Everyone has heard of Thomas Edison and his most famous invention, the light bulb. Edison invented a lot of other things as well, but he’s most famous for his work in electricity. Edison also began providing electric light in people’s homes, replacing gas lights.
But few people have heard of Nikola Tesla. And if you have already heard of him it was probably from when you watched the movie “The Prestige” (which is an awesome movie by the way).
Tesla lived at the same time as Edison, and he too was an inventor working in the field of electricity. In fact if it weren’t for Tesla’s inventions and theories we would have no electricity in our homes (unless we used Edison’s method which I explain further down), we would have no cell phones, radios, televisions, we’d have no computers, CD/DVD players, and no other kinds of wireless devices either.
When we look at some of the most important technological devices we use today, so much of that comes from Tesla’s most important inventions: the alternating current (AC) generator, and the AC motor.
Edison would provide direct current (DC) electric power to people’s homes for their lighting. DC works fine except for the fact that electricity loses its strength when travelling over long distances. If you produce 12 volts of electricity from the generator, and you send that through a wire, you will lose voltage as the electricity travels, and if it has to travel too far it will no longer be strong enough to power up whatever is connected to it–much like water travelling through a hose will lose its pressure the further it has to travel.
One major difference between AC power and DC power is that with AC power the voltage can be transformed to different values after it has been generated. For example, if I produce 100 volts AC from the generator I can feed that into a transformer and boost the voltage up to a higher value, say 1000 volts. I can then transmit that voltage through a wire and feed it into another transformer and drop the voltage back down again. DC power, on the other hand, can not be changed after it has been generated. If I generate 12 volts DC that’s what I have to work with.
Today electricity is generated at very high voltage values in AC, and transmitted at high voltage values. Those big huge power lines running through the country are usually transmitting at 500 000 volts. Once the electricity makes its way into the city the voltage is dropped down to about 12 000 volts and transmits at that value through the city’s power lines. Then when it arrives in the individual neighborhoods it is dropped down again to a value which is safe to be used indoors: 120/240 volts.
The beauty of the AC system then is that it’s now possible to transmit electricity over long distances because it can be transmitted at very high voltage values, thus eliminating the loss of power; again, just like water running through a hose at extremely high pressure.
If we had to use DC power we would have to have a power station on every city block, as that power station would only be capable of providing power to the houses very near to it.
When Tesla’s AC system was made public, Edison tried to discredit him and AC power. Edison would hold public demonstrations to scare people about using AC power. “In June 1888, Edison began to demonstrate the lethal power of alternating current for reporters. He rigged a sheet of tin to an AC dynamo and led a dog onto the tin to drink from a metal pan. Once the dog touched the metal surface, it yelped and ‘the little cur dog fell dead.'”~article from Smithsonian.com
In addition to Tesla’s AC power transmission he also created the AC motor. The design of his AC motor is what you’ll find in every appliance in your home that uses a motor, and that includes DVD/CD players.
His theories in wireless power transmission are the basis of the technology used in wireless communication and radio today.
Unfortunately Tesla had no ability to market himself. He was a quiet man and he liked to keep to himself. People, including Edison, would often take advantage of him and his abilities to further their own success. Later on in his life, Tesla would describe strange inventions he was working on in secret, such as his “death ray”. People began to write him off as some sort of mad scientist.
Today those who hear of Tesla are intrigued by the mysterious aspect of his personality–and so he makes for a great character in a movie like “The Prestige”.
Well, if you actually read this whole article, I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. (Now go out and rent “The Prestige” if you haven’t seen it yet!)