Who really shocked his neighbours in Victorian times?

You might think of electric cars when you think of Tesla, but the maverick inventor Nikola Tesla was responsible for quite literally shocking his Victorian neighbours, their horses and the wildlife around them.

Rivalling Einstein in respect and notoriety in his time, Tesla’s genius has really caught the interest of the modern media with films and Dr Who appearances, and of course inspired the naming of the car brand.

In a recent member lecture, former WEA Tutor David Hughes helped his audience discover more about the life and works of the man who inspired the car brand. Here’s his story in words:


Tesla was born in 1856 to a creative mother who invented gadgets for around the home. However, his father wanted Nikola to follow him into the priesthood. After a bout of cholera, bringing him close to death, his father finally agreed to let him follow his passion for science and invention, going to University.

After falling out of University through ill-health and gambling debts, and having publically argued with his tutors who, he maintained, knew little or nothing about electricity, he became a commentator, often quoted in the media, but soon burnt himself out. During his mental breakdown, he dreamt a vision of an alternating current (AC) motor. This development catapults him into the wonderful world of scientific invention.

A key part of Edison’s success
Tesla joined Continental Edison and does such a fantastic job improving their lighting projects that he is soon sent to America to work directly with Edison. He continued to do well for Edison, improving their direct current generator systems, however, for an unknown reason, Edison decides not to pay him at the end of the contract.

Pretty much every historian who has an opinion on Thomas Edison agrees that Edison was an awkward character who had a complete disregard for the work of others. Edison was not a genius. He seems to have despised learning, preferring to try 1000’s of experiments when a little bit of theory would have saved him months. And Edison, like Tesla, was ‘tricked’ out of his business by J. P. Morgan. 

Perhaps as revenge Tesla patents some developments from his work with Edison. A little commercially unfair some might say. There was certainly no love lost. However, his business makes little money, so he ends up taking manual work, digging ditches.

Developing AC’s superiority over DC
Tesla then meets another key figure in his life - George Westinghouse – a fierce rival of Edison’s in the battle for the American market, developing alternating current, which is more dynamic, reliable and efficient than Edison’s favourite DC current. This battle is a little like Apple and Microsoft’s battle for supremacy back in the 90’s.

Over time AC power became increasingly successful and George agrees to pay Tesla a royalty for his technology. For the first time Tesla becomes rich and through his public demonstrations of science also begins to gain notoriety. The partners went on to build the Adams power plant to harness the power of Niagara Falls, feeding the growing energy demands of New York city.

Shocking developments
Tesla continued to experiment, aiming to create wireless power so that power could be distributed for free. What a revolution that would have been!

Tesla’s Free Power concept was to send small electric currents at high voltages from Tesla Coils - magnifying transmitters - through the Earth’s ionosphere to distant receiver stations, where transformers would drop the voltage and raise the current to more practical levels. Tesla also used the Earth itself as the return path.

We do the same today although we use power lines and substations. We don’t actually know everything about Tesla’s concept and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody else has built their own version of the Wardenclyffe Tower. Fearing intellectual theft, Tesla wrote very little down. 

At his laboratory he took photographs of enormous lightning bolts jumping from one side of the room to the other – inspiring the Frankenstein film. However, the actual effect was a rather dim glow at a station a few miles from his laboratory, made by his famous ‘Tesla Coil’, which was actually a magnifying transmitter.

For the residents of Pikes Peak, Colorado, this was not always a good thing. They reported feeling sparks in their feet as they walked around. Taps would suddenly give off enormous sparks and lamps 30 metres away from the lab would glow without being switched on. Local butterflies would glow with a blue halo and the horses would suddenly bolt after receiving a shock to their hooves.

This was typical of Tesla. He got something working, but wouldn’t test it completely and he ignored developments of others working in the same field.

Before his time?
Whilst working in Colorado in 1899, he became convinced he had heard some unusual noises whilst undertaking experiments developing a radio receiver. He was convinced he has heard aliens. He tells a notorious reporter, who then tells the world, that Tesla has received communications from Mars causing much stir. It is possible he heard a pulsar – the noise of a dying star, or even the early radio signals of Marconi (using some of Tesla’s patented technology).

Tesla doesn’t stop there. He moves into robots, starting with a radio controlled boat. Shortly after he submitted a patent for a drone. He also mastered digital logic, thirty or forty years before the development of the earliest computers.

Mechanical Computers go back to ancient China. Charles Babbage built the mechanical analytical and difference engines in the 1880s. Radio control had been publicly demonstrated well before Tesla made his boat.

Tesla actually patented the control mechanism, which uses simple switch combinations - integrated with digital logic circuits - to bring about more complex operations. A more accurate analogy would be with the serial bus communications inside modern cars.
And, more impressively, in his writing he predicts a future world-wide internet, the ability to text and video conference and that all of these things will be possible with a gadget that can be fitted in your vest pocket. Even Albert Einstein is quoted saying Tesla is the smartest man on earth, but this was unlikely to have been said in earnest.

But intellectual intelligence, doesn’t always make for financially astute. Following building the Tesla tower to transmit radio from America to the UK, he falls out with the funder JP Morgan and becomes bankrupt. Tesla loses most of his patents as he can’t afford to renew them, losing essential financial lifelines, relying on a rich circle of friends to support him and flitting from one hotel to another leaving unpaid bills. Sadly, Tesla then falls into ill health and disappears from view.

Never to be forgotten
It was truly unfair that Marconi was announced as a Nobel Prize winner for inventing the radio in 1911, when Tesla had been so critical important in its development. However, he has been honoured in many ways since. The internationally recognised measurement of magnetic flux density has been named after him – so the MRI scanner at your local hospital is calibrated in Teslas. And, of course, the best known brand in electric powered cars bares his names. Quite right – he’s a genius that none of us should forget.


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