Acknowledgements: NikolaTesla.fr would like to thank the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, for providing material for this article.
It is important to note that this paper is, of course, only binding on its author; the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is not directly involved in its writing.
In November 1915, the Press announced that the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) and Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), yet that year the Prize was awarded jointly to Sir William Henry Bragg (1862-1942) and his son William Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971) for their services in the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-ray.
To justify the initial erroneous announcement, there are rumours that this Prize was not awarded to Edison and Tesla because of their rivalry, highlighted by the so-called “War of the currents“. There are also others rumours that the interested parties refused it for the same reason.
The awarding of a Nobel Prize follows rules initially defined by Alfred Nobel in his will. In particular, the Prize is awarded during the lifetime of a laureate from a list of candidates selected by the Nobel Committee on the basis of proposals from eminent personalities in the five fields – at Tesla’s time – of physics, chemistry, literature, peace and medicine.
The Archives of the Center for History of Science at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences keeps the proposals of eminent persons. It turns out that the name Thomas Alva Edison was proposed once – on November 6, 1914 – by the American palaeontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn.
In contrast, Nikola Tesla’s name was also proposed once to the Nobel Committee by the Austrian physicist Felix Ehrenhaft, but that was for the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physics. In the absence of a nomination of his name, Tesla could not therefore have been a laureate in 1915.
To explain why the list of laureates published in the press mentions the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Romain Rolland, which was indeed the case, and since Edison’s name was included in the proposals for the 1915 Nobel Prizes ; it seems that an indiscretion, followed by an erroneous extrapolation, are at the basis of the false awarding of the Nobel Prize to Edison and Tesla.
Nikola Tesla did not win any Nobel Prizes, but this story begs the question:
Should Nikola Tesla have received a Nobel Prize?
First of all, it is important to clarify that eminent personalities can only propose names to the Nobel Committee on the basis of scientific discoveries duly established, or supposed to be so, at the time of the award. There is therefore no reason to blame these eminent persons or the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for not awarding a Nobel Prize to Nikola Tesla.
However, if we reason solely in terms of the anteriority of a discovery – whose author was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics – then Nikola Tesla should have been the winner or co-winner of three Nobel Prizes in Physics, including the very first.
1st Nobel Prize
The very first Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded in 1901 to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923) for the discovery of X-rays on November 8, 1895. Tesla had previously discovered this radiation, but on the night of March 13 to 14, 1895, a fire broke out in the cellar of the building where his laboratory was located, on the second floor. The fire destroyed most of his papers and equipment, including the evidence of his earlier discovery.
Tesla, fair-play and knowing full well that evidence is indispensable in Science, congratulated his friend Röntgen.
2nd Nobel Prize
In 1909, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) and Karl Ferdinand Braun (1850-1918) for their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.
These contributions were based, among other things, on patents that Marconi had obtained from the U.S. Patent Office without regard to patents previously granted to Tesla. On June 21, 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court recognised the anteriority of Nikola Tesla’s patents over those of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of America and, consequently, invalidated Marconi’s patents.
3rd Nobel Prize
In 1936, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to Victor Franz Hess (1883-1964) for the discovery of cosmic radiation in 1912 and to Carl David Anderson (1905-1991) for his discovery of the positron.
More than a decade before Hess, Tesla had already discovered this radiation.
History is written and Nikola Tesla will not have received this prestigious award, but is it not a tribute to Tesla to recognise that he is a great discoverer who has marked the Science of his time?