Wireless Remote Control

1898

Nikola Tesla

Only four years after the invention of radio and over a decade before voice was transmitted over radio, Nikola Tesla invented the remote control. In 1898, he demonstrated his remote control with a radio-controlled boat at an exhibition in Madison Square Garden.

Image result for nikola tesla remote control
Tesla’s Remote Control

Realizing that people would not understand the idea of a radio-controlled device, Tesla yelled out commands to a battery-controlled toy boat causing it to sail right or left. “When first shown… it created a sensation such as no other invention of mine has ever produced,” said Tesla.

Tesla’s remote control could only transmit binary on-and-off signals but used those to control the sail, rudder, and lights of his boat. Not only did he sail the boat, but also used the lights to answer questions he’d shout to it.

Tesla invented and applied for a patent on the remote control. However, patent examiners rejected the application believing it impossible.

In hindsight, Tesla had simultaneously invented and demonstrated radio, remote controls, and the possibility of drones. And disguised the entire demo as a magic trick because nobody, including the highly trained patent examiners, understood his invention.

Tesla tried to sell his invention to the US Navy who rejected it as too flimsy for war. In many ways they were correct: Tesla’s technology was arguably too early. However, over a century later, drones became ubiquitous in war. Even as early as WWII, both the allies and axis used remote control steered, bombs, operating as early cruise missiles.

Like all his other innovations, Tesla never meaningfully profited. His invention was more of a novelty at the time because there were no appliances to control remotely. Much like pneumatic tires, the patent expired decades before there was any use for it.

Tesla Boat Patent

Zenith’s Eugene Polley eventually innovated the first mass-produced remote control, the Flash-Matic TV remote, in 1955. To this day, couch potatoes everywhere worship him.

Mass Market Electricity

Edison created the first public electric company, powered by DC, in 1882 in lower Manhattan. His system included generators, junction boxes, fuses, sockets, and parallel wiring. Since DC current could not be transmitted far Edison’s initial electrical plant was limited in scope. Eventually, there would be many small, expensive electricity plants scattered around major cities in the US.

General Electric

Insull worked for Edison, starting in 1881. He created electric plants throughout the US. An early Edison employee, Insull was one of the founders of General Electric.

He left GE in 1892 under circumstances that are unclear. Historians speculate GE passed him over for promotion or he disagreed on how to finance the company. In any event, GE culture has a long history of pushing out talent.

In any event, Insull eventually moved to Chicago and ramped up his own electric company, envisioning something entirely different, a mass market for electricity. Before Insull, there were about 5,000 Chicago customers electrified because electricity was extremely expensive.

Before Insull, there were many noisy, expensive, small, polluting power plants. After him, there were far fewer, much larger, far-away power plants. He created the modern centralized electric factory transforming electricity into a mass-market product. Insull was also the first to use turbines to drive ever-larger electrical generators.

The Electric Factory & Modern Grid

Insull built massive scale, extended the grid everywhere, vastly lowered the price, and increased the reach of electric to four million people. He wanted to electrify everybody near and far, to turn electric into a must-have commodity like water. Because generated electricity that was not used was wasted Insull also had to convince his new electrified customers to use electricity.

Insull, with a personal net worth of $150 million in 1929, went bankrupt during the Great Depression. He’d raised an enormous amount of investment and lost not only his own funds but also those of his investors. Worried, he fled to Paris, was kidnapped in Turkey, then returned to the US where he was criminally charged with selling worthless stock. However, a jury acquitted him after five minutes of jury deliberation. He died, in 1938, with a net worth of -$16 million.

Alternators / Long-Distance Transmission of Electricity

Alternators and Alternating Current enabled the long-distance transmission of electricity. Edison’s electrical plant ran on DC which does not transmit far. Under Edison’s system, there were electric plants every few blocks in cities (the inner Chicago loop had 25 electric plants at one point). Tesla’s AC system transmitted electricity much further; it’s the same we use today at both power plants, transmission, and in homes and businesses.

Background

There are two basic types of electricity, Direct Current (DC) and Alternating Current (AC).

DC current flows in one direction making it easier to work with and arguably less likely to electrocute people, two important factors for early electrical pioneers. Edison built his electrical plant and equipment using DC.

However, DC cannot be transmitted far without the electricity fading away. In the earliest days of electricity, where electrical plants were for businesses and wealthy people located in city centers, this hardly mattered. At one point, there were 25 electrical plants in the Chicago loop. Manhattan had electricity plants.

The European team ZBD had developed and patented an efficient an inexpensive method for AC generation and transmission. George Westinghouse, who had become wealthy innovating a better brake for trains but was hoping to move into the field of electricity, licensed the patent and went into business, competing against Edison’s DC plants (and patents). Another AC company was the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, that also relied on AC.

Tesla & Westinghouse

Westinghouse continued building AC plants and infrastructure and soon came across a young immigrant who had worked briefly for Edison then left to work on his own electrical innovations, Nicola Tesla. Tesla believed that AC electricity was far more practical than DC. He worked on innovating AC generators, transmitters, switches, appliances: everything required to build an AC electrical grid. He also built an AC motor, which electrical engineers at the time though impossible.

This brought about two competing electrical standards, AC and DC. Edison and Tesla each tried to sell their standard leading to the infamous “War of the Currents.” At one point, things ran so out of control that Edison, a capital punishment opponent, suggested New York State contact Westinghouse to build an AC electric chair, demonstrating the inherent danger of AC. Edison proposed using the term “Westinghoused” rather than electrocuted.

Centralized Electrical Plants

Over time, the benefits of a central large electrical plant became obvious (see: Insull). Generating electricity at one large central facility, then distributing it widely, is more efficient. Since this model did not work for DC, which could not be distributed more than a few kilometers, AC won out. Eventually, Thomson-Houston merged with Edison Electric company to form General Electric; the company focused on AC. Edison never showed up to work after the merger.

Today, AC electricity is what powers the houses and factories of the world though there are still limited largely low-voltage uses for DC electric. In any event, AC and DC are now largely interchangeable; while wall sockets are AC, computers, phones, tablets, and LED lamps run on DC power.

Induction Motors

“Intelligent people tend to have less friends than the average person.”

Nikola Tesla

There are two types of electricity, Direct Current (AC) and Alternating Current (AC).

Vastly simplifying, in DC electrical systems the current flows in one direction, like current in a stream. This makes designing certain appliances easier; the motor turns in the direction of the current much like a stream turns a water wheel. Spinning a motor or clicking a telegraph is relatively straightforward.

In AC the current flows both directions. The primary advantage over AC is current can travel much further than DC without a loss of power. However, turning a motor – harnessing the electricity do something useful – is more complicated. A water wheel if the current goes back and forth simultaneously is not all that useful.

Nikola Tesla worked briefly for Edison but quit. Westinghouse, the inventor of air brakes for trains, funded him. Among Tesla’s many inventions is a motor that uses AC electricity. Besides operating from long-distance electrical lines, the Tesla “induction” motors use magnetism and do not require brushes, which DC motors used to harness the electricity. This meant fewer moving parts and less friction, making them more powerful and longer lasting. Additionally, Tesla’s motors did not require inverters and started up immediately.

Almost all electric motors today are induction motors, including those that power electric cars.

Edison and others believed AC-based motors, like induction motors, were impossible.

Steam Turbine

In much the same way that Watt’s condensing steam engine vastly increased the value of Newcomen’s engine, the steam turbine vastly improved the value of Edison’s electric factory.

Steam turbines allow steam, generated by heating water, to efficiently turn generators, usually to make electricity. In addition to steam, water (ex: waterfalls) or wind (ex: windmills) can drive turbines.

Background

Watt and similar steam engines would use the pressure of steam to move the engine. Simplifying, pressure would build up to tip a bucket that would drive a crankshaft converting the movement into energy, similar to how a river drives a water wheel. Typically, gravity (though, in later models, steam) would then return the shaft so the process could repeat. These engines had a lot of power but ran at a slow speed.

Electrical generation, however, requires less power but higher speeds to turn the generator. Steam velocity spins generators rather than steam pressure. Yet steam velocity is very fast and would quickly cause any system, especially one built of 1800’s era metals, to fall apart. There were no metals that could withstand the centrifugal force of steam velocity.

Parsons

In response, Parsons created a series of blades, each larger than the next, which spin at their own manageable speed. The slower but collectively more powerful spinning is due to capturing the steam velocity as it expands. The steam turbine is still in use today to generate electricity.

Jet engines use a similar system in reverse, where the engine turns a turbine that compresses air for thrust. Modern windmills also use turbines to generate electricity.

Parsons created Newcastle and District Electric Lighting Company, an early power company (established 1889, about seven years after Edison’s New York power plant) and the first to use turbines to spin generators. Parson’s turbine company still exists as a division of Siemens.

Gutaf de Laval created a different type of turbine to accelerate a stream.

Electricity Factory & Distribution Network

After inventing the long-lasting light bulb, Edison needed an electrical grid to deploy his innovation. Remember that, at this time, all electrically powered devices ran off batteries.

Background

The Edison Electric Illuminating Company, founded after the light bulb company, funded both an electrical generation station, grid, and all supporting equipment.

Edison innovated better dynamos, circuits, switches, meters, fuses, and lots of cabling. The electrical factory and grid are vastly more complex than the light bulb. It required a herculean effort innovating technology and business methods.

The directors (Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan) of the Edison Electric Light Company a different predecessor, funded the station with $80,000. Additionally, Edison also contributed significantly from his own wealth.

Recognizing that a one-off electricity factory wouldn’t work, Edison eventually built factories to manufacture dynamos, bulbs, and the rest of the equipment.

He personally helped dig up the streets of Manhattan to run underground electrical wires, which could only be done between 8 PM and 4 AM. Finally, Monday, Sept. 4, 1882, the first electrical plant came online, Pearl Street Station. Among the first customers to have electric lighting were the offices of the New York Times.

The whole project was a relatively quick success. Factories were especially eager to switch from gas to electric since electric lamps were less likely to start fires. Edison created successor small companies that eventually coalesced to become General Electric.

Edison Burns Out

Though the primary innovator of this is marked as Edison it is arguably Tesla, who briefly worked for Edison, that devised much of what enables a modern electrical grid.

As the business evolved, Edison’s companies acquired and merged with countless other companies. However, Edison never liked the merger that became General Electric. He asked that his name be dropped from the company.

He sold his 10% share in GE and used the money to finance an iron-mining project that never panned out.

Thomas Edison did not make a substantial amount of money from General Electric. When he died his estate was worth $12 million. The industry he created, at that time, was worth about $15 billion.

Long Lasting Light Bulb

Edison’s bulb is well-known but what’s less understood is the enormous infrastructure required to power it. Edison created a power plant in New York City, power cables, transformers, power meters, insulators. When the lights finally came on, at the New York Times building, it represented the end of a herculean undertaking and the beginning of a new era.

Background

At the simplest, Edison’s long-lasting bulb lowered the cost of doing things at night.

Countless people, dating back to 1802 (77 years prior to Edison’s bulb), invented various lightbulbs. Russian engineer Paul Jablochkoff lit up the Avenue de l’Opera in Paris using arc lights from an AC generator. American William Wallace used arc lights to illuminate his foundry. But arc lights were too bright for ordinary use (they’d been in use, in lighthouses, since the 1860’s) and they were dangerous, routinely throwing sparks.

Edison

Edison, by then already a well-known innovator ー the “Wizard of Menlo Park” ー invented the first bulb suitable for indoor use, safe, long-lasting. Edison’s low-cost bulb represented a revolution. It was neither too bright, nor too dark, and safe.

Edison realized a series of centralized dynamos, rather than batteries, could create long-lasting electrical current, an electricity factory. He also worked out that the key to electrical distribution, and a lamp, was low amperage but (relatively) high voltage, requiring less copper wire to power the system.

“No Matches Are Needed…”

Edison’s Pearl Street Station came online Sept. 4, 1882.

Yesterday for the first time The Times Building was illuminated by electricity. Mr. Edison had at last perfected his incandescent light, had put his machinery in order, and had started up his engines, and last evening his company lighted up about one-third of the lower City district in which The Times Building stands. The light came on in sections. First there came in a series of holes in the floors and walls. Then several miles of protected wires, then a transparent little egg-shaped glass globe, and, last of all, the fixtures and ground glass shades that made everything complete.

The lamp is simplicity itself… To turn on the light nothing is required but to turn the thumbscrew; no matches are needed, no patent appliances. As soon as it is dark enough to need artificial light, you turn the thumbscrew and the light is there, with no nauseous smell, no flicker and no glare.

The New York Times, Tuesday, September 5, 1882.

Using carbon thread, created from burnt cotton, in a vacuum tube the bulb that would light, and change the world, was born.

Decades passed before Edison’s low-cost light bulbs became ubiquitous due to a lack of widespread electrical grid.

Cornelius Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan financed Edison’s work.

Rechargeable Battery

1859

Frenchman Gaston Planté invented the lead-acid rechargeable battery. In the early years, his battery lacked commercial value. Planté’s battery stored electricity and recharged easily but tended to release the electric in enormous bursts that, at the time, offered limited utility value.

Before the Planté battery was the Voltaic Pile and later derivatives. These were common but produced only small amounts of electricity, typically just over one volt.

The Planté battery used two sheets of lead separated by rubber strips immersed in a solution of 10 percent sulfuric acid. His battery delivered two volts, double the then state-of-the-art. Interestingly, this is not altogether different than the materials used in modern car batteries 150 years later though modern batteries typically deliver 12 volts.

By the early 1800s, his battery was used to power electric cars. At the time, and until the 20th century, electric cars were more common and considered more desirable than noisy, dirty liquid fuel-powered cars. Women especially preferred electric cars and virtually all New York City taxis, until the early 20th century, were electric On New Year’s Eve, 1899, the majority of cars in the world were electric and ran on Planté’s battery, or a derivation thereof. One problem with the Planté battery is the charge wouldn’t last long which, combined with fierce lobbying, eventually led to the rise of the internal combustion engine.

Internal combustion engines overtook electric cars but Planté’s battery eventually proved useful with the invention of car starting motors. Before electric car starters, people used a hand-crank to start their car. However, under certain circumstances, the crank could thrust backward hurting or even killing the car owner.

The battery, filled with lead, is heavy and toxic. However, it delivers a strong charge. The design has not changed significantly in today’s car starter batteries.

Planté was a professor of physics at the Polytechnic Association for the Development of Popular Instruction. His work was solely academic for five years before he started to develop his battery.

Electrical Generator (Dynamo)

1831

Michael Faraday
Joseph Henry

No one person “discovered” electricity. The story about Ben Franklin flying a kite with a key in a thunderstorm and discovering electricity when the kite was struck by lightning is especially ridiculous. A Russian apparently tried the same experiment soon after reading about it and was electrocuted.

Alessandro Volta, who invented the Voltaic battery that made modern electrical experiments practical, is probably the most important early discoverer of electricity. Not long after the world saw everything from electrolysis to the telegram.

However, if any single person should be credited with creating electricity as we know it today that person would be Michael Faraday. We’ve written about Faraday in relation t the electrical transformer, which he also created. However, it is impossible to overemphasize the importance of his work in the modern world. While he never commercialized anything, his foundational work is vital.

Among other things, Englishman Faraday and American Joseph Henry invented the electrical dynamo.

Dynamos use magnetism to spin and generate electricity. By essentially flipping his electric motor around, Faraday demonstrated it could also generate electricity. Significantly, his early generator served as a starting point for more efficient generators in the future. To this day, generators power homes and businesses throughout the world.

Joseph Henry was doing similar work in the US. Henry had invented the electrical magnet, which arguably deserves an Innowiki entry of its own though we try to avoid purely scientific innovations. In 1830, Princeton University funded a trip allowing Henry to meet and collaborate with Faraday. The two worked together to create the dynamo.

Eventually, Edison built on the principle of Faraday’s transformer to create much larger dynamos that generated electricity for a central power station. Westinghouse and Tesla built AC versions of the same and took the market.

Insull paired the Westinghouse generators with Parson’s steam turbines to create the modern (pre-natural gas) electricity plant. Renewables are beginning to take hold but there is a fine chance that the electricity you’re using to read this article came from the evolution of this same technology.

Electrical Transformer

1831

Michael Faraday

Faraday’s transformer acted as a knowledge bridge to future innovators that electricity could be transformed. It wasn’t especially useful on its own except to signal to future scientists what is possible. His transformer was vital to the creation of the modern electricity grid and electrical innovations.

The device itself is hand-built by winding strings and metal. Scientists estimate it likely took at least ten days of tedious labor to complete.

When Faraday passed an electrical coil through one coil he detected one in another coil, proving the link between magnetism and electricity. Faraday’s Law of Induction is a cornerstone of electrical engineering.

Specifically, Faraday’s Law states: “The electromotive force around a closed path is equal to the negative of the time rate of change of the magnetic flux enclosed by the path.”

While Faraday’s original transformer was a hand-built one-off ring, today transformers are everywhere. They are a vital component of modern infrastructure. Enormous transformer stations power factories and blocks of residential houses. Tiny transformers are found in everyday electronics. Assuming you’re reading this article on a device, it is powered by some type of transformer that derives directly from Faraday’s.

Faraday was born into a life of poverty. His father was a blacksmith and his mother a servant. He attended a local school until age 13 when he left to take a job as a bookbinder. Rather than just bind the books he bought them home and read them. Eventually, he went to open science lectures paying one shilling per lecture, given to him by his older brother.

He eventually earned a job at the Royal Institution as a scribe to Sir Humphrey Davy, who went on to mentor him. Faraday remained at the Royal Institution for 54 years.

Historians regard Faraday as one of the greatest innovators in history; he all but invented how to generate, harness, and use post-Voltaic-pile electricity. Einstein kept a photo of him on his wall.

Faraday declined a knighthood and refused burial in Westminster Abbey. He died wealthy from grants and University positions but did not commercialize his work (Edison, Tesla, and the rest would do that).

Faraday’s original transformer remains in the Faraday Museum in London, part of the Royal Institution.