Nikola Tesla (1856 -
1943) - Master of Resonance
It was an innocent experiment.
The year was 1898 and
Tesla attached a small vibrator to an iron column in
his laboratory located in New York City. He closed a switch and it
began vibrating. He had noticed that at certain frequencies specific
pieces of equipment in the room would start to jiggle. Changing the
frequency would move the jiggle to another part of the room.
Unfortunately, he had not taken into account the fact that the
column ran downward into the foundation beneath the building. His
vibrations were being transmitted all over Manhattan.
For Tesla, the first hint of trouble came when the walls and floor
began to heave (ref 1). He immediately stopped the experiment just
as the police came rushing through the door. It seems he had started
a small earthquake in his neighborhood which had smashed windows,
swayed buildings, and sent panicky neighbors rushing into the
streets. The police fingered Tesla because they had frequently
responded to complaints about his unusual activities. It was another
of Tesla's experiments in resonance.
Although Tesla was not the first to discover resonance he was
obsessed with it and created some of the most incredible
demonstrations of it ever seen. He studied both mechanical and
electrical versions. In the process he created an artificial
earthquake, numerous artificial lightning storms, knocked an entire
power plant off line in Colorado, and nearly caused the steel frame
of a sky scraper under construction in Manhattan to collapse.
Tesla realized that the principles of
resonance could be used to transmit and receive radio messages well
before Marconi. In fact, many knowledgeable sources now
credit Tesla as the inventor of radio rather than Marconi. This
includes the Supreme Court which in 1943 ruled that Tesla's radio
patents had preceded all others including Marconi's .
Tesla was a one-of-a-kind neurotic genius who had a profound
influence on our technology and culture. He was obsessed with germs
and the number three yet his inventions almost single handedly
enabled the creation of our modern AC power distribution system. He
was a contemporary of Edison and for a time worked for the
famous inventor. Unlike Edison (who Tesla considered something of a
bumpkin), Tesla used theory and calculations as well as
experimentation to conduct his research. He was the more modern of
the two in his approach to research and development. He was also far
more interested in pursuing his inventions for their own sake than
in becoming rich and famous.
Unfortunately, Tesla's obsession with pursuing grand ideas and
projects proved to be his undoing. He became convinced that energy
could be transmitted through the air without wires and spent a small
fortune on a demonstration project.
He built a giant Tesla coil in Colorado
Springs which used electrical resonance to build up
incredibly high voltages and caused fantastic lightning shows.
Unfortunately, his dream of transmitting wireless power was never
commercialized and, partly because of it, Tesla ended dying a poor
The mad scientist stereotype which persists to this day came from
Tesla. Tesla's Manhattan Lab was a mysterious place complete
with buzzing electric arcs, eerie lighting, and all kinds of bizarre
contraptions. The lab undoubtedly inspired mad scientist scenes in
1930's horror pictures such as Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff, in
which high voltage arcs are used to give the monster life. Although
Tesla never attempted to create life he did create the first radio
controlled robotic vehicles and claimed that one day robots would
free humanity of drudgery work. He also claimed to have invented a
powerful death beam.
For entertainment, Tesla once convinced his good friend Mark
Twain to test out a vibrating platform in his Manhattan lab.
Twain took him up on the offer and found it to his liking. When
Tesla commanded Twain to come down off the platform Twain refused
because he was having a good time. A few minutes later Twain ran
from the device. It seems that Tesla had deliberately neglected to
tell Twain that the vibration tended to cause diarrhea.
Had Tesla been less eccentric and more interested in personal
fortune he would have avoided the grandiose projects which were his
undoing. If he had simply avoided making outrageous statements, he
would have had more scientific credibility and easily overshadowed
Edison. Today, Tesla would be far more famous and the subject of
resonance would probably receive far more attention in science
Resonance was certainly one of Tesla's
greatest passions and, like Tesla, seems almost too mysterious to be
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