The Facts And Fictions Of Nikola Tesla, Everyone's Favorite Inventor

Nikola Tesla is known as one of history's most prolific inventors. Perhaps due to the fact that history was late to celebrate him at the same level of contemporaries like Thomas Edison, modern-day internet lore has made him somewhat of a mythical figure. Unfortunately, Tesla didn't invent everything that certain parts of the internet say he did—starting with AC power.

Time magazine, Volume 18 Issue 3, July 20, 1931 The cover shows Nikola Tesla.

Separating The Man From The Myth

As with many myths about famous inventors, the story of Tesla tends to overlook the contributions of those who came before him. In 1856 when Tesla was born, AC (alternating-current) power had already been in existence for more than two decades, and by the time Tesla was a young man, AC transformers and experimental power grids were already up and running in Europe. Where Tesla did play a role in AC power was in making it more practical: at the time, electric motors could only run on DC, or direct current. AC had to be converted to DC power to run an electric motor, which was inefficient. Tesla built a working prototype of an electric induction motor that worked on AC power, although that happened two years after inventor Galileo Ferraris built the same thing.

Likewise, Tesla didn't invent radio. Along with Guglielmo Marconi, Tesla developed a device that enabled wireless communication in 1896, which eventually won Marconi the Nobel Prize. But that was after Russian physicist Alexander Popov demonstrated his own radio receiver in 1895, and — again, like most inventions — both devices were based on the the developments of many, many other scientists that came before. The same goes for radar: along with Marconi, Heinrich Hertz and Christian Hülsmeyer made large contributions to the technology before Tesla came on the scene. Both of these inventions are why many say that without Tesla, we wouldn't have Wi-Fi, which is true. But without scientists like Michael Faraday, Tesla wouldn't have had AC power. Technology is a chicken-and-egg problem, and it's rare that one man is responsible for a single invention.

Then Why Celebrate Him?

This isn't to say that Tesla doesn't deserve celebration. He was indeed a prolific inventor, one who persevered through many difficulties and wasn't properly recognized during his lifetime. His work helped lead to the development of many things we use today, including X-rays and the remote control. And David Bowie played him in a movie, so that's cool.

Here's our favorite book on Nikola Tesla: "Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius" by Marc J. Seifer. You can get it for free with a trial on Audible right now too! We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Are There Two Nikola Teslas?

Separate history from legend.

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Nikola Tesla's life was much more than what has been portrayed in popular culture. 01:46

  2. Images are used to help conjure ideas and evoke emotions and beliefs about a person. 04:37

Written by Ashley Hamer January 6, 2017

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