At the height of his popularity as the key inventor who pioneered commercial electricity, Tesla cautioned the world of the inefficiencies of burning substances to generate energy, especially coal, the predominate fuel source of the day.

Not only did the burning process waste most the potential energy of coal, Nikola Tesla argued, but it was a nonrenewable resource that we would eventually run out of. The same arguments could easily be made about oil.

“Whatever our resources of primary energy may be in the future,” Tesla wrote in Century Magazine in 1900, “we must, to be rational, obtain it without consumption of any material.”

Tesla reminded us that a windmill is one of the most efficient energy devices ever devised, and suspected we’d eventually be able to harness the sun’s rays in an efficient way. He also advocated utilizing the heat “in the earth, the water, or the air.”

He proposed, essentially, geothermal energy plants, one capturing the heat of the earth, the other floating on the ocean, using the temperature differential between the surface water temperature and the deeper water temperatures to drive turbines to generate electricity.

One of Tesla’s designs for a floating geothermal plant was published in the pages of the New York Times, complete with pictures and diagrams, in the 1930s. But by the 1930s, oil was being found all over the world in such quantities and with such relatively little output of energy that no one cared much about producing power in other ways.

It wasn’t until the oil shortage in the 1970s that people started taking a serious look at alternative ways of producing energy on a large scale.

Who was Nikola Tesla?

Today, on the 154th anniversary of Tesla's birth, you could ask Europeans who Nikola Tesla was and their eyes will light up as they comment on his remarkable inventions. Over 100 years ago, Nikola Tesla proved the energy establishment wrong by creating something the establishment believed was impossible: a motor driven by alternating current.

Ask most Americans, however, who Tesla was, and you’ll often get a blank stare. Recently, Tesla has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in visibility, thanks to David Bowie’s portrayal of a highly fictionalized version of him in the film “The Prestige,” as well as through the Tesla Motors company, which markets an ultra-sexy fully electric sports car.

Why do we know so much about Tesla’s contemporaries, such as Edison or Marconi, but so little of Tesla? Tesla’s story is, after all, the quintessential rags to riches story.

As a child, Tesla, a Serb in Croatia, saw a picture of Niagara Falls that gave birth to a passion he would never lose. He vowed to be the first to harness of the power of Niagara Falls, to turn all that natural motion into a way to generate energy.

As a youth, he imagined a simple waterwheel turned by the falls. But as he studied electrical engineering, he realized more efficient ways of using the power of the river to generate electricity by passing water over turbines.

Tesla’s turbines were unique, in that they had no grooves or ridges. They were smooth, so they wore well and had no edges to wear down or break off. 
When Tesla first came to America, ironically, he worked for Thomas Edison.

Tesla tried immediately to sell Edison on the notion of using alternating current to generate electricity, but Edison was opposed, claiming it was both too dangerous, due to the high voltages produced, and too difficult to capture.

Those who had tried found motors running forwards and then backwards, making energy capture impractical at best. Tesla wasn’t ready to argue this point, and let it go, for the moment, even though in his head he already knew the solution, having figured it out some years earlier.

Instead, Tesla said he could at least improve the efficiency of Edison’s motor. Edison had told Tesla, essentially, that there’d be several thousand in it for him if he made the improvement. But when Tesla did, and tried to collect, Edison said Tesla didn’t understand the American sense of humor.

Tesla, his pride wounded, quit, and struck out on his own.

In the mid 1880s, a buzz arose in the electrical community when it was learned that Tesla had developed and patented a working alternating current motor. Tesla was pressed into speaking before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at Columbia College to explain and demonstrate his motor.

The lecture brought Tesla instant fame, and, ultimately, a very serious business partner: George Westinghouse. Westinghouse, himself an inventor, believed, unlike Thomas Edison, that the future of electricity depended on alternating current, not direct current, and moved to purchase the rights to Tesla’s patents.

Tesla had been well on his way to becoming a millionaire when Westinghouse came to him at one point with difficult news. The Westinghouse company was so deep in financial trouble that if Tesla did not relinquish his royalty payments, the Westinghouse company could go under.

Tesla ripped up his contract, saying that Westinghouse believed in him when no one else would, and that the Westinghouse company must survive in order to bring alternating current to the world.

The Falls

As the 1800s were drawing to a close, Niagara Falls was in the forefront of every electrical magnate’s mind. An international group had formed to examine proposals for how best to harness the power of the falls.

Tesla, still clinging to his childhood belief that he would be the first, teamed with Westinghouse to design a plant. Edison, backed financially by J. P. Morgan, proposed a direct current scheme.

The big disadvantage of such a scheme was that direct current didn’t hold up well over transmission. Edison’s plan would have required power stations about a mile apart. Alternating current, on the other hand, could be sent many miles across wires.

You’d think this would have been an easy decision. But as we saw more recently in the VHS-Betamax competition, the best idea doesn’t always win.

Edison launched an all-out campaign to discredit alternating current. He electrocuted first dogs, then horses, and ultimately an elephant on stage in front of audiences to show how dangerous alternating current was.

Edison even pushed for the development of the first electric chair using alternating current to execute humans. Its initial use was, not coincidentally, in Buffalo, just up the river from Niagara Falls.

Westinghouse and Tesla fought back via a different venue: the World’s Fair in Chicago, also known as the Columbian Exposition of 1893. (It was supposed to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America in 1892, but the fair ended up opening a year late.)

Edison’s company had merged into General Electric, which fought mightily to get the contract to power the fair. Westinghouse, on the other hand, was in financial difficulty, and could not bid on the fair.

But when a tiny local Chicago firm entered a bid that would cost the fair only a fraction of what General Electric was asking, Westinghouse said he would back the small shop, and together, they won the contract for the Fair.

Edison was upset, and tried to block Westinghouse by denying the Fair permission to use his light bulb, as it was still under patent to him. So Westinghouse went out and invented a different kind of light bulb, one that used two filaments, not one, to light the bulb.

The Fair was known as the “White City” due to a budget shortfall which required all buildings to be coated at the last minute with a white plaster-like material. The fortunate accident made the buildings look like classical Greek temples.

President Grover Cleveland pressed a lever to light the Fair on opening night, and the sight was so beautiful that reporters noted men threw hats in the air and women wept openly at the sight. The White City was the first all-electric city anywhere on the planet.

The Niagara Falls commission members were very impressed, and ultimately chose to go forward with an alternating current plan, due in no small part to its successful use at the Fair.

Wireless Energy

The one thing, however, that Edison and Morgan won was the concession to carry the generated power away from the falls. This angered Tesla on a number of levels, not the least of which was the fact that he had become obsessed with the notion that there should be a way to transfer energy wirelessly.

He’d already sent signals wirelessly, in a demonstration that caused the Supreme Court to later rule that Tesla, not Marconi, was the father of radio. But sending power was different than sending a signal.

Still, Tesla had been struck from childhood by the sight of the sky sending power to the ground in the form of lightning. If nature could do it, could not man, as well?

Tesla was offered the use of unlimited power by a friend if he moved to Colorado Springs. So Tesla left New York and set up a lab not far from Pike’s Peak. There, Tesla reportedly found a way to transmit energy wirelessly across a distance of several yards, from a device inside his lab to a small set of light bulbs outside the lab.

Tesla at one point had tried to convince Morgan to invest in his wireless efforts, but Morgan was worried that if you sent energy through the air, there’d be no way to meter it, no way to pull profits from it. Tesla wasn’t concerned about that. He figured if he could get the technology working, that someone would surely devise a way to meter it.

After a year in Colorado, Tesla returned to New York. He bought property on Long Island at Wardenclyffe and began construction of a large tower.

He convinced Morgan that he was building the tower to transmit signals across the Atlantic, the first step in what Tesla envisioned as a worldwide network that could send images and data from any point on the planet to any other point, without wires. In other words, Tesla had envisioned the Internet of today over 100 years before we had it.

When an Italian inventor named Guglielmo Marconi sent a signal across the Atlantic first, Morgan was upset, and wanted to know why Tesla hadn’t been the first. Tesla then told Morgan he was planning a far grander experiment -- transmitting energy.

Morgan was furious at Tesla for having misled him, and promised he’d never get another cent from him. While that wasn’t entirely true, Morgan never gave Tesla enough to complete his plans.

Having overextended himself for too many years, living in a hotel and having enjoyed a lifestyle beyond his means, Tesla eventually declared bankruptcy.

George Westinghouse had long since died, but his son was appalled that the man who had made the company’s success possible was now penniless. He arranged for the Westinghouse company to pick up Tesla’s hotel bills for the rest of his life.

Eccentric Inventor

In later years, Tesla, who had always been eccentric, became even more so, announcing strange new inventions to the media at annual press conferences he started holding on his birthday in his twilight years. But these inventions were in his head, or only sketchily on paper, since he lacked the financial wherewithal to build them.

Still, he was well known and much respected by fellow engineers in his day. They even awarded him the Edison medal, the electrical engineering profession’s most prestigious award.

Towards the end of his life, Tesla became obsessed with developing a weapon that could end war. He envisioned a huge, stationary device that could project a directed energy beam at inbound ships or planes that could disable them.

Because his own device was so large and had to be stationary, it could be not used, in his mind, as an offensive weapon. When he proposed this to the Pentagon, they brushed him off. But after his death, some of his papers were stolen, and reputable sources have claimed that some of those papers ended up at the Wright Patterson Air Force base in Ohio.

Various mystical and magical properties have been reported of Tesla over the years, some even in his lifetime. He hated this.

One author claimed he was from Venus. Others had claimed he found a way to power a car wirelessly, (A relative insists the car was powered by a zinc battery that Tesla had made.)

He was neither a magical nor mythical creature. He was many things, but all of them real. He was a horrible anti-Semite. He was a brilliant engineer who really knew his math. He was a gentle lover of animals, and obnoxiously rude to overweight women.

He had an obsessive-compulsive disorder, causing him to repeat actions in sets of threes. And yet, he was a loyal and steadfast friend to many.

But most important, Tesla was a dreamer who never let the limitations of the present hamper his ideas of a better future. His vision for our energy future needs to be reexamined.

As Tesla said at his famous lecture in 1891, “We are whirling through endless space with an inconceivable speed; all around us, everything is spinning, everything is moving, everywhere is energy. There must be some way of availing ourselves of this energy more directly.

“Then, with the light obtained from the medium, with the power derived from it, with every form of energy obtained without effort, from the store forever inexhaustible, humanity will advance with great strides. The mere contemplation of these magnificent possibilities expands our minds, strengthens our hopes and fills our hearts with supreme delight.”

Happy 154th Birthday, Nikola Tesla.

Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era.  

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