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Was he a successful inventor, a mad scientist or a quack?

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By Paul Niemann

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[MAY 27, 2004]  We've all heard of inventors we thought were quacks. You can decide for yourself if this inventor was a quack… or if he was a genius who was years ahead of his time.

He claimed to be able to create a man-made earthquake. He considered himself to be a pioneer in radio, and he once believed that he was up for a Nobel Prize in physics.

His work attracted financial backing (a sign of a successful inventor) from the likes of George Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan. He was awarded the prestigious Edison Medal in 1917. Despite winning this award, he never received the proper recognition or respect during his lifetime, which is one reason why so few people know much about this man.

He claimed to have invented a better system of electrical current than Thomas Edison. In fact, he even worked for Edison for a year, in 1884. However, Edison would later electrocute animals with this man's technology in an attempt to prove its harmful effects.

Maybe we can get a better idea of the type of person he was by what others said about him:

  • "He has contributed more to electrical science than any man up to his time," according to Lord Kelvin.
  • "He is an eminent pioneer in the realm of high-frequency currents... I congratulate him on the great successes of his life's work," according to Albert Einstein.
  • Edwin Armstrong said, "The world … will wait a long time for his equal in achievement and imagination."

Who is this mystery inventor? Was he a successful inventor, or was he a "mad scientist"?

His name was Nikola Tesla. He wasn't a mad scientist, although he was the inspiration for the mad scientist in Max Fleischer's Superman cartoons. And he definitely wasn't a quack. He was a genius, pure and simple, a man whose ideas were years ahead of his time. This explains why most people didn't understand his ideas in the late 1800s and why most people have never heard of him since.

Tesla's two greatest accomplishments were in the areas of electricity and radio.

He generated the alternating current power that we all use. It is Tesla's AC rather than Edison's DC that gives us electrical power over long distances. He designed the first hydroelectric power plant with his AC current in Niagara Falls in 1895.


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As a radio pioneer, Tesla had done more in the development of radio than the man who is regarded as the "father of radio," Guglielmo Marconi. In fact, Marconi used 17 of Tesla's radio patents in his work. As a result, many of Marconi's applications were turned down. Ironically, it was also Marconi, not Tesla, who won a Nobel Prize in 1909.

As for the other claims in this story…

Tesla claimed to be able to create a man-made earthquake because… he actually did create a man-made earthquake! In 1898, using a device he created that was about the size of an alarm clock, he found the exact frequency required to cause the earth to rumble -- the kind of experiment that you might see in a sci-fi movie -- and shook Manhattan. Realizing that his experiment was getting out of hand, he stopped it just as the police came running through his door. It was later captured in an article in the New York American entitled, "Tesla's Controlled Earthquakes."

Tesla also once believed that he was up for a Nobel Prize in physics because the press had reported that he and his main rival would share a Nobel Prize but that the rival refused to accept the award with him. Who was the rival? It was his former boss, Thomas Edison, whom he worked for in 1884. The Nobel Foundation does not back up this claim, though.

MRIs are measured in Tesla units, and the Nikola Tesla Award is named for him as well. Tesla's image is on a dollar bill in his native Croatia. Tesla also patented the first speedometer for cars.

He kept dozens of notebooks of his findings, many of which hadn't yet been put into practice by the time he died. These notebooks were mysteriously taken from his home on the day he died. Tesla lived the last 30 years of his life alone. He never married and, despite his many successes, he died broke in 1943.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann is the author of "Invention Mysteries -- The Little-Known Stories Behind Well-Known Inventions." He can be reached at niemann7@inventionmysteries.com.

© Copyright Paul Niemann 2004

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