In 1902, when Guglielmo Marconi broadcast the first radio signals across the Atlantic, Hungarian-American scientist Nicolai Tesla smiled. ‘Nice effort,’ he reputedly said. ‘Pity he’s infringed 19 of my patents.’
Next time you flip on a light or use your smartphone or listen to the radio, watch TV or do just about anything in today’s teched-up world, spare a thought for the guy that made it all happen. Tesla. The world’s greatest geek. And the archetypal mad scientist – eventually complete with lab coat and shock of unruly hair.
Tesla flourished in the late nineteenth century and was responsible for discovering alternating current – with all that this implies. He explored everything to do with wave-forms, which are the basis of just about everything we do today with technology. He also figured out applications for what he learned – he had hundreds of patents to his name.
He didn’t always get it right, but that was part of the territory in this infancy of electricity. His key discovery was that high-frequency alternating current can be broadcast, wirelessly. That’s how transmission works – we give it many names, radio, TV signals, wireless, Bluetooth, but it’s all the same thing; high-frequency electromagnetic signals, broadcast in a wave.
The problem is that the power it carries isn’t high, compared to the power needed to transmit, and thanks to the inverse-square law it drops off pretty quickly with distance (double the distance, quarter the power). I have vivid memories of watching a bare fluorescent tube held inside a 25,000 volt AC field, less than a metre from the transmitter. It lit up, wirelessly – but not brightly.
Tesla thought the issue might be solved. He also thought it should be possible to harness the difference in electrical potential between ground and upper atmosphere –and his kudos by the 1890s was so great he was able to get hardware built – including a huge tower soaring into the skies above Long Island.
That didn’t work either. Nor did his earthquake machine.
But we can’t condemn him for that. The basis of everything we take for granted today – AC electrical systems, everything based on any broadcast from wireless computing to radio to TV to radar to microwave ovens, all came out of Tesla’s pioneering work. All? All.
Today his name is commemorated in an electric car. And the ‘Tesla Gun’ out of Wolfenstein, which could turn Nazis into small slices of steaming salami with one zap. Cool. Well, hot, actually. And all without a power cable. Wish I knew the trick.
Tesla thought he did. And for some reason Thomas Alva Edison apparently didn’t like him.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013