- Serbian-born American electrical engineer and physicist who in 1881 discovered the principles of alternating current. He went on to invent numerous devices and procedures that were essential to the harnessing of electricity and the development of radio.
Biography: The Serbian-born inventor Nikola Tesla came to America when he was 28 years old. After working briefly for Thomas Edison, Tesla set up his own laboratory and immediately launched a succession of discoveries and inventions. At the time, most commercially generated electricity was distributed over a direct current (DC) system invented by Edison's lab. This system was very expensive and inefficient for a variety of reasons. To be practical and safe, everyday use of electricity generally required low voltages, but transmission of low-voltage power is very inefficient. Generators at the time easily generated alternating current (AC), but not steady DC, and conversion was difficult. Finally, converting high-voltage DC power required for efficient transmission to low voltage power presented yet another set of technical difficulties. Tesla was a staunch proponent of using AC throughout the power supply chain. He demonstrated that AC power could be transmitted efficiently at high voltages over very long distances, and it could be brought down to safe voltages easily with the use of transformers. After Tesla sold the patents to his AC system to George Westinghouse in 1885, there ensued a competition for dominance between Edison's DC system and Westinghouse's AC. Tesla gave public demonstrations of electricity to ease people's fears about the safety of the AC system, even to the point of having currents passed through his body to ignite flames. Tesla's approach won out; the first power plants at Niagara Falls used the AC system to power the city of Buffalo, New York. Tesla's invention of motors and generators using the AC system helped to ensure its success at replacing direct current throughout the country. Beyond his pioneering work in the production and transmission of electromagnetic energy (including what we now know as radio transmission), Tesla's inventions include the Tesla coil (an induction coil used in radio and television technology), a kind of bladeless turbine, remote control systems, and dozens of other devices-over 700 patents in all.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.