January 7, 2013

Image of the Week: Nikola Tesla, Tragic Genius

by Christine Hoekenga

A double exposure image of Nikola Tesla under lightening

A double exposure image shows Nikola Tesla in his Colorado Springs lab in 1899.  The lightning shown above him was produced by his largest Tesla Coil, which spanned 52 feet in diameter. Image is in the Public Domain.

Today marks 70 years since the death of Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943), a Serbian-American electrical engineer and inventor who’s most remembered achievement was developing the alternating current (AC) electrical supply system. Used worldwide, AC is responsible for powering the computer you are using to read this post and everything else that plugs into the wall in our homes, schools, and communities. He is also the inventor of the the AC motor (used in all kinds of home appliances), the radio remote-control, and the Tesla Coil (or “lightning machine”), which transforms a steady incoming current into brief pulses of extremely high voltage.  In 1943, months after his death, the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled that Tesla’s patent on the radio, superseded Guglielmo Marconi’s patent.

Tesla, who worked and cultivated rivalries with Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, was a lightening-rod figure in his own time but sank into relative obscurity after his death.  If those other names sound more familiar than Tesla, that’s because history and science have nearly forgotten Tesla’s contributions.  In part that may be because Tesla’s career–and his life–crumbled toward the end.  After Marconi beat Telsa to the punch by transmitting a radio signal across the Atlantic in 1901, Tesla’s dream of being a pioneer in wireless communication withered.  He lost his financial backers, and eventually his equipment and laboratory on Long Island, Wardenclyffe, were lost to debt.  The prototype tower he had envisioned would one day transmit free wireless electricity was demolished.

Historians believe that Tesla may have suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, which drove him to long hours in the lab inventing, but also likely hindered his social life and reputation.  Whatever the factors at play, Telsa ultimately died alone and financially ruined in a hotel room in New York.  His work, however, has found renewed appreciation in recent years among both scientists and the public.  In fact, this past summer, a group dedicated to buying Wardenclyffe and turning it into a science center raised $1 million for the cause.

Read about Nikola Tesla’s life and work on the PBS site Tesla – Master of Lightning

Learn more about the effort to preserve Wardenclyffe and the surge of donations that raised $1 million in nine days

Dig deeper: learn about the different types of energy and how one type can be converted to another in our module Energy: An Introduction

Christine Hoekenga

Written by

Christine is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, specializing in science and nature. She holds an Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science and Media Studies and a Master's of Science Writing. She has been working in science communication and education for nearly a decade as a journalist, an organizer for conservation groups, and a museum educator. Before joining the Visionlearning team, she served as the New Media and Online Community Manager for the Webby award-winning Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Christine is assisting Visionlearning with developing new modules and glossary terms, managing the blog, and outreach through social media.