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Nikola Tesla - The Forgotten Genius

When I was asked to write about Nikola Tesla, I hardly knew the name. As a child, I remember visiting a local science museum and of being fascinated by something called a "tesla coil," a large mushroom shaped apparatus that made sparks and lightening. I assumed that Tesla was some kind of inventor but I wasn't sure how the machine that made lightening and sparks was important to anyone outside of the science museum.

When I learned that Nikola Tesla invented the radio, and not Marconi, I was shocked. Tesla also invented the electric generator, the electric motor, fluorescent lighting, alternating current (AC) and devised the technologies that generate and deliver our electrical power for our homes, schools and factories. So why didn't I ever learn about Tesla in school -- the same way I learned about Thomas Edison, Marconi and Einstein?

The story about Nikola Tesla is the story of a genius who was largely disrespected and abused by other scientists and inventors -- many of whom stole his ideas and took credit for his discoveries. But how did this happen?

Tesla had a vision of electromagnetic fields that was real and tangible...

Born to a Serbian family on July 9th, 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia (former Yugoslavia), Nikola Tesla was a dreamer with a poetic touch. His first "invention" consisted of a rotary engine, powered by insects that the young Tesla had glued to a paper wheel. This boyhood fascination with motors developed a unique mental ability where Tesla could visualize inventions in his mind, complete to the most minute detail, and execute these plans without the need for a blueprint or meticulous calculations.

As an adult, Tesla attended the Technical University at Graz, Austria, and the University of Prague. At Graz he first saw the Gramme dynamo, which operated as a generator and, when reversed, became an electric motor, and from this observation he conceived a way to use alternating current to advantage. Tesla had a vision of electromagnetic fields that was real and tangible, at a time when most engineers considered electrical current as an intangible and ethereal mystery. Later, at Budapest, he visualized the principle of the rotating magnetic field and developed plans for an induction motor that would become his first step toward the successful utilization of alternating current.

An eccentric genius, Tesla had few friends and remained reclusive. He never had a home in America, choosing instead to live in hotels. During the final few decades of his life he withdrew in a New York hotel, only granting interviews and making annual public appearances on his birthdays. At these press conferences Tesla proposed future inventions, but his accounts were frequently distorted by the popular press. After Tesla's death the Federal Bureau of Investigation took note of Tesla's proposals for advanced weapons systems and searched his papers for information about reports of his death ray machine as world conflict was impending. (see also Weapon of Total Destruction, Viewzone back issue.)

Tesla's discovery of the rotating magnetic field produced by the interactions of two and three phase alternating currents in a motor winding was one of his most significant achievements of the century, and formed the basis of his induction motor and polyphase system for the generation and distribution of electricity.

In 1882, before his arrival in America, Tesla went to work in Paris for the Continental Edison Company, and, while on assignment to Strassburg in 1883, he constructed, in after-work hours, his first induction motor. Tesla sailed for America in 1884, arriving in New York, with four cents in his pocket, a few of his own poems, and calculations for a flying machine. He first found employment with Thomas Edison, who had been his first employer in Paris, but the two inventors were far apart in background and methods, and their separation was inevitable.

Tesla continued to work on his inventions, and seizing a momentous opportunity, George Westinghouse purchased some of Tesla's patents in 1888. For a mere $60,000($5,000 in cash and 150 shares of stock), Westinghouse acquired the patent for Tesla's polyphase alternating current technology. Tesla's reputation spread when Westinghouse won the contract to supply the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 with electricity. In 1895, the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company and General Electric Company joined forces to harness the power of Niagara Falls with electricity, using Tesla's technology.

Tesla's generation of electricity resulted in what is known as alternating current, or AC. In alternating current the polarity and strength of the energy is continuously changing or alternating. Prior to Tesla's innovation, the Edison company was promoting direct current, or DC, as a safer way to power both homes and factories. In fact, Edison, despite knowing that Tesla's AC was superior, mounted an ugly publicity stunts designed to discredit Tesla and to save Edison's own financial investment in DC.

Animals were brutally electrocuted with AC, including an elephant, which were recorded by Edison and shown at public gatherings.

Edison embarked on a number of propaganda campaigns which attempted to persuade the general public that AC was dangerous. Nicknamed the "death current" by Edison, public demonstrations were staged in which animals were brutally electrocuted with AC, including an elephant, which were recorded by Edison and shown at public gatherings.

Despite the public's fear of AC, Tesla had the upper hand. Direct current was good only for short distances. The accumulated resistance in metallic wires and cables greatly reduced the electrical power as it traveled through the transmission lines. AC, on the other hand, did not suffer the same loss and was able to travel great distances with little loss of potential.

Also, because alternating current could react with coils of wire (transformers) to increase or decrease the voltage, electricity could be produced at high power levels at the generation stations and then reduced just prior to being distributed locally. Eventually, Edison lost his battle and alternating current became the electric industry standard. To this day, the three-phase form of Tesla's polyphase system is still used for the generation and transmission of most electricity. Moreover, the conversion of electricity into mechanical power is made possible by updated versions of Tesla's three-phase and split phase motors.

Tesla's experiments with high frequency and high potential alternating currents resulted in the development of the "Tesla coil." This device is a transformer with an air core that has both its primary and secondary tuned in resonance. As part of other experiments Tesla also developed the precursors of modern neon and florescent lights. He constructed these lights, elongated glass tubes filled with gas and coated with phosphor, excited in his high voltage experiments. He also discovered that high voltage current could be made harmless by using an alternating current scheme at very large frequencies.

Returning to New York in 1900, Tesla began construction on Long Island of a wireless world broadcasting tower, with $150,000 capital from the American financier J. Pierpont Morgan. Tesla claimed he secured the loan by assigning 51 percent of his patent rights of telephony and telegraphy to Morgan. He expected to provide worldwide communication and to furnish facilities for sending pictures, messages, weather warnings, and stock reports. The project was abandoned because of a financial panic, labor troubles, and Morgan's withdrawal of support. It was Tesla's greatest defeat.

The Supreme Court granted full rights to Tesla for the invention of radio, nullifying the claims of Marchese Gugliemo Marconi

In 1943, the Supreme Court granted full rights to Tesla for the invention of radio, nullifying the claims of Marchese Gugliemo Marconi who had patented a two-tuned-circuit design and a more practical four-tuned-circuit modeled after Tesla's. Marconi's patent on the invention of radio was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court because Tesla's work predated it (Case #369, 6/21/43). Marconi did succeed in beating Tesla as the first person to send a wireless telegraph across the Atlantic, which prompted Tesla to remark, "Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents." In addition, Tesla's 1903 patents 723,188 and 725,605 contain the basic principles of the logical AND circuit element basic to all computers.

Tesla also envisioned a way to send electricity through the air and through the Earth so that electrical power would be available everywhere, even in remote corners of the planet. This technology, which was only understood by Tesla himself, was incorporated in another famous experiment in 1908, where Tesla attempted to remotely light up the sky over the North Pole as a way of demonstrating this wireless power transmission technology to the world. At the time, Admiral Peary was leading an expedition to the Arctic and Tesla hoped that Peary would report on the phenomenon when he returned.

Many believe that Tesla's experiment that evening caused the world's largest man made explosion in the remote Siberian village of Tungusta. Read more about that HERE.

If Tesla's power beam really did accidentally cause the Tungusta explosion, then we witnessed the first experimental use of the same weapon system has been developed by the US Department of Defense in Alaska's remote Poker Flats area, just North of Fairbanks. (See HAARP: A weapon of Total Destruction.) Although the capacity for destruction in Tesla's primitive prototype (some estimate equal to a large hydrogen bomb) was huge, this new military system is almost surely many magnitudes greater. Also, many similar systems have been deployed in a dozen specific locations around the globe -- presumably to be operated together for some undisclosed purpose. One can only hope that this new technology will be used for a peaceful purpose and that it will bring the respect for Tesla that has so far eluded him.

Alternating Current vs. Direct Current

All the principles of generating electricity had been worked out in the 19th Century, but by its end these had only just begun to produce electricity on a large scale. The 20th Century has witnessed a colossal expansion of electrical power generation and distribution. The general pattern has been toward ever-larger units of production, using steam from coal- or oil-fired boilers. Economies of scale and the greater physical efficiency achieved as higher steam temperatures and pressures were attained both reinforced this tendency. U.S. experience indicates the trend: in the first decade of the century a generating unit with a capacity of 25,000 kilowatts with pressures up to 200-300 pounds per square inch at 400∫-500∫ F (about 200∫-265∫ C) was considered large, but by 1930 the largest unit was 208,000 kilowatts, with pressures of 1,200 pounds per square inch at a temperature of 725∫ F, while the amount of fuel necessary to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity and the price to the consumer had fallen dramatically.

As the market for electricity increased, so did the distance over which it was transmitted, and the efficiency of transmission required higher and higher voltages. The small direct-current generators of early urban power systems were abandoned in favor of alternating-current systems, which could be adapted more readily to high voltages. Transmission over a line of 155 miles (250 kilometers) was established in California in 1908 at 110,000 volts; Hoover Dam in the 1930s used a line of 300 miles (480 kilometers) at 287,000 volts. The latter case may serve as a reminder that hydroelectric power, using a fall of water to drive water turbines, has been developed to generate electricity where the climate and topography make it possible to combine production with convenient transmission to a market. Remarkable levels of efficiency have been achieved in modern plants.

One important consequence of the ever-expanding consumption of electricity in the industrialized countries has been the linking of local systems to provide vast power grids, or pools, within which power can be shifted easily to meet changing local needs for current.

AC has other advantages:

  • AC generators are simple, cheaper and more reliable than DC generators
  • AC can readily be switched by circuit breakers at any voltage, whereas DC can only be switched at low voltages
  • AC motors and other electrical appliances are cheaper, simpler, and more reliable than those designed to work with DC
  • The frequency can be very precisely controlled and so AC is useful in motors that require accurate speed eg. Clocks, tape recorders, VHS machines.
So, while Thomas Edison receives the greater part of credit, it is clear that we owe respect and gratitude for Nikola Tesla's creative and intelligent mind.


At a local radio shop Tesla bought 12 vacuum tubes, some wires and assorted resistors, and assembled them in a circuit box 24 inches long, 12 inches wide and 6 inches high, with a pair of 3-inch rods sticking out. Getting into the car with the circuit box in the front seat beside him, he pushed the rods in, announced, "We now have power," and proceeded to test drive the car for a week, often at speeds of up to 90 mph. As it was an alternating-current motor and there were no batteries involved, where did the power come from?

The Forgotten Art of Electric - Powered Automobiles

by Arthur Abrom

Electric powered automobiles were one of the earliest considerations and this mode of propulsion enjoyed a brief but short reign. The development of electricity as a workable source of power for mankind has been studded with great controversy.

Thomas A. Edison was the first to start to market systems (i.e. electric generators) of any commercial value. His research and developmental skills were utilized to market a "direct current" system of electricity. Ships were equipped with D.C. systems and municipalities began lighting their streets with this revolutionary D.C. electric system. (At that time) Edison was the sole source of electricity!

While in the process of commercializing electricity, Thomas Edison hired men who knew of the new scientific gift to the world and were capable of new applications for electricity. One such man was a foreigner named Nikola Tesla. This man, although not known to many of us today, was without a doubt the greatest scientific mind that has ever lived. His accomplishments dwarfed even Thomas Edison's! Whereas Mr. Edison was a great experimenter, Mr. Tesla was a great theoretician. Nikola Tesla became frustrated and very much annoyed at the procedures Edison followed.

Tesla would rather calculate the possibility of something working (i.e. mathematical investigation) than the hit and miss technique of constant experimentation. So in the heat of an argument, he quit one day and stormed out of Edison's laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey.

Working on his own, Tesla conceived and built the first working alternating current generator. He, and he alone, is responsible for all of the advantages we enjoy today because of A.C. electric power.

Angered by Edison, Tesla sold his new patents to George Westinghouse for 15 million dollars in the very early 1900's. Tesla became totally independent and proceeded to carry on his investigative research in his laboratory on 5th Avenue in New York City.

George Westinghouse began to market this new system of electric generators and was in competition with Edison. Westinghouse prevailed because of the greater superiority of the A.C. generators over the less efficient D.C. power supplies of Thomas Edison. Today, A.C. power is the only source of electricity the world uses. And, please remember, Nikola Tesla is the man who developed it.

Now specifically dealing with automobiles in the infant days of their development, electric propulsion was considered and used. An electric powered automobile possessed many advantages that the noisy, cantankerous, smoke-belching gasoline cars could not offer.

First and foremost is the absolute silence one experiences when riding in an electrically powered vehicle. There is not even a hint of noise. One simply turns a key and steps on the accelerator - the vehicle moves instantly! No cranking from the start, no crank to turn (this was before electric starters), no pumping of the accelerator, no spark control to advance and no throttle linkage to pre-set before starting. One simply turned the ignition switch to on!

Second, is a sense of power. If one wants to increase speed, you simply depress the accelerator further - there is never any hesitation. Releasing the accelerator causes the vehicle to slow down immediately - you are always in complete control. It is not difficult to understand why these vehicles were so very popular around the turn of the century and until 1912 or so.

The big disadvantage to these cars was their range and need for re-charging every single night. All of these electric vehicles used a series of batteries and a D.C. motor to move itself about. The batteries require recharging every night and the range of travel was restricted to about 100 miles. Understand that this restriction was not a serious one in the early part of this century. Doctors began making house calls with electric cars (do you remember doctors making house calls?) because he no longer needed to tend to the horse at night time - just plug the car into an electric socket! No feeding, no rub-down and no mess to clean up!

Many of the large department stores in metropolitan areas began purchasing delivery trucks that were electrically powered. They were silent and emitted no pollutants. And, maintenance was a minimum on electrically powered vehicles. There were few mechanics and garages in operation in the early 1900's. So city life and travel appeared to be willing to embrace the electric automobile. Remember, these masterfully built vehicles all ran on D.C. current.

Two things happened to dampen the popularity of the electric automobile. One was the subconscious craving for speed that gripped all auto enthusisasts of this era. Each manufacturer was eager to show how far his car could travel (i.e. the transcontinental races) and what was its top speed!

Col. Vanderbilt constructed the first all concrete race track in Long Island and racing became the passion for the well-to-do. Newspapers constantly record new records of speed achieved by so-in-so. And, of course, the automobile manufacturers were quick to capitalize on the advertising effect of these new peaks of speed. Both of these events made the electrically powered vehicles appear to only belong to the "little old lady" down the street or the old retired gentleman who talked about the "good old days".

Electric vehicles could not reach speeds of 45 or 50 m.p.h. for this would have destroyed the batteries in moments. Bursts of speeds of 25 to 35 m.p.h. could be maintained for a moment or so. Normal driving speed-depending upon traffic conditions, was 15 to 20 m.p.h. by 1900 to 1910 standards, this was an acceptable speed limit to obtain from your electric vehicle.

Please note that none of the manufacturers of electric cars ever installed a D.C. generator. This would have put a small charge back into the batteries as the car moved about and would have thereby increased its operating range. This was considered by some to be approaching perpetual motion - and that, of course, was utterly impossible! Actually, D.C. generators would have worked and helped the electric car cause.

As mentioned earlier, Mr. Westinghouse's A.C. current generating equipment was being sold and installed about the country. The earlier D.C. equipment was being retired and disregarded. As a side note, Consolidated Edison Power Company of New York City still has one of Thomas Edison's D.C. generators installed in its 14th St. powerhouse - it still works! About this time, another giant corporation was formed and entered the A.C. generating equipment field - General Electric. This spelled the absolute end for Edison's D.C. power supply systems as a commercial means of generating and distributing electric power.

The electric automobile could not be adapted to accomodate and utilize a polyphase motor (i.e. A.C. power). Since they used batteries as a source of power, their extinction was sealed. No battery can put out an A.C. signal. True, a converter could be utilized (i.e. convert the D.C. signal from the battery to an A.C. signal), but the size of the equipment at this time was too large to fit in an automobile - even one with the generous dimensions of this era.

So, somewhere around 1915 or so, the electric automobile became a memory. True, United Parcel Service still utilizes several electric trucks in New York City today but the bulk of their fleet of vehicles utilizes gasoline or diesel fuel. For all intensive purposes, the electrically powered automobile is dead - they are considered dinosaurs of the past.

But, let us stop a moment and consider the advantages of utilizing electric power as a means of propelling vehicles. Maintenance is absolutely minimal for the only oil required is for the two bearings in the motor and the necessary grease fittings. There is no oil to change, no radiator to clean and fill, no transmission to foul up, no fuel pump, no water pump, no carburetion problems, no muffler to rot out or replace and no pollutants emitted into the atmosphere. It appears as though it might be the answer we have been searching for!

Therefore, the two problems facing us become top speed and range of driving - providing, of course, the A.C. and D.C. problems could be worked out. With today's technology this does not seem to be insurmountable. In fact, the entire problem has already been solved - in the past, the distant past and the not so distant! Stop! Re-read the last sentence again. Ponder it for a few moments before going on.

Several times earlier in this article, I mentioned the man, Nikola Tesla and stated that he was the greatest mind that ever lived. The U.S. Patent Office has 1,200 patents registered in the name of Nikola Tesla and it is estimated that he could have patented an additional 1,000 or so from memory!

But, back to our electric automobiles - in 1931, under the financing of Pierce-Arrow and George Westinghouse, a 1931 Pierce-Arrow was selected to be tested at the factory grounds in Buffalo, N.Y. The standard internal combustion engine was removed and an 80-H.P. 1800 r.p.m electric motor installed to the clutch and transmission. The A.C. motor measured 40 inches long and 30 inches in diameter and the power leads were left standing in the air - no external power source!

At the appointed time, Nikola Tesla arrived from New York City and inspected the Pierce-Arrow automobile. He then went to a local radio store and purchased a handful of tubes (12), wires and assorted resistors. A box measuring 24 inches long, 12 inches wide and 6 inches high was assembled housing the circuit. The box was placed on the front seat and had its wires connected to the air-cooled, brushless motor. Two rods 1/4" in diameter stuck out of the box about 3" in length.

Mr. Tesla got into the driver's seat, pushed the two rods in and stated, "We now have power". He put the car into gear and it moved forward! This vehicle, powered by an A.C. motor, was driven to speeds of 90 m.p.h. and performed better than any internal combustion engine of its day! One week was spent testing the vehicle. Several newspapers in Buffalo reported this test. When asked where the power came from, Tesla replied, "From the ethers all around us". Several people suggested that Tesla was mad and somehow in league with sinister forces of the universe. He became incensed, removed his mysterious box from the vehicle and returned to his laboratory in New York City. His secret died with him!

It is speculated that Nikola Tesla was able to somehow harness the earth's magnetic field that encompasses our planet. And, he somehow was able to draw tremendous amounts of power by cutting these lines of force or causing them to be multiplied together. The exact nature of his device remains a mystery but it did actually function by powering the 80 h.p. A.C. motor in the Pierce-Arrow at speeds up to 90 m.p.h. and no recharging was ever necessary!

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