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Friday, October 2, 2009

Nikola Tesla by Michael Burgan

Nikola Tesla: Physicist, Inventor, Electrical Engineer by Michael Burgan

Does anyone recognize this car? [picture below] The Tesla Roadster is probably the world's best engineered electric powered car. It can go from 0 - 60mph in 3.9 seconds. In can go 244 miles without recharging. And, you only need $101,500 dollars to drive it off the lot.

Why is it called the Tesla?

The reason may in part have to do with a story about Nikola Tesla and an electric car he supposedly invented in 1931. According to legend Nikola Tesla modified a Pierce-Arrow automobile and replaced the gas powered engine with an AC electric motor. The motor was said to have consisted of a box that contained 12 radio tubes connected to a 6 foot antenna. This means, if you believe the story, that the engine received, or was charged by, a source of electricity by wireless transmission. Then the story usually goes on with the claim that Tesla's electric car could reach speeds of 90mph.

This story isn't based on the truth, but it illustrates the fact that many people have been pulled into a fascination about the man named Nikola Tesla. Sometimes he is called the forgotten wizard. Unfortunately, stories like these have also repelled many others from considering Nikola Tesla's actual accomplishments. The myths, lies, and legends about Nikola Tesla have even made him out to be some kind of extraterrestrial being that walked among us on the earth. Misconceptions and misunderstandings about a incredibly gifted and talented person have probably contributed to the reasons why Nikola Tesla is not considered a household name such as the famous inventor Thomas Edison.

Nikola Tesla actually worked for Thomas Edison. Surprising to the image I ascribe to him, Edison played a cruel joke on Tesla. Edison told Tesla that he would pay him $50,000 dollars if Tesla could help him with his DC electric power generators. When Tesla finished the work, Edison basically replied that he was just kidding about the money-couldn't Tesla take a joke?

What could a poor unknown immigrant to the United States like Tesla do? Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, a man considered like a god of technology in the United States, had the money, the power, the support, and the reputation to do whatever he wished. Tesla decided the only thing he could do was to leave Edison and strike out on his own. They eventually became rivals instead of friends.

Have you heard of AC DC? Tesla's incredible work with AC electric power generation would gradually get more attention than Edison's ideas with DC electric power generation. It was a battle between AC vs. DC power. AC power won. AC current can travel farther than DC current can and this is the system that we use today.

However, as Edison's fame grew as our country's best roll-up-your-sleeves, 1%-percent-inspiration-99%-perspiration, inventor, Tesla's reputation grew more mysterious, like one who was a magician or wizard, not as one who was as gifted and important as Thomas Edison. What Tesla demonstrated did indeed seem like magic to people. One of Tesla's many projects involved work on the wireless transmission of electricity. He would occasionally put on performances showing off his incredible knowledge and command with electric current. For example, he would put on shoes with a special sole made out of cork. He then would take a specially designed light bulb and place it into his left hand. Without any wires attached to the light bulb, he would then take his right hand and touch a piece of equipment that was sending out electric current. The bulb lit up, as did the applause that came from the crowd that witnessed the spectacle. As the onlookers gasped they may have asked: How did the light turn on? Why didn't Tesla get hurt?

Did it help Tesla's image by taking so many publicity photos of himself sitting casually in the midst of a Frankenstein-like lab with bolts of electricity zapping across the room? The photos were obvious fakes, double exposures.

Would you have taken him seriously?

It's too bad that so much mystery overshadows Nikola Tesla, the man who is sometimes called the Master of Electricity. Tesla was truely a man before his time.

Due to him we have the electrical system that supplies power to our homes.

Did you know most of our history textbooks got it wrong about who really invented the radio. (1943 the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Tesla, not Marconi, invented the radio.)

Did you know he had an idea for a death-ray that he thought could stop wars, and he even invented an earthquake machine.

Did you know one of his inventions probably gives him the last laugh over Edison, if Tesla was alive today. (Guess who invented the fluorescent light bulb? Maybe the joke is ironically on Edison after all.)

Remember the Tesla Roadster? No, the story can't be true. He couldn't have invented the electric car in 1931. That's impossible.

Find out more about the amazing and mysterious Nikola Tesla in Michael Burgan's book, Nikola Tesla: Physicist, Inventor, Electrical Engineer.

Explore more:

Explore the PBS site on Tesla: Master of Lightning

Do an online search for movie clips that continue the fascination with the myths, legends, and incredible achievements of Nikola Tesla.


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