When Nikola Tesla was born in present-day Croatia on the stormy night of July 10, 1856, it’s said that the midwife thought of the lightning as a bad omen and that “he will be a child of darkness,” to which, interestingly enough, his mother replied: “No. He will be a child of light.”
His career went from rags to riches, a rollercoaster of breathtaking successes and monumental failures that irreversibly ignited a world of wireless communications and electromagnetism.
His mother was also an inventor as she invented household appliances while raising her five children. Her hobby spurred Tesla’s interest in electrical invention, and it’s said that he inherited her sharp photographic memory.
As a child, Tesla was so brilliant in solving hard mathematical problems that he was accused of cheating at school. He trained for an engineering career at the Johann Rudolph Glauber Realschule Karlstadt in Germany, the Austrian Polytechnic Institute in Graz and the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague during the 1870s.
At Graz, he first saw the Gramme dynamo that operated as a generator and became an electric motor when reversed, so he tried to conceive a way to use alternating current (AC) to advantage. The AC motor introduced power transmission by using two- or three-phase current.
After his father’s death, he left college after completing only one term.
He later moved to Budapest, where he became a chief electrician at the Central Telephone Exchange in 1880 and was later promoted to an engineer. There, he was able to visualize the principle of the rotating magnetic field, so he developed plans for an introduction motor, his first step towards the usage of alternating current.
He was later hired as an engineer at the Continental Edison Company in Paris and constructed his first induction motor in 1883 in Strasbourg, France. However, the Edison Company didn’t pay him the money he was promised, so he quit.
In 1884 and at the age of 28, he left Europe for the United States, with a letter of introduction to inventor and businessman Thomas Alva Edison, whose DC-based electrical works fast became the standard used around the country. After Edison hired him, he contributed to troubleshooting the company’s efforts to create an urban power utility.
He was also approached in 1885 by investors who asked him to invent an arc lightning system in exchange for financing his newly founded Electric Light Company in New Jersey. The engineer was forced out of the company after he completed the work, left without any investment.
He and Edison also parted ways amidst a troubled business-scientific relationship.
Thereafter, he worked as a ditch digger for $2 a day during the 1886-1887 winter that he described as a period full of “terrible headaches and bitter tears.”
In 1887, Tesla received funding for his company by investors Alfred Brown and Charles Peck. Each of them owned one-third of the interests. Right after, he ventured in a Manhattan laboratory on creating his alternating current induction motor, the polyphase system, which solved various technical problems that formerly bedeviled other designs. This new polyphase system would now allow AC electricity to be transmitted over important distances.
With his technology patented, Tesla demonstrated his device to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (now the IEEE) at Columbia University in New York, in 1888. George Washington, head of the Westinghouse Electric Company in Pittsburgh, licensed Tesla’s invention for 25000$ in cash in May 1888, hired him and provided him with plus stock and royalties per horsepower for each motor, knowing that Westinghouse was seeking this type of inventions to integrate into his alternating-current power system.
During that time, the so-called “War of the Currents” opposed proponents of the alternating-current (AC) and those of the direct current (DC) over the two currents safety systems. The Tesla-Westinghouse approach eventually won out, proving that AC power was a workable and economical long-distance system.
Tesla also enjoyed a reputation as a philosopher, poet, and connoisseur and owes his creativity to the fact that he never married, as he once said: “I do not think you can name many great inventions that have been made by married men.” Single Tesla focused all his energy on invention, to the extent that he only slept two hours a night, always looking for a project to work on.
Wireless transmission of energy became his lifelong obsession in 1890, after he illuminated a vacuum tube wirelessly, with the energy being transmitted through air. He also developed the first neon and fluorescent illumination and took the first X-rays photographs.
In 1891, the same year Tesla became an American citizen, and based on the apparatus used in 1887 by the German experimentalist Heinrich Hertz, the Tesla Coil was originally developed as an induction coil to power Tesla’s new wireless lighting systems and is still used in radio and television technology today. The eponymous coil produces high-voltage, low-current, high-frequency alternating-current electricity.
Tesla conducted demonstrations of his AC system at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the Westinghouse Corporation was chosen to supply the lighting. The fair illuminated more light bulbs than could be found in the entire city of Chicago.
This success helped Westinghouse win the contract to be the first to generate electrical power at Niagara Falls, a model that made the first AC hydroelectric power plants in the States.
In 1898, Tesla publicly demonstrated at the Electrical Exposition in New York City his “automaton” technology by controlling a model boat with a remote control, which could be best described by the term robot, which was not introduced until 1920 by Czech playwright Karel Čapek. This radio-controlled boat model is the ancestor of today’s remote-controlled drones.
A new geo-electrical phenomenon, the terrestrial stationary waves, was observed by Tesla in 1899 in Colorado, which later became the basis for his wireless communications and wireless energy transfer plans so they provide free energy worldwide. This discovery proved that the Earth could be used as a conductor that could resonate at a certain electrical frequency. To widen his test base, he built a laboratory in Colorado, where he detected signals that he claimed were transmitted by an extraterrestrial source.
Before Tesla could perfect this scheme, Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first radio message across the Atlantic in 1901, which drove Wall Street financiers to invest in Marconi and not Tesla.
By the end of 1901, the construction of the “World-Wide Wireless System,” known as Wardenclyffe Tower, had begun in Long Island, New York. The project was mainly leaning towards a massive transmission of free energy. However, the site had fallen into foreclosure in 1915.
Marconi and Ferdinand Braun won the 1909 Nobel Prize for physics “in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy,” which infuriated Tesla. He unsuccessfully sued Marconi in 1915, claiming infringement on his patents. In the same year, it was rumored that he and Edison would share the Nobel Prize. However, this never happened but he did receive numerous awards and honors in his lifetime, including the Edison Medal in 1917.
“Tesla set wheels going round all over the world... What he showed was a revelation to science and art unto all time,” said Professor A. E. Kennelly of Harvard University when the inventor received the Edison medal.
He also received a congratulatory letter from Einstein on his 75th birthday. Furthermore, Tesla played the part of a mad scientist in the popular imagination. He continued his research and turbine design, and at 81, he claimed to have completed a “dynamic theory of gravity,” which was never published.
The increasingly eccentric engineer died alone of coronary thrombosis on January 7, 1943, at the age of 86 in New York City, where he had lived for nearly 60 years. His ashes are now kept at the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade and his nephew Sava Kosanovich inherited his papers, diplomas, letters, and laboratory notes.
Belgrade has an airport named after him, as does the world’s most famous electric car, and the SI-derived unit of magnetic flux density.
“The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine,” Tesla once said, and one can hardly imagine a world without his contributions. Many of our technologies today would not have seen the light without him, such as the remote control, X-rays, laser, radio, and even robotics.
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