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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, 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.

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 a high power centralized *worldwide* radio communication system and wireless power distribution system. His device more resembled a power plant than a cellphone. He failed at this. 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. 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 invention and grounded antennas, they certainly avoided mentioning Tesla! In his Nobel Prize speech, would Marconi give credit to the inventor on which his system was based? Also, people assume that a victim will fiercely fight against theives, and since Tesla didn't fight, they decide that there must not have been theft. And finally, Tesla's ideas were used to make money by far more people than just Marconi. When people steal ideas, they try to make themselves feel better; they justify their theft by ridiculing and marginalizing the ideas even as they profit from them. They pretend that the ideas were "in the air," or were "obvious methods" which anyone could see. Historians reading the material written by such people will not see 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 dishonesty and 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. And not being a professional 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 it 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 power far outstrips anything of the period. This spark transmitter is based on several key Tesla techniques: rotary spark gap, lumped resonance (rather than antenna resonance,) capacitor energy storage, and an antennea with a ground connection. Tesla also invents a mechanical AC generator or "alternator" capable of broadcasting high power radio waves. Of course radio recievers already existed: the coherer, (NOT invented by Marconi but by Branly and others.) Earlier radio 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.

Today we call this transmitter by the name "Tesla Coil."

This 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 tuning.

Next stage: Marconi takes the Branly coherer and Tesla's spark transmitter and antenna inventions, commercializing them. But Tesla ignores this threat, believing that his completed "world system" will be far superior to Marconi's ocean-spanning demonstration. 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 not to know 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. He 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. 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, Tesla was an unknown in Radio when compared to Marconi, and the judge was very probably not a technical expert.

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.

See also:
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 the correcting of any mistakes. If we must maintain respect for reference books at 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" coming from 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 historical error.


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