When I was growing up I came upon an old 1940 Popular Science magazine (and yes, it was old even when I was growing up). Inside, I read an article that gave detailed instructions on how to build something called a Tesla Coil. It described all the incredible things it could do, such as spitting out lightning-like sparks and making fluorescent tubes glow even when you were just holding them in your hands. And the article made it look very easy to build. You just needed a cardboard tube of the sort that you might find holding a role of aluminum foil, a cigar box, a bunch of copper wire, and a transformer. Unfortunately, though cardboard tubes were easy enough for me to get a hold of, cigar boxes were impossible—no one I knew smoked—and the other bits that were required, such as copper wiring and the transformer were beyond the financial resources of a twelve year old. Worse, I had no idea at the time where to go about finding transformers and some of the other electronic bits described in the instructions. Nevertheless, I periodically pulled the old magazine off my shelves and studied it, imagining that someday I would find a way to build such a thing.
Nikola Tesla, the inventor of the coil, is responsible for giving the world much more than a fascinating object for twelve year olds to fantasize about. Every time you flip a switch to send electricity to your lamp, TV or radio, it’s thanks to Nikola Tesla.
You see, Tesla’s patents and theoretical work formed the basis of modern alternating current power systems. Without him, there would be no 110 volt AC power in your home.
Born in Serbia on July 10, 1856, he moved to Paris in 1882 to work as an engineer for the Continental Edison Company. Within two years he had moved to the United States, where Thomas Edison himself hired him, offering him 50,000 dollars to redesign Edison’s inefficient motors and generators. After doing the work, however, Edison refused to pay him, creating a permanent breach in their relationship.
So in 1886 Tesla formed his own company: Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. In 1887 he constructed the first brushless alternating current induction motor. Then in 1888 he began working with George Westinghouse, who listened to his ideas for a polyphase system allowing for the transmission of alternating current electricity over long distances—and more importantly, bankrolled it.
At the age of 35 in 1891 Tesla became a naturalized American citizen. His first patents concerning the polyphase power system were granted the next year. At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the World’s Columbian Exposition, Tesla and George Westinghouse introduced visitors to AC power by using it to illuminate the exposition. On display were Tesla’s fluorescent lamps and single node bulbs.
Edison, meanwhile, promoted the use of direct current (DC) for electric power distribution. The problem with DC distribution however, was that it worked only over very short distances—of no more than a mile—meaning that a generating plant had to be built within a mile of any customers. That would have made Edison’s system prohibitively expensive. With an AC system, in contrast, one power generating plant could supply electricity for hundreds of square miles.
Edison didn’t want to lose his customer base, however, and did everything he could to try to prevent the adoption of Westinghouse and Tesla’s idea, including publically electrocuting animals with AC power to try to convince people that AC was too dangerous to use. He was also instrumental in inventing the electric chair for executions.
The conflict between the two almost drove both Edison and Westinghouse into bankruptcy. Tesla ultimately released Westinghouse from his contract so that he didn’t have to continue paying him for using his patents. Tesla’s—and Westinghouse’s—AC power distribution system ultimately won out, and today all the plugs in your house, and all houses around the world, are AC powered.
When Tesla was 41 years old, he filed the first radio patent (beating Marconi) and a year later demonstrated a radio-controlled boat to the US military. The same year, he also devised an “electric igniter” or spark plug for internal combustion engines. It is thanks to Tesla that we don’t have to turn a hand crank in order to start our cars.
Had Tesla not torn up his contract with Westinghouse, he would have become a billionaire. Instead, he sank into poverty and lived the last ten years of his life in a two-room suite on the thirty-third floor of the Hotel New Yorker. He died with significant debts on January 7, 1943. Later that year, the US Supreme Court upheld his radio patent in a ruling that served as the basis for patented radio technology in the United States. Of course, that was too late to help Tesla financially.
As to building my own Tesla Coil, I’ve gone back and looked up the instructions. The cost is minor—less than thirty dollars—for building a small one. But although I now know where to go about getting the parts I would need, I find that I no longer really have the time to devote to building one.
Of course, the kind of Tesla I’d really like to get now isn’t a coil, it’s a car. And it costs a whole lot more than a coil: the Tesla Model S.