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Introducing Nikola Tesla: A Great Mind of Science. In this episode of SciShow, Hank brings us the tale of the bizarre and eccentric genius who spent his life contributing in some way to pretty much every cool invention you can think of. Nikola Tesla spoke eight languages and, at the time of his death, held over 700 patents. He also is being investigated by the US government for claiming to have invented a 60 million volt death ray. Learn all about his wild achievements in this new episode of SciShow!

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Who among us doesn't want to live a bizarre and eccentric life doing whatever the hell we want, gazing upon the world with our crazy eyes, and increasing awesome wherever we go?

I thought so.

For people like us there is Nikola Tesla, the patron saint of holycowsacrazygeniuses. If you could think of a cool invention, he probably contributed someway to making it possible.

Safe, affordable electricity delivered to your home? That was Tesla.

Hydro-power? Radio? Robots? Tesla. Tesla. Tesla.
X-ray photography? Electric generators? Spark-plugs? Remote controls? Fluorescent lights?

By the way he spoke eight languages.


When he died at the age of 86, Nikola Tesla held over 700 patents and was being investigated by the United States government for claiming to have invented a 60 million volt death ray that could vaporize a tank from 200 miles away.

Most of the time when an old man says something like that it's the nurses, not the federal agents, taking up the case. But with Tesla, sort of hard to know when the genius was talking and when it was the crazy talking. A lot of times it was both.

Basically the guy was SciShow gold.

[intro music]

Tesla was born in 1856, in what is now Croatia, and by all accounts he was one of those kids who could do advanced calculus in his head and recite entire books from memory. But his father, who was a priest, wanted him to be a priest too. So when little Nicky contracted cholera at 17 he made a deal with his old man: "I'll try not to die if you promise to send me to engineering school when I get better."

This was on his death bed, mind you; of course his dad was like, "YEAH, sure and I will throw in a Camaro and a carton of Camels to sweeten the deal." Well of course, because Tesla loved science so much, he made a miraculous recovery and they shipped him off to college.

In 1884, Tesla went to New York City with literally 4 cents in his pocket and a letter of introduction to Thomas Edison. When he got to New York, he discovered that people were using incandescent lights powered by Thomas Edison's direct current, D/C Power Supply.

D/C current flows continuously in one direction, and since it can't maintain the high voltage levels over long distances, Edison was building D/C power stations every two miles along the eastern seaboard. And with all those new power lines, New Yorkers were getting electrocuted all over the place.

"No, no no, there is a better way of doing this."

Tesla explained to Edison his idea for A/C, or alternating current, a system of power generation that sent energy through wires but periodically reversed the direction, so it was continuously stepping up its voltage as it went. This allowed the electricity to travel efficiently for much greater distances.

Edison told Tesla he'd pay him $50,000 if he could redesign his motor and generators to be safer and more efficient, so a couple of months later, Tesla came back with a fully functional induction motor that ran on A/C current, but when he asked Edison for his money, Edison was like, "Ss, I was joking when I told you I'd give you 50,000-- You don't get my hilarious American sense of humor."

So, after Edison pulled that ass-hat move, he and Tesla became lifelong arch-enemies. In fact, they hated each other so hard it prevented either one of them from getting the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915. They each said that they'd refuse the award if the other received it first, and they sure as hell weren't gonna share it. Indeed, after Thomas Edison died, Tesla was interviewed for the obituary and he told the reporter, "He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind, and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene." That, my friends, is called some bad blood.

In the end, Tesla won the battle over A/C versus D/C because, objectively speaking, his alternating current induction motor is one of the most amazing inventions of all time. He sold his patents to Pittsburgh industrialist George Westinghouse for $60,000, and they went on to turn Niagara Falls into the first hydroelectric power plant using the technology that Tesla invented.

After that, Tesla became obsessed with the idea of transmitting energy wirelessly. He started out by inventing the Tesla coil, a terrifyingly cool, high voltage, high frequency transformer that shoots out bolts of mad scientist electricity. We still use a version of the Tesla coil in electronics, but you can usually see the original version in science museums.

During this research, Tesla went on to discover that he could transmit and receive radio signals when they were tuned to resonate at the same frequency, but even though he patented his findings, a fire in his lab destroyed his work before he could show it off to the public.

A year later, an Italian named Guglielmo Marconi patented a wireless telegraphy device that didn't work very well. Marconi later altered his invention using a Tesla oscillator to transmit the signals across the English Channel. During this time, a friend told Tesla, "Looks as if Marconi got the jump on you," to which Tesla responded, "Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using 17 of my patents."

Unfortunately, the patent system... not ironclad, and Marconi went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909 for his contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy. But at this point in his career, Tesla had already achieved celebrity status as an undisputed super-genius, so he could afford to be magnanimous.

And America loved it some Nikola Tesla. He was always immaculately dressed, he lived in fancy hotels, talked with a funny accent, made sweet-ass contraptions for their entertainment like the first remote controlled toys, and they never knew quite what he was going to do next.

But despite his celebrity, he became more and more obsessed with the idea of wireless energy transmission, something he was never quite able to sell investors on. And who knows what he would have come up with if Tesla had been given free reign to experiment on whatever he wanted. Maybe we'd be able to power the entire world wirelessly! (Probably not.)

In 1899, he went out to Colorado to experiment with wireless energy transmission, building a janky-ass machine out of some scrap metal, and reportedly using it to transmit energy wirelessly to 200 light bulbs from a source 26 miles away.

So where are the plans for that machine?

They're gone.

Tesla kept complex three-dimensional schematics for his inventions in his head. He rarely made sketches of any of his inventions; as a result, scientists simply aren't able to replicate some of his experiments. To put this in perspective, in 2007 a group of MIT scientists managed to wirelessly transmit energy a distance of seven feet through the air, and they were very proud of themselves.

Tesla's last big ambitious project was to build a fancied-up version of that wireless transmission device he made in Colorado. In 1900, gajillionaire J.P. Morgan commissioned Tesla to build a power plant and transmission tower that would wirelessly broadcast information to any part of the world. In his pitch, Tesla told Morgan, "When wireless is fully applied, the Earth will be converted into a huge brain capable of response in every one of its parts."

Morgan gave him $150,000 to basically build an enormous cell phone tower. But what Tesla didn't tell Morgan was that the tower he was building would probably cost more like a million dollars, and he wanted to use it to provide the world with wireless energy.

In 1901, construction began on a giant Tesla coil called the Wordenclyffe Tower on the cliffs of Long Island Sound, but in the end, as Marconi's wireless telegraph machine became more popular and Tesla asked for more and more money, Morgan backed out of the project.

And then the stock market crashed and Tesla was forced to give up on the whole thing because the price of materials skyrocketed, and he suffered a complete nervous breakdown as a result, cursing what he called "the blind, faint-hearted, doubting world".

As he got older, Tesla began rescuing injured pigeons and taking them back to his hotel room. One of these pigeons he spoke of rather too fondly to his biographer, saying, "I loved that pigeon. I loved her as a man loves a woman."

I... wow. I hope not.

He also periodically reported receiving messages from extraterrestrials, which was actually nothing new for Tesla, but people stopped thinking it was so adorable.

Eventually, he started making weird statements to the press about a new "death beam" that he was developing that could "end all war". He said that his new weapon could basically vaporize 10,000 airplanes at a distance of 250 miles, but Tesla was a pacifist, and he wanted to make war impossible with his weapon by offering every country an invisible Chinese wall. The world may never know what he was talking about, probably because it was crazy-talk.

Tesla died in 1943, and because of all of the death beam talk the US government confiscated his papers after his death. Just after the war, a military task force called Project Nick was established to sort through his notes and see if his death ray ideas could be implemented. Details of their experiments were never published, and sometime during Project Nick, Tesla's death beam papers disappeared. To this day, no one knows what happened to them, but whoever has those papers today probably can't do much with them because they don't know what Tesla knew, because nobody knows what Tesla knew.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, and thanks to all of the people who suggested that we do an episode on Nikola Tesla.

We- we got it!

If you have ideas for other Great Minds episodes, please leave them in the comments below or get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, and if you wanna keep getting smarter with us and celebrating the genius of crazy people, go to and subscribe.

[outro music]