In recent years, there has been an increase in interest in the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla. However relative to the significance of the work he did, including innovations in electricity and radio, he is still relatively unknown. In this article we are going to look at the question: Why is Nikola Tesla not more well-known?
Nikola Tesla is not more well-known because of his inability to protect his patents and commercial interests, as well as because he made enemies with important and influential people. Also, some of his ideas were too ahead of their time or perhaps too esoteric, and never quite reached fruition.
Tesla’s inventions include electric motors, the radio, remote control, and the alternating current network of electricity. He was an extraordinary genius, and which for the following five reasons is not nearly as well known as the legacy of his work would suggest.
1) Tesla’s Inventions were a threat to the wealth of powerful people
As Tesla’s electrical inventions became more well-known, they came into direct conflict with those of Thomas Edison, and the two men became enemies. An extremely successful businessman as well as inventor, Edison owned a huge company when Tesla was just starting his career. Early in Tesla’s career, he joined the Edison company as a repairman, but soon his talents were noticed and his job became travelling all over Europe and working on much more important projects. Tesla eventually left the Edison company, and the two men became rivals when Tesla’s new alternating current system of electricity became a competitor to Edison’s direct current system.
Edison went to great lengths to discredit Tesla, creating public presentations that showed how dangerous Tesla’s AC system was. These public displays even included electrocuting animals. Edison owned a film company which produced a film called Electrocuting an Elephant. The took a former circus elephant and shot 6600 volts through her body, killing her on the spot.
Tesla would demonstrate his electrical technology in his laboratory in front of an audience as well, where he would light lamps by sending electricity through his body to show how safe it is.
Edison would negatively impact Tesla’s legacy again later on as well, using his wealth and influence to have Tesla’s rights to being credited for invention of radio being denied.
Tesla and JP Morgan
Tesla also clashed with JP Morgan, one of the most powerful and wealthy bankers of the time. In addition to dominating Wallstreet, JP Morgan was consolidating industrial companies into large corporation, including the formation of General Electric.
In 1901 JP Morgan invested $150 000 in Tesla’s idea of building a tower that would send vibrations around the world. The project failed to reach fruition, and while Tesla asked Morgan for more funding, the stock market crashed, the costs of materials for the project increased, and ultimately Morgan pulled out of the project, refusing to fund it anymore.
2) Tesla did not properly protect his commercial interests
Tesla was always focused on his research, and at times suffered in business politics as a result. He failed to receive the profits he deserved on his electrical inventions, and did not gain the recognition in deserved for inventing key technologies involved in broadcast radio. Obsessed, passionate, and sensitive, he never dated woman in his life, and even struggled with gambling addiction at one point in his life, which you can read about here.
The partnership between Tesla and George Westinghouse
One of his most important partners during his career was a man named George Westinghouse, who was also an inventor and owned the Westinghouse Electric Company.
After leaving the Edison company, Tesla founded his own company and created a new motor. He introduced the motor at the event, and George Westinghouse saw it. The two agreed to become partners, with Westinghouse paying Tesla a massive salary and making him a very wealthy man.
Together, they unveiled Tesla’s alternating current system at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Both Edison and Tesla along with Westinghouse wanted the contract to provide lighting to the event, but Westinghouse was able to secure the contract by underbidding Edison.
Building on the exposure they received from the Exposition, Westinghouse electric was selected over Edison’s company General Electric to construct a hydro plant in Niagara Falls. Eventually it would power part of New York city. Alternating current continued to gain popularity, become the system of electricity we all use to power our homes today.
When Westinghouse Electric went 10 million dollars into debt, Westinghouse asked Tesla if he could help by not taking his large salary until the company was healthy again. Wanting to help his friend, Tesla responded by tearing up the contract the two men had created. Tesla then sold his patents to Westinghouse for $216 000, and continued to research new projects. Tesla spent the later years of his life in poverty, not receiving any royalties of his alternating current invention.
Tesla went on to create almost 300 more patents, including an early neon light, a blade-less turbine for cars, and pioneered X-ray technology. He also invented a remote-controlled boat, which was so ahead of its time that the audience did not believe it was real.
3) Tesla lost the battle of recognition for invention of the radio
Another reason why Tesla is not more well known is that he did not receive the recognition he deserved for inventing radio. There was another inventor in France named Marconi who was developing radio technology at the same time. In 1901 Marconi made the first transatlantic radio broadcast. It relied heavily on the work of Tesla, directly using many of Tesla’s patented inventions.
Marconi attempted to claim a patent for his technology in the United States, he was denied as it was too similar to Tesla’s patents. Then Edison then got involved, putting pressure on the patent office, who changed their mind and awarded Marconi the patent for radio technology in the United States.
At first Tesla accepted this lost, but when Marconi won a Nobel prize, Tesla decided to sue Marconi. The case dragged on for years. Eventually the court did decide in Tesla’s favor, but it did not happen until eight months after Tesla’s death. Perhaps if Tesla had always been known as the inventor of radio, he would be a lot more well-known today than he is.
4) Tesla lost much of his work in a fire
In 1895 his lab caught on fire, completely destroying his work. In the fire were all of his records and notes from years of work. He also lost all of his equipment, much of it highly specialized and unique, which he had acquired and developed over time. The fire was a major setback in the life and work of Tesla, and he never fully recovered from the loss. One can only wonder what kind of discoveries he would have made if it were not for the lab fire.
5) Some of Tesla’s ideas were too ahead of their time
Tesla was an eccentric personality, and while many of his inventions are extremely practical and widely used, he also dedicated significant amounts of his time, money, and energy into inventions that never quite became a part of our lives. If you want to read 11 reasons why he was a genius, click here. Some of his more out-there inventions include:
A Death Ray
Tesla invented a death ray that was meant to be a weapon so powerful that it would allow all nations to defend themselves and therefore create world peace. Tesla offered to sell the designs to various militaries, but never found any buyers. Curiously, the plans were never found after Tesla’s death.
Wireless Energy Transfer
At the World Fair in 1893 Tesla demonstrated transmitting energy wirelessly by powering phosphorescent light bulbs. He called the process electrodynamic induction, and imagined sending energy through the atmosphere and supplying energy to remote locations.
If you want to continue exploring this subject more deeply, you can see which books I recommend by clicking here.