Welcome to the Tesla and Innovation website. This website will introduce you to my book, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (Princeton University Press) as well as to the work I am doing linking Tesla to modern-day innovation and entrepreneurship.
Nikola Tesla was a major contributor to the electrical revolution that transformed Western culture from 1880 to 1910. He invented a practical alternating current (AC) motor, and he helped the Westinghouse Company create a successful ac system for distributing electric power. Fascinated by Heinrich Hertz’ discovery of electro-magnetic (or radio) waves in 1889, Tesla developed the first tuned circuits for radio and demonstrated a radio-controlled boat in 1898. In the early 1900s, Tesla attempted to create a worldwide system for distributing electric power without using wires. Contributing to both power engineering and electronics, Tesla was, truly, the inventor of the electrical age.
Unlike his rival and contemporary, Thomas Edison who focused on manufacturing his electrical inventions, Tesla chose a different course to develop his inventions. Once he came up with the fundamental concept for a new device (what I call an ideal), the name of the game for Tesla was to secure strong patents, publicize his invention, and then sell the patents to the highest bidder. Promotion, not manufacturing, was the strategy by which Tesla connected his inventions with engineering, manufacturing, and consumption. Because investors and the public seldom understood fully the ideal behind his inventions, Tesla often resorted to using illusions—exciting images, stories, and demonstrations—that connected his creations to needs, wishes, and dreams of the culture. For Tesla, showmanship was essential to moving his creative innovations toward adaption and adoption.
Both of Tesla’s major projects—the AC motor and wireless power—reveal the strengths and weaknesses of promotion as a strategy. With the AC motor in the 1880s, Tesla was successful, thanks to the intervention of his shrewd backers, Charles Peck and Alfred Brown; with their help, Tesla secured the strong patents and newspaper coverage that allowed Peck and Brown to negotiate a deal with Westinghouse. Westinghouse, in turn, was able to solve the engineering problems so that Tesla’s motor came to be widely used in industry.
With wireless power in the 1890s, Tesla unfortunately never found a business partner who could help connect his inventions with existing business practice. After Peck died, Tesla briefly worked with the financier Edward Dean Adams and secured some funding from John Jacob Astor and J.P. Morgan. However, none of these men became intimately involved with helping Tesla to focus his ideas and identify customers. In the meantime, Marconi was successfully developing his own scheme for wireless telegraphy and was able to attract investors and customers. Ever hopeful that bolder claims for wireless power might bring him the necessary funds and resources, Tesla became increasingly caught up in his own illusions until he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1904. While he experimented with a steam turbine and a speedometer over the next fifteen years, Tesla became a recluse and died in 1943. Yet, because he combines technical achievement and the imagery of genius with a touch of mystery, Tesla continues to fascinate Americans today.
Over the past fifteen years, I have had the pleasure of investigating Tesla’s life and inventions. This work has resulted in a new biography titled Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age. Using manuscript sources, patent testimony, and newspaper reports, I sought in this book to answer three key questions: How did Tesla invent? How did his inventions work? And what happened as he introduced his inventions? This website includes a description of the book, the coverage it’s receiving in the media, and my most recent work on Tesla. I hope you enjoy the site and find it to be a useful introduction to the ways in which Tesla can inform and inspire the creativity that we so vitally need today for our economy, society, and culture.
W. Bernard Carlson
Professor and Chair
Department of Engineering and Society
University of Virginia