Nikola Tesla Takes on Einstein

Nikola Tesla portraitRotating magnetic fields, alternating current motors and transformers, the Tesla coil, wireless transmission of radio communication, wireless lighting…Nikola Tesla had no shortage of inventions that he could call his own. But these were not the only inventions in which he dabbled. Besides his wireless radio communication and alternating current systems, and like other great inventors from da Vinci to Edison, Tesla was intrigued by a great many other issues. One such issue to which he gave a great deal of thought was the relationship between matter and energy. Late in life he even claimed to have developed a new dynamic theory of gravity, though the details of his theory were never presented. One thing was clear, however, Tesla did not think Albert Einstein had gotten it right when he introduced his theories of relativity: “Tesla continuously attacked the validity of Einstein’s work,” his first biographer John O’Neill would write, “he ridiculed the belief that energy could be obtained from matter.”

Einstein, of course, received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.” While he is probably best known for his development of “the world’s most famous equation, E = mc2,” Einstein’s greatest contributions were in reconciling the laws of classical mechanics with the laws of electromagnetic fields. He believed that Newtonian mechanics did not adequately accomplish this reconciliation, which led to his special theory of relativity in 1905. Extending this concept to gravitational fields, Einstein published his general theory of relativity in 1916. The following year he applied the general theory to model the structure of the universe as a whole.

To vastly oversimplify, general relativity provides for a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time. One key feature is that space-time is both curved and a function of the energy and momentum of matter and radiation. This is why light is bent around planets and other celestial bodies as it is influenced by their gravitational fields. It is also why time passes more slowly the closer the clock is to the source of gravitation (or conversely, why astronauts on a mission to points outside our solar system would return much younger than if they had remained on Earth).

Undeterred by the worldwide preeminence of such a man as Einstein, Tesla, at the ripe old age of eighty-two, wrote that he was fortunate enough to work out “two far reaching discoveries.” One was a dynamic theory of gravity, which he said “explains the causes of this force and the motions of heavenly bodies under its influence so satisfactorily that it will put an end to idle speculation and false conceptions, as that of curved space.” The “idle speculation” of curved space was, of course, one of the key features of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Tesla argued that Einstein’s theories were nothing more than “magnificent mathematical garb which fascinates, dazzles and makes people blind to the underlying errors.”

Tesla’s other far-reaching discovery was a physical truth that he felt could best be expressed by the statement:

“There is no energy in matter other than that received from the environment.”

He argued that no theory could

“explain the workings of the universe without recognizing the existence of the ether and the indispensable function it plays in the phenomena.”

The presence of the ether—the unseen medium between all the bodies of the universe—had already been contested by many scientists, including Einstein. Instead of the ether, Einstein inserted his own space-time construct that allowed space to curve around gravitational bodies. Tesla disagreed with Einstein, saying:

I hold that space cannot be curved, for the simple reason that it can have no properties. It might as well be said that God has properties. He has not, but only attributes and these are of our own making. Of properties we can only speak when dealing with matter filling the space. To say that in the presence of large bodies space becomes curved is equivalent to stating that something can act upon nothing. I, for one, refuse to subscribe to such a view.

The question was not inconsequential—if the ether existed then the speed of light would not be constant, it would vary depending on the forces of the celestial bodies. Experiments carried out by Albert Michelson and William Morley in 1887 had already shown that the ether actually did not exist, notwithstanding Tesla’s insistence many decades after this to the contrary.

Still undeterred, Tesla believed that he had discovered what came to be known as “Tesla waves,” which would move faster than the speed of light. He argued that the propagation of currents from his magnifying transmitter—“a peculiar transformer specially adapted to excite the Earth”—would begin with “a theoretically infinite speed” and then later “proceeds [sic] with the speed of light.” But that would not be the end as “from there on it again increases in speed, slowly at first, and then more rapidly,” eventually passing through the Earth to a point diametrically opposed to it “with approximately infinite velocity.” Needless to say this was a direct contradiction to Einstein’s demonstration that the speed of light is a constant and that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, at least in a vacuum.

Whether Tesla could have provided some additional insight to Einstein’s thinking on relativity if he had presented his views many years earlier, we will never know. In the end it was Einstein whose theories were written down, underwent scrutiny, and are generally accepted today.

[The above is an adaptation from my book Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity.]

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Updates on Tesla, Edison, Lincoln

It’s been a busy year for Tesla, Edison, and Lincoln. Based on the Barnes and Noble website, I’m expecting new printings for all three books. Plus, foreign translations!

The 8th printing of my Tesla book should be available any day now given the information I had received from the publisher. The book is sold out in my local store and temporarily unavailable on the B&N site as they get more books in the warehouse. Buyers at the local B&N tell me they still have brisk sales four years after the original publication. The situation is similar for my Edison book released in 2016, with the local store selling out and more books needed in the warehouse. And my newest book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is selling well according the manager of my local store. They’ve just restocked the shelves and a new printing is definitely due.

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In addition, Edison has joined Tesla in a Dutch language edition. The European publisher had previously done Dutch, German, and Spanish editions of Tesla so I expect to see the same for Edison. Tesla also is now in a Czech language edition. Hopefully the publisher will pick up the Lincoln book for translation some time next year.

Meanwhile, my recently released Lincoln book is doing well. I recently presented at the DC Historical Society conference in Washington, DC and I’m shortly heading up to Gettysburg for the annual Lincoln Forum. Then on December 12th I’ll present my book to the Lincoln Group of DC (click here to join us).

If that wasn’t enough, I am working on a new Lincoln book, and will be proposing a second Lincoln book in January. Stay tuned for more.

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Big News for Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity

Nikola Tesla was an eccentric genius that was born just before the U.S. Civil War and died in the middle of World War II. Since its release, my book, Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity, has been a big reason nearly 100,000 new people have learned about him. And now there is even bigger news.

Tesla, of course, is the reason for widespread use of alternating current – after beating out Thomas Edison’s direct current in the “War of the Currents” – and also pioneered development of the radio, remote controlled robotics, and a number of other major technologies. Today’s Tesla Motors was named in honor of the great inventor.

Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity has been a great success. So much so that I just received word that it will be going to a record 8th printing this fall. In these days when most non-fiction books rarely even sell out their first printing, an 8th printing is hugely satisfying. Of course, even more satisfying will be a 9th, then a 10th, and eventually a 100th printing.

But there is even more good news. Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity is not only published in English, there have been Dutch, German, and Spanish translations. At least one more is now going to be added to the list – Czech! Yes, if you’re in Prague you will shortly be able to pick up a copy translated into your home language. And if you’re in Turkey, keep your eyes open because at least two publishers have been in touch with my American publisher to negotiate putting out a Turkish edition.

All this means that the word of Tesla is spreading. And you can help. If you live in a country you think would be interested in Tesla but haven’t had access, talk to your local bookstores. Ask them if they could stock the book. If enough bookstores get requests, they will get word to publishers who can arrange translated editions. How about you, Serbia? Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity is sure to be a hit in Serbian bookstores.

Bonus good news: My newest book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is in Barnes and Noble bookstores now. You can also find copies of my earlier book, Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World, in which Nikola Tesla finally gets his due in an Edison biography.

So help spread the word of Tesla, Edison, and Lincoln. While you’re at it, check out my two e-books on Tesla and Lincoln. And as of this writing there are two more days for you to enter to win a free signed copy of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America on Goodreads.

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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How a Cat Helped Nikola Tesla Discover Electric Current

Nikola Tesla portraitOne of the most important events of Nikola Tesla’s youth relates to Tesla’s childhood cat Mačak. As Tesla writes in a letter to a friend’s daughter, at one point during a cold snowy day Tesla “felt impelled to stroke Mačak’s back.” He notes that what he saw “was a miracle which made me speechless…Mačak’s back was a sheet of light, and my hand produced a shower of crackling sparks loud enough to be heard all over the place.” Tesla’s father explained that this must be caused by electricity, like that of lightning, and this thought convinced Tesla that he wanted to pursue becoming an “electrician.”

This experience with Mačak kept Tesla wondering how to harness the amazing electrical power of nature. But first Tesla had to overcome the tradition that required him to enter a course of study for the clergy. After all, his father was a clergyman and with Dane gone the duty of following in his father’s footsteps fell to Nikola. Doing so was also “the fondest wishes” of the mother he so adored. But to Tesla the idea was abhorrent. “This prospect hung like a dark cloud on my mind,” he later wrote in his personal recollections. It simply had no appeal to him. His mind was just too inquisitive, too demanding of deep thought, too eager to explore the development of new ideas. No, the clergy was definitely not something to which Tesla aspired.

Then he got sick. And his life, while at first in danger of being extinguished, took a whole new turn.

Cholera was a deadly disease in the 1800s, especially in villages like those where Tesla grew up. An epidemic of cholera took off in Tesla’s native land and nothing could be done to battle it. “People knew nothing of the character of the disease,” Tesla would later relate, and sanitation was nearly nonexistent. Tesla lamented the lack of understanding of the causes of the epidemic. The townspeople “burned huge piles of odorous shrubbery to purify the air,” thinking that somehow the stench would stem the horrible tide of death. Or perhaps it was merely to cover up the stench of death itself. In any case, the real problem was the water, and the people “drank freely of the infected water and died in crowds like sheep.”

Tesla at the time was away from home, just finishing his eleven years of public education. Unfortunately, rather than staying away—and against “peremptory [sic] orders” from his father—Tesla rushed home to Gospić. Stricken down with cholera almost immediately upon his return Tesla spent the next nine months struggling to stay alive with “scarcely the ability to move” and exhausted of all vitality. Despite being given up for dead by the local physicians, who must have been right most of the time given the number of people who succumbed, Tesla survived the experience “on account of my intense desire to live.” His father still wanted Nikola to join the clergy, but in an effort to stimulate the life forces of his ailing son, promised to let Tesla study engineering should he recover.

After hearing this, Tesla’s recovery was miraculous. His desire to live restored, Tesla showed amazing vitality in less than a week, something quite unexpected after nearly nine months of constant illness. Perhaps as a result of having the onus of the priesthood lifted off his shoulders (or perhaps as a result of creative memory from a resourceful man decades later), Tesla returned to health quickly with the knowledge that he was to enter engineering school within only a few months.

His childhood was over. And his long and eventful path toward becoming “the inventor of the 20th Century” was about to begin.

[Adapted from my book, Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity]

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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5 More Things You Didn’t Know About Nikola Tesla

Happy Birthday, Nikola TeslaNikola Tesla was one of the most famous inventors of his age, and then he was mostly forgotten, dying in near poverty. In recent years Tesla has seen a resurgence in popularity as Tesla Motors has brought the Serbian-American inventor back into the limelight. [And perhaps my book, Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity, has played a small role in spreading the Tesla word to the masses.]

Previously I revealed 5 things you probably didn’t know about Nikola Tesla. In honor of his July 10th birthday, here are 5 more.

1) He was actually born on the cusp of July 9th and 10th. As I write in my book:

As though it had been ordered up by a filmmaker’s special effects department, the threatening storm arrived just as Djouka Tesla went into labor. As she prayed for an easy delivery of her fourth child, the roar of the thunder drowned out her stifled cries. Precisely at midnight the cries transferred from Djouka’s lips to those of the newly born Nikola. In an omen that could not have been scripted more prophetically, a lightning bolt crackled from the sky and lit up the small house just as Nikola entered this world.

Startled, the midwife turned to the young mother and said

“Your new son is a child of the storm.”

“No,” responded Djouka, “He is a child of the light.

And so it seems that, from the beginning, Nikola Tesla was destined to electrify the world.

2) He was fond of practical jokes. Though often reclusive and introverted, Tesla was in his element when it came to showing off his inventions. He would wave wireless light sabers in front of mystified scientists, regale party-goers with feats of memory, and if he could lure unsuspecting celebrities into his laboratory, play practical jokes on them. He once even got Mark Twain to nearly pee his pants [check out the full story here].

3) The sight of pearl earrings would make him nauseous. He admitted to several idiosyncrasies, once telling a friend:

I had a violent aversion against the earrings of women but other ornaments, as bracelets, pleased me more or less according to design. The sight of a pearl would almost give me a fit but I was fascinated with the glitter of crystals or objects with sharp edges and plane surfaces. I would not touch the hair of other people except, perhaps, at the point of a revolver. I would get a fever by looking at a peach and if a piece of camphor was anywhere in the house it caused me the keenest discomfort.

4) He invented robotics. Or at least, a wireless remote controlled boat. Setting up a tank in Madison Square Garden he slid a large odd-shaped boat into the water. Asking the gathered audience to tell the boat to turn this way and that way, Tesla secretly controlled its direction via radio waves. It was 1898 and the first time anyone had shown the ability to do such “magic.” [More on robot boats here.]

5) He was a science fiction star. Perhaps more accurately, he was the inspiration for science fiction stories. It all started when Tesla was experimenting with wireless radio signals in Colorado Springs. One night he recorded what he was convinced was directed messages from some far out source in space. He later was ridiculed for this, but a close friend and publisher Hugo Gernsback decided to take advantage of the idea and often used Tesla’s experiments as a basis for science fiction stories. It’s perhaps no surprise that in recent years Tesla has gained visibility as a popular science fiction figure in computer games, movies, and books.

Interestingly, one of Tesla’s rivals in the AC/DC wars, Thomas Edison, was also into science fiction. He even started writing a science fiction novel (though he never finished it).

One final note – while Tesla and Edison were rivals in the “war of the currents,” they were generally friendly with each other and mostly veered into separate careers that rarely overlapped. Both Tesla and Edison made marks in the world, but both would agree that that they were very different men of invention. [More on that here]

But today is all about Tesla.

Happy Birthday, Nikola Tesla!

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David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Nikola Tesla and Science Fiction

Nikola Tesla once suggested that “the possibility of beckoning Martians was the extreme application of [my] principle of propagation of electric waves.” While dropping the “talking with planets” idea once he returned to New York from Colorado Springs, he did maintain a belief that “there would be no insurmountable obstacle in constructing a machine capable of conveying a message to Mars, nor would there be any great difficulty in recording signals transmitted to us by the inhabitants of that planet.” Assuming, Tesla noted, that “they be skilled electricians.”

Interest in the theory was heightened by a Margaret Storm book called Return of the Dove. Later, another book by Arthur Matthews (Wall of Light: Nikola Tesla and the Venusian Spaceship) suggested that Tesla not only talked with extraterrestrials—he was one! Science and science fiction publisher Hugo Gernsback often used his friend Tesla’s ideas as seeds for science fiction stories, thus forever linking Tesla’s name with science fiction.

Which gets me to two new science fiction books wherein Nikola Tesla battles extraterrestrials invading the Earth. Author L. Woodswalker has taken many aspects of Tesla’s real life and woven them into two thrilling science fiction books that I highly recommend. Click on the book titles to get to the Amazon pages. Here are my reviews on Goodreads:

Tesla's Signal



Tesla’s Signal

Marvelous science fiction. L. Woodswalker authors a cleverly written exploration of alien invasion that masterly weaves real history with fantasy and surreality in a series of intricately woven story lines. Those who are familiar with Nikola Tesla will recognize the deft intertwining of Tesla’s real inventions, quirks, and personality traits with extrapolations to what they have become in the minds of many a Tesla aficionado. Those unfamiliar with Tesla will still find themselves rabidly engaged in the requisite alien races, the fight between good and evil, and some surprising romantic tension spliced into exciting action. All together here are the makings of a great SF novel. Well done!



Tesla’s Frequency

I loved this book even more than the first one (Tesla’s Signal). A must-read for anyone interested in Tesla and/or historical science fiction. L. Woodswalker once again constructs a marvelous story line, deep and interesting characters, and beautifully written dialogue. Woodswalker deftly weaves reality (Tesla’s actual inventions, Hitler’s actual plans) with fantasy (rumors of Tesla inventions that never came to fruition, fictional characters) and science fiction (space aliens). The resulting fast-paced, exciting ride pitting good versus evil keeps the pages turning as the famous inventor, his white pigeon side-kick, and an intriguing young girl battle the bad guys to save the world from both Hitler and aliens.

Great writing, great story, and Nikola Tesla. What more could you ask for? I highly recommend both this book and Woodswalker’s earlier Tesla thriller, Tesla’s Signal.

David J. Kent is and avid traveler. His most recent book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Abraham Lincoln, Nikola Tesla, and Mark Twain Connected in the Arts

No one would mistake Abraham Lincoln for an artist, though scholars give him high marks on his writing. Long before there were speechwriters, politicians wrote their own material, and Lincoln is well known for such memorable speeches as the Gettysburg and Second Inaugural Addresses. He was also a great letter writer, often crafting policy positions in the form of “private” letters that were, in fact, intended for public consumption. His response to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, for example, in which he states his position on emancipation of the slaves, thus preparing the public for the proclamation that he had already prepared but not yet revealed, is a classic of historical writing.

But did you know that our 16th President wrote poetry? Perhaps not on par with Robert Burns (one of his favorite poets), but clever and with great storytelling. Which reminds us that Lincoln is well known for his ability to tell a humorous story.

Nikola Tesla was also fond of poetry. He could recite long classic poems in their entirety, and could do so in several different languages. Tesla’s own writings were perhaps not as succinctly to the point as Lincoln’s but they were often entertaining and fanciful; not an easy task for an electrical engineer writing about cutting edge technical discoveries. Most of our knowledge of his childhood and early adult years come from Tesla’s own autobiographical accounts serialized in the scientific magazines of the day.

Tesla also was a big fan of the writings of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Which gets us to yet another connection between Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla.

Mark Twain in the House

Samuel Clemens, known to most of us by his pseudonym Mark Twain, was born in Hannibal, Missouri on November 30, 1835, shortly after Halley’s Comet had made its regular but rare pass by the Earth. The 26-year-old Abraham Lincoln – an amateur astronomy buff who two years earlier had marveled at the Leonid meteor showers – may very well have been gazing at the skies when Mark Twain came into this world. At that age Lincoln lived in New Salem, Illinois, just a stone’s throw across the Mississippi River from Hannibal. In 1859, Lincoln rode the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad to give a speech in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The railroad just happened to be formed in the office of Mark Twain’s father thirteen years before.

Lincoln floated flatboats down the Mississippi River to New Orleans as a young adult, then took steamboats back upriver. He often piloted steamboats around shoals near his New Salem home. Mark Twain had worked on steamboats on the river for much of his younger years, first as a deckhand and then as a pilot. Being a riverboat pilot gave him his pen name; “mark twain” is “the leadsman’s cry for a measured river depth of two fathoms (12 feet), which was safe water for a steamboat.” In 1883 Twain even titled his memoir, Life on the Mississippi. Lincoln’s time traveling on and piloting steamboats eventually inspired his patent for lifting boats over shoals and obstructions on the river.

Lincoln would not have read any of Mark Twain’s stories (his first, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, was published in 1865, about seven months after Lincoln had been assassinated). But Twain says his humorous writing style was strongly influenced by another pen named-humorist, Artemus Ward, and the Jumping Frog story was published in the New York Saturday Press only because he finished it too late to be included in a book Artemus Ward was compiling. This is the same Artemus Ward that was so often read by Abraham Lincoln to break the tensions of the Civil War.

In fact, Lincoln was so entranced by the humor of Ward that on September 22, 1862 he read snippets from one of Ward’s books to his cabinet secretaries before settling into the business of the day – the first reading of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Ironically, Mark Twain’s piloting job ended when the Civil War started, as much of the Mississippi River became part of the war zone. So what is a writer/river-boatman to do? Well, join the Confederate army of course. His unpaid service lasted only two weeks in 1861 before disbanding. He then left for Nevada to work for his older brother, out of harm’s way for the rest of the war, though his brief service for the confederacy did give him material for another of his humorous sketches, The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.” Later, Mark Twain would publish the memoirs of Civil War hero and President, Ulysses S. Grant.

Like Lincoln, Mark Twain was very interested in science and technology. Twain actually had three patents of his own, for a type of alternative to suspenders, a history trivia game, and a self-pasting scrapbook. Many years after the Civil War he met and became close friends with Nikola Tesla. Often when he was in New York City Twain would hang out in Tesla’s laboratory. One photo taken only with the light produced by Tesla’s wireless lighting technology shows Mark Twain holding a ball of light.

Mark Twain in Tesla's Laboratory

They became such good friends that Tesla felt comfortable playing a practical joke on him. One day Mark Twain dropped by the lab and Tesla decided to have a little fun. He asked Twain to step onto a small platform and then set the thing vibrating with his oscillator. Twain was thrilled by the gentle sensations running through his body.

“This gives you vigor and vitality,” he exclaimed.

After a short time Tesla warned Twain that he better come down now or risk the consequences.

“Not by a jugfull,” insisted Twain, “I am enjoying myself.”

Continuing to extol on the wonderful feeling for several more minutes Twain suddenly stopped talking. Looking pleadingly at Tesla he yelled:

“Quick, Tesla! Where is it?”

“Right over there,” Tesla responded calmly. Off Twain rushed to the restroom, embarrassed by his suddenly urgent condition. Tesla smiled; the laxative effect of the vibrating platform was well known to the chuckling laboratory staff.

By the way, Mark Twain was also friends with Thomas Edison. And Edison filmed the only footage of Mark Twain currently in existence. The less-than-two-minute-long film would not win any Academy Awards for content or production value – its grainy images show Twain merely walking while smoking his cigar and eating lunch with his two daughters – but it has obvious cultural and historical significance. Mark Twain died the following year, the day after Halley’s Comet returned for the first time since Twain’s birth, in effect, seeing him both into this world and out of it.

[The above is adapted from my e-book, Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate, available for download on]

Click here for more posts here on Science Traveler about the connections between Lincoln and Tesla.

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Nikola Tesla and the Development of Hydroelectric Power at Niagara Falls

Nature has provided an abundant supply of energy in various forms which might be utilized if proper means and ways can be devised.” – Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its TimeOne of Nikola Tesla’s first professional forays into the power of nature was the development of hydroelectric power at Niagara Falls. The idea of exploiting flowing water to convert potential energy to kinetic energy to mechanical energy has been around for centuries, but during the 1800s it was combined with the new developments in electricity as a means to generate electrical power.

The very first use of hydropower to generate electricity occurred in England in 1870. William George Armstrong created a series of artificial lakes at his estate, Cragside, which allowed him to power small incandescent lamps. By 1880, development of a brush arc light dynamo driven by a water turbine provided for the first use of hydroelectric power in the United States, lighting theater and storefronts in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The world’s first actual hydroelectric plant was small in scale and began operation on September 30, 1882 in Appleton, Wisconsin. Powered by the flow of the Fox River, the plant produced only enough electricity to light the home of Appleton paper manufacturer H.J. Rogers, along with the plant itself and a small nearby building. Not dramatic, but it was a beginning.

To this point, rudimentary hydroelectric power relied solely on direct current systems. But as discussed in Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity, direct current has significant limitations. In contrast, Tesla’s alternating current system was what allowed Niagara Falls to become the biggest and most fundamentally different producer of electricity at that time. Success there changed the future of electricity forever.

Niagara Falls

Tesla statue overlooking Niagara FallsNiagara Falls has been attracting attention since it was first discovered, and for good reason. The Niagara River drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, resulting in some of the most beautiful falls in the world. Niagara Falls actually encompasses three separate waterfalls: American and Bridal Veil Falls on the American side of the border; Horseshoe Falls generally considered to be on the Canadian side (though the actual demarcation is in dispute due to erosion over the years).

Taken together, and with a maximum vertical drop of more than 165 feet, the three falls provide the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world. Horseshoe Falls alone is considered to be the most powerful waterfall in North America as measured by vertical height and rate of flow.

It is not surprising that people were interested in using the Falls to make their lives easier. As far back as 1759 a man by the name of Daniel Joncairs had dug a ditch above the Falls on the American side and used the flowing water to turn a waterwheel that powered a small sawmill. Almost 50 years later, in 1805, two brothers bought the rights to American Falls and used the old ditch to feed water to a gristmill and tannery. They then tried to build a larger canal leading to a reservoir on the cliffs, which would be allowed to flow to the gorge through “turbines connected by belts to industrial machinery.” None of those ideas worked out, and several companies went bankrupt trying to finish the project.

In 1853 the Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power & Manufacturing Company was chartered and by 1860 the company had begun construction of a 35-foot wide, 8-foot deep hydraulic canal to transport water from above the Falls to mill sites below the Falls. Delayed by the American Civil War, it would be take another 15 years before the canals were finished and the powerhouse was operational. Initially the plant ran only a single flour mill, but eventually a small generating station was producing enough electricity to light the first direct current lights in the village of Niagara Falls. Then the company went bankrupt.

In 1877, a successful tannery business owner, Jacob Schoellkopf, bought the canal and power rights at Niagara. While previous entrepreneurs had tried to harness the power of the falling water for mechanical energy (e.g., driving mill wheels), Schoellkopf realized the future was in generation of electrical energy. Modifying the existing systems, by 1881 Schoellkopf was providing power to Charles Brush to power “16 electric carbon arc lights” used to illuminate the Falls.

All of this was restricted by the limitations of direct current, which could not transmit more than a mile or two. Growing cities such as Buffalo, only 20 miles away, were unable to get electricity from the power of Niagara. While Schoellkopf’s efforts were a great step forward, something else needed to be done.

Enter Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse

Nikola TeslaThe Schoellkopf Company was eventually absorbed by the Niagara Falls Power Company run by New York financier, and former Edison Electric Company Board member, Edward Dean Adams. By 1889 a subsidiary called the Cataract Construction Corporation was incorporated and financed by heavyweights of the industrial world, including J. Pierpont Morgan, John Jacob Astor, William Vanderbilt, and the company’s president, Edward Dean Adams himself.

While Cataract began building the needed tunnels, Adams was researching the advantages and disadvantages of the well-known direct current vs the still untested alternating current. The company wanted to send electricity great distances, a major deficiency of direct current. Even the great Thomas Edison could not convince Cataract direct current would do the job, so in 1893 Adams opted for an alternating current system. The contract was awarded to the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company.

The key to Westinghouse’s win was none other than Nikola Tesla. In My Inventions, Tesla recalls that he first heard of Niagara Falls when still a boy in his backwoods school. Some mechanical models used by his instructors interested him in the idea of water turbines. After hearing a description of the great Niagara Falls, Tesla “pictured in my imagination a big wheel run by the Falls.” He proclaimed to his uncle that one day he would “go to America and carry out this scheme.”

Suddenly he had that chance. Tesla and Westinghouse had teamed up to win the contract to light up the Chicago World’s Fair – also known as the World Columbian Exposition – which opened May 1, 1893. The success of lighting up “the white city” was so impressive that Cataract quickly awarded the Niagara contract to Westinghouse. Tesla’s patented polyphase alternating current system would power the generators and bring electric lights and power to Buffalo. As somewhat of a consolation prize, Thomas Edison’s General Electric Company was hired to construct the long-distance transmission lines. Edison likely found this demeaning, not to mention ironic, given that his preferred direct current system could not be transmitted long distances and was the reason he lost the coveted Niagara contract in the first place. Edison would largely abandon direct current power plants after Niagara, following along on Tesla’s alternating current success.

Let there be energy

The concept behind gaining energy from the Falls is relatively simple. Potential energy is stored at the top of the Falls and as it drops the energy becomes kinetic. To tap it, some of the water that would go over the Falls is displaced through a long tunnel to turn a series of turbines, which converts the energy into mechanical energy, and that generates electricity.

Completed in 1895, Tesla’s polyphase generator could produce 15,000 horsepower, an unprecedented amount of power at that time. The Westinghouse Company would add seven more generating units to raise that level to 50,000 horsepower. On November 15, 1896, Westinghouse Electric, powered by nine key patents comprising Tesla’s polyphase system, began providing alternating current electricity to the city of Buffalo, twenty miles from the Falls. This achievement…

“…was the first alternating current electrical generating plant built on a large scale in the world. Its success encouraged the international creation of hydroelectric stations, now the most widely used form of renewable energy.”

Courtesy of NMAH Smithsonian InstitutionTesla’s success changed the world, and soon many other power stations would be built at Niagara and elsewhere in the United States. Within ten years hydroelectric plants would provide 15 percent of all the electricity in the U.S.; by 1920 that had reached 25 percent.

Tesla himself only made his first visit to the plant on July 19, 1896. It was his transformers that solved one of the most difficult problems in electrical science, but he was too busy to visit the site. In fact, on March 13, 1895, just as the generators using his technology were about to become operational at Niagara, his New York City laboratory burned to the ground. Rebuilding his equipment, and extracting the theoretical knowledge stored in his head, would keep him occupied for many months. When Tesla did finally find time, he noted that he was “delighted” with his visit to Niagara Falls. After touring “from top to bottom of the power plant,” he added, “You may say it is the greatest and the best, the most thoroughly equipped in the world.” And Tesla was right.

Tesla noted that in addition to Niagara there were many waterfalls that could be tapped for their natural energy. While most people react with awe upon seeing Niagara and the other great waterfalls, Tesla dispassionately focused on the mechanics of how their awesome power could be exploited for the generation of electricity.

“Great waterfalls exist in many inaccessible regions of the globe and new ones are being discovered, all of which will be eventually harnessed when the wireless transmission of energy is commercialized.”

Much credit has to be given to George Westinghouse and his willingness to take the chance on new technologies. Tesla himself was positively effusive about Westinghouse. Thomas Edison, on the other hand, tried to discredit alternating current; he even suggested the wires might be better put to use drying laundry. Another renowned electrician of the time, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, “had a very poor opinion” of Tesla’s induction motor. To Tesla, George Westinghouse was “a genius of the first degree…a man truly great, of phenomenal powers,” and perhaps even more importantly, “undertook to wage a war [based on Tesla’s alternating current technology] against overwhelming odds.” Together, Tesla and Westinghouse’s alternating current won “the war of the currents” over Edison’s direct current. The world still benefits today from that victory each and every time we use the electricity transported long distances to our homes and businesses.

To honor his role in bringing hydroelectric power to Niagara Falls, the main power station would be named after Edward Dean Adams in 1927. Adams would make the cover of Time magazine on May 27, 1929. Nikola Tesla would do the same just over two years later, on July 20, 1931, in celebration of his 75th birthday and a lifetime of achievement. Tesla’s inventions had not only revolutionized electrical generation, they did what he always wanted to do – “harness the forces of nature for the service of mankind.”

[The above is adapted from my e-book, Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time, available on]

Read other posts on Nikola Tesla here on Science Traveler.

David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is scheduled for release in summer 2017.

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Nikola Tesla – The Road to Wireless and Wardenclyffe

Wardenclyffe. The laboratory, with its iconic tower, has once again reached the almost mythical proportions it once attracted when Nikola Tesla was first erecting it. The recent purchase of the property by the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe ensures that Tesla’s name will touch a new generation of students eager to know about this almost forgotten inventor.

But the concept of wireless telegraphy had become an obsession with Tesla long before the tower began to rise near the Long Island shoreline. Back in the days that Tesla toiled in his South Fifth Avenue laboratory the idea of “radio” began taking shape. According to John O’Neill, Tesla’s friend and first biographer, Tesla had been on the verge of making the “first distance demonstration of his wireless system.” But then in 1895 his laboratory burned to the ground. Everything was lost – his equipment, his experiments, his notebooks, and his dreams. This catastrophe would set Tesla back long enough to give a certain Guglielmo Marconi a chance to leapfrog ahead and receive credit for the discovery of radio.

Off to Colorado Springs

Tesla reestablished himself in another lab in Manhattan, but quickly found the space to be rather limiting for the type of experiments he wanted to pursue. As luck would have it he was invited to build a laboratory in Colorado Springs. Blessed, or perhaps cursed, as one of the most active lightning strike areas in the country, this perfect location also came with a promise of unlimited access to electricity from the city’s newly built alternating current distribution system. Toss in a $30,000 feed stake from Col. John Jacob Astor and Tesla was westward bound.

During his nine-month stay in Colorado beginning in June 1899 and ending in January 1900 Tesla kept voluminous notes and drawings, explicitly detailing his many experiments. Scientists are still today poring through those notes to see what other wonders are yet to be discovered from Tesla’s work.

It was here that Tesla decided it was possible to transmit electric energy through the earth under the proper conditions of resonance. Tesla “quickly discovered that the earth is charged to an extremely high potential and is provided with some kind of a mechanism for maintaining its voltage.” He believed that he had found stationary waves, and that the planet behaved like a conductor. Already the significance of this phenomenon as it relates to the transmission of energy had become clear to Tesla. “Not only was it practicable to send telegraphic messages to any distance without wires, as I recognized long ago, but also to impress upon the entire globe the faint modulations of the human voice, far more still, to transmit power, in unlimited amounts, to any terrestrial distance and almost without loss.”

The main focus of his stay in Colorado was conducting wireless telegraphy experiments with the goal of perfecting the long-range transmission of radio signals. In some of his experiments he tested the idea of how to “tune” a wireless transmitter to respond to specific signals while rejecting others. This improvement was critical for the development of wireless transmission in order to avoid the interception of a signal by others. Alas, while his time in Colorado was extremely productive, one experiment knocked out the little Colorado Springs power station. Not long after, Tesla packed up his bags and headed back East.

[continues below the photo]

Tesla Magazine interview

David J. Kent being interviewed by Tesla Magazine


Having advanced his wireless transmission of radio waves and energy in Colorado, Tesla returned to New York in early 1900 with a plan. He envisioned the ability to broadcast under multiple wavelengths from a single station. Purchasing 200-acres in a prime location near present day Shoreham, Long Island and an influx of money from venture capitalists – including a massive $150,000 stake from industrialist J. Pierpont Morgan alone – Tesla began working on the facility and tower that would be named Wardenclyffe.

Designed by famous architect Stanford White, Wardenclyffe consisted of an odd looking tower about “187 feet high, having a spherical terminal about 68 feet in diameter.” Tesla insisted that these dimensions were sufficient “for the transmission of virtually any amount of energy.” Right from the beginning, however, there were design problems. Many contractors balked at the idea of building such a large skeleton of wood topped by a large semicircular electrode that presented itself like a sail to the wind. Tesla also quickly used up the money provided by Morgan, who was none too pleased about the idea of continuing to finance an operation that may never produce results or provide any return on his investment.

Tesla continued to do preliminary experiments as construction moved forward, though this occurred unevenly because of financial difficulties and many last-minute design changes. Wardenclyffe was much more expensive to build than either Tesla or Morgan had anticipated.

But Wardenclyffe was to be the site where Tesla’s World Wireless System would provide a lucrative commercial exploitation of his long-theorized wireless communication system. This world system combined several of Tesla’s inventions and made possible “not only the instantaneous and precise wireless transmission of any kind of signals, messages or characters, to all parts of the world, but also the inter-connection of the existing telegraph, telephone, and other signal stations without any change in their present equipment.” It was to be the future.

The basic principles were relatively simple. The Earth would act as a conductor of electrical energy, just as would a current flowing through a wire or other conductors. A grounded Tesla coil transmitter would create a large displacement of the Earth’s electric charge. A similar Tesla coil tuned to the same frequency could be used as the receiver, and the energy would flow wirelessly through the Earth from one to the other. Whether this would actually work was something neither Tesla nor anyone else to date has been able to determine.

Unfortunately, the most recent economic downturn of the time – the “Panic of 1901” – had severely strained the available investment opportunities for continuing the wireless work. Tesla wrote to J. Pierpont Morgan repeatedly asking for additional funds, all without reply. Then came Marconi’s (apparent) transmission of the letter “S” from England to Newfoundland. Marconi, using ideas patented by Tesla, had beaten Tesla to the punch. Morgan was livid. Tesla was frantic. By mid-1903 the future of Wardenclyffe looked bleak and Tesla wrote Morgan again – this time to impress upon him that his World Wireless System could accomplish much more than just the wireless communication intended for the tower, it could also provide wireless transmission of electric power. Morgan remained unimpressed. Not seeing how he could make any profit from this “free energy,” he replied in late 1904 that it would “be impossible for [him] to do anything in the matter.” Morgan also discouraged other financiers from investing in Tesla’s enterprise. With Tesla’s earlier alternating current motor patents, and their associated royalties, expiring in 1905, Tesla was quickly running out of money to fund Wardenclyffe.

While Tesla did accomplish some useful things on the site, including invention of his bladeless turbine and sales of Tesla coils, for all intents and purposes the Wardenclyffe experiment was over. Wardenclyffe was eventually transferred to George Boldt of the Waldorf-Astoria in payment for all the years of unpaid hotel charges accrued to Tesla. Depending on who is telling the story, the tower was destroyed in 1917 either by a contractor for scrap so that Boldt could recoup some of his lost income, or by the government to keep it from being used by German spies.

Tesla was not finished inventing, but the most productive time of his life was slowly coming to an end.

But now, nearly a century later, Tesla’s laboratory is being resurrected from years of neglect. Its restoration as a museum and science center is a fitting tribute to a man whose contributions have also long been neglected. Together the museum and the name of Tesla will rise again.

[The above is my contribution to the very first Tesla Magazine, July 10, 2013.]

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Tesla and Edison: The War is Lost

We’ve previously looked at Tesla and Edison fighting the War of the Currents (Part I and Part II). Now we come to the final round in the battle.

Tesla vs Edison cartoon

Two events were major factors in deciding the war of the currents. In 1893 there was a competition to determine who would get the contract to light up the World’s Columbian Exposition. Also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, the six-month-long exposition was to showcase new technology from all over the world. Both the General Electric Company and the Westinghouse Electric Company (powered by Tesla’s alternating current technology) were among the competitors. Edison’s direct current was pitted against Westinghouse’s alternating current. Bidding was brutal as Edison and Westinghouse viciously undercut each other in an attempt to land the plum contract. Other competitors were quickly eliminated, and Westinghouse ultimately won. Tesla’s polyphase alternating current system lit up the fair.

The result was spectacular. Nicknamed the “White City” because of the white stucco buildings surrounding the central pool, the name also could have referred to the brilliant aura created by 92,000 outdoor incandescent lamps that lit the grounds for six months. Including all the interior lamps, the fair required 250,000 modified Sawyer-Mann “stopper lamps,” a competing bulb Westinghouse raced to produce because Edison refused to allow use of his patented long-life bulbs. Edison was not shut out completely, however, as he was able to display several of his own inventions in the showcase electrical building, including the dominating “Edison Tower of Light.”

Because of the success of alternating current at the Chicago World’s Fair, the team of Westinghouse and Tesla also beat out Edison for the next major contract at Niagara Falls. The Niagara River flows north from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, dropping up to 188 feet over some of the most spectacular falls in North America. Engineers had made only limited use of the power of the falling water until the newly formed Cataract Construction Company (led by former Edison Electric Board member Edward Dean Adams) chose to base its new electrical power plant on a dozen Tesla patents. Tesla’s polyphase generator system beat out Edison’s direct current, but Edison won the contract to string electrical wires from Niagara to Buffalo, nearly twenty miles away.

These setbacks effectively removed Edison from the electric power generation business, a process that had already begun back in 1892, when competition and J. P. Morgan’s maneuverings forced Edison to merge his Edison General Electric Company with the Thomson-Houston Company to form the new General Electric. While somewhat bitter at how he had been treated, Edison turned to other pursuits, including iron ore milling and the development of motion picture projectors. Edison was about to become a movie mogul, albeit a reluctant one. Tesla also turned to other pursuits, including Wardenclyffe.

[This is part II of a three part series on Tesla vs Edison in the War of the Currents, all adapted from my book Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World. Also check out my earlier book, Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity. Both are available in Barnes and Noble stores nationwide. See links below. Part I of the series can be read here. And here is Part II.

David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is scheduled for release in summer 2017.

Follow me by subscribing by email on the home page.  And feel free to “Like” my Facebook author’s page and connect on LinkedIn.  Share with your friends using the buttons below.