Tesla Tech Fair celebrates innovation

Community members gather around displays showcasing engineering projects related to Nikola Tesla at the Tesla Tech Fair.

A cacophony of hissing Tesla coils and whirring remote control helicopters filled the Thayer School of Engineering’s MacLean Atrium on Thursday afternoon. Undergraduate students, professors and community members, including wide-eyed Boy Scouts, gathered around displays to learn about the inventions and legacy of Nikola Tesla at the Tesla Tech Fair.

The event featured a panel discussion highlighting Tesla’s impact on modern society and exhibits by community members.

The panel focused primarily on the technical aspects of Tesla’s inventions and the life of the inventor.

Panelist Bernard Carlson, a history professor at the University of Virginia, who wrote “Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age,” said that Tesla’s life was defined by extraordinary vision, imagination and a tension between the ideal and the illusion of science and technology.

“Tesla believed that there was a fundamental principle behind everything that needed to be found in order to create a perfect invention,” Carlson said.

Tesla’s belief in the ideal explanation often conflicted with reality, because not everyone could understand what he intended for inventions. Tesla was forced to offer approximations, or “an illusion of what an invention was or could be,” he said.

Born in Croatia in 1856, Tesla developed a strong sense of creativity and determination as a means to cope with his persistent childhood nightmares.

“His driving force was that if he could imagine it, then he wanted to see it in the real world,” Carlson said.

Fellow panelist David Perreault, an electrical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said this persistence led to a lifetime of scientific achievement. Tesla has more than 270 patents in his name.

Although Tesla was responsible for a wide array of inventions and ideas, his work most strongly contributed to rotating magnetic fields and high frequency tuning and resonance. His primary achievements included the development of the polyphase alternating current system of power transmission, the Tesla coil for generating high frequency electricity and functional remote control systems, Perreault said.

These inventions have had a broad and varied impact. The alternating current system serves as the basis for the U.S. power grid as well as remote control technology, which is applied for a range of uses including military drones. Tesla’s legacy continues to inspire engineers across the world, Perreault said.

“Tesla was a person who thought big and worked hard,” he said. “He contributed significant amounts and didn’t let the naysayers stop him.”

The event aimed to include multiple disciplines to highlight Tesla’s background and achievement, lead organizer and engineering professor Charles Sullivan said. At the event, exhibits displayed student applications of Tesla’s work, including wireless phone chargers, alternating current power systems and induction motors.

Kathryn Waychoff ’16 said she enjoyed the multidisciplinary environment.

“I think it’s really cool that we’re bringing history and art to engineering,” she said. “I think a lot of times engineers are downplayed. This makes it look really fun.”

The fair was scheduled to occur in conjunction with “Tesla in New York,” an opera that will premiere at the Hopkins Center this weekend. The opera focuses on Tesla’s genius and his struggle to distinguish between science and magic.

The fair was co-sponsored by the Hopkins Center and Thayer as part of Dartmouth’s Year of the Arts initiative.

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