popular science

thank you, nikola tesla, for inventing our future

First of all, today is Nikola Tesla’s birthday. It is also Science Day in Serbia.

167 ago (in 1856), the child of the light was born, and he has been fixing things ever since. Tesla made things so they were helpful to humankind. In the end, he was the Great Connector.

The whole planet has heard of this brilliant geek and modern-day Prometheus. Still, now and then, we can witness the knowledge scrutiny and a bunch of stereotypes involving Tesla’s private life, strange behaviors, hidden quirks, platonic love affair with white pigeons, and similar crap.

At the same time, most of you don’t have the slightest idea why Nikola goddamn Tesla is so so so important to our planet and humans living on it — in the 1880s, now, and in the centuries upon us.

Even though he’s primarily responsible for the discovery that led to the widespread usage of alternating currents, or AC, as the backbone electricity transmission system, it’s a system that’s still used today to power modern society.

However, as crucial as the AC breakthrough, he made several significant discoveries we tend to forget about so easily.

That’s mainly because he never received full credit for some of his inventions due to, in part, oh well, bad timing.

The radio

Tell me, who was the man who invented the radio? Guglielmo Marconi? No.

Nevertheless 1901, Marconi sent a wireless transmission across the Atlantic Ocean, pioneering long-distance radio transmission. In 1909, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.

But let’s go back to 1893 when Tesla was giving public lectures and demonstrations on the theory of radio transmission. He was the first to demonstrate (in front of the National Electric Light Association) that radio signals were just another frequency that needed a transmitter and receiver. Four years after, in 1897, he applied for his first two patents surrounding that technology, granted in 1900.

However, in 1904, the patent office reversed its decision. Instead, it awarded the patent for the invention of the radio to Guglielmo Marconi, who famously made the first transatlantic radio transmission in 1901.

Tesla never fought him over the issue, instead saying: “Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using 17 of my patents”. Bam. Tesla is a nice guy.

It wasn’t until 1943 that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Marconi’s patent after it was proven that Tesla was the one who had indeed invented the radio already. Even though Tesla was dead by that time, justice had been served.

X-ray technology

In 1894, Tesla began investigating “invisible” radiant energy after film in his lab was mysteriously damaged in previous experiments. It would later be confirmed that X-rays were the culprit. Still, Tesla suffered a significant setback in March of 1895 when a fire in his laboratory tragically destroyed about $50,000 (the modern equivalent of over $1 million) worth of equipment and research.

This event may have led to Röntgen beating him to the punch on discovering X-rays in November 1895. We don’t know for sure, but it’s safe to say that Tesla would have eventually figured it out.

After Röntgen’s discovery, Tesla experimented with X-ray imaging and had incorrect beliefs about X-rays. Nonetheless, he was still an early pioneer of X-ray imaging research.

The remote control

Although remotes are most closely linked to television control in popular culture, these devices predate TV. Remote controls are an invention born in the 1800s.

You’ve already figured it out — Yes, Tesla was the one who invented it.

He created one of the world’s first wireless remote controls, unveiled at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1898. He called his fledgling system, which could be used to control a range of mechanical gadgets, a “teleautomaton.”

For his demonstration, Tesla employed a miniature boat controlled by radio waves. The boat had a small metal antenna that could receive exactly one radio frequency.

Tesla sent signals to the boat using a box — his version of a remote control — equipped with a lever and a telegraph key (originally designed to send Morse code signals). The signals generated from this box shifted electrical contacts aboard the boat, which, in turn, adjusted settings for the rudder and propeller, allowing the operator to control the boat’s motion.

Financially, Tesla’s remote-controlled boats were a flop. His intended client, the U.S. Navy, thought the technology needed to be more flimsy for war. But the remote control concept caught on and quickly spread to many other types of equipment.

Shortly after Tesla’s breakthroughs, Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres-Quevedo used wireless telegraph transmitters to control a tricycle, an engine-powered boat, and even submarine torpedoes.

Neon Signs

George Claudes is credited with inventing neon lighting and presenting it to the world in 1910. The gas-filled glass tubes peaked in popularity in the mid-1950s, bent into various shapes and words for signage.

But the idea of illuminated glass signage had already been presented to the world at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Westinghouse won the bid to illuminate the fair over Edison, using Tesla’s gas-discharge bulbs. Tesla came up with the idea of bending the glass tubes to spell out the names of famous scientists, inadvertently pioneering what would become a world trend.

As for gas discharge tubes, Heinrich Geissler first invented them in 1857. Consisting of a sealed glass tube with a metal electrode at each end and filled with a rarefied gas like neon or argon, it lights up when high voltage is applied to the electrodes, sending an electric current flowing through the tube.


“Had I known what you would do with it, I would never have invented it!”

When Robert Watson-Watt was pulled over for speeding by a cop with a radar gun, he famously lamented the technology he pioneered in the 1930s.

Did Tesla think of it first? You bet. In 1917, Tesla theorized that electricity could be used to locate submarines by reflecting an “electric ray” of “tremendous frequency.”

The signal could then be viewed on a fluorescent screen. How does radar work? By bouncing a radio wave off an object and displaying the interpretation of the signal on a monitor/display. In 1953, engineer Émile Girardeau, who helped develop France’s first radar system in the 1930s, remarked on Tesla’s prophetic daydreams.

While Tesla was not the first to theorize or demonstrate that radio waves could be transmitted through or reflected off certain mediums and objects – Heinrich Hertz takes that credit – he did conceive of the idea of the modern radar.

Thank you, Nikola

Even though he often doesn’t get the credit he deserves, Nikola Tesla invented several technologies we take for granted today. One of the reasons he was so successful was that he focused his attention on one area to understand how it truly works, which, in his case, was the unseen electrical waves all around us.

In so doing, he was able to harness their power so they could be put to greater use by humanity. If it wasn’t for his unrelenting focus, today’s world might be vastly different.

The other key takeaway is that timing really can be everything. That’s important not just for inventors but for investors. Those who invest in new technologies before anyone else has discovered their potential will reap much bigger rewards than those who show up even a little bit later.

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