A few years ago, when I was tasked with creating the first annual magazine for the Electrical Engineering department in my college, one thing I knew right away was whom I wanted to dedicate the magazine to. It wasn’t Gandhi or Sardar Patel (after whom my college is named) or Abdul Kalam or my HOD. It was dedicated to one of the giants of modern science and one of my heroes, Nikola Tesla.
When one ever thinks about electrical engineering, which is very very rare for most people, the only person who is vaguely associated with the field is Thomas Alva Edison – a great inventor and scientist himself. He invented the first long-lasting incandescent light bulb, the motion picture camera and many other things. But the story of Nikola Tesla is perhaps the story of electrical engineering itself.
The work of an electrical engineer seems almost mundane. It certainly isn’t glamorous, is thankless, slightly esoteric and definitely unnoticed. After all, electricity cannot be seen right? One takes for granted the fact that at the flip of a switch, the lights go on, water is heated, computers are booted and videos uploaded. While one is willing to discuss the i7 processor, the latest android OS and Google +, one does not really feel the need to discuss the movement of electrons through a wire. And one does not really need to.
For most people, the only time electricity is discussed is either when the bill is too high, or when there isn’t any electricity at all. Perhaps our unlucky cousins from the rural areas of Maharashtra appreciate the 8 hours of intermittent electricity they get a lot more than the denizens of the island city, where the power rarely goes out.
Nothing we do today would be possible without the immense contribution of this eccentric Serbian who was born on this day in 1856. Calling him a genius would probably be doing a disservice to him, especially when customer representatives at any apple store call themselves that.
When Tesla arrived in the US in 1884, he started working for Thomas Edison. Supposedly offered $50,000 if he made Edison’s DC generators more efficient, he was allegedly denied the amount with Edison telling Tesla that he did not understand “American Humor”. If this were true, one would probably not be unfair in calling Edison a dick.
What is true is that Tesla soon quit Edison’s company and started his own company and constructed the first brushless AC induction motor. To someone who does not understand the significance of this invention, this is the electrical engineering equivalent of founding Google.
Not content with this, he worked with George Westinghouse to popularize poly-phase AC systems which won the “War of the Currents” against Edison’s own DC system. Again, to put this in perspective, this is essentially the equivalent of replacing the postal system with the internet AND wireless mobile systems.
Edison did much to discredit the AC system but eventually had to cave in to higher demand and gave up his DC technology. But Tesla was beyond caring at this point. He had latched on to more revolutionary ideas. He first demonstrated the possibility of wireless power transmission way back in 1893. Scientists are still working to make this commercially viable. He demonstrated wireless radio communication a year after that and his Tesla coils helped him study x-rays when they were still known as Rontgen Rays.
Like all great men, he was unable to digest the fact that the world could not keep up with him. He established principles for radar, wrote about an ocean thermal energy system and obtained his last patent which was for a Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft. Quite simply put, he was way ahead of his time. Did I mention the fact that he was fluent in eight languages?
For a man who has given much to the world and modern science, the only memory people seem to have of Tesla is as the unit of magnetic induction. His ideas grew even more eccentric, with his criticism of Einstein’s theory of relativity, plans for a death-ray and a dynamic theory of gravity – which was never published.
He stayed as a recluse in a New York hotel for the last 10 years of his life and undoubtedly became a bit senile. A sufferer of OCD and prone to strange visions, he died alone of heart failure in 1943.
For someone who practically invented the electrical industry on his own, history has not been kind to Tesla. He is scarcely remembered by a world that owes him much. But for those who do know about him and his work, he will always be a hero and remain a continuing source of inspiration.