People often think of Tesla when they hear the word. Although Tesla is also known as the inventor of the radio, some people will disagree and credit Guglielmo Giovanni Maria Marconi with that invention.
In the 1890s, Tesla began his first experiments with radio. He called them a Tesla coil, something similar to the glass spheres at science museums that explode with purple bolts of plasma. Tesla gave a lecture in 1893 about his radio experiments. He then gave a demonstration to the public at the National Electric Light Association Convention, St. Louis, just a few days later.
Before Tesla even reached the podium, there was a frenzy. Although his talk was originally scheduled in a small lecture hall, tickets were quickly sold. Scalpers were already present on the steps before the doors opened. According to The Electrical Engineer, it was “crowded to the point of suffocation” when Tesla entered the hall. Although most people were too far away from the stage to see it, they were nevertheless delighted to be there. Tesla was a great performer, going full Vegas – he did it ten years before Vegas existed. His body was used to conduct electric currents. He shot violet electricity from his fingers and created electric sparks. He lit lamps by touching them. He also “made fine cotton-covered wires strung on a frame above the table luminous so that in darkness they looked like attenuated purple caterpillars yards in length.” Another predictable crowd gathered in the theater lobby to offer their hand.
In between moments of dazzling the crowd with purple electricity balls and magic lamps, Tesla showed that signals could be sent through space using a receiver. He explained radio technology as it is known today.
Marconi, a 1900 U.S. patent holder for radio technology, was rejected because it was too similar to Tesla’s work. In 1904, however, the court reversed its decision. This is often attributed to political maneuverings. Marconi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the radio in 1911. The whole thing devastated Tesla emotionally. In 1945, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Tesla should own the radio patent. The justices used his St. Louis lecture to invalidate Marconi’s claims.
Twain & Tesla
Twain was also a friend of Tesla. They became close friends around the time of Tesla’s St. Louis lecture. Twain was photographed holding a Tesla coil-lit vacuum lamp and Twain was captured with him. Twain also credited Twain for helping him recover from a horrible illness 25 years before their meeting. Twain wept when Tesla said that he found his books so captivating as to make him forget his hopeless state.