Was Tesla for real, or not?

-September 03, 2015

The Truth About Tesla: The Myth of the Lone Genius in the History of Innovation by Christopher Cooper, J.D. Race Point Publishing. This review comes from an uncorrected proof copy. The book is scheduled for release on October 1, 2015.

When I wrote the song Electrical Heroes, I borrowed heavily from Joseph Keithley's book, The Story of Electrical and Magnetic Measurements: From 500 BC to the 1940s. The song uses names from the book that include Volta, Ampere, Hertz, Gauss, and Kelvin. But, one name is missing: Nikola Tesla.

While I can't personally speak as to why Keithley omitted Tesla from his book, but perhaps he knew something most of us didn't. In The Truth About Tesla, Christopher Cooper sets out to prove that the revered engineer and inventor wasn't all that original. Although, Cooper refers to Tesla as a genius, he makes a case that all Tesla really did was borrow ideas from others and simply beat most of them to the patent office.

"History is written by the (patent case) winners," writes Cooper, "and so it is for Nikola Tesla. Unwittingly or not, Tesla's biographers marry prestige to patents, often forgetting that patent law&mdhash;especially in the U.S.—assumes a process of invention out of touch with reality." Cooper also cites Tesla's sometimes outlandish claims and boasts in the popular press and in publications such as The Electrical Experimenter, which include My Inventions.

Cooper takes the first chapter to discuss patent law and how those who obtain patents are often credited with being the true inventors of technology. He then spends a chapter covering Tesla's life. Here' he points to Tesla's accounts of seeing "flashes of light" as ideas came into his mind. These and other events, according to Cooper, give Tesla an almost supernatural aura.

Before Cooper tells you why Tesla's ideas weren't so original, he spends a chapter titled "Understanding Electricity." As an electrical engineer, there's nothing here you don't already know, but you'll find the history interesting nonetheless. At With this chapter, Cooper is trying to educate the electrically uneducated. To his credit, Cooper does a reasonable job for someone with a JD degree.

The meat of the book comes in the three chapters where Cooper makes his case for how and why Tesla is wrongly attributed with three of his many "inventions."

The polyphase AC motor
While the "War of current" was raging among utilities and high-powered financiers over electrical power distribution, Tesla (an AC power advocate) was busy working on his split-phase AC motor design. He needed a design that would run on a single generator to make it feasible and attractive to investors. Cooper acknowledges that Tesla solved the problem, but questions whether Tesla was truly the first to figure it out or was he simply the first to apply for and receive a patent. That patent was overturned when Galileo Farraris published a paper that essentially described the same thing just prior to Tesla's patent application. Based on this research, Cooper concludes that Tesla wasn't the first to invent the split-phase AC motor even though he was the first to patent it.

The Tesla Coil
Cooper uses the results of his research to conclude that Tesla didn't even invent the oscillating transformer for which we associate his name: Tesla coil. Cooper claims that the Tesla Coil is based on "simple applications of scientific principles and electrical configuration already discovered by a number of scientists with whom Tesla interacted over several years prior to finalizing his patent." Those scientists included such "electrical heroes" Heinrich Hertz and Hermann Ludwig von Helmholtz.

I question Cooper's claim that Tesla is unworthy of claiming the oscillating transformer as his own invention. Cooper writes that both Hertz and Helmholtz beat Tesla to the same conclusion and that Tesla was exposed to their work in 1891-1892. Tesla, according to Cooper, used what he saw from his European tour as part of his own patent filing of the Tesla Coil in 1893.

Why do I question Cooper here? Tesla did, by Cooper's admission, apply the concepts of others, add a few modifications, and create a new device. For example, Tesla added a capacitor to get the transformer to oscillate, thus creating an ongoing series of sparks. So what if Tesla applied the work of others in a new way in creating a new device? That happens every day in every engineering lab. Why shouldn't he get credit for it? Here is a case where Cooper is doing the lawyerly thing: trying to cast doubt. Cooper does this numerous times. In these instances, Cooper writes like a lawyer, not so much like an engineer.

Wireless transmission
According to Cooper, Tesla's fans and biographers claim that he invented wireless transmissions. Cooper again claims that others had succeeded in developing systems for wireless communication transmission long before Tesla applied for patents. For example, Cooper cites the work of Amos Dolbear as having successfully transmitted voice signals some fourteen years before Tesla filed is wireless transmission patent. Personally, I think of Marconi as the inventor of wireless communication, not Tesla. But, as Cooper likes to point out, inventions are usually the result of work done by many over time, not all by one person working alone.

In his final chapter, "The Truth about Tesla," Cooper describes the myths surrounding Tesla and how he was "once lauded as a scientific virtuoso on par with Isaac Newton." Cooper continues: "Tesla is said to have been all but erased from the annals of history—at least in the United States." Several cities in Europe have created museums to Tesla's work. Perhaps there will be a Tesla museum on Long Island at the site of his lab, assuming it's not turned into a shopping mall. Although Cooper claims that Tesla's name has been erased, some fourteen Tesla biographies have been published in English.

Cooper constantly and unnecessarily comments on and questions W. Bernard Carlson's book Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age. For example, Cooper cites that Carlson "concluded that Tesla's AC motor allowed utilities to shift from direct current to alternating current and expand their services from electrical lighting to electrical power for all sorts of industrial and consumer uses." Cooper calls this claim "bizarre," citing Carlson as also writing that there were at least fifteen companies manufacturing AC electric motors at the time. So, Carlson is a Tesla fan and Cooper isn't. We get it.

Cooper claims that all of the information he cites in the book is publicly available, be it online, in other books, or in patent documents. But, he claims to be the first to use that evidence to refute Tesla's originality. While he calls Tesla a genius, Cooper argues that rarely does an invention come about solely from the work of one person (a good point). Rather, inventions are based on the work of many others who build knowledge over time and that patents give historical credit to the wrong people. He doesn't question Tesla's brilliance, but he does say that Tesla fans should realize that that their hero's inventions did not, and could not, be the work of one man.

See EDN's Nikola Tesla collection.

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