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Hearing the word ‘Tesla’ conjures up images of sleek cars and video game guns. Not many imagine the mad scientist and prophet that made the majority of modern electronic devices possible. Nikola Tesla can easily be considered the world’s greatest inventor.
Although born in Croatia, Tesla became a New Yorker and stayed a New Yorker the last 59 years of his life. He accepted an offer to work for Thomas Edison on his direct current dynamos (electrical generators that deliver power for industry). Pretty soon, the wizened inventor and the soon-to-be pioneer were at war over a difference of opinion: Edison swore by his direct current, which was now being used up and down the Atlantic coast; Tesla, however, tried to convince his teacher that alternating current was a better and more efficient way to bring electricity to thousands. They disagreed so much that Tesla left, finding enough investments to create the Tesla Electric Light Company.
What does all that electric mumbo jumbo mean? It’s important to know why Edison and Tesla disagreed so badly, which comes from understanding the difference between direct and alternating current. First, a fun fact: AC/DC is actually named after alternating current and direct current. Who knew? Alternating current is a flow of charge that can travel both ways, able to change direction periodically. It is generated when a loop of wire is spun inside a magnetic field which induces current along a wire. It can be generated by wind turbines, steam turbines, flowing water, and the like. Direct current moves in only one direction. This doesn’t necessarily make it worse than AC, but it did make it impractical in some situations. Direct current can only be distributed in close proximity to where it was generated. AC current, however, can be carried back and forth along power lines, and is used today to power nearly every home and business.
That didn’t happen overnight, though. George Westinghouse, another electricity mogul, teamed up with Tesla and made long-distance power possible for the United States. With his help, Tesla was able to make his dream come true of harnessing the power of Niagara Falls by building the first AC hydroelectric power plant, which was used to power the city of Buffalo, New York. That’s what Tesla is most known for. Not many people know that he designed and developed ideas for many other important inventions: X-rays, the remote control, radar, even GPS and the internet, which he described as a global network of communication, a place to distribute news as well as music.
The later years were not great for Tesla. Edison began smear campaigns against him. He lost funding for the creation of a large tower to be used as a global communication system and had to scrap it to pay his debt. His laboratory with all his drawings and tools was burnt down. Tesla died a poor hermit in 1943, but his legacy lived on.
Besides bringing light to our homes, cars by Tesla Motors are becoming more and more common. Basic electric motors get charged at stations, not unlike a cell phone. Tesla batteries are much bigger and much more powerful, so much so that the cars run solely on electricity, unlike the Toyota Prius which runs on gas and electricity.
Thanks to Tesla, we step closer everyday to an efficient and advanced future that a boy from Croatia only dreamed of making possible.
By Kate Howley
While attending the School of Visual Arts, Kate had many adventures around New York City. After graduating with a B.F.A. in Film Directing, she now enjoys writing about those adventures, while also continuing to make films and discover new things about NYC every day.