This post is a response to Matthew Inman’s comic about Tesla entitled “Why Nikola Tesla is the Greatest Geek that Ever Lived”
I am certainly not the only person to respond to Matt Inman’s comic (see here), nor am I the only one to debunk oft-repeated claims about Tesla one encounters on the internet.(see here, here, here, here and here)
Nevertheless, I felt I should lend a few thoughts on this matter. A few weeks ago I finished reading a new biography of Tesla by Bernard Carlson. From what I can gather of the few other biographies on the market and the praise lauded on Carlson’s work, this is the first biography of him that is written by a historian, fully comprehensive, covers the science behind his inventions, and does not succumb to hagiography. It truly the definitive work on Tesla.
I support the Tesla museum project 100%. For those who don’t know, the Tesla Science Center is a museum and multi-purpose space that is being built at Tesla’s Wardenclyff laboratory, the only remaining of his labs. Their latest fundraiser is called “Buy Brick for Nik”.
One of the goals of the Tesla Science Center is to increase awareness of Tesla’s contributions to society and develop interest in his genius and his unique vision for humanity. More broadly, the Tesla Science Center seeks to capitalize on the growing interest in Tesla to promote science and the use of technology to improve the human condition.
The Tesla mythos has a long history and represents both a blessing and a curse to achieving these goals. On the one hand, stories of secret death rays, aliens, CIA coverups and lost secrets of infinite energy have attracted a lot of interest in Tesla, egineering, and science. On the other hand, a lot of the mythology has promoted very anti-scientific conspiratorial thinking about the government, big business and the way science is done. I believe many people (especially scientists) are reluctant to promote Tesla for fear of being viewed as yet another Tesla conspiracy theorist.
Certainly Matthew Inman’s comics have done a lot to help the cause of the Tesla Science Center. Inman was the mastermind behind the Indiegogo campaign that raised over a million dollars for the museum and put the project on the map globally. The comic was the catalyst that lead to the campaign. The question is whether the ends justify the means. Even if such puff pieces generate a boost of interest, they do it at the expense of distorting the historical record, which only creates confusion and alienates the movement from individuals who do understand the historical record. Inman’s piece is also very disingenuous towards Edison. Yes, Edison had some character flaws and is more well known than Tesla, but that doesn’t mean it is OK to smear a great man, even if partially in jest. As I will mention, Tesla also had some flaws.
Since the number of errors in Inman’s piece is so great, I can only briefly describe each one. I provide references to Carlson’s book for those looking for more information (Carlson provides extensive references to primary sources).
“Tesla invented AC”
This is a persistent falsehood about Tesla. AC generators had been around since their invention by Hippolyte Pixii in 1832. What Tesla did was help popularize AC as a means of power transmission by showing it was safe in numerous public lectures & demonstrations. The man who was the most influential in popularizing AC was not Tesla but George Westinghouse, through his company Westinghouse Electric, which bought Tesla’s AC motor patents in 1888 (and also paid Tesla a royalty for every horsepower, until Tesla voluntarily opted-out from the payments). Westinghouse Electric succeeded in getting a large scale AC distribution and lighting system to be demonstrated at the 1893 World’s Fair, a key triumph for AC in the war of the currents. It was also Westinghouse who succeeded in winning the bulk of the Niagara contract. Even before all this, AC had been taking hold in Europe, since Edison Electric’s DC system did not have a large footprint there. As Carson explains (pg. 85-89) it was in London that the first AC powered lighting system was demonstrated (Lucien Gaulard & John Gibbs, 1883). By the late 1880s, several major European cities were being lit with AC. The success was not lost on Edison Company, who actually bought patents in AC during that time (pg. 88). The first large scale AC system in America was in Great Barrington, conceived & funded by George Westinghouse and designed by the engineer William Stanley who was influential in the development of AC transformer technology. Note that this is before Westinghouse began his relationship with Tesla, which didn’t start until 1888. There is no evidence Tesla played any role, the Great Barrington project, which was the first large-scale demonstration of AC in America. All of the necessary AC electrical equipment was invented by others, who are rarely credited today, most notably William Stanley Jr., Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, Lucien Gaulard and John D. Gibbs.
“Edison simply figured out how to sell the lightbulb”
Edison spent years developing a practical lightbulb for commercial application. Figuring out how to sell something to a public which is unfamiliar with the product and resistive to change is much more difficult than many people realize. [A good exposition of this point can be found in the book Zero to One: Notes on Startups by Peter Thiel.] Salespeople are often vilified by society, but as Thiel points out, a startup can not succeed without a good sales & distribution team.
“Tesla fixed Edison’s machines and when he asked for the money he was promised Edison laughed him off..”
The source for this story is Tesla’s autobiography My Inventions. In it he says
“For nearly a year my regular hours were from 10.30 A.M. until 5 o’clock the next morning without a day’s exception. Edison said to me: “I have had many hard-working assistants but you take the cake.” … The Manager had promised me fifty thousand dollars on the completion of this task but it turned out to be a practical joke. This gave me a painful shock and I resigned my position.”
The problem here is we don’t know who “The Manager” was. It may have been Edison, it may have been one of the dozens of other people working at his lab. We just don’t know.
“There was a feud between Tesla & Edison”
The popular conception of a feud or “war” between Tesla & Edison is a popular meme which is contradicted by the historical record. After they parted ways, Tesla & Edison remained on good terms, as evidenced by letters Tesla wrote in his later life. Contrary to the “Tesla v. Edison: greatest rap battles of history” YouTube video, the war of the currents was not fought between Tesla & Edison, it was fought between Edison Electric and Westinghouse Electric, and the key figures were Edison & Westinghouse. This point is discussed at length in this excellent discussion between an Edison biographer Leonard DeGraaf and Tesla biographer Bernard Carlson. (short clip where they discuss the so-called “rivalry”) Tesla’s true nemesis was not Edison (who he respected) but Marconi, who stole all the credit for radio from Tesla (and many others).
“Edison electrocuted dogs & cats”
Several years ago this point was covered by several popular news outlets online. The result was a classic case of news outlets mindlessly repeating each other and distorting the historical record in a perverse news-media game of Telephone. For instance, Wired, a publication I usually respect, published a false account that Edison electrocuted an elephant which subsequently went viral. The truth, (as discussed by Bernard Carlson in a public lecture I attended and by others online , including Snopes) is that the electrocution of dogs & cats by Edison Electric company was a demonstration of the potential to use AC for capital punishment ie. an electric chair. From Wikipedia : ” In 1881 New York established a committee to determine a new, more humane method of execution to replace hanging. Alfred P. Southwick, a member of the committee, developed the idea of running electric current through a condemned man”. Edison himself did not invent the idea of death by electrocution, but he quickly co-opted it — he saw that if AC was adopted as a means of capital punishment, this would further the then-popular narrative that it was dangerous. Conversely, he could avoid the negative publicity that would be incurred from a DC electric chair. The electrocution of cats & dogs was part of the war of the currents, but it also had a practical use as well – to test the electric chair as a means of capital punishment. This act was, in my opinion, still immoral, despite the overarching goal of finding a ‘more humane’ form of capital punishment, because I believe capital punishment itself is immoral. In any case, the testing of the electric chair on animals would likely have happened anyway even if Edison had not waded into the fray.
“Tesla invented Radar”
In brief – Tesla had the idea for something like radar in 1917, but he never actually designed or built a prototype. It is very unfair to the people who actually built the first radar systems to give credit to Tesla. Simply having an idea is not the same as invention. Many people contributed to the development of radar starting with the first crude system built by Christian Hülsmeyer in 1904.
“Tesla discovered x-rays”
Tesla did observe the effects of x-rays in 1884 when he noticed that some photographic plates he had been storing next to electrified Crookes tubes had spoiled. Similar effects were noted by Phillip Lennard the same year, but both him and Tesla associated them with “cathode rays”, that is , high energy electrons. It was Rontgen who did the first systematic experiments on such phenomena and discovered that the spoiling of photographic plates was caused by a new form of EM radiation. Because he was the first to recognize these phenomena were due to a new type of radiation Rontgen rightfully gets credit. In all likelihood Tesla would have beat him to this discovery if his lab had not burned down that year. (pg 221)
“Tesla warned that x-rays were dangerous”
True, but like Edison (and everyone else) he initially thought they were benign. Only years after both he and his assistants experienced eyestrain, headaches and severe burns do we have records of him warning of harmful effects and recommending using shielding.(pg 224)
“Tesla built the 1st hydroelectric plant”
It’s a great exaggeration to say that Tesla “built” the Niagara plant. In truth, Tesla was only tangentially involved as an adviser and is associated with the project today primarily because of media publicity he received afterwards (pg 174). The story of how the plant was built is complex and quite interesting (chapter 9). The greatest hero is arguably Edward Dean Adams, who along with investors like JP Morgan and John Jacob Astor IV organized the International Niagara Commission to figure out the best method of power transmission to use for the plant. Many distinguished scientists & engineers debated the issue on the commission, but not Tesla, who only communicated with Adams in private. Polyphase AC was advocated by Westinghouse electric (which owned many of Tesla’s AC motor patents), the scientist George Forbes and many others. General Electric (formed in 1892 from the merger of Edison Electric & Thomas-Houston Electric) advocated for three phase AC (the standard we now use) while Tesla advocated for two phase (pg 170).
Niagara Falls was not the world’s first hydro plant as is often claimed, nor was it the first purely AC hydro plant. The Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant (built 1890) was the first hydroelectric plant, and it used AC, not DC. Another early hydroplant (which also claims to be the first) was built in 1882 in Appleton, Wisconsin. The man in charge of the project was inspired by Thomas Edison‘s plans. Still, since the Niagara plant (built 1893) had the ability to transmit electricity tremendous distances (hundreds of miles), a case can be made that it was the first hydroelectric station of any great consequence.
“Tesla experimented with cryonic engineering”
This is stretching the historical record. In 1900, Nikola Tesla was “granted a US patent for the means for increasing the intensity of electrical oscillations by lowering the temperature, which was caused by lowered resistance, a phenomenon previously observed by Olszewski and Wroblewski”. This is hardly a great discovery or “cryonic engineering”. (Cryonics is the science of low-temperature preservation of animals and is not related to anything Tesla ever did, as far as I can tell. Matthew Inman offers a correction to this point in the “fine print” to his comic, claiming he meant something other than the actual definition of the word.)
“Tesla discovered the resonant frequency of the earth”
Unfortunately I don’t have time for a full exposition of this very interesting topic (see Carlson’s book, chapter 13 and pg 361). In short, Tesla had ideas about the Earth that were completely wrong. He thought of the earth as a perfectly incompressible fluid and imagined that waves of electrical current could propagate through it without dissipating. These unfortunately wrong ideas, coupled with Tesla’s propensity later in life not to subject his visions to the rigour of scientific testing or mathematical theory were the reason his wireless transmission scheme failed. The failure of his visions to become manifest in reality seems to have contributed to his mental breakdown later in life.
During his observations of lightening storms in Colorado Springs Tesla did observe some “resonances”, but it’s not clear what they were. They may have been Schumann resonances, which are resonances due to low frequency cavity modes in the ionosphere. The fact that the resonant frequency of the Earth that Tesla calculated is close to the lowest Schumann resonance is largely a coincidence. Tesla was completely oblivious to the existence of the ionosphere, and thought the resonances were in the earth, not in the atmosphere.
“Tesla discovered ball lightening”
There is some confusion over this point. Part of the problem is that “ball lightning” is not a well-defined phenomena — there is no agreed upon way of deciding what it means to create it in the laboratory, for instance. Historical anecdotes always relate it to actual lightning, and such accounts date back to at least 1596. Recently ball lightning was captured with both a video camera and a spectrograph. A lightning bold struck the ground, “creating a glowing ball about 5 metres wide” which “travelled about 15 metres, disappearing after 1.6 seconds”. This type of ball lightning – created by a lightning bolt incinerating dirt or other materials – is usually thought of as distinct from short-lived centimetre-sized “plasma balls” which can easily be created in a microwave from burnt carbon, and “glowing embers” or “fireballs” that can be produced when high voltage interacts with materials. Claims that Tesla created “ball lightning” appear in two Tesla biographies – “Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla”, by John J. O’Neill (pg 183) and “Tesla: Man Out of Time” by Margaret Cheney (pgs. 3-4, 281-282). Both of these works draw on his Colorado Springs Notes as their primary source for these claims. (some of those notes are reproduced here) Tesla had a lot to say about ball lightning or “fireballs”, as he usually called them. However, the balls of plasma he created were not on the same scale as naturally-occurring ball lightning phenomena and lasted at most 5 seconds. Saying that he “discovered ball lightning” is therefore a stretch.
“Tesla invented neon lighting”
Anyone can do a Google search and find that this statement is false. The only grain of truth here is that Tesla certainty did use closely-related tube lights in his demonstrations and maintained an interest in tube-lighting systems because of their easy interoperability with his AC distribution system. Also, according to some accounts online, Tesla designed florescent lights which were bent into the names of famous scientists for the 1893 World’s Fair. These certainly can be considered precursors to the neon signs we know today, but they did not use neon.
“Telsa invented infinite energy from the sky, but covered it up because he didn’t want his patents stolen”
This is where Inman lurches from small falsehoods about particular historical facts to spewing conspiratorial nonsense that is very damaging to the legacy of Tesla. Rather than trying to cover them up with conspiratorial garbage, we should teach Tesla’s failures, since we all stand to learn something from them. The fact is that Tesla never believed in “infinite energy from the sky”. He did believe that something close was possible – the wireless transmission of electrical energy & signals through the earth to everywhere on earth, from a few generating stations. Tesla believed a circuit could be formed by passed currents through the earth, and then placing electrodes at a high altitude to act as a “return circuit”. His first attempt to achieve this was in Colorado Springs, where he did many amazing things which he interpreted with great confirmation bias as showing his ideas were feasible. When he secured funds to build the Wardenclyff tower, he did it on a half-lie to JP Morgan that they would be used for a radio transmission station. His true goal was the wireless transmission of signals (and later energy) to everywhere on earth, thus overtaking Marconi, his rival who had already seized credit from Tesla for radio. The experiment was a flop and JP Morgan rightfully refused to continue funding him. The reason it failed was that many of his ideas were wrong and he refused to see that they were wrong when his experiments didn’t go as he thought. He refused to dig into EM theory, believing that non-Hertzian or longitudinal waves existed even though they are prohibited by Maxwell’s equations, and he refused to test his ideas about the lossless transmission of electrical current waves through the earth. Is something like what Tesla dreamed possible? Perhaps, but our current understanding suggests Tesla’s particular ideas are impossible because they are built on false assumptions about the world.
“Tesla was celibate”
The truth is we don’t know. Bernard Carlson argues convincingly he probably was gay (pg 240), but at that time homosexuality wasn’t something you talked about in public and we don’t know for sure. He may have been asexual.
“Tesla’s contributions were not incremental; they were revolutionary”
This is an overstatement. Even Tesla’s greatest invention, the AC motor, was an incremental improvement – Tesla figured out how to remove the commutator & brushes. (He was not the only one to do this, at least two other people invented brushless AC motors around the same time, including the Italian Galileo Ferraris.) This is not to say it was a great and important invention, but it was incremental. The same goes for the rest of his inventions. No inventor works in a vacuum and most progress is incremental.
Finally a few points about money — Tesla cared a lot about money — he very aggressively pushed his patents and worked hard to promote them, he just made some bad business decisions. If you read the book, you will learn how time after time Tesla aggressively pursued patents for his inventions and collaborated closely with businessmen to market them. He then invested significant amounts of time to promoting his inventions in travelling shows. The biggest reason that Tesla did not die rich was that he agreed to drop his royalties to Westinghouse on his AC motor patents when Westinghouse was going through a rough time financially. The idea that Tesla died “dirt poor” exactly true – he had a rather generous stipend from Serbia in his later life. It also isn’t true that JP Morgan stopped funding Tesla’s Wardenclyff project because he was worried there was no way to profit from Tesla’s plans for “free energy”. JP Morgan dropped the project (as mentioned) because he thought he was investing in radio (a booming market, equivalent to the internet in the late 1990’s). When Tesla started babbling about global energy transmission without producing any tangible results Morgan was smart enough to stop wasting his money. No other investors would give money to Tesla, either before or after the Wardenclyff project.
One final thing:
Fun fact — this iconic picture is actually fake — it was made by first exposing the photographic plate to the lightening and then exposing it to Tesla sitting in the chair (pg 298).
So what were some of Tesla’s great achievements? Let’s quickly list Tesla lasting achievements: (I have ranked them roughly in order of their significance)
- Tesla invented the first brushless AC motor
- Tesla promoted AC as a safe and efficient means of electrical transmission
- Tesla invented the first remote control system – a remotely controlled boat.
- Tesla was an optimist about technology and was a dreamer & visionary
- Tesla received the first signals from outer space, ushering in radio astronomy
- Tesla invented the concepts of wireless lighting and wireless transmission of power
- Tesla invented the Tesla coil
- Tesla played a role in the development of radio, contributing ideas about tuning & encryption
- Tesla invented the Tesla Turbine among many other things not directly related to electricity
- Tesla “built an earthquake machine that nearly demolished an entire neighbourhood in New York City”
- Tesla had a special ability for mental visualization (discussed at length in the book).
- Tesla spoke multiple languages.
- Tesla could memorize entire books.
Why can’t we just appreciate the great things that Tesla did without creating making conspiracy theories about infinite energy, death rays, and coverups? Why can’t we appreciate Tesla in his full complexity, including his flaws, and perhaps learn something from them, instead of elevating him to a saint? Why can’t we understand him, not in a vacuum, but as a player on a vast historical stage interacting with countless other important figures, with all of the intricacies of human relationships, rather than a simplistic hero vs villain narrative? We can, and in his biography, Bernard Carlson shows how.