In this age of iPod accessories and WiFi madness it’s difficult to imagine those benighted 20th-century times when wireless communication was naught but the imagining of genius. Nikola Tesla was just such a genius.
After working a few years for a guy named Thomas Edison, he was able to build himself a laboratory on Houston Street, where in 1889 he began working towards his ultimate goal: harnessing the conductivity of the earth to transmit radio frequencies across the globe and into the universe. A project of such magnitude needed vast amounts of power, so Tesla set about simulating the enormous energy of the sun. Though that failed (!), he was eventually able to invent a power-generating coil capable of producing large voltages, a device he demonstrated (with fabulous electric shows) to an astonished Manhattan public in Madison Square Garden. Using the coil, he wirelessly illuminated a vacuum tube, created the world’s first robot, a “teleautomatonic” (remote-controlled) boat, received his own radio transmissions throughout New York City (the first ever transmitted), and built power converters at Niagara Falls that were responsible for lighting up Broadway in 1897. In fact, the coil proved so remarkable that it became his trademark, and is still known today as the Tesla coil.
But Tesla never quite realized his dream; his attempts to build a coil large enough to transmit radio waves into space were thwarted by bad timing and lack of funding. In 1915 he had a nervous breakdown when his nemesis, Guglielo Marconi, won the Nobel Prize for “inventing” the radio, a credit many believe belonged to Tesla. He became increasingly eccentric, pouring out more and more ideas for better living. Among other things, he designed a “peace beam,” called by governing authorities a “death ray,” which was so powerful he felt confident it would abolish all war. Though his beloved coil was being used to transform communications into the wireless network he envisioned in his youth, by the time of his death in 1943, Tesla was a debt-ridden, pigeon-befriending recluse at the New Yorker Hotel. A century after his innovations shook the foundations of modern technology, his radio waves remain an echo of the past reverberating far into our future.