Origins of Telecom: Nikola Tesla, a Telecom Genius

Nikola Tesla Time Magazine 1931Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla equaled others with stunning forecasts about the future.  Less than two hundred years ago, communicating over long distances required the use of smoke, signal flags, drums, whistles, homing pigeons, and similar pre-electronics era items.

A series of inventors such as Thomas Edison, Samuel Morse, and Guglielmo Marconi changed that with their inventions, ushering in the era of telecommunications.

One of the pioneers was Nikola Tesla. The Tesla Memorial Society of New York calls him a “true visionary far ahead of his contemporaries in the field of scientific development.”

Tesla was introduced to Thomas Edison upon his arrival to the United States from Croatia in 1884. He worked in Edison’s lab in New Jersey before ultimately engaging in what’s now referred to as the “war of the currents.”  The two men had differing ideas concerning direct versus alternating current.

Tesla’s polyphase alternating current system caught the attention of George Westinghouse, who promptly recruited Tesla and purchased his patents. Edison and Edison Electric Light Company advocated the use of DC (direct current) whereas Tesla and Westinghouse Electric Company advocated for AC (alternating current). In 1893, Tesla demonstrated AC at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago and designed the first hydroelectric power plant in 1895 in Niagara Falls.

Other world-changing inventions by Tesla include:

  • AC induction motor — which the Tesla Memorial Society says is one of the world’s ten greatest discoveries of all time.
  • Tesla coil — which is still in use today.
  • Wireless communication — with $150,000 in funding from J.P. Morgan, Tesla started building the Wardenclyffe tower, an experimental wireless transmission station intended to transmit messages from USA to England using the Earth as the medium for conducting currents. The tower was never completed as Morgan refused to fund it further. Many believed Tesla’s idea was a hoax and Morgan wondered, “If anyone can draw on the power, where do we put the meter?”
  • Remote control — Tesla developed a remote control boat that he believed could eliminate warfare.
  • Radio — though Marconi was credited with inventing the radio, his patent was overturned in 1943 by the Supreme Court who recognized Tesla’s earlier radio inventions.
  • X-rays — though another inventor discovered x-rays, Tesla had created x-ray images of his good friend, Mark Twain, using his own design just prior to the discovery.

Inventors and geniuses are often referred to as eccentric; their ideas are often so far-fetched it’s no wonder. Tesla was the first to consider Earth a giant conductor. Tesla also envisioned interplanetary communications, satellites, and solar energy.

While in Colorado in 1899, he claimed to have received signals from another planet. At the time, he was tracking lightning storms when his equipment picked up a series of beeps. Nearly one hundred years later, scientists replicated his experiment and proved Tesla right. The signal his equipment picked up was caused by one of Jupiter’s moons, lo, passing through the giant planet’s magnetic field.

Some believe Tesla may have had autistic traits as a child and obsessive-compulsive disorder as an adult. He had trouble forming intimate relationships and became a recluse later in life, preferring the company of pigeons to humans.

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