Tesla Fact vs. Fiction: Why the Public Perception is Wrong

What have you heard about Tesla? That he invented Alternating Current (AC)? That he and Edison fought the “War of the Currents” over AC vs. DC? That Edison hounded him? That he wanted to give everyone free electricity? That he was a Physics genius? That’s what I heard on YouTube and on websites and even on television shows! But I researched it by reading primary materials and, ready to have your mind blown, these are all wrong. All of them. Ready to learn the real story? Let’s go.

Tesla debunked

What are the “facts” commonly told about Tesla?

FACT #1: Tesla Invented AC & Created Our Electric World
Reality: AC was invented and utilized way before Tesla. The first AC generator was invented in 1832, when a French tinkerer named Hippolyte Pixii created a machine that spun a magnet near coils of wire[1]. Pixii was inspired by Faraday’s 1831 paper that changing a magnetic field will induce current in a coil. In Pixii’s machine, as the magnet spun towards and away from the coils, it created alternating current or AC. Pixii, however, used brushes to force the current to always go in one direction, or pulsed DC. Over the years, the generators got more complicated, and, according to an electricity book written in 1884, after frustration with some faulty brushes, in 1856 a large generator was used without brushes and it was found that electric lights could be lit with AC[2]. Tesla was born that very year, so it seems unlikely that he had anything to do with it! For many years afterwards, AC was often used to power bright outdoor arc-lamps, although dynamos with pulsed DC were considered better for incandescent lights[3].

pixii generator
Photo of a recreation of Pixii’s generator form 1832. This was the original AC generator but Pixii added brushes to force the current into pulsed DC.

The big change in electricity in the 1880s was in using transformers that could transform AC current into high voltage/low current waves that could travel long distances without losing much energy to heat and then transform back to low voltage/high current to be used in the home. A trio of Hungarian engineers whose initials are ZBD patented what is now called the ZBD transformer in 1885[4]. George Westinghouse became convinced that AC was the future for powering incandescent lights after reading about transformers[5] and his assistant William Stanley, at Westinghouse’s request, patented a simpler and more useful transformer in 1886[6]. That same year, Westinghouse and Stanley created the “first practical system for providing electrical illumination using alternating current with transformers[7]”.

Now we finally get to Nikola Tesla, sort of. See, one of the biggest handicaps of the AC system is that they didn’t have an AC motor. If the current went back and forth then how do you get a motor to move in a continuous circle? An Italian named Galileo Ferraris solved this problem in 1885 by building an AC generator with two separate coils, which produced two separate AC currents at different peak times. Ferraris found that these two AC currents could push a cylinder in a circle[8][9]. This was the first polyphase (multi-phase) generator and motor. However, the motor didn’t work efficiently at all (Ferraris thought it might be a good meter) and, although he did demonstrate his devices, he didn’t publish his findings until 1888.[10]

Ferraris motor drawing from Thompson
Drawing of Ferraris’ 2-phase AC generator (left) and AC motor (right) demonstrated in 1885.

Meanwhile, independently of Ferraris, Tesla had a similar idea but with a more powerful and practical motor which he patented in 1888[11]. Although polyphase AC would eventually be appreciated for the fact it is more efficient than single phase, which is why we currently use 3-phase current, in the late 1880s the real appeal was in the motors. George Westinghouse spent $1,000 to buy Ferraris’ system but then figured that Tesla’s patent was going to help him control the AC motor writing his lawyer that, “If the Tesla patents are broad enough to control the alternating motor business, then the Westinghouse Electric Company cannot afford to have other own the patents.”[12]

tesla patent
Tesla’s Patent from 1888 with 2 phase AC generator and brushless motor.

Although there is much debate today about whether Tesla invented the polyphase AC first or Ferraris did, in 1889, Tesla himself admitted that they independently had the same idea, “Professor Ferraris not only came independently to the same theoretical results, but in a manner identical almost to the smallest detail.”[13] Therefore, according to Tesla’s own words he technically was not the first creator of the polyphase alternating current generator.

So, wait, if Tesla didn’t invent AC or even independently invent polyphase AC and Westinghouse was already using AC & transformers for lighting for 2 years before buying Tesla’s patent, why was battle between AC and DC a battle between Edison & Tesla? That leads us to Fact #2.

Fact #2: The War of the Currents was a Battle Between Edison and Tesla
Reality: Edison’s real fight was with Westinghouse and Tesla was a minor player. In 1880, Thomas Edison got a patent for the light bulb[14] was having great success with his company “Edison’s General Electric” which used dynamos and pulsed DC current[15]. In 1885, George Westinghouse read about transformers and started using AC and transformers to light up buildings. Edison hated Westinghouse and AC because he thought the high voltage AC was dangerous, writing a private note that, “1200 Volts continuous current will never do greater harm than blister the flesh, [but Westinghouse] uses 2000 Volts alternative – This gives a difference of 4000 Volts (!) (Holy Moses)… the first man that touches a wire in a wet place is a dead man.” Concluding that, “just as certain as death Westinghouse will kill a customer within 6 months.”[16] Edison wrote a public manifesto about the dangers of AC where he mentioned Westinghouse 24 times and Tesla zero.[17]

Harold Brown killing a horse with AC in 1888

Edison then let a man named Harold Brown use his space to conduct gruesome public experiments killing dogs and horses with AC to promote its danger as well as promoting the use of AC in the electric chair[18] (Edison even wanted death by electric chair to be called “Westinghoused”[19]). AC did become cheaper (and more powerful) in 1888 when Westinghouse bought Tesla’s patent for polyphase generator and motor but it wasn’t a pivotal moment in the “war”. What was pivotal was when J.P. Morgan, who was a major stockholder of Edison’s company, got sick of the money wasted in lawsuits and wanted to use the cheaper and more powerful AC. So, in 1892 he orchestrated a coop, fired Edison from his own company and removed Edison’s name leaving it plain old GE or General Electric[20]. However, an Edison vs. Westinghouse rivalry doesn’t fit the narrative of the corporate Goliath vs. the individual brilliant David so it has been remade into the rivalry between Edison and Tesla where Westinghouse is just erased from history! So, if Edison didn’t battle Tesla over AC vs. DC why did he harass him and thwart all of his efforts?

Fact #3: Edison hounded Tesla starting when Tesla worked for Edison
Not true according to…. Tesla. Tesla did work for Edison in 1884 and in his biography, Tesla told a story of when he worked for the New York branch of the Edison company the local manager offered him $50,000 if he completed a task but then said that it was just a joke and Tesla resigned in protest[21].

This local manager was not Edison but it was turned into the legend of the origin of their “rivalry”. In fact, in that same biography, on the previous page, Tesla wrote how honored he was to meet Edison. Tesla wrote that Edison was a “wonderful man who, without early advantages and scientific training, had accomplished so much” and made him wonder if his formal education meant that “most of my life had been squandered”[22]. He wrote his nice words about Edison in the same book where he said that the people who thwarted his efforts to rebuild a tower to transmit electricity through the Earth were “nothing more than the microbes of a nasty disease.”[23] So it certainly doesn’t sound like Tesla felt like Edison was responsible for any of his hardships although he was clearly distressed about the loss of his tower. Why was Tesla’s tower destroyed in the first place? That leads us to the next “fact” about him.

Fact #4: Tesla Wanted to Create Free Electricity and was Stopped by Money Hungry Corporations
Reality: Tesla never had anything to do with “free electricity” and was stopped because his ideas didn’t work and Marconi’s method did work. See, Tesla invented the “Tesla Coil” in 1891, and took the world by storm with his amazing demonstrations of lighting bulbs with one line, then lighting fluorescents in his bare hands![24]

1894 Tesla Article
Article about Tesla from 1894 where he is depicted glowing like a god!

Tesla became convinced that he could use his machine to electrify the whole earth so that one could input energy in one spot and remove it anywhere in the world![25] This was a different way to transmit the energy (through the Earth instead of through wires) but he never said anything about free energy or energy from nothing. It was supposed to be cheaper because the copper in the wires was so expensive, not because Tesla was tapping into some mystical Mayan source of energy that the government doesn’t want you to know about! In 1901, Tesla convinced J.P. Morgan (the same guy who screwed over Edison 9 years earlier) to give him $150,000 so that he could build his all Earth transmission tower.[26]

Tesla Earth
Tesla’s drawing of his idea of using the Earth to transmit energy (from his 1919 autobiography)

Meanwhile, the inventions used in the Telsa coil were quite useful for sending long distance wireless telegraph signals. In 1901, Guilermo Marconi said he got a wireless telegraph to go across the Atlantic. Tesla was unconcerned as he was doing much grander work (Electrifying the EARTH) and he knew that Marconi was using several of his patents[27]. However, in 1904, Marconi got the patent office to reverse its decision and awarded Marconi the rights to his transmitter and receiver. Around that time, JP Morgan became irritated with Tesla and his tower of money and stopped funding him. Tesla failed to get other people to fund his project as more and more people noticed that Tesla’s ideas were, well, mostly nonsense. To quote from an article from 1903, Tesla’s “lectures abounded in fallacies and absurdities,” but that, “spectacular sensationalism was accepted as a substitute for scientific methods.”[28] Which brings us to fact #5.

Fact #5: Tesla was a Physics Genius
This was the most surprising to me. Tesla was an electrical genius with great intuition about how to build amazing electrical devices. However, his physics was, well, bad. Like demonstrably horrible. He didn’t believe in electrons[29], he thought relativity was pseudo science[30], and, astonishingly, considering his interest in wireless, he never believed that Hertz’s radio was electromagnetic vibrations in the air.[31] The best way to demonstrate Tesla’s tortured relationship with Physics is an article he wrote in 1900. It contains some iconic pictures but in 36 pages only includes only one equation “E = 1/2mv2” where the velocity, v, “is a certain hypothetical velocity, which we are unable exactly to define and determine,” and m is “the mass of mankind” that can be increased, “by promotion of marriage, by conscientious attention to the children, and by the observance of all the many precepts and laws of religion and hygiene.”[32] See what I mean? This article was not written at the end of his life when he was in love with a pigeon[33] (don’t ask), this was written at the height of his powers, and included his ideas about electrifying the world that inspired J.P. Morgan to give him money in the first place!

Conclusion: When I started to research the history of electricity I expected Tesla to be a major part of it. His devices are so beautiful and far and away his name seems to be the most closely connected to the word electricity. However, I found that most of my knowledge came from a complete misunderstanding his life and ideas. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t discount that Tesla was a wizard of electricity and his devices are still, over 100 years later, things of beauty and wonder. It is a gateway drug for many electrical engineers, and that is not a small thing.

[1] “Note sur une Experience de M. Hippolyte Pixii…” Ann Chem Vol 48 (1832) p. 76 also The Electric Light Boulard (1884) p. 232

[2] The Electric Light Boulard (1884) p. 233

[3] The Electric Light Boulard (1884) p 226 “It will be understood that in most applications of electricity alternating currents cannot be used, because the work performed while the current passes in one direction will be destroyed by the next current which passes in the opposite direction. They can only be used in the production of the electric light [from arc-lamps], where they have the advantage of causing equal consumption of the carbon electrodes.” [Note: arc-lamps used a spark between carbon rods]

[4] History of the Transformer Uppenborn (1889) p. 35

[5] Empires of Light Jonnes (2003) p. 122

[6] US Patent #349,611 W. Stanley Jr. “Induction Coil” Patented Sept. 21, 1886

[7] IEEE Milestone “Alternating Current Electrification, 1886”

[8] Alternating Currents of Electricity Kapp (1893) p. 140

[9] Polyphase Electric Currents and Alternate-current Motors Thompson (1895) p. 88-9

[10] Ferraris, Galileo “Rotazioni elettrodynamiche” Turin Acad March, 1888

[11] US Patent #381968 Nikola Tesla “Electro-Magnetic Motor” Tesla Patented May 1, 1888

[12] Quoted in Empires of Light Jonnes (2003) p. 161

[13] Tesla, Nikola “Letter to the Editor” Electrical World, May 25, 1889

[14] US Patent #223,898 Thomas Edison “Electric-Lamp” Patented Jan 27, 1880

[15] IEEE Milestone Award, Pearl Street Station, 1882 “On 4 September 1882, Edison’s direct current generating station at 257 Pearl Street began supplying electricity to customers in the First District, a one-quarter square mile area. This installation was the forerunner of all central electric generating stations”

[16] Private letter Nov, 1886 from Edison to Edward Johnson. Found in “The Thomas Edison Papers”

[17] A Warning from the Edison Electric Light Company Edison (1887)

[18] Empires of Light Jonnes (2003) p. 165-78, 189-90

[19] Edison and the Electric Chair Essig (2009) p 161

[20] Empires of Light Jonnes (2003) p. 241-4

[21] My Inventions Tesla (1919) p. 36

[22] My Inventions Tesla (1919) p. 35

[23] My Inventions Tesla (1919) p. 50

[24] A typical newspaper report on the Tesla craze of the 1890s is Brisbane, Arthur. “Our Foremost Electrician.” New York World July 22, 1894: p. 1, where he was described as “the best electrician living.” http://www.teslacollection.com/tesla_articles/1894/new_york_world/arthur_brisbane/our_foremost_electrician

[25] My Inventions Tesla (1919) p. 45

[26] The Truth about Tesla Cooper (2015) p. 53

[27] “Who Invented Radio?” “Tesla: Life and Legacy” pbs.org/tesla

[28] Hawkins “Nikola Tesla, His Work and Unfulfilled Promise” The Electrical Age, Volume 30 p. 103

[29] Armagnac “A Famous Prophet of Science Looks Into the Future” Popular Science Monthly, Nov, 1928 p. 171

[30] “Tesla, 79, Promises to Transmit Force: Scientist on Birthday Reveals Scheme to Send Mechanical Energy All Over World” New York Times, July 11, 1935 p. 11

[31] Tesla, Nikola The True Wireless 1919

[32] Tesla, Nikola. “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy.” The Century Magazine June 1900: p. 175

[33] Well, if you asked, Tesla told his biographer that he loved a pigeon, “’Yes, I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman and she loved me.” (Yeek). O’Neill, John Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla (1944) p. 316

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