Today, let's get to know the man who gave us
alternating current. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
When I worked in Yugoslavia,
some years back, I especially liked their 500-dinar
notes. They were a kind of 30-dollar bill, with a
picture of a lean, mustached man reading from a
large book. The man was Nikola
Tesla -- one of the early geniuses of
electricity. Tesla was born in Yugoslavia and
educated in Prague, but he came to the United
States in 1884 when he was 28.
By then he'd revealed a wild, mercurial talent for
manipulating the mysterious new forces of
electricity, and he carried with him a letter of
introduction to Edison. Edison would probably have
brushed him off, but he was shorthanded when Tesla
showed up. The electric-lighting system he'd put in
the steamship Oregon was failing, so
he hired Tesla -- on the spot -- and sent him off
to fix it. Tesla did fix it, but he lasted less
than a year with Edison. The marriage between the
two was not made in Heaven.
Author Margaret Cheney tells us that Edison took
Tesla for an egghead, a theoretician, and an
epicurean snob. Edison said that ninety percent of
genius was knowing what wouldn't work. Tesla called
that kind of thinking an empirical dragnet. He
If Edison had to find a needle in a haystack, he
would proceed with the diligence of a bee to
examine straw after straw until he found [it]. I
was a sorry witness to such doings ... a little
theory ... would have saved him ninety percent of
Tesla was a dapper bon-vivant,
six-and-a-half feet tall. He spent every cent on the
good life. He cultivated rich and famous friends.
Mark Twain was one of them. He wrote poetry and spoke
half the languages of Europe. But he never married.
In fact, he couldn't bear physical contact with other
people. He had a terrible phobia about germs.
He eventually found his way to George Westinghouse,
and showed him how to build a motor that ran on alternating current
-- AC. That led to open combat with Edison, who
clung to DC long after it was clear he was riding
the wrong horse. But Tesla wasn't just the father
of the AC power that serves your home. He also
demonstrated the concept of the radio before
Marconi did. He invented the "Tesla coil." And he
was the electrical showman of the late 19th century
-- dazzling audiences with brilliant electrical
The unit of magnetic-flux-density was named after
Tesla, yet he never published a technical paper.
Lord Rayleigh once told him he should settle down
and specialize like a proper scientist. That was
poor advice for the wild Serbian cowboy who rode
behind Tesla's urbane front. Tesla played
counterpoint to Rayleigh's orthodoxy just has he
did to Edison's dogged trial-and-error methods.
Edison and Rayleigh were great men indeed, but
Tesla helps us see that there's no formula for
calling up the muse of invention.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds