Tesla’s Marketing Troubles

Serbian-born, American-immigrant Nikola Tesla was a master of electricity. Inventor not only of alternating current, Tesla coils, and tuned coils (among many other things), Tesla was also the first person to demonstrate the use of wireless technology by remotely turning on a lamp. Surprisingly, this demonstration occurred in 1890.

Why, then, if wireless technology existed in the 1800s, did it take so long for the public to have access to it? The answer is simply: Tesla had difficulty selling to Americans.

In 1898, at an electrical exhibition at Madison Square Garden, Tesla piloted the world’s first remote-controlled boat. Although Tesla succeeded at amusing the audience (at one point he encouraged the audience to ask the boat spontaneous questions, and then flashed the boat’s lights to give the answers), many people didn’t understand what was really going on, and most of the audience members thought that Tesla was controlling the boat telepathically.

Additionally, when a New York Times writer suggested that Tesla could make the boat submerge and carry dynamite as a weapon of war, Tesla quickly told him “you do not see there a wireless torpedo, you see there the first of a race of robots, mechanical men which will do the laborious work of the human race.”

In May of 1899, Tesla traveled to Colorado Springs to begin work on the idea that it would be easier to transmit wireless electrical power at high altitudes where the air was thinner (and therefore more conductive). While there, one of his experiments burned out the dynamo at the El Paso Electric Company (one of Tesla’s main backers), and the entire city lost power. The power station manager was furious, and insisted that Tesla pay for and repair all of the damage.

As part of another experiment in Colorado Springs, Tesla noticed that his transmitter was picking up a repeating signal. Amazed, he believed that he was receiving a signal from outer space. When Tesla announced this discovery he lost a lot of credibility and was widely ridiculed.

Following his return to New York, Tesla wrote an article for Century Magazine. In this article, he described an outlandish future, one in which the sun’s energy could be tapped with an antenna, weather could be controlled by electricity, and the world was powered with a global system of wireless communication. This article caught the attention of investor J. P. Morgan, who offered Tesla money to build a transmission tower and power plant. Tesla took the money, but instead of a wired plant, he began work on a tower that he intended to use to make a large-scale demonstration of wireless electrical power.

Morgan soon became concerned about how he could charge people for using wireless technology. One of the questions that Morgan posed to Tesla was “If anyone can draw on the power, where do we put the meter?” Tesla, far more concerned with creating the technology than with selling it, didn’t answer. As a result Morgan eventually decided to stop funding the project. This event also severely damaged Tesla’s reputation, as newspapers referred to the unfinished tower as “Tesla’s million dollar folly.”

Following the success of Guglielmo Marconi at sending and receiving the first radio signal and successfully completing the first transatlantic telegraph message, the U.S. patent office revoked several of Tesla’s patents, granting them instead to the more marketable Marconi. This decision was later overruled by the Supreme Court, which declared in 1943 (just a few months after Tesla’s death) that the patents belonged to Tesla, and Marconi’s patents were invalid.

As Tesla grew older, he began visiting local parks and rescuing injured pigeons, which he took to his hotel room to nurse back to health. He also asked the chef at the Hotel New Yorker to prepare a special mix of seed for his pigeons, which he hoped to sell commercially. This behavior sparked speculation about his mental health, and it became increasingly difficult for Tesla to find work. Ultimately Nikola Tesla died penniless in New York at the age of 86.