Nikola Tesla: Inventions, Patents & Accomplishments

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history.

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was a brilliant inventor and scientist who introduced over a hundred novel patents. In this lesson we will learn about his groundbreaking inventions that made the transmission of electricity safe, fast, and economical.

Tesla, the Outlier

Nikola Tesla was not your ordinary inventor. To be sure, his important contributions to electrical engineering and his eccentric personality qualify Tesla (1856-1943) as a brilliant inventor and scientist. Unlike his contemporaries like Edison, Westinghouse, and Marconi who made their way into the history books because of their success in business and industry, Tesla was something of an outlier.

According to Tesla's biographer, Bernard Carlson, it all comes down to the inventor's approach to invention. While Edison tinkered and churned out new inventions every year, Tesla withheld his inventions until he was certain that they would have an effect on the state of electricity.

While his contemporaries made it big in industry and commerce, Tesla was far more interested in the scientific principles behind the technologies themselves. He spent more time experimenting with and refining the theories than he did in actually building machines. As a result, Tesla is remembered as a brilliant scientist and engineer rather than an industrialist.

Nikola Tesla sits before an AC electrical coil

Electricity in the 19th Century

In New York in the 1890s, Thomas Edison had established electrical substations across the city that brought power to homes, businesses, and street lights. Edison was a trusted authority on electricity. But when New Yorkers were being electrocuted in the street by the falling electrical lines through which direct current flowed, the wires became a matter of public concern, a matter of life and death. Edison had a rival in George Westinghouse, an industrialist who fought to introduce his own AC system. Both claimed that their system was superior.

In walked Tesla, the brilliant Serbian engineer. Tesla's discovery of the rotating magnetic field principle was perhaps his most significant contribution to electrical engineering because it facilitated the design, engineering and construction of AC power systems. In the 1880s, Tesla refined this novel principle and worked toward developing his system for safely distributing power by way of alternating current (AC). In comparison to direct current, AC would make it possible to transmit power over longer distances. AC also had the advantage of being cheaper and more efficient that direct current.

At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the inventor demonstrated his Tesla Coil, which showed that AC power was non-lethal. The innovative and sophisticated Tesla Coil incorporated a transformer in order to modulate the frequency of the electrical pulse.

The Magnifying Transmitter, shown here, is a large Tesla Coil capable of producing 12 million volt lighting bolts a 150 kHz frequency
tesla coil

At the fair, Tesla also had his polyphase generators on display-- machines that made it possible to generate AC power. Used in conjunction with the Tesla Coil, these two inventions would be key to establishing a national power grid.

Tesla polyphase generators

Inventions and Patent

From 1886 to 1928, Tesla filed 112 patents in the United States. He invented numerous machines for generating and conducting electricity: motors, generators, transformers, and dynamos.

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