July 10: Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla

Who was Nikola Tesla?  In recent times, anyone who saw the film “The Prestige” (starring Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Christian Bale and Scarlett Johansson) will know of this man (played by David Bowie in the film) – one of the foremost scientists in the development of electricity and electrical currents who pioneered modern electrical engineering.  The film is surprisingly accurate about his experiments, including his work on wireless electricity transmission, using the Earth as a conductor to light a field of light bulbs without use of wires.

Any student of science will know who he is – as much of his work was groundbreaking and formed the basis of our modern alternating current electric power (AC) systems.  In fact, at our own Scienceworks here in Melbourne, we have a show called The Lightning Room, with actually uses a Tesla Coil as part of the display (housed behind a Faraday cage) – and is also used by students at a local university to conduct experiments with electricity.

Nikola Tesla and his magnifying transmitter - the prototype to the Tesla Coil
Nikola Tesla and his "magnifying transmitter" - the prototype to the Tesla Coil

“What is a Tesla Coil?” I hear you ask.  You know the lightning displays surrounding a metal ball, where electricity shoots out in long lightning-like strands across the room?  Well, that metal ball and the machinery that supports it is a Tesla Coil (see photo right).  And it’s LOUD.  At the Scienceworks display we were warned to cover our ears each time it was set off – and I can attest that it was VERY LOUD!

Born 10 July 1856, Tesla didn’t just work in electricity, although it was his primary study.  His work also contributed to the establishment of robotics, remote control, radar and computer science, and to the expansion of ballistics, nuclear physics, and theoretical physics.

An eccentric who never took great care of his finances, Tesla died a pauper on 7 January 1943 at the age of 86 – the same year that the Supreme Court of the United States credited him as being the inventor of the radio.

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