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Union University Department of Physics

The Science Guys

Science Guys > December 2001

December 2001

Why is Nikola Tesla’s work so unrecognized in the US?

The close of the nineteenth century saw a flowering of electrical generating technology that in one generation lighted America. Although many were involved in the electrification of society, none were more influential than Nikola Tesla, perhaps the greatest American scientist with the poorest name recognition.

It was destiny: Tesla was born during an electrical storm at midnight, June 9/10, 1856, in Smilijan, Croatia. He immigrated to America in 1884, hoping to interest Thomas Edison in his alternating current (AC) electrical generators and motors. Edison never warmed to AC, because he was already committed to developing direct current (DC) power.

Tesla inherited his father’s mathematical ability and his mother’s photographic memory and industriousness. He often worked 20 hours per day and produced an amazing stream of ideas and devices, many of which were patented. Let Tesla himself describe his creative process:

"Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. ... The inventions I have conceived in this way have always worked."

Tesla designed the circuitry necessary for wireless communication, and was awarded the requisite patents in 1900. Before Tesla’s death in 1943, the Supreme Court negated Marconi’s patent for radio and granted full patent rights to Tesla, whose work substantially predated Marconi’s. In 1903, Tesla was awarded two patents covering the design of a circuit element later deemed essential to the electronic computer.

Tesla applied electromagnetic induction to build his electrical generating motors. Suppose you have a closed loop of wire, and you wish to measure electrical current through the wire. Since there is no battery attached, there’s no current in the loop. Then if you move a magnet swiftly towards the loop of wire, you will read a current during the time the magnet moved.

A stationary magnet (meaning a static magnetic field) won’t induce an electric current. But changing the magnetic field with time through a wire loop causes current to flow. This is a manifestation of Faraday’s Law: changing the magnetic flux with respect to time induces a voltage across the loop of wire. The voltage moves electric charges in the wire, and you have generated electricity without using any batteries!

By constructing devices with rotating magnetic fields, Tesla produced electrical current that constantly switches direction. It is this alternating current electricity that operates our power grid today. Nationwide electrification later happened because George Westinghouse had the business savvy to snap up Tesla’s AC patents in 1888. Westinghouse won the right to supply the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with electricity, and the rest is history.

With these accomplishments, why isn’t Tesla recognized? Perhaps it was because his genius was intimidating, he wasn’t a public-relations wizard, and he cared more about research than money. Nonetheless, we would like to honor the successful career of Nikola Tesla.