E. Thomas Chesworth
Not all geniuses are recognized nor do they necessarily apply their genius to problems which can be solved. Since the line between insanity and genius is very thin, some are indeed mad scientists or just plain mad. One such was Nicola Tesla who was named after a sporty looking electric car. He invented, or at least holds the patent for, the spark plug, spark coil and distributer.
Tesla was born in July 1856, a Serb in what is now called Croatia. He spent his childhood inventing various devices to shock his friends when they sat at their desks in school and is credited with inventing the whoopie cushion. In his late teens he entered and subsequently flunked out of (or quit) the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz after his sophomore year. His father then sent him to Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague where he met Ernst Mach, but he only stayed one term.
All his life he had bouts with nervous breakdowns and psychedelic experiences, and he didn’t even have any pot or LSD, although there were magic mushrooms available. He memorized whole shelves of texts not too many people can do that. He went to work for the telegraph office, then for a telephone company. At this point he made a big mistake - he went to work for Tommy Edison - Continental Edison in Paris. He was transferred to New York City where the master could better steal everything he came up with. During his spare time he invented the induction motor but lucky for him it was alternating current, therefore Edison didn’t bother to even steal that. He left Edison’s employ penniless and no longer owner of any of the ideas he had had while working for Edison. He had to get a job digging ditches to earn room and board.
When it got around that Tesla memorized technical books, invented motors and had wild but sometimes good ideas, he was able to get George Westinghouse and several others to underwrite his researches. Using his “Tesla Coils” he did high voltage experiments, including making a photograph of the bones inside his hand several years before Roentgen discovered X-rays. Tesla found that X-rays “destroyed flesh” so he dropped that work. During the 1890s, perhaps his most stable period, Tesla was the vice president of the forerunner of the IEEE and was awarded (are you ready for this?) The Edison Award.
He locked horns again with Edison when he and Westinghouse started to electrify the world with AC while Edison used DC. Edison worked up a propaganda campaign that essentially destroyed Tesla’s reputation. But Edison’s DC power mains disappeared because Tesla was right -- transmission lines, generators and motors were all more efficient when AC was used. Westinghouse had bought all the rights for the AC power systems and devices But he supported Tesla and his research for the rest of his life.
Tesla began experimenting again with his Tesla coils. He built large towers which he charged until they discharged -- artificial lightning. Tesla found that a partially evacuated tube between two highly charged plates would glow -- Aha! electric lights with no wires. He was off and running. He spent essentially the rest of his life trying to perfect a wireless electrical power system. Since the bursts of static could be detected several miles away and decided to use them for telegraphy and perhaps for audio communications. The lawyers have given him credit for inventing radio. He never really figured out that his equipment used induction fields, not radiation fields -- they were limited to very short distances.
Toward the end of his life he drifted off into Never-never land. He listened with his detectors for signals from little green men on Mars. And during the early days of WWII in his dotage he tried to develop a death ray. His wild imagination was way ahead of his intellectual achievements and he couldn’t seem to separate the real from the ephemeral. He died, a poor man, alone in a hotel room in New York City.