Nikola Tesla was undoubtedly one of the world's greatest inventors and visionaries of all time. But, the legacy of his inventions appears to have been hyperinflated over the years, as the many myths about Tesla show.
From the invention RADAR to completely single-handily developing alternating current, there are many myths about Tesla floating around. Whilst Tesla is rightfully given credit for his contributions to the world, and it might be time to get some perspective.
Like most of history, the development of a technology tends to be the end product of a series of steps. All current scientists and engineers are, to coin a phrase, standing on the shoulder of giants.
Tesla, if he were still alive today, would most certainly agree. After all, as he wrote about it in 1900:
"The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result; he does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter – for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way."
1. No, Tesla didn't invent Alternating Current
This is probably the biggest myth about Tesla that most tend to cite. Whilst he played a major role in perfecting and promoting AC, in truth it existed long before he was but a boy.
In fact, the first example was developed by Hippolyte Pixii in 1832. He developed a simple hand-cranked AC generator that would literally spark a new industry.
By the 1870s, crude 2-phase AC generators were in use in Germany and Galileo Ferraris, an Italian scientist, openly talked about polyphase AC in 1885.
It is no coincidence that, in 1886, Tesla then began to do the rounds to try to get investment in his AC system.
Others were working on AC at around the same time as Tesla too. With August Haselwander and C.S. Bradley creating the first 3-phase AC generator in 1887.
But this is not to take away Tesla's significant role in the development and adoption of AC in the United States thereafter. He just didn't invent it as some would have you believe.
2. Tesla didn't actually invent the induction coil either
Here is another myth about Tesla that seems to do the rounds. Whilst Tesla did create his own device based in part on the principles of induction, called, aptly enough, the Tesla coil and induction motor; it wasn't originally his idea.
In fact, induction was the work of none other than the great and prolific Michael Faraday. As for the induction coil itself, this was the work of the very talented Mr. Nicholas Callan in 1836.
Both Faraday's and Callan's work predate Tesla's birth by several decades. Early induction coils were the first types of a transformer and had applications in x-ray machines, spark-gap radio transmitters and other devices between the 1880s and 1920s.
3. But, didn't Tesla invent the transformer?
Nope, sorry. This is another myth about Tesla that doesn’t seem to die very easily.
The first transformer was actually developed by the Ganz company in Budapest in the late 1870s. At this time, Tesla was still in school and hadn't even begun his first job at a telephony business.
It is likely that whilst working in Budapest in 1880; he first laid eyes on the technology which would later inspire some of his work in transformers. The first modern transformer, as we know it, was invented in 1885 by William Stanley and his idea was based, in turn, on the ideas of Gaulard and Gibbs.
Gaulard had used his transformer in the 1884 Lanzo to Turin AC power demonstration.
It wouldn't be until around 1885 that Tesla would join the ranks of the few who were working on AC at the time. But it should be noted that Tesla did often make mention that he had his own design in mind for a full AC system in 1882.
There is scant, if any, documentary proof to back this up, however.
4. Tesla's Niagara Falls hydropower plant was a world's first
As believable as this one is, it is actually quite false. AC power plants were first developed in Europe between 1878 and 1885.
Westinghouse himself would hire William Stanley, Oliver Shallenberger, Benjamin Lamme, and others to build AC power systems in North America to build some in the U.S. in 1885.
Tesla wouldn't join Westinghouse until three years later, in 1888.
In 1878, the first hydroelectric power scheme appeared at Cragside in Northumberland. This site was developed by William Armstrong and was used to power a single arc lamp in his art gallery - as you do.
The first 3-phase AC power plant emerged, for commercial purposes, in 1893 at the Redlands Power Plant. One of the first hydroelectric power stations was built by Edison in Appleton, Wisconsin in 1882.
As for Hydroelectric three-phase AC power plants, the first was developed at Frankfurt in 1891 by Dobrovolsky.
As you can see, Tesla, whilst undoubtedly a master of the technology, he was merely either directly influenced or improved on existing solutions.
5. Tesla was a shrinking violet
Another common myth about Tesla, and one the author once believed himself was that Tesla was something of a 'shrinking violet'.
In fact, this myth could not be further from the truth. As you have seen, electricity was a hot topic at the time of Tesla's life, and he must have been a man of great charisma for us to even remember his name today.
No doubt, he took some lessons from Edison, who was both a shrewd businessman and showman.
Tesla also lived in the heart of New York and would have been abundantly aware that he must relentlessly promote himself to become successful.
This would have become especially the case after his famous split from Edison whilst trying to forge his own company. Throughout his career, Tesla would put spectacular demonstrations of his inventions.
It could be argued, in fact, that he was something of a showman rather than an incredibly shy person. But, it must be noted, that his later years were marked by practical self-imprisonment in the Hotel New Yorker.
6. Tesla didn't invent the radio either, sorry
Another common myth is that Tesla invented Radio. In fact, independently of Guglielmo Marconi, Tesla did develop a device that enabled wireless communication in 1896 which he patented in 1897.
This discovery would eventually win Marconi the Nobel Prize. Tesla's own patents were later revoked by the U.S. Patent office which sparked a legal battle between the two until well into the 1940s.
But, both of their work was predated by a Russian physicist, Alexander Popov. He successfully demonstrated a working radio receiver a year before Marconi and Tesla, in 1895.
But, all of their work, including Popov, would not have been possible without the works of many scientists before them. It should be noted that Tesla can rightfully be called the inventor of Radio Control (RC) with his 1898 demonstration in Madison Square Gardens.
7. Some claim that Tesla invented Radar
This follows on nicely from the invention of the radio above. There are some who claim that Nikola Tesla invented Radar.
But the truth is not so clear cut - in fact you might say it's a 'can of worms.'
Radar, in and of itself, would not exist without the groundbreaking work of German physicist Heinrich Hertz. He demonstrated the existence of electromagnetic waves (including radio) in the late 1880s, thus validating the theories of James Clerk Maxwell from the 1860s.
Christian Hulsmeyer (a German inventor), in the early 1900s, provided public demonstrations in Germany and the Netherlands that radio waves could be used to detect ships.
He envisioned it being used to avoid ship-to-ship collisions.
Other pioneers included Lee De Forest, Edwin Armstrong, Ernst Alexanderson, Marconi, Albert Hull, Edward Victor Appleton, and Russian developers who developed a Radar system in 1934.
Sir Robert Watson-Watt famously demonstrated the first HF radar system in 1935. This operated at 6MHz and had a range of 8 miles (just under 13 km).