TESLA INVENTED RADIO?
1992 William Beaty
> In all of the mass comm books I have used over the past 20 years, credit
> for early development in radio goes to Marconi, Fessenden, De Forest
> and Armstrong. On occasion, and seldom at that, Tesla is mentioned. But
> he is never discussed as a major player in the beginnings of radio.
The books don't mention that the powerful spark transmitters used by
Marconi were Tesla coils, or that he used Tesla's invention of grounded
aerials, nor do they point out that Marconi's central
radio patents were later struck down because of Tesla's prior art.
Marconi won the Nobel for inventing radio, and if this was a mistake, the
whole science community (as well as numberless historians and textbook
authors) would have to eat lots of crow before deciding to correct it.
Or even admitting it. For example:
- Hm, we can't just steal Tesla's oscillator and pretend it's ours.
- I know! Let's re-name it. We'll just call it something besides "Tesla Coil."
- Got it. "The Spark Transmitter." Genius!
- If we call it "spark transmitter" for long enough, everyone'll assume
it's a Marconi invention
- Got rotary spark gap? Tuned pri. and sec. coils? HV supply?
Obviously it's a Spark Transmitter
- "Tesla coils?" Those things are only good for generating
lightning bolts and little else. Heh.
- Hey GE Corp, why not use Tesla's AM radio device and call it the
Tesla's main problem was that he set his sights too high. He didn't
bother with simple and low-cost radio communication between transmitter
and receiver. Instead he was aiming for industrial dollars; for a high
power centralized *worldwide* radio communication system and wireless
power distribution system. His device more resembled a power plant than a
Morse code set. He failed. Another major problem was that Tesla
apparently did not take Marconi seriously as an opponent, and so Tesla did
not fiercely defend his work when it was being stolen. Only after a
decade did he bring a lawsuit. The history of invention is written by the
winners, and since the winners' success in Radio was based on their use of
Tesla's transmitter and grounded antennas, they certainly avoided
mentioning Tesla! In his Nobel Prize speech, do you think Marconi would
give any credit to the ripped-off inventor on which his system was
Also, people commonly assume that any victims will fiercely fight
against theives, and since Tesla didn't fight, they assume that there must
not have been any theft. And finally, Tesla's ideas were used to make
money by far more people than just Marconi. When an entire community
steals ideas, they all try to make themselves feel better; they justify
their theft by ridiculing/marginalizing the ideas even as they profit from
them. They pretend that the ideas were "in the air," or were just some
"obvious methods" which anyone could see. Historians reading the material
written by such people will not notice all their lying and subterfuge.
It takes a historian with rare insight (or perhaps one with paranoid
distrust of fellow humans) to cut through the BS and dishonesty of
idea-theives and to interpret the evidence without that bias.
Initially Tesla rejected fame and wealth, and freely gave away his
ideas via public science lectures, rather than employing the secrecy and
courtroom patent-battles of fellow inventors. Perhaps his upbringing as a
minister's son gave him too much trust and altruism to be a sharp
businessman or secretive inventor. That may explain why he freely signed
over 51% of
the Wardenclyffe project, as well as all future patent rights, to that oh
so charitable JP Morgan, the king of robber barons. And not being a
scientist, Tesla didn't preserve his priority by publishing his research
papers in physics journals. He also made the mistake of attempting to
perfect his entire system before releasing it to the world, rather than
releasing crude versions immediately and then improving over time. He
made radio possible, but his own dreams failed. He invented modern radio,
but made such serious business mistakes that the recognition (to say
nothing of the money!) all went to others.
The simplified history: Tesla, the expert in high frequency power
systems, follows a vision of worldwide instantaneous communication and
invents a radio "spark transmitter" whose output wattage will far
exceed anything of the time. This spark transmitter is based on several
key Tesla techniques: rotary spark gap, lumped resonance (rather than
antenna resonance,) capacitor energy storage, an elevated antenna, and
most importantly, a ground connection. Tesla also invents a mechanical AC
generator or "alternator" capable of broadcasting high power radio waves,
even with AM voice modulations. Of course radio recievers already
existed: the coherer, (NOT invented by Marconi but by Branly and others.)
Earlier experimental systems such as that of Hertz and Stubblefield also
existed, but they had extremely limited range. Tesla's amazing spark
transmitter put out 1000 to 10,000 times the power of existing
transmitters, and made worldwide communication feasible. Radio existed
before Tesla, but was mostly a lab-curiosity, and the signalling only
happened over miles. Nobody could span the English Channel, much less the
Today we call his spark-gap 2-coil transmitter by the name "Spark
transmitter," otherwise known as "Tesla Coil."
Such was the status in 1893, with several patents granted to Tesla in 1898
and on. Besides the spark transmitter, the high frequency alternator,
and the grounded antenna, Tesla's inventions
also included the four tuned circuits of all modern radio systems: a
transmitter and receiver at both ends of a radio link, all four using
Next stage: Marconi takes the Branly coherer and Tesla's spark
transmitter and antenna inventions, commercializing them. He attracts
publicity by transmitting messages all the way across the English Channel.
Then he hits world newspapers by spanning the Atlantic. But Tesla ignores
this threat, believing that his completed "world system" will be far
superior to Marconi's ocean-spanning demonstration. And besides, Marconi
is blatently using Tesla's patented circuitry, and patents automatically
protect the original inventor, right? Right?
Therefore Tesla pursues centralized power transmission rather than simple
communications alone. He says something to the effect "good luck to
Marconi, he's using seventeen of my patents." Perhaps Tesla had a point,
since Marconi did see his own patents rejected numerous times by the US
Patent Office. The patent officer thought it ridiculous that Marconi
claimed to know nothing about Tesla Coils.
But then mysteriously Marconi's patents were suddenly accepted.
Tesla also remained aloof from the community of early radio developers
while single-mindedly pursuing his own vision. Nearly twenty years later
Tesla finally takes Marconi to court. He can't afford powerful lawers and
a long court case. Dr. Pupin of Columbia turns against him, lies on the
stand, tried to get Tesla declared insane. Tesla loses! As many other
inventors have found, the winner in a patent battle is usually the side
with the deeper pockets. Tesla couldn't afford to continue the court
case, although it trundled on for another twentyfour years. Also, though
Tesla's patents were prior to Marconi, Marconi had the press behind him.
Marconi also had both the US government as well as big business behind
him. The country wanted point-to-point radio, while the inventor of the
spark transmitter wanted only centralized power broadcast stations.
Tesla also wanted to keep control of radio by patenting his work. One can
imagine that the government and commercial sectors would search for a way
to get such an important invention loose from Tesla's hands by breaking
the patents. This probably was the reason why Marconi's US radio patents
suddenly went through in the first place after being rejected. Finally,
to the public, Tesla was an unknown in Radio when compared to Marconi, and
the judge was very probably not a technical expert, and could be easily
swayed by expert testimony by Tesla's enemies in academia.
Tesla loses his R&D financing in later decades, while Marconi's
international companies are wildly successful. It's not a conspiracy
theory to say "whoever has the gold, makes the rules." Tesla is not
vindicated until 1943, when the US Supreme court reverses the old
decision, strikes down the Marconi patents, and awards priority to Tesla
#645,576. This was no altruism, since large amounts of money rode on the
possibility that Marconi's existing companies could lose their patents.
Just Who Invented
Radio?, radio author, B. E. Rhodes, 1998
Who Invented Radio?, AARL, S. Horzepa, 2003
Also: "Tesla, Man out of Time", Margaret Cheney, especially "The Great
Radio Controvery." This book references as a thorough account an article
"Priority of Invention of Radio - Tesla vs. Marconi", from The Antique
Wireless Association No. 4, March 1980. (I haven't tracked this down.)
Why is Tesla ignored today? Of course there's the old saw that
"history is written by the winners". This remains true even if the
winners used dishonest means. But there are better explanations. First,
names have immense power, and we don't call the Spark Transmitter by it's
real name: the Tesla coil. We might have Edison lamps, but nobody says
that a grounded radio antenna is a "Tesla antenna." Tesla's mechanical
generator also aquired the name "Alexanderson alternator" (Twenty years
after Tesla's invention, Alexanderson of Edison's General Electric company
patented an improvement which reached above 100KHz, while Tesla's version
only ran at up to 50KHz.)
There is another reason why Tesla is ignored today. Tesla lectured
about his discoveries, and in a very short time his ideas were
incorporated into the technical culture of the period. When this happens,
people of the time tend to deny that a single inventor originated the
ideas. They can't benefit from historical hindsight, of seeing their own
times from the viewpoint of an outsider. Instead they tend to believe
that the ideas simply arose spontaneously in many places, or by unnoticed
team effort. Historians of much later decades are particularly prone to
this mastake. The history of the Wright Brothers followed a similar path;
the Wrights published articles about their boxkite-winged glider, and
within a few years everyone was copying it and assuming that biplanes were
the "natural way to proceed." Only in hindsight does the overwhelming
influence of the Wrights' wing-warping biplane become obvious. And so
with radio, inventors copied Tesla without realizing it; assuming that his
methods of resonant coil and grounded antenna were simply the "obvious
way" it should be done. High-power transmitter systems, high frequency
resonanant tuning and grounding, the keys to successful radio, were
thought to be "in the air." Only through modern hindsight can we see that
Tesla, and not Marconi, was the one who put them there.
I'm going to indulge in some unsupported speculation. My own
experience as a textbook consultant points to another reason why Tesla is
ignored: reference books support each other. Groups of Reference books
in many ways strive for consistency rather than for truth. They try not
to contradict each other or raise critical questions about apparently
well-known history. To an extent they are "inbred", and to an extent
their information is not absolute truth, but rather is a consensus
perception of the truth. However, most authors would vigorously deny this
embarrassing view, and would prefer to believe that reference books
contain only truth. In other words, since most books say the same thing,
they must all be correct, no? No, not if their authors place the goal of
consensus higher than the goal of accuracy or even honesty. If concensus
is more important than fact, then the books would be expected to all agree
with each other, whether their concensus facts were correct or not.
For this reason it is nearly impossible to alter the contents of text
and reference books, even if the material in them is clearly erroneous.
If all the books say the same thing, no single author is willing to buck
the majority and stand out from the crowd. After all, that many books
couldn't be wrong! Yet if they *are* wrong, then acknowledging this fact
would rub our noses in the fragility of the foundations of our whole
system of knowledge. And so we maintain a unified front of "illusory
truthfulness." Maintaining the illusion becomes more important to us than
correcting of any mistakes. If we must maintain respect for reference
any cost, then whenever they all make the same major flub, we don't
correct that flub. We don't even see it, since we automatically
indulge in unsupported disbeliefs which lead to blindness and denial.
If a major mistake regarding Tesla's priority to inventing Radio is made
in 1915, and if this mistake is not officially righted until 1943, then
reference books and textbooks had thirty years to mistakenly elevate
Marconi as the inventor of radio. How many decades do you think it would
take before the thirty years of Marconi-worship finally wears off, before
the textbook concensus shifts and begins to recognize Tesla? Well, fifty
years have passed, and clamor to recognize Tesla is finally starting to be
heard. PBS even presented Tesla's radio history in the recent "Tesla:
Master of Lightning." However, the major players currently dismiss the
Tesla revision as "conspiracy theories"
fringe groups and "Tesla worshippers." I suspect that it will take far
longer than fifty years before all the new textbooks finally reverse
themselves. It can only happen slowly, so nobody is threatened or
embarrassed. Politics and face-saving becomes far more important than
historical accuracy! The real story must invade the books slowly, so no
one is directly forced to confront the staggering extent of this