Nikola Tesla died alone. At the age of 86, he died without children; he died without a wife; he died without anyone by his side. After devoting the entirety of his existence to the single-minded purpose of furthering the field of science, one of the most brilliant minds in human history died in a hotel room, his body found two days later by a maid. Impoverished and in debt, Tesla spent his final days living off warm milk and Nabisco crackers.
While his genius was recognized during his lifetime, following his death, his name fell into obscurity. He was exploited by those who coveted his ingenuity, his greatest ideas never came to fruition due to human greed and ignorance, and for decades, others received credit for inventions that he pioneered.
Here are seven revolutionary inventions for which Tesla was not given due credit.
Of course, no human invented electricity, but the man who has historically been lauded for leading humanity into the electric age is Thomas Edison. In fact, Edison’s direct current (DC) electric power distribution system is not what’s powering your home right now, but rather the much cheaper, more efficient, and more effective alternating current (AC) system – developed by Tesla.
The late 1880s saw the “War of the Currents,” in which the two companies that owned these patented technologies squared off: the Edison Company vs. Westinghouse Electric, which had acquired Tesla’s AC patents. Edison’s DC system was the standard used in the US, and he saw AC as a threat to his monopoly.
Rather than learn to work with a clearly superior technology, Edison began a smear campaign to discourage the use of AC. To prove how “dangerous” AC power was, Edison had animals – including cats and dogs – publicly electrocuted with AC power. In fact, Edison secretly paid for the invention of the electric chair. During the chair’s first execution of a condemned prisoner, the technicians failed to use enough power to kill the man on the first go. According to an onsite reporter, this torture was “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.”
Prior to this, Tesla actually worked for Edison, for a time. After a few months with his company, Tesla told Edison that he could redesign his inefficient DC motors and generators. Edison promised Tesla $50,000 – well over $1 million by today’s standards – if he could do it. Tesla did it, and when he asked about payment, Edison stiffed the immigrant, saying, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” Funny guy.
2. The Electric Motor
William Sturgeon is generally credited as the man who invented the modern electric motor. Pre-dating Tesla and Edison and building on principles established by Michael Faraday, he invented the first DC electric motor capable of turning machinery, following which Thomas and Emily Davenport further refined his invention. However, because no electricity distribution system existed yet, the high cost of battery power made these and subsequent DC motors developed by other inventors commercially unsuccessful.
DC motors still see use today, but it is the AC motor that is employed in most commercial applications. When AC’s advantages over DC became known, several inventors were trying to develop a functional AC motor. Galileo Ferraris was the first to invent a practical AC motor and publish his research in the Royal Academy of Science of Turin, which concluded that “the apparatus based on that principle could not be of any commercial importance as a motor.” But Tesla independently invented an AC motor two years after Ferraris; Westinghouse quickly bought the patents and adapted the motor to power a mining operation, and years later incorporated further advancements engineered by Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky, leading us to the basics of the AC motors we use today.
As you can see, no one man (or woman!) can claim credit for the electric motor, as if often the case with any invention or discovery, but Tesla’s pivotal role is often left out of the conversation.
3. The Transistor
The transistor is a key component in all modern electronics and one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. Developed in 1947 by William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Houser Brattain – who were jointly awarded the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics for this achievement – the transistor revolutionized the field of electronics.
But Tesla conceived of it almost 50 years prior.
Electric engineer and technical writer Leland Anderson pointed out Tesla patents from 1903 that “contain the basic principles of the logical AND circuit element.” He went on to explain, “Computer systems contain thousands of logic decision elements called ANDs and ORs. All operations performed by a computer are achieved through a system design utilizing these logic elements.”
How are logic gates primarily implemented? With transistors. Because Tesla already patented these ideas, those who attempted to obtain basic logical AND circuit element patents decades later were surprised to learn just how far ahead of his time Tesla was.
4. Neon Signs
George Claudes is credited with inventing neon lighting and presenting it to the world in 1910. The gas-filled glass tubes peaked in popularity in the mid 1950s, bent into various shapes and words for signage.
But the idea of illuminated glass signage had already been presented to the world at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Westinghouse won the bid to illuminate the fair over Edison, making use of Tesla’s gas-discharge bulbs. Tesla came up with the idea of bending the glass tubes to spell out the names of famous scientists, inadvertently pioneering what would become a very tacky trend. Ahem.
As for gas discharge tubes themselves, they were first invented by Heinrich Geissler in 1857. Consisting of a sealed glass tube with a metal electrode at each end and filled with a rarefied gas like neon or argon, it lights up when high voltage is applied to the electrodes, sending an electric current flowing through the tube.
Guglielmo Marconi, the man who invented radio. Or… not. In 1901, Marconi sent a wireless transmission across the atlantic ocean, pioneering long-distance radio transmission. In 1909, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.
But once again, let’s go back to 1893, when Tesla was giving public lectures and demonstrations on the theory of radio transmission. Since the early 1890s, he had been researching electromagnetic waves (radio waves), and while his primary interest was in the wireless distribution of power rather than communication, successfully demonstrating “wireless lighting,” he proposed that the technology could be developed for the purposes of telecommunication.
After Marconi made his famous radio transmission in 1901, Tesla remarked that this feat was accomplished through the use of 17 Tesla patents. Marconi won the ensuing patent battles in 1904, but in 1943, the US Supreme Court reversed the decision.
“Had I known what you were going to do with it, I would never have invented it!”
When Robert Watson-Watt was pulled over for speeding by a cop with a radar gun, he famously lamented the technology he pioneered in the 1930s.
Did Tesla think of it first? You bet. In 1917, Tesla theorized that electricity could be used to locate submarines by reflecting an “electric ray” of “tremendous frequency.” The signal could then be viewed on a fluorescent screen. How does radar work? By bouncing a radio wave off an object and displaying the interpretation of the signal on a monitor/display. In 1953, engineer Émile Girardeau, who helped developed France’s first radar system in the 1930s, remarked on Tesla’s prophetic daydreams.
While Tesla was not the first to theorize or demonstrate that radio waves could be transmitted through or reflected off certain mediums and objects – Heinrich Hertz takes that credit – he did conceive of the idea of the modern radar.
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen is credited as the discoverer of X-rays. We’ll give him that title; but Tesla wasn’t far behind.
In 1894, Tesla began investigating “invisible” radiant energy after film in his lab was mysteriously damaged in previous experiments. It would later be confirmed that X-rays were the culprit, but Tesla suffered a major setback in March of 1895 when a fire in his laboratory tragically destroyed about $50,000 (again, the modern equivalent of over $1 million) worth of equipment and research. Did this lead to Röntgen beating him to the punch on discovering X-rays in November of 1895? We don’t know, but it’s safe to say that Tesla would have eventually figured it out.
After Röntgen’s discovery, Tesla proceeded to experiment on X-ray imaging, and actually had some incorrect beliefs about X-rays. Nonetheless, he was still an early pioneer of X-ray imaging research.
As Bernard of Chartres said, and Isaac Newton paraphrased, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Scientific advances can rarely be attributed to a single inventor, and it’s important to keep in mind the groundwork and ideas laid out in the past that have led to future innovation. As you can see, Tesla has had a bigger hand in a lot of modern technology than most people realize. For more on Tesla, we recommend checking out this info-comic.