Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Nikola Tesla: the man who put the AC in AC/DC

Given that the Toronto Star is among my favourite whipping posts, it feels odd to commend them, but they deserve a nod for Tyler Hamilton’s feature on Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla. It appeared in the Star’s business section yesterday, the 150th anniversary of Tesla’s birth (go to TheStar.com and search “Tesla”).

Hamilton tiptoes around Tesla’s ethnicity, describing him as a Croatian-born Serb. Just to be clear: Tesla was the son of a Serbian Orthodox priest, born in a heavily-Serb area of what is now the independent state of Croatia. But to be fair, Tesla never had much interest in the centuries-old ethnic tensions of the Balkans, and is reported to have said that he was ""equally proud of my Serb origin and my Croatian homeland."

However neither this fact, nor their attempts to ethnically cleanse Croatia of ethnic Serbs, have stopped Croatia from trying to adopt Tesla as its own:

“I am happy that we are here today to celebrate Tesla, a Serb, a son of Croatia and a citizen of the world,” Croatian President Stipe Mesic said.

He spoke at a ceremony held just near the house where the scientist, an ethnic Serb, was born in 1856 in the south-central village of Smiljan while Croatia was a part of the old Austro-Hungarian empire.

But an Associated Press story published by the Buffalo News notes the lack of electricity around Tesla’s birthplace, and suggests something else is afoot:

The crowning irony for war-battered Croatia is that hundreds of villages around Smiljan, his [Tesla’s] native town, have no electricity.

“If Tesla rose from the dead, he wouldn’t believe it,” said Marija Batinic, 50, who lives near Smiljan and believes that the heavily Serb region of central Croatia is being deprived of electricity because of ethnic discrimination.

One reason for Tesla’s transformation from nonperson to national hero in Croatia is the European Union, which wants the country to show gestures of reconciliation toward its Serbs as a condition for joining the prosperous club of democracies.

The government has spent $8.75 million turning Tesla’s house into a museum, and the presidents of Croatia and Serbia will come together Monday to dedicate it on the anniversary of his birth. A new statue of Tesla was unveiled Friday in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, and two more are planned.

Croatia’s Serbian minority, about 12 percent of the population of 4.5 million before the war, is down to 3 percent, many of them in the villages around Smiljan in central Croatia.

The government denies discrimination, blaming the power shortage on a lack of funds. It has promised to restore electricity to about 300 villages when it can get the money.

From the Star story:
He died alone, poor and a little nutty — the Croatian-born ethnic Serb genius whose innovations had a profound impact on development of the modern-day electrical grid.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Nikola Tesla, who grew famous in the late 1800s for his public battles with inventor Thomas Edison during the “War of Currents.”

Tesla, at 28, emigrated to the United States in 1884, a time when Edison was aggressively promoting the concept of direct-current power generation. But Edison’s invention had major limitations. The “DC” power stations he was building had to be located in the centre of industry, since the direct current Edison was producing could only travel a kilometre in any direction.

Only 18 central power stations based on DC existed in the United States at that time, and about 370 smaller stations were located within factories. Tesla’s vision was to liberate this electricity through the use of alternating current, or AC, systems, which make it possible to efficiently transmit power over hundreds of kilometres at high voltages.

“He knew down the road, when industry develops, that there would be large amounts of power required to be transferred from one place to another,” says Mike Radan, a Serbian-born Canadian and electrical engineer who worked 35 years at the former Ontario Hydro. “Edison felt threatened.”

But Tesla, on his own an inept businessman, was no match for Edison. It took the support and foresight of American entrepreneur George Westinghouse and his Westinghouse Electric Corp. to push the “AC” concept forward — and to ultimately defeat Edison’s active fight against the AC movement and his aggressive public relations campaign promoting the deadly nature of alternating current.

In the end, Tesla and his AC inventions won the currents war after the Niagara Falls Power Co. and the Canadian Niagara Power Co. embraced the technology for an unprecedented power project at Niagara Falls, which was dependent on Tesla’s “polyphase” AC systems and patents. Westinghouse was chosen to lead construction of the massive hydro stations.


Yesterday, the Niagara Parks Commission unveiled a Tesla monument in recognition of his contributions to the region and the world of electricity. The Professional Engineers of Ontario have also declared 2006 to be the year of Tesla.


Tesla, who never married, died alone in 1943 of heart failure at 86. But his name lives on. This fall rock idol David Bowie will play Tesla in a movie called The Prestige, which will also star Michael Caine and Hugh Jackman.

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