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On May 1, 1893, U.S. President Grover Cleveland pushed a single
button in Chicago, and a moment later, 100,000 electric lights illuminated the
World Columbian Exposition, better known as the Chicago World’s Fair. This
single technical (and more than a century later, remarkably unremarkable)
achievement marked an extraordinary accomplishment for Nikola Tesla in his
so-called “War
of Currents”
with Thomas Edison, one that was years in the making.

Tesla had immigrated to America roughly a decade earlier. Filled
with dreams of building an electrically-powered civilization, the native
Yugoslavian had hopes of working hand in hand with the era’s most famous
inventor, Thomas Edison.

Indeed, for a brief period after his arrival in the United
States, Tesla actually worked for Edison. But technical and monetary disputes
led to a split between the legendary pair, and Tesla’s idol soon became his
commercial rival.

Thus, Tesla was on his own to secure financial backing for
the alternating-current technology he had conceived at the mere age of 24,
which Edison considered competition for his own direct-current design patents.
Soon after parting ways with the “Wizard of Menlo Park”—and a brief
stint as a ditch digger—Tesla’s reputation for genius impressed a group of
investors enough to finance the Tesla Electric Light Company.

Alas, Tesla’s scientific prowess far outdistanced his
business acumen. While the Tesla Electric Light Company did build the most
advanced electric arc light of its day, only the investment group saw any
profit from this achievement.

Such was Tesla’s reputation—more visionary than practical
designer—even after partnerships with the Western Union Company’s A. K. Brown
and industrialist George Westinghouse finally funded Tesla’s wildly successful
development of the AC motor and its associated power distribution system. But
despite all of his accomplishments, Tesla never supplanted Edison as the
premier inventor of the Electric Age, never amassed the fortune his genius
certainly could have provided, and never shook the labels of poet and dreamer.

In the end, that was perhaps most fitting, considering that
Tesla cited a work of fiction, rather than of science, as his inspiration for
his original concept of the alternating-current motor.


What play did legendary inventor Nikola Tesla cite as his
inspiration for the alternating-current motor?

Tesla was renowned for committing entire books to memory
during his youth, though none more famously than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s multifaceted
early-19th century morality play Faust,
which the inventor credited as the inspiration for his first vision of an
alternating-current electrical motor.

As a student at the Austrian Polytechnic School in Graz,
Tesla first encountered a direct-current Gramme dynamo. One could crudely
compare the Gramme dynamo as the direct-current equivalent of the
alternating-current motor. A Gramme could convert electricity into locomotive
force and vice versa, serving as both an engine and a generator.

Fascinated by the Gramme’s inefficiencies, Tesla believed
there had to be a way to better the machine, and he spent the next few years
obsessed with the potential improvements.

By his own account, while walking in a Budapest park with a
friend one afternoon, Tesla recited this verse from Goethe’s Faust (not to be confused with
Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century play Doctor

The glow retreats,
done is the day of toil;
It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring;
Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil
Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!

According to Tesla, a vision of how to improve a
direct-current Gramme dynamo appeared to him after quoting these lines, invoking
the concept of alternating current. In that moment, Tesla claimed he drew a
diagram in the sand of his envisioned design for an AC induction motor, one
that he didn’t alter before presenting his ideas to the American Institute of
Electrical Engineers at the tender age of 30.

Tesla’s imagined improvements not only solved some of the
Gramme dynamo’s inherent inefficiencies, but it also laid the groundwork for
all of Tesla’s future AC innovations.

Tesla would essentially put the same design to its perhaps
most famous early use in 1893, when he received Lord Kelvin’s blessing and a formal
commission to build a hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls. Despite
doubts from his financial backers and the scientific community at large, the
Niagara Falls power plant came online on Nov. 16, 1896, providing power to
Buffalo, NY, and, within a short period of rapid expansion, New York City

Though he would suffer many public and financial failures in
the coming years, Tesla was, for a moment, triumphant—the undisputed master of
electrical engineering. Not bad for a booklover from the Balkan Peninsula.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble comes from the Oct. 27 edition of Geek
Trivia, “Federal
TechRepublic member Leon
, how shall we say, improved my classification of the mathematical
constant pi as an irrational number.

“While pi does fall under the class of irrational, it
is better classified as transcendental—that is, it cannot be expressed as a
fraction, nor can it be expressed as a square root.”

Further proof that this Trivia Geek can’t do math. Thanks,

The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.