Carnegie Mellon University unveils bust of great inventor Tesla

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By David Templeton,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Some historians consider him the greatest inventor since Leonardo da Vinci, if not in history. Three of the Top 10 greatest inventions of the last century are his or directly based on his discoveries.

But anyone who thinks the answer is Thomas Edison must sit in the corner and wear a dunce cap.

The perhaps unexpected answer is Nikola Tesla -- the father of electricity, inventor of the radio, and guy whose discoveries led to computers and robotics.

Tesla, who died in 1943, has a close Pittsburgh connection, having worked here with George Westinghouse to develop his idea of polyphase alternating electrical current. Westinghouse eventually purchased Tesla's inventions.

Carnegie Mellon University yesterday unveiled one of 19 bronze busts of Tesla that John Wagner, 78, of Ann Arbor, Mich., and his former students in Dexter, Mich., have donated to universities nationwide.

Mr. Wagner, a retired elementary school teacher, said he used Tesla's story to inspire students to write letters and raise money to offset the $114,000 price tag for the bronze sculptures.

His goal, he said, is to spread word about the man whose influence on modernity largely has been overlooked.

Ronald Farrington Sharp, the father of one of Mr. Wagner's students, sculpted the bronze bust and plaque poised on a base of black Indian granite.

Mr. Wagner said his students designed and sold hundreds of T-shirts bearing Tesla's likeness from 1983 until 1993. They also solicited donations from companies to help pay for busts given to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Cornell universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with Penn State and other state universities.

At Carnegie Mellon, the bust is displayed in the entryway of the Robotics Institute in Newell-Simon Hall on the Oakland campus. During the unveiling ceremony, Mr. Wagner spoke about Tesla's accomplishments and importance to modernity and his own campaign to make his name synonymous with the likes of Edison.

"He is inspirational," he said, providing historical detail about Tesla while describing his and his students' efforts to raise money for the project. "I have fallen in love with the Tesla story."

In his lecture after the ceremony, Jeffrey Sellon, an electrical engineer with Western Engineering & Research Corp. in Denver, Colo., said Tesla's many discoveries, including as many as 750 patents, "had more profound an effect on the modern world than Westinghouse, Edison and [Albert] Einstein."

The National Academy of Engineers ranked electrification of the modern world -- based on Tesla's invention of alternating current -- as the greatest engineering feat of the 20th century, with Tesla's invention of radio ranked sixth along with his sizable influence on the eighth-ranked engineering feat -- computers.

Born in 1856 in Austria-Hungary, Tesla eventually emigrated to the United States when no one in Europe would embrace his ideas of alternating current. His U.S. patents for AC electrical transmission systems became the foundation for electric power used today.

He also invented robotic devices including a remote-controlled "teleautomaton" boat and developed the Tesla coil transformer, which spawned radio, X-ray tubes, and vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.

His other inventions include the telephone repeater, the induction motor, wireless communications and fluorescent lights.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
John Wagner laughs as a Tesla coil-equipped robot creates an arc with the bust of inventor Nikola Tesla yesterday at Carnegie Mellon University. The bust was one of 19 that Mr. Wagner and his former students have donated to universities nationwide.

David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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