I am a retired engineer and small business owner who has authored over 70 books on history and various topics.
Who Was Nikola Tesla?
Nikola Tesla was a prodigious Serbian-American inventor who laid the groundwork for the modern cell phones, radar, laser weapons, artificial intelligence, the Internet, and many more devices that shape our world today. During his lifetime he obtained over three-hundred worldwide patents, bringing to life the modern conveniences of electric motors, robots, remote control, and radio. According to the Vice President of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at the beginning of the twenty-first century, “Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr. Tesla’s work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trucks would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead and idle. His name marks an epoch in the advance of electrical science.” Though a brilliant man, the maverick thinker wasn’t much of a businessman and would go from rags to riches, and finally return to rags, dying in poverty but it was quite a journey along the way!
Tesla has cast a long shadow; just ask the billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk, who named his revolutionary electric car company after Nikola Tesla in 2003. In an archived post on the Tesla website, Mr. Musk explained why he named the company Tesla Motors: “The namesake of our company is the genius Nikola Tesla, an inventor, electrical engineer, and scientist. Among his life's many inventions . . . are the induction motor and alternating-current power transmission. Without Tesla‘s vision and brilliance, our car wouldn't be possible.” Although Nikola Tesla has been dead for nearly eighty years, his influence is still felt by every person on planet earth today.
Early Years and Education
Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856, at the stroke of midnight, where he claimed a fierce electrical storm raged that night. He was born to Serbian parents in the village of Smiljan, on the eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in what is today Croatia. His father, Milutin Tesla, was a clergyman of the Serbian Orthodox Church who expected his son to follow him and become a priest. In the mountain village where Tesla grew up, there were few career choices for young men; most became farmers, soldiers, or priests. To the distress of his father, Tesla was not attracted to any of them; rather, he showed an early inclination for math and science.
Tesla's mother, although illiterate, had a very sharp and inventive mind, constructing all kinds of hand-crafted tools and mechanical appliances. She also displayed her brilliance in memorizing many Serbian epic poems despite never receiving any formal education. Nikola credited his incredible memory and creative abilities to his mother's genetics and influence.
Tesla went to a primary school in his village of Smiljan, where he studied German, arithmetic, and religion. In 1870 he moved to Karlovac and attended high school, where he was greatly influenced by his mathematics teacher Martin Sekulic. The classes were held in German, as it was a school within the Austro-Hungarian Military Frontier. Tesla’s talent for math and science became apparent at the school. He graduated in 1873, finishing a four-year term in only three years.
At the age of 17, while preparing for the seminary, Tesla contracted cholera and was bedridden for nine months, coming close to death several times. Out of despair, Tesla's father promised to let him study engineering, even to send him to the best technical institutions in the world if he recovered from the illness. To everyone's relief, the young man got better and recovered fully.
In 1877, at the age of 21, Tesla travelled to Graz, Austria, to begin his college education at the Graz University of Technology on a Military Frontier scholarship. Tesla excelled in his first year, never missing a lecture, and earned the highest grades possible. It was during this time that he quickly became obsessed with electricity and wanted to know more about this wonderful science. More than five decades earlier in England, Michael Faraday had discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction, which made it possible to generate electricity. Faraday discovered that having an electric circuit in a changing magnetic field would induce an electric current to run in the wire. This was the invention of the method of creating oscillating or alternating current. And it was that invention that Tesla later harnessed into the electrical system that drives our civilization. Early electric motors operated on direct current electricity and required a system of sparking connections to induce a rotary effect in the machine.
While a student in Graz, Tesla became interested in the problems associated with the induction motor. During a classroom demonstration, he noticed excessive sparking between the commutator and the brushes of the dynamo used as a motor in the demonstration. He suggested to his instructor a motor without a commutator could be devised to eliminate the sparking. His professor ridiculed his ideas and repeatedly tried to embarrass him in front of his classmates. At the end of his second year, Tesla lost his scholarship and became addicted to gambling. His school performance suffered, and he later left the university in his third year without graduating. Embarrassed, Tesla severed relations with his family and later suffered a nervous breakdown. His father, who unsuccessfully tried to bring him home, died in 1879.
The harness of waterfalls is the most economical method known for drawing energy from the sun
— Nikola Tesla
In 1880, Tesla moved to Budapest where he found employment at the Central Telegraph Office. Within a few months, Tesla was allocated the chief electrician position. There he made many improvements to the Central Station equipment and claimed to have perfected a telephone repeater or amplifier, but he did not patent or publish the details of his inventions. It was during this time that Tesla continued to work on the problem of improving the electric motor.
His understanding of the principles of the rotating magnetic field, upon which all polyphase induction motors are based, came to him in a flash of insight. As he recalled the incident, he was walking through a park with a friend, Antony Szigety, when he began to recite a passage from a play by the German playwright Johann Goethe then “ . . . the idea came like a lightning flash. In an instant I saw it all, and drew with a stick on the sand the diagrams which were illustrated in my fundamental patent of May, 1888, and which Szigety understood perfectly.”
In 1882, Tesla moved to France, where he began working for the Continental Edison Company, designing and making improvements to electrical equipment. The next year he was sent to Strasburg, Germany, to repair an electric plant. While there, he built a crude prototype of his electric motor. He experienced “the supreme satisfaction of seeing for the first time rotation effected by alternating currents without a commutator.”
The Move to America
In 1884, Tesla’s manager in Paris moved to the United States to oversee the Edison Machine Works in New York City and offered him a letter of reference. Tesla, seeking his fortune in America, boarded a ship bound for his new home an ocean away. After a series of mishaps in which he lost his money and tickets, and almost lost his life when a mutiny broke out on the ship, Tesla finally landed in New York City on June 6, 1884, with a book of poetry and four cents in his pocket. He was hired by Thomas Edison to work at his Edison Machine Works on Manhattan's Lower East Side as a field engineer.
Tesla was tasked to improve the performance of Edison's Direct Current (DC) generators. In 1885, Tesla remarked that he could redesign Edison's inefficient motor and generators, making an improvement in both service and economy. Tesla claimed he was offered a bonus of $50,000 by the manager of Edison Machine Works if he succeeded. After months of work, Tesla fulfilled the task and inquired about payment. Edison or his manager (the details of the story vary) replied that he was only joking, saying, "Tesla, you don't understand our American humor," and instead offered a slight raise in salary. Tesla refused the offer and resigned immediately. The fact was, Edison had built his business on the direct current system and any talk of alternating currents or AC flew in the face of this plan for a direct-current electrical system.
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The War of Currents
Tesla initially paid dearly for his pride, living through a painful year of hard labor digging ditches for two dollars a day to make ends meet. But he was still determined to develop his alternating-current motor. At that time, the electrical revolution was taking place across the world. The sudden leaps in manufacturing, household technology, and general efficiency of work due to electricity lifted many of the economies of the world, including America, which experienced an enhanced growth period that would last for decades. Similarly, million-dollar industries were arising out of nowhere, brought on by the new electrical technology. Tesla decided to put his energy into joining the electric revolution after being cheated by his former employer.
With help from a group of investors, he formed the Tesla Electric Company in April 1887 and opened a laboratory on Liberty Street just a few blocks from Edison's offices. There he began to assemble a prototype of the motor he had envisioned years earlier along with all the components of the system of AC power generation. In May of 1888, Tesla unveiled his motor to the world, a simple self-starting design that did not need a commutator, which avoided sparking and the high maintenance costs of replacing the brushes.
He eventually struck up a partnership with industrialist George Westinghouse. Over the next five years, 22 U.S. patents were awarded to Nikola Tesla for AC motors, generators, transformers, and transmission lines—the most valuable patents since the invention of the telephone. In the summer of 1888, Tesla’s business associates negotiated a licensing deal with George Westinghouse for polyphase induction motor and transformer designs for $60,000, and in addition, a royalty of $2.50 per AC horsepower produced by each motor.
This put Tesla and Westinghouse in direct competition with Edison and his DC system, which was backed by the Edison Electric Company. Edison’s DC system, though fundamentally safer than the AC system, had the serious disadvantage that it couldn't transmit electricity over great distances. A power plant was required every mile and the copper cables that carried the electricity were as thick as a man’s arm. Tesla's AC system, on the other hand, used thinner wires, had higher voltages, and could transmit electricity over much longer distances.
During the late 1880s, Edison began a media smear campaign to discredit the AC system being developed by Tesla and Westinghouse. Edison publicly electrocuted cats, dogs, and even a circus elephant using Tesla's alternating current to prove that it was too dangerous to be used in any home. Edison also aided in the creation of the electric chair using AC power for the execution of prisoners.
The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair
At the 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago, Tesla showcased several of his inventions in an exhibit sponsored by the Westinghouse Electric Company. Westinghouse Electric had won the contract to light the Exhibition with an AC electrical system, which turned out to be one of the key events in the history of AC power. Tesla put on remarkable demonstrations to prove that the AC was safe. At the fair, Tesla impressed the spectators with his amazing demonstrations; in one, he would put his hand on a terminal, which shot an electric current through his own body to produce light. As the years went on, AC increased in popularity and became the standard due to its technical advantages. As a result of his inventions, Tesla became famous and rubbed shoulders with the most important people of his time.
Edison, on the other hand, eventually fell out of favor within his own company and lost majority control in the 1889 merger that formed Edison General Electric. By 1889 Edison Electric's own subsidiaries were starting to add AC power transmission to their systems, and the next year Edison Machine Works began developing AC-based equipment.
Middle Years (1890s)
Tesla’s inventive genius knew no bounds and in 1891 he invented the Tesla coil, a device used to produce high-voltage, low-current, high frequency alternating-current electricity. The device essentially transmitted radio signals and was used commercially in spark gap radio transmitters. Tesla also theorized that radio waves can transmit information and successfully demonstrated a radio-controlled boat, all before Guglielmo Marconi was known for his works in pioneering long-distance radio transmission.
In 1893, Tesla was approached for help in generating hydroelectric power from Niagara Falls. Tesla succeeded in designing the first ever hydroelectric plant that was powerful enough to light a city at Niagara Falls, showing the world the potential of waterfalls in generating large-scale practical energy. The project used Tesla’s polyphase AC system, which became the prototype of all large-scale electrical networks.
He also inadvertently captured the very first X-ray images, predating Wilhelm Rontgen's December 1895 announcement of the discovery of X-rays by a few weeks. Tesla also noted the hazards of X-rays early on and warned people of the dangers of exposure to its radiation.
Unfortunately, not all went well during this period. In 1895 a fire broke out in the basement of the building that housed Tesla's laboratory, engulfing the entire structure. The fire was devastating both professionally, as much of his equipment was destroyed, as well as financially since the equipment was uninsured.
Nikola Tesla the Man
If you met Nikola Tesla on the street today, you would probably come away feeling you had just met someone a little different; he had many quirks. Possibly due to the near-death encounter with cholera in his youth, Tesla was a germaphobe. He never shook hands with people and required nine napkins when he sat down for dinner. As well as a fear of germs, he also had a phobia of fat women, earrings, pearls, and hair. He had an obsessive-compulsive nature, counting nearly everything he saw and washing his hands exhaustively.
Tall and slender, at well over six feet, he towered over most men. His memory was phenomenal, being able to recite long passages from books, and he spoke eight languages. He was always neatly dressed in public with European formality and sported a thick, neatly trimmed mustache on his angular face. He didn’t marry and reportedly never had a sexual relationship. During an interview he was asked if an inventor should marry, he responded “ . . . no . . . [an] inventor’s nature is so forceful, so wild and passionate, that by giving himself to a woman, he would give everything and nothing would be left for his chosen field.”
Final Years and Legacy
Tesla's story of the rise to international prestige and fame was followed by an equally dramatic retreat into public shame, depression, and loneliness. Denial of his failures, starting with the Wardenclyffe Tower, led to further failure and further denial, a downward spiral which eventually led Tesla to a mental breakdown. The name of Tesla continued to flourish in the minds of the public even as he retreated into his own private world. As a reliable source of scientific prophecy, he was often exploited by the popular press.
By the later part of his life, Tesla became clinically insane. He hallucinated to such an extent that the boundaries between reality and his imagination became blurred. He also developed a strange attraction toward pigeons, seemingly having delusions of love between himself and a particular white pigeon, stating, “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.”
Over his lifetime, Tesla obtained more than 300 patents and 700 inventions. But despite all of this, he was living in relative poverty. For many years he worked alone in a room at the hotel New Yorker living on milk and crackers. It was there that he would die in his sleep on January 7, 1943, at age eighty-six, of “natural causes incident to senility.”
Tesla could have easily been the world's first billionaire, but money was not his priority. For example, after the "War of Current", Westinghouse was in financial trouble, nearly becoming bankrupt. Westinghouse pleaded with Tesla to temporarily cut back his royalties just so the company could get through those tough times. Amazingly Tesla just ripped up the contract, denying himself what would have amounted to billions of dollars. He stated that he was just happy that Westinghouse believed in him when no one else would. All the rest of the money he had accumulated was spent on numerous failed projects such as the Wardenclyffe Tower.
Tesla's ideas helped America grow into an industrial nation and powerhouse of the twentieth century, yet his marginalization was prevalent then and continues today. His lack of acclaim may be due to the fact that he didn't seek profit or fame; rather, he wanted to improve the world. As Tesla once said, "Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine".
In the summer of 1900, Tesla moved to Shoreham, Long Island, and began construction of the Wardenclyffe Tower under the backing of financier J.P. Morgan. The tower rose 187 feet and was meant for wireless transmission. He wrote of the prospects of a wireless system, “I have no doubt that it will prove very efficient in enlightening the masses, particularly in still uncivilized countries and less accessible regions, and that it would add materially to general safety, comfort, and convenience, and maintenance of peaceful relations.” Tesla, however, had larger ambitions and decided to scale up the facility and add his ideas of wireless power transmission to provide free energy to the world. This was to better compete with Guglielmo Marconi's radio-based telegraph system. But Morgan was a practical businessman and in 1905 decided to withdraw his backings and fund Marconi instead.
The project dragged on without Morgan’s backing, running hopelessly behind schedule and over budget. Failure was inevitable and Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower was abandoned in 1906, never becoming operational. Tesla's most ambitious and ingenious project ended up a failure, the tower itself demolished for scrap in 1917. This was Tesla's first major failure, bringing him shame and setting him on a downward spiral personally and professionally.
- Jonnes, Jill. Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World. Random House, Inc. 2004.
- Munson, Richard. Tesla: Inventor of the Modern. W.W. Norton & Company. 2018.
- Susskind, Charles. “Tesla, Nikola.” In Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement Three 1941-1945, edited by Edward T. James. Pp. 767-770. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1973.
- Swezey, Kenneth M. “Tesla, Nikola.” In Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles C. Gillispie, pp. 286-287. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1976.
- Young, Ryan. Nikola Tesla: Father of the Electric Age – A Short Biography. C&D Publications. 2016.
- Internet Wayback Machine, Accessed October 17, 2019. http://web.archive.org/web/20071016044752/http://www.teslamotors.com/learn_more/why_tesla.php
© 2019 Doug West
Carol Morris on October 31, 2019:
Thanks for this well written, interesting article. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Doug West (author) from Missouri on October 30, 2019:
Thanks for the comment. Tesla was one of a kind. The part of his story I don't like is that he died poor, alone, and insane. Not a good ending for a person that made so many positive contributions to the world.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on October 29, 2019:
Excellent article, Doug. I remember reading Tesla wanted to prove electricity could be pulled from the air and then sent to homes. His ideas have proven valid today to some extent. He was truly a genius, and I never quite liked the way Edison treated the fellow although I know they were competitors. Great read as always.