Tesla, Not Marconi, Invented Radio

A lot of radio aficionados and scientists have heard of Nikola Tesla, but he's still far from a household name. In my own informal survey about Tesla, I found that a lot of people are more familiar with the band Tesla, than with the man himself (the band does have a brief bio of Nikola Tesla on their Web site, teslatheband.com). Of course, this article is about the man, not the band, and I think after learning more about Nikola Tesla you'll agree that, no matter how people learn about him, he certainly deserves to be more of a household name.

A lot of people flocked to see A Beautiful Mind, a fictional film/biography of Jonathan Nash, a brilliant mathematician who suffered paranoid delusions. It's unfortunate that sometimes it's the tragedy of brilliance that makes people fascinating to us, but, alas, such is the case with Nikola Tesla.

By all accounts, Tesla was a genius. Modern technology that can be traced back to Tesla ranges from x-rays to amplifiers and the AC (alternating currents) powering our electronics. Like Edwin Howard Armstrong, Tesla often found himself fighting the "powers that be" in order for his inventions and his mind to be taken seriously. Still, it wasn't until 1943, the year of his death, that the US Supreme Court recognized Tesla, not Marconi, as the inventor of radio.

During his lifetime, some of Tesla's ideas boggled the minds of his contemporaries. When he would talk about the wireless transmission of sound and images, they thought him delusional. When he hinted at the possibilities of transmitting electricity wirelessly, he was dismissed as a quack.

Still, despite dying virtually penniless at the age of 86, throughout his life, Tesla had interacted, and you might even say, left his mark, on some of the most influential figures of the 20th century. When Tesla arrived in the United States in 1884, he went to work with Thomas Edison. Their relationship was less than congenial. Edison, the hard-headed, auto-didactic entrepreneur wasn't too pleased to work with a brilliant young man who had a highly pedigreed education. According to some biographers, Tesla could speak at least six languages, was capable of picturing completed, working inventions in his head, and knew at a young age that he would someday harness the power of Niagara Falls for electricity. Tesla also devisean electrical system for the home of JP Morgan, and went to work for George Westinghouse after resigning from his work with Edison.

For all his accomplishments, however, Tesla was most affected by the slap in the face he felt when Marconi received the Nobel Prize in 1909. Marconi shared the prize with German scientist Karl Ferdinand Braun, "in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy." I should mention that one of the most famous quotations attributed to Tesla about Marconi is the following: "Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents." Of course, Tesla spoke these words before Marconi was awarded the Nobel Prize. In a turn of bitter irony, Tesla died before he was awarded the patent initially awarded to Marconi. According to the fantastic PBS piece on Tesla, the Supreme Court had awarded the patent to Tesla merely to avoid having to pay any royalties to the Marconi Corporation, which was suing the US government for patents used during World War I.

Despite Tesla's frustrations with the radio patent debacle, we shouldn't forget this remarkable scientist's other accomplishments. During World War I, he had already envisioned the possibility of using electricity, or electric waves, to find enemy submarines – or RADAR, and who can forget the famous images of Tesla Coils, and man-made lightning bolts firing harmlessly toward on-lookers at the World's Fair. He was the first to use fluorescent lights, and what of the radio-controlled boat he show-cased in Madison Square Garden - an invention he considered a harbinger of the future of robots. Truly, the more you read about Tesla, the more intriguing he becomes – from his supposed efforts to start man-made earthquakes, to his belief in receiving radio signals from outer-space, Tesla had a truly beautiful mind that wove imagination into science, and produced the stuff of true invention.

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