Nikola Tesla is a popular figure in conspiracy culture. A lone genius who apparently invented everything we use today, and who was on the brink of discovering free energy when his work was brutally suppressed by the government.
It's not even just a conspiracy culture thing, the cult of Tesla extends into mainstream geek culture (which I'm a part of myself, being a computer games programmer). That same lone genius myth appeals to them in a similar way:
And yet, much of the Tesla Worship is based on misconceptions.
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Myth 1: Tesla invented polyphase AC power: FALSE. First there was a hand-cranked AC generator developed by Hippolyte Pixii in 1832. Single phase AC power was being used more in Europe by many inventors in the early 1880s. As early as the late 1870's Germany had developed a 2 phase AC generator. In New York City Tesla had approached investors in 1886 with his AC system and did not have success. So in the United States in New York there was little confidence in AC power systems. From a world wide perspective there was many working on AC systems. August Haselwander and C.S. Bradley(a former Edison employee) created the first 3 phase AC generators(1887). Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovsky built the first full 3 phase AC generation and distribution system in the 1888-1891 period. Tesla continued to be stuck in his two-phase system which proved to be less effective than three.
It goes on to debunk the claims that Tesla invented the transformer, the induction coil, the loudspeaker, radar, fluorescent lamps, microwave transmitters and commercial hydroelectric power. All with references to the actual inventors.
What Tesla WAS, and why he is such a popular figure today, is an excellent self-publicist. He did not invent AC, he was just one of many people working on it, but he, being a showman, helped popularized its use. He was so good at this that eventually he just had to mention that he had developed free energy, or some kind of directed energy death ray, and people would believe him and proceed to invent an entire mythology around it.
Of course he was not JUST a showman, he was also a scientist businessman. But the persistence of the Tesla myth come mostly from the legacy of his showmanship promoting his science and business interest.
Tesla did very little science after 1928, and after his death in 1943, aged 86, the FBI, perhaps taken in by his mythology, seized his papers to look for evidence of his "Death Ray"
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On 9 January, after learning of Tesla's death, the FBI ordered the Alien Property Custodian to seize all of Tesla's belongings, even though Tesla was an American citizen. Tesla's entire estate from the Hotel New Yorker and other New York City hotels, was transported to the Manhattan Storage and Warehouse Company under OAP seal.
Dr. John G. Trump, a professor at M.I.T. and well-known electrical engineer serving as a technical aide to the National Defense Research Committee, was called in to analyze the Tesla items in OAP custody to look for any material that could be sensitive in nature in relationship to the ongoing war at the time. After a three-day investigation, Trump concluded in his report that there was nothing that would constitute a hazard in unfriendly hands, stating:
His [Tesla's] thoughts and efforts during at least the past 15 years were primarily of a speculative, philosophical, and somewhat promotional character often concerned with the production and wireless transmission of power; but did not include new, sound, workable principles or methods for realizing such results.
In a box purported to contain a part of Tesla's "death ray", Trump found a 45 year-old piece of basic electrical test equipment.
Of course the conspiracy theories will tell you this is all lies. That the FBI took his papers because there WAS a death ray, and the FBI took it and issues the above cover story.
But that's just mythology. That's just the result of Tesla's storytelling. He was a great scientist, but there were many other great scientists who were simply less great (or less inclined) than Tesla in the art of self promotion.
And if you think Oatmeal is excessively fawning over Tesla, has a look at what Tesla Fans wrote back in 1944, in the book that was perhaps responsible for starting the cult of Tesla:
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Even the gods of old, in the wildest imaginings of their worshipers, never undertook such gigantic tasks of world-wide dimension as those which Tesla attempted and accomplished. On the basis of his hopes, his dreams, and his achievements he rated the status of the Olympian gods, and the Greeks would have so enshrined him. Little is the wonder that so-called practical men, with their noses stuck in profit-and-loss statements, did not understand him and thought him strange.
The light of human progress is not a dim glow that gradually becomes more luminous with time. The panorama of human evolution is illumined by sudden bursts of dazzling brilliance in intellectual accomplishments that throw their beams far ahead to give us a glimpse of the distant future, that we may more correctly guide our wavering steps today. Tesla, by virtue of the amazing discoveries and inventions which he showered on the world, becomes one of the most resplendent flashes that has ever brightened the scroll of human advancement.
Tesla created the modern era; he was unquestionably one of the world's greatest geniuses, but he leaves no offspring, no legatees of his brilliant mind, who might aid in administering that world; he created fortunes for multitudes of others but himself died penniless, spurning wealth that might be gained from his discoveries. Even as he walked among the teeming millions of New York he became a fabled individual who seemed to belong to the far-distant future or to have come to us from the mystical realm of the gods, for he seemed to be an admixture of a Jupiter or a Thor who hurled the shafts of lightning; an Ajax who defied the Jovian bolts; a Prometheus who transmuted energy into electricity to spread over the earth; an Aurora who would light the skies as a terrestrial electric lamp; a Mazda who created a sun in a tube; a Hercules who shook the earth with his mechanical vibrators; a Mercury who bridged the ambient realms of space with his wireless waves-and a Hermes who gave birth to an electrical soul in the earth that set it pulsating from pole to pole.