Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) has always been the subject of controversy. Lately there have been many posts started hailing his accomplishments and he did influence some of the uses of electricity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His place seems to be evolving in to myth and legend far beyond his actual contributions though.
1. Tesla invented electricity – To start with, electricity was not invented, it is a natural phenomenon. Electric fish were written about in Egyptian text as far back as 2750 BC. Thales of Miletus wrote static electricity about 600 BC. Of course there is Benjamin Franklin famous experiment in 1752 demonstrating the lightning is electrical. Alessandro Volta’s early battery, or voltaic pile, was in 1800. André-Marie Ampère study electricity in 1819–1820, the measure of current is named after him. Michael Faraday invented the electric motor in 1821, Electricity and magnetism were studied by James Clerk Maxwell, in 1861 and 1862. His equations would later be used by Tesla who was only 5 years old at this time.
2. The Death Ray – Tesla did make this claim in the 30s to have a weapon design that could shoot down a plane at 250 miles, and that was likely a motivation for the FBI to take all his documents when he died in 1943. However when the documents were analyzed it was determined that there was nothing that was a security risk. There are no working models, nor even a documented theory of how this might have worked. Of course there are the conspiracy theories that the plans were seized and kept secret but since far more destructive weapons have been built it is not logical that if this one existed that it would not have been built some time in the last 80 years.
3. The patent claim – This seems to be referring to the patent conflict with Marconi over radio. While there is a story that Tesla was initially alright with the use of his patents, there was later a court case filed over it which was determined in Tesla’s favor in 1943.
4. Tesla was a humanitarian – In the February 9, 1935 issue of Liberty magazine. “The year 2100 will see eugenics universally established. In past ages, the law governing the survival of the fittest roughly weeded out the less desirable strains. Then man’s new sense of pity began to interfere with the ruthless workings of nature. As a result, we continue to keep alive and to breed the unfit. The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct. Several European countries and a number of states of the American Union sterilize the criminal and the insane. This is not sufficient. The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.” This would hardly seem to be the view point of a humanitarian.
5. Wireless power – This was another claim made by Tesla. The modern myth is that he intended to give free power to everyone. To start with, free was never going to happen. Even if he had pulled some mysterious source of energy out of the universe, the equipment to do so was not going to be free. Resources would be needed to build it, as well as labor to maintain and operate it. The next problem is that energy does not com from nowhere. Energy can be converted from one for to another as in the First Law of Thermodynamics but there is always a cost. There were many physics problems in this concept which were never resolved. Tesla believed that he could tap in to energy contained in the earth by finding the resonant frequency. We are vary familiar with resonance today as it is commonly used in radio. We use the principals in the construction of antennas and filters. We calculate the energy losses in the transmission of energy from one place to another. Tesla missed several problems.
First was the ground resistance. The earth does conduct, but not as well as a copper wire. Next was the dispersion of the energy. When you take a given amount of anything and spread it over an area, the density will be less. This is basic logic, you can’t disperse the energy over a wide area and expect the sum total to be more than you put in to it. At any given point you will have only a fraction of the energy that was put in to the area. This is addressed with radio transmitters on a daily basis. The next problem was that Tesla thought that the return path would be an ionized layer of the atmosphere. While there is the ionosphere, it is far higher than the 200 to 300 feet that Tesla saw building his towers at to reach the conductive layer. Ionized air, while conductive, also has a considerable resistance so more energy would have been lost in the attempt.
Tesla thought that these issues would be overcome by feeding a resonant frequency in to the earth. Energy transfer is improved by matching impedance and resonant frequencies between generator and load, but not above the total energy that was put in to the system. There is always loss and while you may get closer to 100%, you will never exceed it.
Tesla did succeed in lighting some gas discharge lamps outside the Wardenclyffe facility, which would have been impressive at the time, but this is not something mysterious to us now. It was a near field effect which we see around larger radio transmitters. There are demo videos of it on youtube with people holding up florescent lights. It is not a practical way to transfer power for two reasons. First is that it does not work at any great distance. The other is the amount of energy lost in the transmission. It simply is not practical to transmit thousands of watts to light a light bulb a short distance away. There is a story of Tesla being able to make a distance of a few miles, but I have not found documentation of it.
6. Tesla invented the modern world – While he made contributions, he was in a very competitive time. He was a contemporary of people such as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Heinrich Hertz and Albert Einstein. While it is commonly believed that if one person in history had not done something that it would not exist. The reality is that if one person did not, it is likely that someone else would have. Many of the inventions of that time were a race to see who did it first.
7. Lost Secrets – It is a commonly held belief that Nikola Tesla knew secrets that were lost or stolen. It is often felt that because something is missing, that is proof of Tesla’s accomplishments. The statement is often made that the rich capitalists of the suppressed Tesla’s ideas for their own profit. The government seized them because they were too dangerous. If today’s technical people contradict the fantastic claims it is because they were taught what those in power want them to believe. There are logical fallacies in all of that.
Science is not about belief. The world has had many beliefs throughout history that tuned out to be wrong. The earth being flat or being the center of the universe is an example. Science is about proof. A belief in documents that nobody has seen is not proof. It is not logical that if someone stole Tesla’s secrets that they would not have built them at some point for their own gratification. Constructing a conspiracy theory to explain the lack of documentation or working models also does not constitute proof. Facts are also not personal things. The physics need to be reproducible by others, otherwise they fall in to the realm of magic tricks. The internet is full of people gluing magnets to things and claiming a new source of energy when they are actually powering it with an induction coil under the table. It is also not true that we don’t understand the things that Tesla did. The things that actually worked are well understood and personally I experimented with them when I was a child. Transformers, high voltage coils and radios, which were advanced for Tesla’s time were toys for me. Tesla built on what those before him did, and those after him built beyond what he could do.
There are those that frequently dispute this. For them, my challenge would be if you believe it is possible, build it. If you can’t build it, then the proof has failed.