Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Nikola Tesla: brilliant but looney

Tesla was batshit crazy. He was also absolutely a brilliant engineer, but a nutbar none-the-less. He would always do things in multiples of threes, like eating, chewing or walking. He measured the volume of his food before he ate it. He liked to wow guests by running electrical current through his body to light lamps. His weirdness caused him problems with his various employers and landlords over the years. He died surrounded by pigeons in a New York apartment.

When Tesla was 41 years old, he filed the first basic radio patent (No. US645576). You can see it HERE. It effectively patented the radio wave.

He was born July 9, 1856, in the village of Smiljan, in the province of Lika, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now a part of Croatia, (or part of Bosnia, depending on your political allegiances.) He attended the University of Prague and worked as an electrical engineer in Germany, Hungary and France before emigrating to the United States in 1884. He got off the boat with 4 cents in his pocket and was working for Thomas Edison within a few months.

He did not get along with Edison. Their colossal egos collided like plants. So he quit or was fired with Edison still owing him about $50,000 (depending on your political allegiances.) Just to piss off Edison he chose this time to debut his invention of alternating current. (which was vastly superior to Edison's Direct Current.) His writing suggest he had envisioned it a decade earlier. In 1885, George Westinghouse, bought patent rights to Tesla's system of alternating-current. Edison was peeved.

He developed in rapid succession the induction motor, new types of generators and transformers, a system of alternating-current power transmission, fluorescent lights, and a new type of steam turbine... (whew, busy dude) then about 1898 he suddenly became interested in radio.

On Long Island he began construction of a wireless broadcasting tower. The project was funded with $150,000 capital from financier J. P. Morgan. The project was abandoned when Morgan withdrew his financial support. He relocated to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Upon his arrival he told reporters that he was conducting experiments transmitting signals from Pikes Peak to Paris. He was developing a system for wireless telegraphy, telephony, and the transmission of power. He got his American citizen ship and I guess he started to relax, because this is when the real weirdness began to flow.

In the Colorado Springs lab, he "recorded" signals of what he concluded were extraterrestrial radio signals. His announcements and data were rejected by the scientific community without any investigation of the validity of his data. He noted measurements of repetitive signals from his receiver which are substantially different from the signals he had noted from storms and earth noise. Specifically, he later recalled, that the signals appeared in groups of clicks 1, 2, 3, and 4 clicks together. Tesla spent the latter part of his life trying to signal Mars.

And why not, he'd been totally dicked over by the patent office. He'd patented several fundamental nuts& bolts in radio and the US Government wanted to avoid having to the pay royalties that were he claimed for their use. Edison's and his backers applies pressure on the state department to award many of these patents to Marconi. For the backers, it was about money. They'd been funding Marconi and Edison for years. For Edison was personal. He just hated the Tesla.

Later in life, Tesla announced to the media that he had developed a "Death-Ray" it was supposedly capable of destroying 2000 airplanes at a 250 mile distance. Although Tesla did allow photographs to be taken of a small-scale prototype in action, he withheld much of the information that would allow others to understand his design. Might have been real, might not (depending on your political allegiances.) but you can read about it HERE. Tesla tried to sell his death ray to Great Britain for $3,000,000 and promised to make the British Isles invulnerable within three months. They didnt bite. Russia did, but he didnt deliver. Possibly because he was becoming psychotically paranoid and was convinced that the US government was making unsuccessful attempts to break into his hotel room.

His death ray was not all sci-fi. His idea was to use a gigantic electrostatic generator run by one of his turbines to accelerate tiny particles of mercury until they became a stream of super high-powered bullets of several million volts. Since they were accelerated in a vacuum, Tesla needed a way to spit them out of the accelerator sphere without letting air in.

In the end, Marconi hit up the government for too much royalty cash during WWI. The patent office vindictively reinstated most of the patents to Tesla. Tesla was an American citizen. Marconi was not. So they waited until he died, so that it would be free. So in 1943, months after his death, Tesla patent number US645576 was reinstated by the US Supreme Court.