The AC-DC incident

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The city of Belgrade looks so much nicer this morning – it is sunny and fairly warm. I head out walking through the city to what is supposedly the best museum of all of Belgrade and possibly all of Serbia – the Nikola Tesla museum.

Nikola Tesla is one of the main Serbian heroes of all time. Hence every time I tell a Serb I never heard about him before I decided to go to Serbia they are very surprised – they all thought he would be world-famous and everybody would know about him. They even named the Belgrade airport after Nikola Tesla and there is a car named after him as well.

Tesla might be one of the most important Serbian heroes of all time but he was actually born in Croatia by Serbian parents. He later went to study in Graz in Austria and then got a job in Budapest before moving to Paris to work for Edison’s company. Later he immigrated to USA. Hence he never actually lived in present day Serbia.

I get in to the museum and see what the man is all about – and it is pretty clear he is a really smart man. He had a huge number of patents from all his inventions but unfortunately he was a poor business man and didn’t make much money of it himself. His main achievement was the invention of the induction engine which has had a huge impact on daily life through the 20th century and till this day.  But he also invented the first remote control and experimented on radio transmission and X-ray technology.

His engine used alternate currents which brought him into direct conflict with the main man inside electricity at the time – Thomas Edison. This is what the AC-DC incident is all about – and it has nothing to do with a rock band trashing there dressing room or hotel room.

Thomas Edison was using direct current for most of his inventions – hence an introduction of alternate currents would render many of his patents obsolete and cost him a fortune. To protect his income Thomas Edison wanted to prove that alternate currents would be dangerous to use. The way he chooses to do this was by using one of Tesla’s patents and makes the very first electric chair for New York using alternate current. The implication being straightforward – alternate currents can kill you.

In the end alternate currents proved to be far superior and we all use it safely today. Unfortunately Tesla’s amazing abilities as an inventor was not match by his skills as a business man. Tesla died as a poor man not having made any significant profit of his 170 different patens – many of which very much helped form the 20th century as we know it.

The museum is displaying several of the invention he made during his life. The models are used to demonstrate the functioning of the inventions. But the museum doesn’t want their guest to try and use the different machines – hence you can only go on a guided tour where the guide will demonstrate how the different machines work.

Among the items at display is a copy of the very first induction engine. There are a somewhat more modern version of the engine among the machines which will be turned on to give and impression of how it works. Next to this engine is Teslas version of the Columbus Egg. A machine which will use the principal from the induction engine creating a magnetic field to make a metallic egg stand up on the steep end. It looks pretty surprising when it actually works.

One of the most surprising machines are the Tesla Tube – which when turned on will make some sparks of lightning and you will actually be able to make light if you keep a light bulb close to it. For people with limited recent experience with physics this is quite a surprising feat that you can actually transmit power wirelessly. Tesla had a big idea of transmitting power across the globe by wireless transfer. Unfortunately his financial backer – a certain JP Morgan gave up on the idea when he realized he would not be able to charge people for the use of the electricity.

Another devise on display is the very first remote control using a specific radio frequency. This invention was so far ahead of its time that the people who saw it demonstrated in Central Park were sure it was a hoax and Tesla actually controlled his small boat by some sort of strings which you just could not see below the water. They were all very surprised when they did not manage to find any strings attached.

One last thing you can see at the museum is a bit more morbid – it is the urn of Nikola Tesla which has been transferred to the museum after his dead.

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