Nikola Tesla: Remote control

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We had to get Tesla in here somewhere. While Nikola Tesla is best known for his wireless and electrical patents, his inventions influenced many of the twentieth century's later technological innovations.

Nikola Tesla

Tesla (Image source: teleautomaton.com)

One interesting argument is that patents Tesla was awarded for a remote control device—the teleautomaton—was a forerunner to the modern transistor. Of course, Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley's invention of the transistor at Bell Labs in 1950 helped catapult us into the computer age. So where does a piece of wireless technology created in the late 1890s fit into the history of the computer?

Tesla wasn't thinking about computers at all when he demonstrated his remote-controlled miniature boat at the first Electrical Exhibition in 1898, at Madison Square Garden. He was hoping his technology would ultimately lead to the creation of the automaton—basically, a robot—while in the short term, his remote control could be applied to existing weaponry like torpedoes.

Tesla remote control

Tesla's remote controlled boat. (Image source: Wikipedia)

Not described in patent application #613,809, claims the appropriately named Tesla fan site, teleautomaton.com, was an idea Tesla feared would be stolen if it were published. "The hidden technology consisted of a method for encoding and decoding Hertzian waves directly from within the device.  What this required was a system within the device to toggle actions based on different signals….in other words a logic gate."

Author and engineer Leland Anderson—who has probably written the most about Tesla and his inventions over the years—noted that patent applications filed after World War II related to modern computers were stymied by Tesla's earlier patents. "Tesla's 1903 patents 723,188 and 725,605 contain the basic principles of the logical AND circuit element.  The simultaneous occurrence of two or more prescribed signals at the input to device element produced an output from the device element," Leland is quoted as saying in Margaret Cheney's Tesla: Man Out of Time. " …Thus the subject early Tesla patents, which were designed to achieve interference protection from outside influences in the command of radio controlled weapons, have proved to be an obstacle for anyone attempting a basic logical AND circuit element patent in this era of modern computer technology."

Tesla's original remote control patent #613,809 was referenced as recently as 2005 by Sony Corporation in two patents, US7376843 "Remote control of VCR with electronic mail" and US7454626 "Transmitting/receiving apparatus and a transmitting/receiving method," both issued in 2008.

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