How did Nikola Tesla change the way we use energy?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from howstuffworks.com.

Josh: Hey and welcome to the Pod Cast. I'm Josh Clark, Chuck Bryant, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck.

Chuck: How's it going? You can just call me Nikola!

Josh: Really?

Chuck: No.

Josh: Okay. How about Chuck?

Chuck: Yes, that works.

Josh: All right. How you doing, Chuck?

Chuck: I'm good dude, how are you?

Josh: I'm good. I'm juiced.

Chuck: I'm much better than how you asked me 20 minutes ago when we recorded the other pod cast.

Josh: No, that was -

Chuck: Two days, three days -

Josh: Two days from now, yeah.

Chuck: That's magic.

Josh: It is magic. We'll have to reveal our secret one day and make like some sort of, we could dress up like Siegfried and Roy.

Chuck: I get to be Siegfried this time though -

Josh: And just sit there and tell everybody, yeah. I owe it to you.

Chuck: And Jerry is always just the white tiger.

Jerry: Yeah, grrr!

Josh: Yeah, nice one Jerry. Chuck I have a trivia question for you, beautiful.

Chuck: Okay, hit me.

Josh: Why are the Los Angeles Dodgers names the Los Angeles Dodgers? Bing! Okay Chuck.

Chuck: I know the answer to you want me to say or do you want to say it?

Josh: I want you to say it. I just asked you a question.

Chuck: Because when they were in Brooklyn, their original spot, there were a lot of train trolley cars in Brooklyn at the time that had really dangerous electrical wiring that operated them. And people would dodge these electrical lines in these train cars and so they called them the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers initially.

Josh: Did they?

Chuck: And then that shortened to the Brooklyn Dodgers and then the O'Malley Family broke the hearts of Brooklyn and moved them to L.A.

Josh: I can't believe that still.

Chuck: I know.

Josh: Who does that?

Chuck: Did you ever see that documentary on HBO about the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Josh: No.

Chuck: Oh, it was so good.

Josh: No, was it?

Chuck: Yeah, there are people in Brooklyn today that have not watched a baseball game since the Brooklyn Dodgers moved. Their hearts were broken so badly.

Josh: Wow.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Wow.

Chuck: I know.

Josh: Wow.

Chuck: Ripped the heart out of Brooklyn. But actually people might write in, there's been some follow-up and O'Malley really tried his hardest to keep the team there and there were some politics involved.

Josh: And that greedy Sandy Colfax.

Chuck: Yeah, but off topic.

Josh: A little bit, but not really because you can make a case that it was Thomas Alva Edison who gave the Brooklyn Dodgers their name.

Chuck: Bring it home, baby.

Josh: Okay, I will. So by the time the Dodgers were formed in the 1880's right, Edison had basically lit up parts of New York with his incandescent light bulb.

Chuck: Big, big innovation.

Josh: It was huge. I mean imagine going from like gas light to electricity.

Chuck: Yeah, I bet it blew people's minds back then.

Josh: Sure. I imagine so, especially when they touch one of those trolley lines.

Chuck: Yeah, big time.

Josh: Sure so okay, Edison was a visionary, a genius, one can make the case and an innovator. And he came up with what we know of as modern harnessing of electricity which I should probably point out, electricity is not energy, it's an energy carrier.

Chuck: Right, direct current was his big thing.

Josh: Right. Direct current is where electricity, the electric charge is constant. It never changes so if you look at it -

Chuck: One directional.

Josh: It is and if you look at it as like a line, it's just a straight line.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: And Edison was pretty happy with his direct current inventions. The problem is that you lose a lot of it to waste heat over long distances.

Chuck: Yeah, well basically you can't really transport it over super long distances, they found out.

Josh: Right okay, so that was kind of the draw back to it. Other than that it was enormous. He lit up New York and arguably created what we know of today is light, right. But there was another way of looking at things and that is the alternating current. So Edison was super, super, super married to direct current! He just saw it; I think I read a quote, a river flowing gently to the sea. That's how he characterized direct current.

Chuck: That will kill you if you touch it.

Josh: Yeah, big time. An alternating current is instead of that straight line of a charge or flow of electricity from one pole to the other, I think negative to positive always, alternating current looks like a sign wave, right. So it has a wavelength and it actually goes back and forth from one pole to another which is why it's called alternating. And these days it does so at about 60-cycles per second so it changes direction 60 times in a second and it's very steady and reliable.

Chuck: And actually in those days too. I think it's the same.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Which is one of the cool things?

Josh: Right so here's the thing. We're talking about electricity here. What I think a lot of people overlook is that Edison was also quite a showman and -

Chuck: Great businessman.

Josh: Very much so as much a great business man as a genius, right.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: But he was also very stubborn and he didn't think there was any way to improve or any need to improve upon direct current. There's another guy whose name people might be familiar with and his name is Nikola Tesla.

Chuck: Not a great businessman.

Josh: No.

Chuck: In fact a very poor businessman, evidently.

Josh: He was actually. He spent some time after he became a great inventor digging ditches just to try to make ends meet.

Chuck: Apparently he did file for a lot of patens but apparently he didn't do that nearly enough because a lot of his stuff was kind o stolen and kind of nicked from.

Josh: Right so Chuck we've got Edison on one side with DC and we have Tesla on the other side with AC.

Chuck: Yeah, that was his little baby.

Josh: It sounds like a couple of nerds going at it but really these two guys engaged in this very, very public rumble and basically at stake was the infrastructure of the United States.

Chuck: And the world.

Josh: Exactly, yes. This huge, huge massive -

Chuck: Competition.

Josh: Sure that just took place and there's some crazy stuff that came out of it. Lots of electrocutions, lots of nefariousness -

Chuck: Oh yeah, gosh we'll get to that.

Josh: And we're not gonna tell you who won yet because a lot of people don't necessarily know what kind of electricity we use more than the other, DC or AC. So we're just gonna pay this out, baby. This is just interesting.

Chuck: So yeah, Nikola Tesla he's Austrian born and he arrived in the United States in 1884 when he was just a young lad of 28 and a mere three years later after being in the United States, he filed for a series of patents that basically outlined what you would need to make the alternating current work. So he made pretty quick work when he came over here to the states.

Josh: Right he did.

Chuck: Did you ever see the Prestige?

Josh: No.

Chuck: Great movie.

Josh: I heard.

Chuck: Davie Bowie played Tesla in that movie.

Josh: Nice.

Chuck: Yeah, very cool.

Josh: Did he do a good job?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Like Labyrinth quality job?

Chuck: Oh better,

Josh: Okay.

Chuck: I thought so.

Josh: All right.

Chuck: But just a little side bar if you're interested in that kind of thing. But yeah, after reading this and then finding out that Tesla actually may have sort of invented the radio even though Marconi gets credit for that. There's a lot of things that Tesla did. He's sort of the unsung inventor when you kind of look at all these little things.

Josh: Yeah again, like you made the point. I think you have to be a really good self promoter -

Chuck: Oh, big time.

Josh: As much an innovator especially if you are an innovator you need to be a self promoter. You get lost out in the annals of history.

Chuck: Especially back then.

Josh: Right so Chuck let's talk about this. You said that he came to the states -

Chuck: Yeah from Austria.

Josh: At the age of 28 and filed some really important patens early on. And they were for his alternating current system, right?

Chuck: Yes indeed.

Josh: Here's a huge advantage of alternating current. We were talking about how DC is a constant steady output of electricity. And alternating current is all over the place but it's also a steady output of power. The thing is because DC doesn't' alternate it loses a lot of energy to heat and so it's not good for transporting at long distances, right? So Tesla came up with these patents for the generation of an alternating current and a transformer, right.

Chuck: You've heard of these and you probably don't know what they are.

Josh: This is the key to alternating current.

Chuck: Absolutely.

Josh: What you do is you generate this electricity and you run it through a transformer and with very little power loss right, you can step it up to a tremendous voltage -

Chuck: Right, we'll step it down in this case.

Josh: Well no, you step it up first for long distance travel.

Chuck: Oh yeah, yeah.

Josh: So you're using less power to generate it.

Chuck: Right, right, right.

Josh: But then you run it through this transformer and all of a sudden say a thousand volts goes to like 500,000 volts. So you can shoot that thing amazingly long distances without losing very much of the electricity involved in it. And then when it gets to say a neighborhood after passing through the desert or nowhere very dangerously, when it gets to a neighborhood it goes through another transformer and then it gets stepped down.

Chuck: That's what I was thinking about.

Josh: Right and since you've lost very little and it's being stepped down easily without much power loss to this transformer, you can supply tons of homes with a single line.

Chuck: Right, like 120 volts I think is what you end up using out of let's say a million volts, it's on the line.

Josh: Right sure and it can also be when it's stepped up voltage wise, it can be stepped down or it is inevitably stepped down in amplitude which means that it requires less of a physically smaller line of copper which also saves on costs because you remember when the economic fallout was going on and people were stealing copper out of other peoples cars and air conditioners because it was valuable. It's expensive stuff, especially if you're talking about creating the infrastructure of an entire country. So Tesla comes up with these patents and pretty much right then and there changes everything again except for this self promotion part, right.

Chuck: Right he did his best work when he was able to hook up with people that were very good businessmen to back him.

Josh: Right who did he hook up with that really changed everything?

Chuck: So Josh you're talking about George Westinghouse.

Josh: Yes.

Chuck: And I know you've heard of the Westinghouse Company which probably means he did a pretty good job if you still know that name. He had an electric company, George did and it was struggling to work out some details of a successful AC system and then he heard about this famous lecture that Tesla gave in 1888. So he said you know we should get this guy, and Tesla had a couple of financial backer's names Peck and Brown. So they approached Westinghouse about commercializing Tesla's work and at the time he said, all right, it sounds like a great idea. I'm gonna give you guys 25 grand in cash and another 50 thousand in notes and some royalties for the electricity that we create. And that's a lot of money.

Josh: He gave them I think $2.50 for every horse power that was sold through his invention by Westinghouse.

Chuck: Well I have a little modern conversion for you.

Josh: Let's hear it.

Chuck: That $75,000 back then would be $1.8 million dollars today.

Josh: Holy cow.

Chuck: And that's not even counting the royalties.

Josh: Wow.

Chuck: So this is a lot of dough.

Josh: It is.

Chuck: So thankfully with Peck and Brown's helped, hooked him up with Westinghouse. Now Tesla has a viable situation going on here. And he can actually compete with Edison.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: His nemesis. He worked for Edison.

Josh: He did that was awesome. He went and worked for Edison and there's legend that he went to Edison and said, look I've got this alternating current idea -

Chuck: It's really kind of benefitting -

Josh: Let's work it out together and Edison did not want to hear it.

Chuck: Yeah he was, like you said, very stubborn. He's like, no, DC buddy. Go make the DC better, which he worked on that. He tried to.

Josh: Right so apparently Tesla eventually got so tired of Edison and his mule headedness that he just said, you know what, I'm going off on my own. And I think that's when he started digging ditches.

Chuck: Right that's when he struggled before he eventually hooked up with Peck and Brown to give him some backing.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: So that brings us back up to the current time, well not current as in now but current back then, and he battled. You know Tesla sounds kind of like a little stubborn guy too because he used to battle with the Westinghouse guys on the best way to do this and eventually they settled on what we said before, which is a three-phase, 60-cycle current that we still use today.

Josh: And you talked about that lecture that attracted some adherence to Tesla including Westinghouse, right?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Well he started to get more and more publicity just because he had such a good, despite his terrible self promotion.

Chuck: Right and showmanship.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: There was a lot of that involved.

Josh: His idea was so good and it was so clearly superior to DC in the minds of some people that he couldn't help but get publicity. So as this started to develop Edison engaged in an all out public war.

Chuck: Well he got a little nervous which is why he engaged in the war. In 1890 when this thing was kind of picking up steam and they were getting the 60-cycle thing worked out. That's when Edison was like, EW.

Josh: So what Edison decided to do was to prove to everybody that alternating current is just dangerous.

Chuck: Yeah, that was his main focus.

Josh: And he did so by performing publicly executions on dogs, horses, and eventually he peaked, crescendod by electrocuting to death an elephant named Topsy in public. He did. That's pretty funny. There's nothing funnier than publicing electrocuting an elephant, right?

Chuck: Right.

Josh: But it turns a little grim, right. Have you heard of William Kemmler?

Chuck: Well I thought it was already grim, but yeah sure.

Josh: Did you? You gotta toughen up Nancy.

Chuck: Yeah right!

Josh: William Kemmler was a convicted ax murderer. I looked him up, actually he was a convicted hatchet murderer who killed his girlfriend and then very calmly went next door and said I just killed my girlfriend. Badda-boom-badda-bing, not much of a trial later, he was sentenced to death. The think about Kemmler was he was going to be first person in New York, and as far as I can tell, the first person in the United States who would be electrocuted to death rather than hung.

Chuck: This is news to me.

Josh: I know I did some extra research.

Chuck: Nice work, bud.

Josh: I heard electrocution, I'm like, "Oh I gotta look more into this." So Kemmler is going be the first person in the electric chair and he is on August 6, 1890 he has this date with destiny and Tesla's invention. Apparently they hadn't decided which way to go, should it be DC, should it be AC and this guy who also used to pubic electrocute animals on behalf of Edison, managed to finagle a used old Westinghouse AC generator to be used to get rid of Kemmler. And the execution was very public and it was very horrible. Apparently there were 25 witnesses, most of them vomited, at least one fainted. I think one of the physicia ns that was attending to the guy ran out of the room, couldn't watch. They put 2,000 volts of juice through the guy for I think like 10, 12 seconds. He just turned totally rigid, apparently punctured his finger with his fingernail, it was bad, right? And then they stopped and the doctors went over and looked at him and he started breathing again. And they shouted to throw the juice back on. They had to kill this guy because he was obviously in excruciating pain. So they did it again and they left it one for a minute and apparently the generator didn't stop generating more and more voltage, so they have no idea how much they passed through this guy apparently sweat came out of his pours, or blood came out of his pours, like sweat. He started to burn and finally after a minute they turned it off. The long shot of this is that it came out that this was in an AC generator albeit an old beat up one that shouldn't have been used in the first place and Williams Kemmler was an actual casualty, a very brutal casualty in the war between Edison and Tesla.

Chuck: Well he should have thought about that before he took the hatchet to the girlfriend.

Josh: You know I bet he would have thought twice had he known what his fate was going to be.

Chuck: See this would have had the opposite effect on me. Edison was say, look how dangerous this is. If I would have seen that I would have said, "Wow that's the electricity that I want supplying power to my house."

Josh: The kind that makes blood come out of your pours?

Chuck: Yeah because I mean if it can do that, it can probably light up your room.

Josh: Right well it certainly lit up William Kemmler.

Chuck: So, they're in a public war.

Josh: A very public war now.

Chuck: Edison is sweating it and then in 1893; Westinghouse won the bid to light up the Chicago World's Fair.

Josh: The Columbian Exposition.

Chuck: Yeah, a big, big deal and a big blow to Edison.

Josh: And you know how he won the bid?

Chuck: He undercut Edison.

Josh: GE had put in a bid for a million dollars which if $75,000 was 1.8 million, imagine how much a million dollars was back then?

Chuck: Yeah, a ton.

Josh: That was GE's bid. And by this time, GE had assumed Edison's company. Edison General Electric I think is what it was called. So he was with GE now. They put in a million dollar bid. Most of it was to cover the copper wire because remember to get electricity over long distances using DC, the copper wire has to be big. You have to keep the amps up to get the voltage up so you lose less -

Chuck: A ton of copper.

Josh: in the far end, right?

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: So just by using less copper that alone Westinghouse was able to put in a bid of half a million, under cut him by half. So they got the rights to the Columbian Exposition which was big. This was the turning point right here.

Chuck: Yeah, I mean the rest literally as they say, history because that you know, Grover Cleveland flipped the switch and a hundred thousand light bulbs lit up and everyone said, boy the AC might be the way to go here.

Josh: That was it, yeah. It was cheaper; it worked and also apparently all over the fair were Tesla's inventions on display. So I think 27 million people visited the Chicago World's Fair that year and every single one of them got to witness alternating current, which ultimately won. And even without the world's fair, I mean that punctuated it, but just because it was efficient and economical, I mean do you know how much you pay for a kilowatt hour of electricity now?

Chuck: Not much.

Josh: No, it's like 10 cents, tops. And there's no telling how much it would be with DC. Plus also I was thinking about this, you could make the argument that Tesla has saved tons of lives from electrical accidents that never took place.

Chuck: Yeah true.

Josh: Because if you have DC, you're not using transformers, you're not stepping it up or down.

Chuck: Yeah, that's a lot of heat.

Josh: And you can't just send 500,000 volts into your electrical outlet. You know how many people die if we'd just gone with DC?

Chuck: It would have never happened.

Josh: Maybe, maybe not.

Chuck: I would have never happened. So a few years after that Westinghouse built a hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls and all of a sudden Buffalo had power and then that went on -

Josh: Then New York City -

Chuck: To power New York City.

Josh: They were just showing off by this time.

Chuck: Yeah and then dude, it was all over. But don't feel too bad for Edison.

Josh: No!

Chuck: Because we still use DC, we use both. We use DC in car batteries and locomotives. Some types of motors use DC so it's not -

Josh: I would call those consolation prizes.

Chuck: Yeah sort of, the booby prize. And you put AC and DC together and you have one of the best rock bands in history.

Josh: So Chuck, you wanna talk a little more about Tesla? You know that he also had a vision, he never managed to do it but he had a vision of wireless. The wireless that we enjoy now, he was thinking about in like 1890.

Chuck: Yeah Josh, he met with JP Morgan who was as you know, one of the most powerful men on earth at the time and he said basically, I envision a world system of wireless communications to relay telephone message across the ocean.

Josh: Not just telephone, I think music as well.

Chuck: Broadcast news and music and stock market reports and private messages.

Josh: Exactly what we're doing now.

Chuck: Dude, Tesla. He was where it's at.

Josh: Sure, he basically didn't have enough money. I think he'd probably could have done it had he had enough money. He was working on a tower and it was very clear that he needed a lot more than the 150,000 Morgan kicked him and Morgan kind of lost interested. And it was Marconi actually who put the nail in that wireless coffin because he came up with the telegraph. It's like, hmm telegraph.

Chuck: And the radio which we already said Tesla kind of did a lot of work on the radio too.

Josh: Yeah apparently Tesla pointed out that Marconi used no less than 15 Tesla patents to create that wireless transmission of the S that made his so famous.

Chuck: Right. My impression of Tesla is that he was just this uber genius who was so much into his own genius work that he didn't understand that it required self promotion and business savvy and showmanship. And he didn't care about that stuff, so that's why he died alone in 1943 in New York.

Josh: Sad stuff, Chuck.

Chuck: It is.

Josh: Not quite as sad as the fate of Topsy the Elephant or William Kemmler, but still very sad.

Chuck: Agreed.

Josh: Yeah, that was our awkward walk through the life of Nikola Tesla.

Chuck: We were all over the place.

Josh: Oh did we ever say, well yeah he will now. Well I guess we implied it. But yeah today, even still the power stations that generate power do them on the 60-cycle process.

Chuck: Right. But everyone if you ask your common person on the street, who invented electricity, they would say, oh Edison!

Josh: And did you also know that the light bulbs, the incandescent light bulbs that he created were 95 percent inefficient? I know. I know.

Chuck: What a hack.

Josh: All right so that's Tesla and Edison can rock.

Chuck: Yeah, speaking of rock. The band Tesla rocked if we really wanna go there, remember them?

Josh: Yeah they didn't rock that was the thing.

Chuck: Yeah they were terrible.

Josh: So Chuck we just did that. Do you think it's time for listener mail?

Chuck: Please God, yes.

Josh: Please indeed. Thank you.[Chime]

Chuck: So Josh I'm just gonna call this dreamy listener mail and it's another dream and just let me tell folks, I'm not getting into this, please don't start sending me all your dreams.

Josh: And certainly don't send them in haiku form.

Chuck: But thi s is a good one. This is sent to use from Ruth from England. And Ruth was backpacking around the United States in 2008.

Josh: Oh I know where Ruth changed clothes.

Chuck: And she said, congrats on your country by the way, which I thought was kind of funny.

Josh: We're very proud of it Ruth, thank you.

Chuck: Yeah we're going to take full credit for that.

Josh: Congrats on your country as well.

Chuck: And she actually came through Atlanta with her friends and she, this is kind of funny, she mistakenly thought they were going to Atlantic City and so if you happen to see three very confused English girls in mid-September carrying backpacks, looking for casinos that was us.

Josh: They ended up at the video poker machines in the Big H gas station.

Chuck: Right we should have introduced Ruth to the internet where she could have found out that she was about 1,000 miles off course. So Ruth writes in and says she had this dream when she was in her mid-20s and here it is. I was a woman in my mid-20s with a very maternal and passive attitude on holiday on some kind of island resort. As the dream wore on, the atmosphere on this resort began to change. The reps became increasingly belligerent and some of the holiday gorge became edgy, then followed a very detailed and structured experience of the island becoming a prison stay. Apparent to my mind as a microcosm of an apocalyptic world, she became involved in a secret resistance movement led by a group of African Americans and they were many interpersonal stories which I won't bore you with now. So she wrote it down in her travel diary. This is where it gets interesting. She wrote it down in her diary and she told this to a lot of different people because it's such a cool dream over the years, and when she returned to England, or I guess over her travels, she returned to England she picked up a newspaper, flipped to the Art Section and there was a Books of the Past column, a space devoted to rediscovering books that have gone out of publication. There was an exact synopsis of her dream.

Josh: So she dreamt about a book that she read before.

Chuck: No, she never read it. This book was written by an Australian woman, 80 years ago. It was out of publication for decades, it was not even popular at the time and she had never read it. So she dreamt about an 80 year old unpopular novel she had never read.

Josh: Weird.

Chuck: Pretty cool.

Josh: That is pretty cool.

Chuck: So that is from Ruth. She says you don't have to read this out but -

Josh: It's a little late for that Ruth.

Chuck: We did anyway and what you're talking about with her changing clothes, she says that when she went to the Atlanta Aquarium, she said please say thank you to the troop of school girls who had to see us wash, brush our teeth and change our clothes in the bathroom at the aquarium.

Josh: So Ruth thinks that Atlanta is Atlantic City, that Chuck and I founded America and that we know the girl scouts that saw her change in the bathroom.

Chuck: Right and that she -

Josh: I like this Ruth.

Chuck: Yeah and I guess she's possessed by some 80 year old Australian writer.

Josh: The demon of an 80 year old Australian woman.

Chuck: So Ruth, hat's off to you. If you're ever in town again, look us up. We'll go out and get a pint together.

Josh: You're buying Ruth. If you wanna buy Chuck and me a pint,

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: You can send us an email to stuffpodcast@howstuffworks.

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