Wireless Remote Control


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.


Early radio transmitted Morse code over the air, not sound. Transmitting Morse Code was much less expensive than wired lines.

In the mid 1880’s Heinrich Hertz published the results of experiments proving an ability to transmit electromagnetic waves, later known as radio waves. His work was purely scientific.

Both Tesla, in the US, and Marconi, in Europe, worked to transform Hertz’s invention into a commercial innovation. Several other scientists also built on the work though none achieved commercialization.

In 1894, both Marconi and Tesla demonstrated workable radio. Both Marconi and Tesla are credited with the invention of radio. The US awarded a patent to Tesla; the British awarded a patent, for the same innovation, to Marconi.

Historians believe that Marconi did, in hindsight, invent radio first but the US awarded patents and recognition to Tesla to keep the technology in the US.

Marconi went on to build an extremely successful business. Marconi’s company survived, after many acquisitions, until 2005 when it went defunct as a result of the dot-com crash.

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.


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.

Movie Camera & Projector

In 1878, Muybridge famously created high-speed moving photos, calling his machine a Zoopraxiscope. His photos illustrated how people and animals move. Eventually, Walt Disney and other animators and artists later famously used the strips to create more realistic animations.

Eventually Edison’s Kinetoscope, publicly demonstrated in 1891, was a primitive device that showed moving pictures to one person at a time. Initially, Edison did not view his Kinetoscope as a substantive invention; it was a novelty for use in carnivals.

Subsequently, the Lumiere brothers of France, built off Edison’s work to create the first genuine movie camera and projector. They patented their movie equipment, which used perforated film Feb. 13, 1895.

The brothers showed the first movies on Dec. 28, 1885, at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, projecting ten films. Despite their success, the Lumiere’s refused to sell their movie equipment to others, making commercialization impossible. Later, they would create an early color film company, and had a family film company that was already doing well, so they prospered financially, just not from movies.

The Lumiere’s built upon Edison’s work because Edison failed to register European patents, believing his innovation to be impractical. Therefore, Many consider the Lumiere’s the true inventors of movies since multiple people could watch at the same time. Eventually, Edison did improve his movie camera and projector and built it into a successful business.


Mimeographs are essentially low-cost but low-quality and easy-to-use printing presses. They produced good-enough copies at a cost far lower than hand copying.

Copies are produced from user-created stencils. Mimeographs remained the dominant form of document duplication for almost a century until photocopy machines became inexpensive and ubiquitous.

For decades, mimeographs were the only way to cost-effectively self-publish magazines and short books.

“Within a few years the position of copyist, scribe, or scrivener disappeared,” said Frank Romano, president of the Museum of Printing in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Edison invented and patented core mimeograph technology. He sold it directly and also licensed it to the A.B. Dick Company of Chicago that trademarked the term “mimeograph.”

This is an odd case where a different company reaped the bulk of the profit from an Edison invention.

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.


It’s difficult, and arguably pointless, to separate the innovation of the automobile and Internal Combustion Engine (ICE). The use of an ICE for a “horseless carriage” was so obvious that early engines were all used for cars. Engine propelled buggies were, by far, the most popular use case though ICE’s also powered other applications.

Early Attempts

Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769 invented the first automobile, a steam-powered carriage created and driven around Paris. Cugnot’s three-wheel car was useful for carrying around equipment too heavy for horses. But the machine was clunky and difficult to control, eventually causing the first car crash. Cugnot’s car, banned on the streets or Paris, remains to this day in a Parisian museum. Cugnot received an honorary pension from King Louis XV.

In the United Kingdom, Richard Trevithick used a high-pressure steam engine he’d created to build a self-propelled car that he drove around with friends on Christmas Eve, 1801. That car burned up while Trevithick and friends drank at a nearby pub and failed to tend the fire powering the engine.

Trevithick later realized steam engines do not work well as automobiles and went on to innovate the locomotive. American Oliver Evans, a concurrent innovator of the high-pressure steam engine, also used his as a hybrid car/boat in 1805; he also abandoned it as impractical.

First Real Cars

French brothers Niépce, inventors of photography, built and patented the first ICE car in 1807. France was still reeling from the post-revolution political instability and finding investors in a new technology proved difficult. The brothers focused their work on England, where they improved their engine and automobile, but still failed to gain traction. However, they eventually moved on to photography where they had more success commercializing their innovation.

Fellow Frenchman François Isaac de Rivaz also claimed to innovate a hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine in 1807 though the details are sketchy.

Decades passed with little progress until Lenoir created a coal gas-powered internal combustion engine and car to drive with. Lenoir’s car was the first mass-produced (using standards at the time) automobile. Jules Verne noted in his 1863 novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century, that the streets of Paris would be filled with “the Lenoir machine.” Besides cars, Lenoir’s ICE was also used for small engines: printing presses, pumps, tools, etc…

Otto & Daimler: Liquid Fuel Cars

German Nikolaus Otto created the first modern engine that used liquid fuel and ran on the same principles. Otto realized the Lenoir engine was inefficient and loud due to its origins as a steam engine. Otto built and commercialized a different type of engine that had four separate actions, the four-stroke engine. His engine would 1) fill a piston with coal-gas and air, 2) compress the mixture, 3) ignite the mixture, producing movement, and 4) release the exhaust.

Gottlieb Daimler, who had worked with Otto, started a company to produce his own engines, using legal trickery to void Ott’s patents and avoid paying royalties. With Otto’s patent voided, Karl Benz also started a car company.

In 1885, both Daimler and Benz – who had two separate companies – changed their engines from coal gas to liquid fuel that was easier to manage. To make the fuel ignite they invented the carburetor, which turned the liquid into a flammable aerosol.

In 1895, Frenchman Levassor changed the body of an automobile from a horse carriage, with a motor on bottom, to a lower vehicle with the motor in front and gears for different speeds, the modern car. Levassor, who won the first major car race, died the next year from injuries sustained in a race and never had a chance to build a company. His competitor and sometimes collaborator, leading French bicycle maker Armand Peugeot, created an early auto company.

Daimler and Benz cars were extremely expensive, and many car companies formed, also creating high-cost cars. Ransom Olds formed an auto company in 1897, being the first to use standardization and an assembly line to build affordable cars.

Interesting note: the French repeatedly had first-mover advantage in cars and engines but never managed to commercialize their work as effectively as the Americans and Germans.

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.


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.


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, 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.


The telephone vastly lowered the cost of communication by eliminating the need for Morse Code and enabling real-time voice conversations.

Bell was a Scottish immigrant, a teacher for deaf children. The inventor of the telephone would go on to marry one of his students, a then 15-year-old deaf young woman.

Due to his work with the deaf and his temperament as a natural tinkerer, Bell focused on a telegraph to help deaf people communicate. That work segued into a voice telegraph, that Bell termed the telephone.

In 1874 Antonio Meucci arguably created the telephone, two years before Alexander Graham Bell. Meucci had several working telephones but lacked the capital to either fully commercialize or adequately patent his innovation. In 2002 the US House of Representatives passed an acknowledgment stating Meucci invented the telephone. “If Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the (patent) caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell,” reads the proclamation.

Whomever actually invented the telephone it was Edison, in 1876, who eventually created and patented the amplifier. That enabled people to more easily hear the transmissions. Edison’s amplifier made Bell’s telephone commercially viable, usable by and useful to ordinary people.

Bell’s telephone company, established in 1877, focused on local lines. It was eventually acquired by the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T), that focused on long lines, in 1899.