves, particularly to remotely control robotic devices, an area in which the Serbian made great breakthroughs. His research into radio either ran parallel to Guglielmo Marconi, or Marconi ripped him off. The outcome was that Tesla was gipped out of the Nobel Prize in favor of Marconi, who won the official title of “inventor of radio” in the history books. Tesla’s inventions and discoveries also formed the basis of modern robotics, radar, most forms of wireless communications, loudspeakers and more. Few of these breakthroughs are credited to the inventor, even today.
As lousy in business as he was talented in science, Tesla sank into bankruptcy and many of his projects went down with him. For years, he struggled to get by and bring his ideas to fruition, but his ideas had taken a turn toward the decidedly strange. He became obsessed with interplanetary communication, for which he was derided.
He also began to make some interesting claims about his abilities and the power of his inventions. He told people he possessed the scientific wherewithal to split the Earth in two, and he told the New York Times he had invented a death ray which he called the “teleforce,” which could melt an airplane’s engine from a range of 250 miles. The Times, noting the massive spending on defense and military issues in the build-up toward World War II, pointed out that on a cost-benefit basis, it was well worth the risk of failure to fund the project. Nevertheless, the “teleforce” was never adopted.
The “teleforce” claim would haunt the United States for decades to come. According to Tesla, he had designed a system through which a series of beam transmitters could create an impenetrable energy shield around the country. Starting to sound familiar? It was the first “Star Wars” proposal, and Tesla’s claims formed the blueprint for almost all future discussions of the “Strategic Defense Initiative.”
Tesla was clearly ahead of his time, a problem which would haunt his entire career. His inventions and patents for remote operation of robotic devices, for instance, were stunningly advanced but largely ignored at the time. The military inexplicably failed to understand the usefulness of remote-controlled attack vehicles and torpedoes until after Tesla’s patents had expired. Even then, they began researching it over from scratch, rather than working with his established techniques.
The end result was military technology nearly identical to Tesla’s inventions, but developed literally decades later and at many times the cost. Tesla never made a dime off of the discovery of the radio-controlled automation that today is the basis of a multibillion dollar aerospace specialty, responsible for the CIA drone assassin planes used in the War on Terrorism, and in every generation of the Mars lander probes.
After his death in 1943, the FBI raided Tesla’s home and seized all of his scientific notes, to the tune of hundreds of pages. While a pretty fascist act, it’s kind of understandable in light of his claims. Tesla’s heirs eventually won the release of some of the material, but it’s unknown how much is still classified or “lost.” Conspiracy theorists are enamored of Tesla for obvious reasons, and there is a lot of speculation about that “death ray” and other aspects of his research.
One of the most popular theories is that Tesla’s terrestrial stationary waves and “death ray” research form the basis of the HAARP Project, an alleged top-secret U.S. government experiment to control the weather and beam fiery death from the skies against enemies of the state.
Tesla’s work is still of broad interest to people who are interested in death and destruction on a large scale. Members of Japan’s Aum cult visited the Tesla Museum looking for ideas, and members of al Qaeda have allegedly taken an interest as well, although it appears fertilizer bombs and box cutters are about as much technology as Osama bin Laden cares about since the incarceration of his own personal mad scientist, Ramzi Yousef.
Tesla was featured on several Yugoslav- and Serbian dinar notes and coinage. The largest power plant complex in Serbia, the TPP Nikola Tesla is named in his honor. On 10 July 2006 the biggest airport in Serbia (Belgrade) was renamed Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport in honor of Tesla’s 150th birthday.
The company, Tesla was a large, state-owned electrotechnical conglomerate in the former Czechoslovakia. It was renamed in Tesla’s honor from the previous Electra on 7 March 1946. Some of its subsidiaries still trade in the Czech Republic.
An electric car company, Tesla Motors, named their company in tribute to Tesla. Their website states: The namesake of our Tesla Roadster is the genius Nikola Tesla. We‘re confident that if he were alive today, Nikola Tesla would look over our car and nod his head with both understanding and approval.
The Croatian subsidiary of Ericsson is also named ‘Ericsson Nikola Tesla d.d’. (‘Nikola Tesla’ was a phone hardware company in Zagreb before Ericsson bought it in the 1990s) in honour of Tesla’s pioneering work in wireless communication.
The year 2006 was celebrated by UNESCO as the 150th anniversary of the birth of Nikola Tesla, scientist , as well as being proclaimed by the governments of Croatia and Serbia to be the Year of Tesla. On this anniversary, 10 July 2006, the renovated village of Smiljan was opened to the public along with Tesla’s house, as a memorial museum, and a new multimedia center dedicated to the life and work of Tesla. The parochial church of St. Peter and Paul, where Tesla’s father had held services, was renovated as well. The museum and multimedia center are filled with replicas of Tesla’s work. The museum has collected almost all of the papers ever published by, and about, Tesla; most of these provided by Ljubo Vujovic from the Tesla Memorial Society. in New York. Alongside Tesla’s house, a monument created by sculptor Mile Blazevic has been erected. In the nearby city of Gospi?, on the same date as the reopening of the renovated village and museums, a higher education school named Nikola Tesla was opened, and a replica of the statue of Tesla made by Frano Krsinic was presented.
The song “Tesla’s Hotel Room” by the Handsome Family, on their 2006 album Last Days of Wonder, is a fictionalized account of Tesla’s later years at the New Yorker hotel.
The heavy metal group Tesla, which made famous the rock-ballad “Love Song”, was named after Nikola Tesla.
In the years since his death, many of his innovations, theories and claims have been used, at times unsuitably and controversially, to support various fringe theories that are regarded as unscientific. Most of Tesla’s own work conformed with the principles and methods accepted by science, but his extravagant personality and sometimes unrealistic claims, combined with his unquestionable genius, have made him a popular figure among fringe theorists and believers in conspiracies about “hidden knowledge”. Some conspiracy theorists even in his time believed that he was actually an angelic being from Venus sent to Earth to reveal scientific knowledge to humanity. This belief is maintained in present times by followers of Nuwaubianism.
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