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Tesla's work in Budapest

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Tesla's work in Budapest

"Nikola Tesla was the greatest inventor in American history."

Discovery Science TV

"You sit inside a huge, well-lit room, surrounded by impossibly-shaped instruments and mysterious structures. Then a tall, skinny young man walks up to you, clicks his fingers - and at that moment a small sphere of red flame appears! He holds it calmly on his palm. You just stare and think about how - how does he not burn his hand? Now he lets it fall on his clothes, then his hair, then his lap, and finally puts it in a wooden box. One wonders at the fact that the flaming sphere has left no trace anywhere and one is left rubbing one’s own eyes, and wondering if we are awake?"                                                                                                                                                      C. McGovern    

The case cited took place in New York about 120 years ago, and its protagonist was the tall skinny young man, Nikola Tesla. The person whose nearly seven decades of theoretical and inventive activity have been so important and decisive in the spread of electricity - and whose work and personality we know so very little about. We will discuss later how this was not the work of chance. On the one hand, Tesla was a successful and financially effective inventor. He created the multiphase electrical system that still forms the basis of today’s scientific and technical civilization. On the other hand, Tesla was the oppressed, incomprehensible genius who spent all his proceeds on extreme, mostly untraceable experiments. He consistently underperformed in business competitions and implementations due to constant shortages of money.   

If Tesla's name rarely appears in Hungarian newspapers or educational articles, his name is translated, simply referred to as Miklós Tesla. Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was an inventor living and working in the United States, who proudly proclaimed his Serbian origins throughout his life. So is there any reason to match it with a Hungarian first name, that is, to consider it a bit Hungarian? Not only Hungarians, but the Czechs also have embraced the excellent Serbian inventor into their culture. The anniversaries are celebrated, their electronics factory has been given the TESLA brand name, and it is believed that all of this has had a significant impact on their scientific development. They also have some historical justification, as the birthplace of Tesla at that time fell to the territory of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (today it is Croatia). Initially, Tesla applied to the University of Prague, although he lacked a high school diploma in ancient Greek, which was essential for admission there. Subsequently, he visited Prague several times as an American inventor.    


Nikola Tesla's relationship with Hungary is even stronger. He started his career with us and it was here that the spark popped out of his head, which then resulted in the great invention of his life. According to his recollections, his first great experience was Miklós Jósika's novel Abafi at the age of eight. As a result, his character has fundamentally changed, becoming a determined and enthusiastic individual. By the way, he devoured books as a child and spoke five world languages at a very young age.           

Events in Budapest


After being unable to complete his college studies due to his financial problems and constant illnesses, he came to Budapest in January 1881 and got a job at the Hungarian State Telegraph Office. In the meantime, it turned out that he also had another advantageous relationship. The director of the Telephone Center under commission was Ferenc Puskás, who was a schoolmate of Uncle Tesla at the military academy. He transferred to his company, where he had already been given developmental tasks in line with his ambitions. For example, in February 1882, the company broadcast composer Ferenc Erkel's opera László Hunyadi from the National Theater to the audience of Vigadó and Tesla was the one who worked on improving the amplifier equipment.   

During his years in Budapest, Tesla probably had several positive professional influences, which strengthened his momentum and determination, with which he then worked around the clock for the next six decades. Such an impulse could have been, for example, the sight of the Vigadó's decorative lighting at the second venue of the already mentioned opera broadcast. In that age, they were still lit with gas lamps, and only a very serious company - in this case, the Ganz Factory - could undertake the power supply and the design and construction of the lighting for the occasion. The decorative lighting proved to be impeccable, and probably even a man of today would have watched that stream of light in amazement. The dazzling bluish-white (albeit slightly vibrating) arc lamps used were essentially the same as today’s air defense reflectors. A few months later, the demonstration was repeated. The streets of Budapest floated in a flood of light in honor of the arrival of the heir to the Hungarian throne.   

It is probable that Tesla also got into professional contact with the famous Hungarian inventor, Károly Zipernowsky. He was three years older and was already a staunch supporter of Alternating Current. He soon became one of the inventors of the voltage transformer. At that time, Zipernowsky was already the manager of the Ganz factory in Budapest. Here, among other things, the attractive DC dynamos were made under the Dy brand name. Tesla had encountered these too - and when he did, they must have been inspiring. He had felt the urge to fundamentally improve them since he was young.   

The story began in Grátz with the presentation of a DC dynamo imported from abroad. It was impressive for the young student, but he noticed that the carbon brushes spark very strongly.   

Thinking about this observation, he also found the phenomenon understandable, as the brushes not only conduct current to the commutator, but also to the bronze cylinder slices rotating with the shaft.  However, extra-current flows in it due to self-induction, as the current in the rotor coils is interrupted many times per revolution and then starts in the opposite direction. It also became clear to him that the DC motor was actually an AC motor, as the coils require alternating current.  The situation is similar with the current-generating machine, known as the direct current dynamo which produces alternating current, and is then rectified by its commutator.    

Tesla then came up with a radical suggestion: "Simply leave the problematic commutator out of the system so it certainly won't spark or fail. Let's operate the motor directly with AC power!" However, Professor Poschl, a physics teacher, chilled him thoroughly: "I believe you are a clever young man, but this is completely impossible to solve. This would require that the magnetic forces acting in a straight line between the poles be curved and rotated."   

Nor did the increasingly fashionable single-phase AC motor seem to be suitable for solving the impossible task either. When introduced into coils, the magnetic field would bounce up and down rather than rotate. In Tesla's mind, however, the problem kept racing there. He felt that it could be solved. And indeed, while walking, in the City park, the solution suddenly popped in, which he immediately drew in the dust for his friend, Antal Szigethy.   

Curiously, it should be mentioned, that Tesla’s nervous system was in a particularly bad state during this period. He felt unbearably strong sounds and lights at normal levels, but he could hear the imperceptibly weak noises, or even the ultrasound, very well. However, his heart rate was over 200 bpm. Doctors could not diagnose his disease and considered it a hopeless case. Strong sedatives taken for months did nothing to improve his condition.   

The big idea was to come up with a multi-phase system. By placing four, five, or even six electromagnets in a circle in the stator and supplying them with properly shifted phase currents. The magnetic field will rotate around and catch the rotor... The more phases there are the more wires that are needed. The least multi-phase system is the three-phase system. In addition, the magnetic field rotates evenly - thanks to the extremely smooth, sinusoidal AC-current fed into the motor. Therefore, more than three phases are unnecessary and, of course, uneconomical. The commutator can therefore be omitted even if the rotor is a permanent magnet or a short-circuited coil. And the production of special current is unexpectedly an easy task, because the same motor must be driven by an external power machine, operated as a dynamo. The current of the appropriate shape and phase is automatically displayed in the three-wire line.   

Contemporary DC systems spread slowly because it was not possible to change the voltage level. The devices of the users required low voltage and high current. Therefore, thick network cables were required. Small power plants should have been operating on every street corner. The dynamo and motor of a three-phase system are more advantageous in several respects. It is both more powerful and has a much longer service life.   

Alternating current provides an opportunity to transform the voltage to a higher value where economical power delivery is more important. A transformer that generates high voltage should be used. As a result, less current flows in the main lines, and a much smaller line cross-section is required. Another transformer must be inserted before reaching the consumer, which steps the voltage down to lower levels again.   

As a result, the three-phase system was an excellent solution, even though its adoption and implementation were very slow. The biggest problem was that the multiphase system had a certain very respectable and even fierce opponent who was using very un-sportsmanlike methods against Tesla. His name is very well known to everyone.   

"If Edison had to find a needle in a straw stack, he would examine each straw one by one with the diligence of a bee until he could find it. Yet with some theoretical knowledge and foresight, 90% of the work could have been avoided."

Tesla's statement about Edison in the New York Times   

Tesla and Edison 

Six difficult and adventurous years passed between the two remarkable moments with lots and lots of work and disappointment. The moment of the first discovery of the multi-phase electric motor was in the City Park in 1882. The second great moment was the recognition of his invention in 1888. Tesla then gave a lecture in front of the AIEE Committee at the University of Colorado and, as a result, entered into a favorable contract with Westinghouse. He tried to use the invention during his stay in Budapest at the Ganz factory - without success. However, he received a good letter of recommendation from Ferenc Puskás. This is how he managed to get a job at the subsidiary of the Edison Telephone Company in Paris, where the company manager was Tivadar Puskás.   

However, Tesla’s hopes did not materialize here either, nor was his new company willing to realize his ingenious invention. Here, Tesla’s job was to repair series-defective Edison AC generators. Luckily, he was able to get to learn the design, the operating conditions, and the installation materials.  


This allowed him to build his first AC motor with the help of his friend, Antal Szigethy. He was working in Strasbourg at the time, repairing the dynamos sold to Germany by the French-owned company Edison. Edison’s German company promised him a big reward for quickly repairing an important power plant. Restoring this for Edison was not only a matter of prestige, but the expected penalty could have bankrupted Edison's firm. Tesla traveled to Paris to pick up the reward for the challenging repair - but nobody was undertaking to keep the promise. In his indignation, he quit the company and set off for the other land of promise, America.   

He approached Edison directly, optimistically hoping that the then famous, though still very young - only 32 - inventor would embrace his idea. Tesla got a job anyway, as DC machines also failed frequently in America, and such a talented and extremely hard-working professional was a real treasure for Edison. In comparison, he paid very poorly while giving him ample work. At the same time, Tesla was hostile to the AC system. The production of DC power plants provided him with sufficient benefits. In sharp contrast to the inventor's nimbus, he was confronted with a new and obviously superior invention. Tesla realized one of the major design flaws in Edison dynamos, and Edison understood the importance of that. He promised big money, $50,000 if he would convert all of the dynamos that had been sold so far. Tesla worked day and night and finished the job in two months and then applied for the reward. Edison replied, "Tesla, you came from Europe, and you don't seem to understand our particular American sense of humor!"   

Tesla left Edison immediately, though a year of unemployment and misery awaited him. In the meantime, however, he developed his various electric power transmission inventions. Fortunately, a period of economic recovery has arrived, and a young financier and inventor, George Westinghouse, understood the benefits of the AC system and stepped into implementation. He hired Tesla for a decent salary and soon began selling power plants with the new system. The westing house business went well, so Edison decided to take action against the growing competition claiming that AC and high voltage were life-threatening! Edison rumored, then launched funded campaigns in the newspapers against Tesla and AC. He scattered flyers and killed dogs with electricity so that dog owners could directly sense the dangers of AC. Edison had previously successfully used this method against gas companies, destroying them prematurely. However, the new invention was too good and the Westinghouse company remained on its feet. After all, the battle of the currents was satisfied by Edison's patron, the robber baron, J. P. Morgan, who had more experience in such matters. He knew that this noisy dispute was hurting the business. So the battle was won by Tesla and the war by Edison. For a lifetime, Edison mastered making Tesla and his inventions forgotten while Edison remained the great inventor.   

The era of electricity

The 20th century, and the previous few decades - became the era of electricity. In the lives of Tesla and the Westinghouse Company, the 1893 Chicago World's Fair was an audience success that exceeded all expectations. They were commissioned to build the lighting system, yet the real attraction was the giant hall in which the generators were housed. Based on Tesla's current transformer patents, all known systems were presented here. Two and three-phase generators, high-voltage transformers, direct current converters, tram drives, resp. power conversion for all existing purposes. 

The hall impressed visitors and it became clear to them that the carbon fiber incandescent lamp was merely the humble beginning. There, in that hall, the century of electricity began. The American government had long been planning to build a power plant at Niagara Falls. A serious international jury, headed by Lord Kelvin, had so far examined and rejected 17 applications. He now voted to trust Westinghouse and the multi-phase system in its offer. The first 50,000-horsepower generator began generating electricity in 1895, and through the high-voltage transmission line, an aluminum smelter had been operating for a year in Buffalo, 40 miles away. At the same time, the first truly industrial-scale thermal power plants were built, in which steam turbines already powered Tesla's three-phase generators.        


  Tesla and the radio

After that, Tesla spent more time on research topics he had started earlier. The wireless telegraph, the ancestor of today’s radios, is the best known of these. Tesla has been continuously involved in testing and developing radio components. He was the most serious authority in America, and at times traveling to Europe, he exchanged ideas with prominent physicists there. The names of William Crookes and Sir Oliver Lodge, who were pioneers with Tesla, knew and further developed the theoretical and practical foundations of radio.           

In the 1890s, successful signal transmission over a distance of from ten to one hundred meters was achieved. In 1897, Tesla himself sent a radio telegram across 35 km near New York, and then two years later for 50 km. The big challenge was bridging the Atlantic, so Tesla began building a 1,500-kilowatt radio transmitter on Long Island. The plan sounded amazingly bold at the time, yet the American public doubted that it would be successful. (It is worth mentioning that Hungary currently has only one similarly powerful radio transmitter, but this is not a product of the Hungarian industry. We would not be able to produce one today.) However, the architect of the tower made a mistake that delayed the construction. When Tesla ran out of money, the work stopped again and again. Finally, in 1901, the sensational news arrived that Marconi had bridged the Atlantic Ocean by radiotelegram. Tesla lost once again.

Where did the young painter get the knowledge and huge money to succeed? The knowledge is obviously from Tesla and the scientists already cited. Marconi thus gained knowledge through the brochures and educational lectures that they wrote. Primarily through Tesla’s European rapporteur tour. An uneducated but receptive young man could begin to experiment. While the big ones were shredding their power to work on many topics, Marconi was obsessed and experimenting only with the radio. His manners and vocabulary were also closer to his big-money businessmen, making it easier for him to communicate with them.    


                          Behold,  the functioning of society is diverse and has a bizarre logic. It often gives dilettantes and amateurs more chances, while forgetting the true founders of success. Today, we can ask anyone in America, but even here in Europe, who is the greatest inventor and who discovered the radio? The person, without the slightest sign of doubt, gives the wrong answer: "Edison and Marconi!"           


Strange experiments     

Tom Tushey

 Mechanical engineer

 Hobby physicist 

Scientific Writer