ERASED AT THE SMITHSONIAN
HIS ROLE IN THE BIRTH OF RADIO
At the stroke of midnight when July 9 became July 10, 1856, Nikola Tesla
was born. Within the first 26 years of his life he had conceived the rotating
magnetic field principle. This discovery for mankind made possible the generation
and distribution over long distances virtually unlimited electrical energy
in the form of 60 cycles (Hertz) A.C.
The nature of this benevolent genius was such that he had no further interest
in low frequency work, so he moved on to explore the world of high frequency
phenomena. By 1890 he had conceived his famous "Tesla coil,"still
used as a major component in numerous electronic devices. By 1893 he had
conceived, explained, and demonstrated the "Four-tuned circuits,"
making possible the theories of Maxwell and Hertz on the transmission of
intelligence. The circuits were tuned to resonance with each other, two
on the transmitting side and two on the receiving side using a Geissler
tube detector. His apparatus used the first antenna, as well as a ground
connection, plus an antenna-ground circuit containing inductance and capacity.
Also conceived was the adjustable inductance and capacity circuit for tuning.
In 1893 he made the first "wireless" transmission before the National
Electric Light Association in St. Louis, and it is this essential understanding
that exists today in all modern radios. These principles served as the foundation
for his U.S. patents that eventually had priority over Marconi's basic patents.
Most people are unaware of what happened June 21, 1943: The United States
Supreme Court made a landmark decision that essentially settled the long
dispute between Marchese Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla. The court's
decision, Case No. 369, identified as "Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company
of America vs. United States," rendered invalid Marconi's basic patent
No. 763,772 dated June 28, 1904. Tesla's patent No. 645,576 of March 20,
1900, and its subdivision patent for apparatus No. 649,621 dated May 15,
1900, had priority. The court also cited John Stone Stone's patent No. 714,756
dated December 2, 1902, incorporating greater tuning selectivity, and Sir
Oliver Lodge's patent No. 609,154 dated August 16, 1898, providing variable
Our modern-day understanding of radio is very different from what people
knew in those early days. Therefore, it is essential to state a definition
of radio that encompasses only that which is indispensable as an embryonic
commencement of our present day technology. Lack of understanding in this
embryonic area is where most modern technologists and historians become
confused, and understandably so. Nevertheless, without the conception of
the radio "embryo," those basic elements underlying its fundamental
principles, there would be no radio; and without a delimitative definition,
there can be no definitive decision on who really invented those basic elements
of our modern-day radio technology.
The following definition served the Supreme Court well because it was then
able to render a just decision: "A radio communication system requires
two tuned circuits each at the transmitter and receiver, all four tuned
to the same frequency." It is this "four-tuned circuit invention"
that Tesla patented, published, and explained. This enabled the high court
to give him priority for these necessary basic elements of "wireless,"
without which there would be no foundation for future advancements.
Naturally, many who followed Tesla made progressive refinements in the technology--thus
developing it to its present day state. Most of us tend to attribute the
birth of radio to those early technologists who made the first refinements,
but it was Tesla who had laid the foundation. Historians also give great
praise, and correctly so, to such men as Maxwell and Hertz for their monumental
work in wave theory. Puzzling to many, however, Tesla's greatest contributions,
A.C. power distribution and fundamentals of radio, are either not known
or challenged bitterly.
It is easy to understand why most people have a distorted understanding
of just who was the real inventor of radio. First, it was the newspapers
that hailed Marconi's first successful transatlantic radio transmission;
then textbooks followed with their depiction of that exciting event. Both
media sources had already raised the flag of victory for Marconi, so it
is easy to understand Tesla's dismay--he had done much of the pioneering
A similar media blitz is responsible for Thomas Alva Edison becoming a familiar
household name. In reality Mr. Edison did not create or develop our system
of alternating current electricity. History of "The War of the Currents"
shows how he fought its adoption bitterly, choosing instead to promote a
system of direct current that had already been invented by others. In short,
Mr. Edison's brief role in the electrical power industry was that of an
entrepreneur who failed, rather than an inventor. It was Nikola Tesla's
discovery of the rotating magnetic field principle in 1882 and patented
in 1888 that gives us our modern day system of electrical power distribution.
In 1988-89, my students commissioned a bust of Tesla to donate to a large
museum (any large museum). After discovering that the Division of Electricity
and Modern Physics section of the National Museum of American History made
no recognition of Tesla, we offered our bust. The curator promptly refused
the offer, stating he had no use for it. Later we discovered that the curator
was displaying a bust of Edison alongside Tesla's induction motor. He also
displayed photographs of the Niagara Falls power plant next to one of its
original generators. A large brass inscription plate listed Tesla's patents,
but there was no reference to Tesla. In the middle of the display stood
a life size replica of Thomas Edison with the caption, "While the Niagara
AC plant was being built by Westinghouse, Edison was busy with other important
things." The caption did not explain what these "other important
things" were, nor why this was relevant to the Niagara A.C. power plant.
The Smithsonian Book of Invention is a prodigious 3/4 inch thick book of
America's greatest inventors and their inventions. Tesla's name does not
appear anywhere in that publication. The writer wonders how such an august
institution with all the learned historians in their employ could possibly
ignore Tesla's contributions in their chapters depicting the evolution of
electric power and radio.
Further evidence of history gone amuck is seen in the Smithsonian's publication,
"The Beginning of the Electrical Age." The curator meticulously
traces the history of electricity from Volta to Edison, naming 43 significant
contributors, yet Nikola Tesla's name is missing. Instead, the curator shows
pictures of the Niagara Falls Power project, and readers are carefully guided
into believing that this was the work of Edison. Yet it was Tesla's polyphase
AC system that the power commission adopted and licenses had to be issued
to use Tesla's patents. Money for this publication came from the Thomas
Alva Edison Foundation.
Tesla's induction motor, using his rotating magnetic field principle, provides
us our worldwide system of alternating current electricity. Few people realize
the earthshaking importance of this discovery, but honored engineers have
ranked it the electrical equivalent of the wheel.
Niels Bohr in 1956 stated, "Tesla's most ingenious inventions and researches
have been fundamental for that development which so deeply influences our
Dr. W. H. Eccles in the PROCEEDINGS OF THE INSTITUTION OF ELECTRICAL ENGINEERS
stated, "Tesla was the greatest electrical inventor we have had on
our roll of membership; in fact we might go as far as to say that he was
the greatest inventor in the realm of electrical engineering."
John Stone Stone in 1917 stated, "Among all those, the name of Nikola
Tesla stands out most prominently. Tesla with his almost preternatural insight
into alternating current phenomena that has enabled him some years before
to revolutionize the art of electric power transmission through the invention
of the rotary field motor, knew how to make resonance serve, not merely
the role of a microscope, to make visible the electric oscillations, as
Hertz had done, but he made it serve the role of a stereopticon... He did
more to excite interest and create an intelligent understanding o these
phenomena...than any one else...and it has been difficult to make any but
unimportant improvements in the art of radio telegraphy without traveling,
part of the way at least, along a trail blazed by this pioneer who, though
eminently ingenious, practical and successful in apparatus he devised and
constructed, was so far ahead of his time that the best of us then mistook
him for a dreamer."
Lord Kelvin in 1896 stated, "Tesla has contributed more to electrical
science than any man up to his time."
Tesla was recognized by his peers but forgotten by his successors. We depend
daily on his wireless creation and the power to make it work, yet the majority
of us still have a distorted idea of our real benefactor.
Tesla died January 7, 1943, alone in his hotel room at the Hotel New Yorker,
surrounded by a world of technological progress he was instrumental in creating.
Yet the only monument to his memory in our country is a statue at Niagara
Falls, a gift from the former country of Yugoslavia. He is one of only two
Americans honored by the International Electrotechnical Congress in Munich.
In 1956, the unit of magnetic flux density in the MKS system was designated
the "TESLA." Thus, his name is alongside only fifteen others such
as Volta, Faraday, Ohm, Watt, and Ampere. Joseph Henry is the only other
American so honored.
For those who are old enough to remember, the Smithsonian Institution carried
on a similar feud with the Wright Brothers that lasted 45 years. It was
not until December 1948, after we had entered the jet age, that its officials
finally relinquished their demand to honor Samuel P. Langley whose plane
did not fly. He was Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1903 when the Wrights
flew their plane at Kitty Hawk. Although there is no connection between
the Wright Brother's debacle and the historical mendacity suffered by Tesla
at the Smithsonian, there is an aspect of relevancy.
John W. Wagner, W8AHB
3890 Tubbs Road
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
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