Nikola Tesla’s tireless work has led to quantum leaps in technology and greatly inspired many scientists. Find his life featured here in the Nikola Tesla Infographic.
Thanks to the internet and many archives, such as the Tesla Memorial Society, there is a wealth of information available to us about his life and work. Read on to discover the greatness that was and is, Tesla - a scientist ahead of his time!
Born in 1856 in the quaint little village Smiljan (in modern-day Croatia), you could almost say Nikola Tesla had a portentous birth. There was a massive lightning storm the day he was born. While the midwife said he would be a child of the storm, his mother ( a brilliant lady who invented home appliances) countered that he would be a child of the light. Indeed, he had his fair share of storms and light in his life. The next pivotal moment in his life was when his brother Daniel died terribly in a riding accident in 1863. It shook him to the extent that he reported seeing visions: signs that he was a sensitive soul (as many beautiful minds are).
He went to primary school in Smiljan. He was an incredible student, with abilities like performing Integral Calculus in his head. Moving on to Karlovac for high school, he promptly fell ill upon his return, in 1873, to his hometown. His father had been pressuring him to be a priest, just like him, but he had his heart set on being an Engineer. Seeing his progeny so sick and frail with cholera, he relented to let his son have his way and sent him to the Austrian Polytechnic, Graz, Austria, in 1875 with a Military Frontier Scholarship. It was here that he witnessed the Gramme dynamo, which operated as a generator. It turned into an electric motor when reversed. This would be instrumental in his later work. Though he had stellar grades in his first year (don’t we all), he was constantly distracted: gambling with his tuition fees and skipping lectures. As a result, he dropped out of University and ran away from home in 1878, rather than let his family know of his failure. He also studied Philosophy at the University of Prague. In 1882 he worked with the Continental Edison Company, in Paris.
In 1884, he moved to the United States and was hired as an engineer in New York, in Thomas Edison’s Manhattan base: Edison Machine Works. Edison offered him $50,000 for an improved design on DC motors and generators. When Tesla actually accomplished this feat, Edison backed out of paying him, saying it was a practical joke. A few contentious months later, Tesla left the company.
He founded the Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing company in association with a pair of businessmen. He filed many electrical patents. When his goals and those of the businessman diverged, they took all his intellectual property and left him with nothing. Penniless, he resorted to digging ditches for $2 a day to make ends meet.
In spite of this disappointment, Tesla persevered. In 1887, he started the Tesla Electric Company with the help of investors. At his new laboratory in Manhattan, he developed the alternating current induction motor (in 1888). Having witnessed a demonstration of this device, the Westinghouse Company licensed the technology, providing royalties and payment upfront (per horsepower). With this benevolent influence backing him, he was free to come up with a high-voltage transformer: his revolutionary Tesla coil (1891). This invention could wirelessly transfer electricity using the principles of resonance and electromagnetic force. It was a quantum shift in the way people understood electricity.
Soon afterward ensued the infamous “War of the currents.” Edison, promoting direct current (DC), tried to discredit the alternating current (AC) put forth by Tesla in 1893, even attempting to demonstrate the danger by trying to have a death row convict executed in an AC-powered electric chair. Though he had proved the validity of his alternating current, Tesla’s fortunes started to waver as backers of AC and DC started a price war and were undercutting each others’ prices left, right and center. Westinghouse ran into financial difficulty and requested Tesla to sell his patents. Tesla gave up a vast fortune again, out of his generosity, compassion, and love of science.
In 1893, at the World’s Columbian Exposition, i.e., the World’s Fair, he helped Westinghouse supply power to the event and dazzled everyone with the wonders of abundant light and such curiosities as wireless electric light. It was here that he had glass tubes bent into the names of famous artists to create the first neon signs.
Tesla’s experiments continued in his laboratory. A significant one was his research into X-ray technology, investigating everything from ionizing and electromagnetic radiation to Kirilian photography. It is no wonder that modern-day MRIs honor him with the tesla (represented by the ‘T’ symbol) being a derived unit of magnetic field strength in the International System of Units. He discovered X-Rays around the same time as William Röntgen, in 1895.
Unfortunately, 1895 was also the year that Tesla’s New York lab and everything in it, including notes and equipment burned down. He moved to Colorado Springs for a while and returned to New York in 1900.
Nikola Tesla had a dream which influenced his decision to come to the US. He had always wanted to harness the energy from Niagara Falls to generate energy. He got a step closer to this dream when Westinghouse was awarded the contract to develop a power plant at the Falls. The Niagara Falls Commission allowed Tesla to use AC as it was considered more powerful and safer to transport over longer distances. With help from the wealthy elite such as J.P Morgan and the Rothschilds, the Adam’s power station opened its doors in 1896 with three Tesla AC generators.
It was a rainy September day in Madison Square Gardens when Tesla demonstrated his teleautomaton. It was the world’s first-ever radio-controlled device in the form of a miniature boat. It worked on the basis of encoding and decoding Hertzian waves directly from within the device. At the heart of this was a logic gate. Even though the initial application of these devices was for military use, the US government did not employ this technology till World War II in RPVs (Remotely Piloted Vehicles) and more recently in UUVs (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles).
Tesla devoted a certain amount of time developing thermo-dynamic conversion. He improved the basic concept of bladeless turbines, especially after seeing huge piles of broken blades at shipyards. Related to this, he filed the first patent for Fluid Propulsion in 1909. This is where he introduced his bladeless design which was configured as a compressor/pump. The second patent was for a Turbine in 1911, and the third for a Valvular Conduit in 1916. The Tesla Turbine was designed for efficiency and was reversible. Like many of his inventions and revolutionary ideas, it didn’t quite attract the interest it deserved and has only gained popularity in recent years.
Some other Tesla discoveries that he deserves recognition for include:
Radio waves (1896 - idea stolen by Marconi)
Rotating Magnetic Field
Polyphase alternating system
In the latter part of his life, Tesla received numerous awards and recognitions. They included:
The Order of St.Sava, II Class, Government of Serbia (1892), to recognize civilians for achievements of merit to the Church, arts and sciences, the royal house and the state.
The Order of Prince Danilo I (1895), awarded to Montenegrin nationals and foreigners for the support and recognition of Montenegrin independence and the royal tradition of the Petrović-Njegoš dynasty, as well as individuals whose social or scientific work contributed to the progression of art, science or culture.
The AIEE Edison Medal (1917) was given to deserving individuals in recognition of remarkable achievements in the electrical arts, electrical engineering or electrical science.
Rather like the passionate artist starving for his art, Nikola Tesla paid more attention to his work, than he did to his own health and well-being. Though he lived to the ripe old age of 86, he did so relatively alone and penniless. Would he have experienced a different fate had he received the recognition, fame, and fortune he so rightly deserved? We will never know.
How we can celebrate his life is by remembering his many contributions to our modern lives, and his tireless work in the face of adversity. Nikola Tesla is truly one of the greatest minds of all time.