A small tribute to the world’s greatest geek

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.’

Nikolai Tesla with some of his gear in action. Public domain, from http://www.sciencebuzz.org/ blog/monument-nearly-forgotten-genius-sought
Nikolai Tesla with some of his gear in action. Public domain, from http://www.sciencebuzz.org/blog/monument-nearly-forgotten-genius-sought

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.

Nikolai Tesla in 1895. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.
Nikolai Tesla in 1895. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

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

11 thoughts on “A small tribute to the world’s greatest geek

    1. You’re right – thinking about it, Franklin was an all-rounder, he was brilliant at such a huge range of different things, and in ways that the classic ‘mad scientist’ geek usually isn’t.

    1. It was. Actually, the BFG was pretty cool as well…(and even cooler is what Carmack is doing, for real, in rocketry – full circle geekery, as it were – but then, we’re in the 21st century. Geeks won the war for cool.)

  1. You should check out this post by The Oatmeal http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla about Mr Tesla (perhaps just add a pinch of salt). Of course many of Tesla’s inventions might have been in use today if Edison did not oppose (and some say even sabotage) him at every turn. Tesla also never took legal action against people who stole his patents, resulting in kids being taught in schools today that Marconi invented the radio while Tesla did it years earlier.

    1. Interesting! Definite pinches of salt needed here (and a bit of de-tune on the anti-Edison) but the thrust of it seems about right. Actually Tesla’s role in radio was pivotal but not sole; Reginald Fessenden had quite a bit to do with it, too, and I think the usual issue applied – a principle was discovered, whereupon it became possible for various people with the know-how to come up with fundamentally the same thing. Much like the way aircraft were all made possible by the light-weight internal combustion engine and Otto Lilienthal’s work on aerodynamics – basically, a lot of inventors were working on the idea around the turn of the twentieth century and it was only a matter of time before one or the other did it.

  2. Tesla is a favorite of mine, Matthew, and I agree, the greatest geek. I believe it’s the first episode of “Murdoch” (Canadian series, usually available for streaming at acornonline.com) or among the very first episodes that feature a mystery with Tesla. I think you would enjoy it. Again, thanks for another fine post.

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