As you may have seen, the web is all abuzz today with news and commentary on the 150th birthday of the scientists and inventor Nikola Tesla. Tesla is probably best known as the inventor of the modern radio, but he had his hands in almost every area of electronics and magnetism research in his day. Because of his many inventions in the area, he is often called “the man who invented the Twentieth Century”, a title that is surely well-deserved. His presence has seemed to only grow stronger with time, and even today his memory is allowing Serbia and Croatia to look past their uneasy past and unite in celebration over their shared claims to Tesla, an ethnic Serb from Croatia.
There’s not too much I can add to the discussion that hasn’t been said already, so instead I’ll defer to the experts. In particular, and not surprisingly, Bora of A Blog Around the Clock has the definitive collection of the day’s Tesla links. In his usual style, he’s incredibly thorough, so make sure you have a look.
Since my Ph.D. research is on protein NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance), I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tesla’s connection to my field–particularly since the unit for the strength of a magnetic field bears Tesla’s name!
It is unclear to exactly what degree Tesla actually influenced the eventual invention of NMR spectroscopy, but his work covered a wide variety of areas fundamental to NMR spectroscopy. At the very least his inventions and descriptions of basic physical principles influenced the development of the infrastructure that would eventually make the use of NMR spectroscopy possible. NMR fundamentally takes advantage of three interconnected physical phenomena: electricity, magnetism, and electromagnetic radiation (specifically radio waves), all areas where Tesla made major contributions. Tesla’s fingerprints can be seen at almost any stage of an NMR experiment, from the powering up of the superconducting magnet, to the magnetization of the individual nuclei in the molecule under study, to the emission and detection of radiofrequency pulses used to acquire data.
Still, Tesla’s contributions in these areas were indirect, and many other scientists have been responsible for much more direct discoveries and inventions specifically related to NMR in each of these individual areas. However, Tesla’s greatest contribution to NMR probably comes from the work that has had the most significant impact on society in general: alternating current. Tesla’s fundamental discoveries in alternating current (AC), provided the first detailed knowledge of its benefits and of effective ways of generating it. He was able to demonstrate that AC was a much more efficient way of generating electricity than direct current (DC), especially for transmitting power over long distances. This work led to the creation of our modern power infrastructure, which has transformed society in countless ways and made further progress in science and engineering possible.