Tesla: a third hero for my third age
As a teenager and young man (my first age) my two heroes were Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. I devoted those early years to the study of mathematics and physics. In 1980 I was awarded a Ph.D for my thesis on solutions of Einstein’s equations of General Relativity. Following that I spent 3 happy years working at an astronomical observatory in Australia. I was interested in pure science and had little regard for the applied sciences, perhaps that is why I was unaware of Nikola Tesla and his amazing gifts to, and visions for, mankind.
In 1984 I entered my long second age. My first priority was to find a loving partner and, after 10 fruitless years, I finally found one, with a little help from Albert Einstein. While studying at London University I had made friends with a fellow Relativity student from Mexico. I visited him in Mexico City on a number of occasions and on one such occasion he introduced me to Myriam, the lady who was to become my wife and bring much happiness into my life.
Finding and building a career was my second priority. I had always been interested in computer programming from my teenage years when I wrote programs that had to be punched onto paper tape and for 15 minutes per week I had remote access to a mainframe computer on which I could run my code. Little did I think, at that time, that I would work with mainframe computers for more than 30 years.
The third priority of my second age was building a home, my childhood passion for making things returned to me and I spent much time making furniture for our house and on various home improvement projects. In the little free time I had I would read books about famous physicists and mathematicians, but Tesla was not one of them.
In the summer of 2015, while visiting my sister in Toulouse, my wife met Milica Mitrovic. She was Serbian, tall, good looking, always elegantly dressed, highly intelligent, multi-lingual and passionate in her belief that education, science and cultural exchange could bring about a better and more peaceful world for all mankind. Later I was to learn that she shared all of these characteristics with her hero Nikola Tesla. She talked to me about Tesla and inspired me not only to read and learn more about him but to actually start thinking again.
During the first years of the 21st century we are seeing the rapid global growth of mobile technology, in particular smart phones and tablet computers which connect wirelessly to the internet and other mobile devices. Applications like WhatsApp enable friend and families to keep in regular instant wireless contact even though they may be on different sides of the planet. Tesla envisioned all this more than a century ago. However providing power to these mobile devices can be a nightmare. Different devices have different chargers and wired connectors, even those from the same manufacturer. Connectors to the mains electricity supply differ from region to region, as do voltages. So when travelling abroad one must take a bag full of connectors, adaptors, transformers and a spaghetti-like mass of wires along with you just to supply power to your mobile devices. Also, of course, one constantly has to be aware of how much power each of your devices has left and remember to recharge them before they run out. IT DID NOT HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS!
One of Tesla’s greatest unfulfilled dreams was the wireless transmission of energy. His plans to provide everyone on the planet with unlimited free electrical energy were hindered and thwarted by the J P Morgan and other entrepreneurs such as Westinghouse who sought to protect the profits they were making for Tesla’s earlier idea of using alternating currents to supply homes and businesses with electricity.
In the 1880s a ‘Battle of Currents’ took place between the Direct Current system pioneered by Thomas Edison and the Alternating Current system pioneered by Tesla. The problem with the DC system was that energy could only be transmitted over short distances, so, to supply New York City generating stations were needed every mile, whereas the AC system could transmit power over much longer distances. Tesla & Westinghouse built the world’s first hydro-electric power plant which used the waters of the Niagara Falls to generate AC electricity to supply New York City. It opened in 1897 and it is incredible to think that New York City’s first power supply was generated from a sustainable source.
Tesla believed there was a much better way to transmit electrical energy. Following numerous spectacular experiments in his Colorado laboratory, in 1901 he commenced work on building an incredible structure on Long Island New York called the Wardenclyffe Tower. In addition to using the tower for transmitting and receiving radio messages, the bigger idea was to use the Earth and the Ionosphere to enable anyone anywhere on the planet to wirelessly draw down the electrical energy they needed, in much the same way as anyone, with the correct transmitting and receiving equipment can do with radio information.
Just imagine how wonderful it would be if all our mobile devices could wirelessly draw down the power they need, whenever they needed it. Then our technology truly would be mobile!
The Wardenclyffe Tower project was funded by J P Morgan, possibly in an attempt to deter other financiers from backing Tesla. He did not give it his full support and the project came to nothing through lack of funding, and public interest turned from Tesla to Marconi. Tesla’s tower was dismantled in 1917 following which he suffered a mental breakdown from which he never fully recovered.
Incidentally many people around the world believe it was Marconi who invented radio but, in 1943, some months after Tesla’s death the US Supreme Court ruled that all of Marconi’s radio patents were invalid and that Nikola Tesla invented radio.
The name Tesla is becoming better known to the general public but that is not due to greater awareness of Nikola Tesla’s genius, it is due to the success of the innovative Californian luxury electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors. This company is owned by Elon Musk, a driven genius with ambitious and altruistic goals for mankind. In his twenties Musk made a fortune from 2 internet application he owned and sold during the dot com boom. One of those applications was PayPal and its sale to Ebay netted him $1.5 billion. He invested this money in two futuristic companies based in California, SpaceX and Tesla Motors.
From boyhood Musk was interested rockets and SpaceX builds rockets. Musk’s dream is to develop and build rockets to take men to Mars. Sadly, and short-sightedly, the US government lost interest in their countries space program and now it is up Russia, China and a few other countries or private enterprise to sustain mankind’s dream of leaving planet Earth. In 2008, after struggling through much adversity, SpaceX became the first privately owned company to launch a payload into orbit. Musk’s dream for Tesla Motors is equally grand, it would see an end to vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine which guzzles non-sustainable fossil fuels. Instead all vehicles would use battery powered electric induction motors which could be recharged, at no cost to their owners, from a global network of sustainable, solar powered, charging points. The induction motor was an invention of Nikola Tesla and was patented by him in 1888, so it is most appropriate that this innovative car manufacture pays homage to the great Nikola Tesla in its name.
My third age will soon be upon me and I am looking forward to having time to read, to write, to think and to make things. More importantly I want to start sharing my knowledge, experience and creative skills with a new generation as, for far too long, I have kept so many things to myself. During this period of my life I hope to see real progress in the wireless distribution of energy, SpaceX rockets reaching Mars and computer controlled electric cars taking over from environmentally damaging petrol or diesel ones.
I realize now that the amazingly ambitious pioneering work of Nikola Tesla improved the daily lives of everyone on the planet and provided mankind with far greater practical benefits that all the works of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. That is why I have made him the hero of my third age. Yet his name is hardly known in most countries of the world. It seems that UNESCO completely agrees with this and is making efforts to get him global recognition he so rightly deserves. I hope I too can play a small part in correcting this injustice by telling people about the amazing life and works of Nikola Tesla.
John Allnutt B.Sc Ph.D