January 22, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

Nikola Tesla Knew How To Show Off


Nikola Tesla has been called “The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century” for his pioneering work with electricity—but let’s be honest: The number one thing most people know him for is the Tesla coil.

But, if Tesla had anyone to blame for that, it was himself—and maybe this photograph.

Nikola Tesla Coil Photograph ElectricityStefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty ImagesDanger! Danger! High Voltage!

Tesla invented his eponymous coil in 1891, in an effort to create a wireless lighting system. The thought was that special bulbs would light up under the influence of the coil’s electrical field. 

But, as he tinkered with his design, he found that he could use resonance to create much higher voltages than he anticipated.

Though the wireless lighting never took off, Tesla found a new use for his coil: Spectacle. Always a shameless self-promoter, he soon started wowing crowds with the Tesla coil at public lectures. 

We Need More POWER

Tesla coils are still impressive today, so imagine how crowds in the 19th century responded. These stunning demonstrations turned Tesla into an international superstar, funding yet more research—but Tesla’s reach almost always exceeded his grasp.

Tesla dreamed of using his Tesla coil to power electronics wirelessly, but as his work continued, his experiments began requiring higher and higher voltages. To accommodate his needs, he built his own laboratory in Colorado Springs in 1899. 

I bet you can guess what he did next: He built one of the largest Tesla coils in the world.

Surprising Facts About Famous ScientistsPicryl

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Ride The Lightning

Tesla called his new device a “magnifying transmitter” and hoped it would one day be able to transmit power wirelessly over great distances. 

His grand ideas kept getting bigger and bigger—and that meant he needed more and more funding. So he came up with an idea.

Since his public demonstrations had been such a huge hit, Tesla wanted to capture his work in a photograph. But not just any simple photograph would do. 

By using the gigantic “magnifying transmitter” improperly, Tesla got it to create the spectacular, jagged arcs that appear in the photo.

Of course, the image of Tesla sitting reading calmly in a chair was added through double exposure—but this was the turn of the century. It didn’t take much to fool people.

Surprising Facts About Famous ScientistsPicryl

Electrifying

Though Tesla’s magnifying transmitter never became the wireless power generator that he dreamed of, his pioneering work with alternating current still affects countless parts of our life today. And of course, Tesla coils continue to excite the imagination, thanks in no small part to photos like this.


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