Even if we aren’t familiar with Nikola Tesla’s inventions and discoveries in the areas of electricity, many of us are familiar with the Tesla automobile. The car company borrowed its name from Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943), an inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist and futurist who is best known for his influence on alternating current and the electricity supply system.
The Early Years
Nikola Tesla was born in what is now known as Croatia, into a family of five children; he had three sisters and one older brother who was killed in a horse-riding accident when Nikola was five. Nikola’s father was an Eastern
Orthodox priest. He was raised in what was then Austrian Empire’s Croatian Military Frontier.
Tesla’s education includes courses at Graz University of Technology. In his first year, he worked tirelessly and was an excellent student; his efforts were rewarded with a commendation from the dean of the technical faculty. At the end of his second year, Tesla became addicted to gambling and lost his scholarship. In his third year he gambled away his allowance and tuition money. He later gambled back his family’s funds and repaid his parents. Gambling took up so much of his time that when it was time for examinations, Nikola was unprepared and asked for an extension. It was denied and he left school during the second semester of his third year. He never graduated from school.
After he left school in 1878, he cut all ties with his family and in December 1878, without telling anyone, he moved to Maribor. His friends thought he had drowned in the nearby Mur River. Tesla took a job as a draftsman and spent time playing cards with local men. A few months later, in March 1879, his father traveled to Maribor to beg his son to return home. Nikola refused and about this same time suffered his first of several nervous breakdowns. That same month the police removed Nikola from Maribor for not having a residence permit and he moved back home. On April 17, 1879, Tesla’s 60-year old father died.
Two years later Tesla moved to Budapest, Hungary and took a job at the Budapest Telephone Exchange where he became chief electrician. He made many improvements in central station equipment and claimed to have perfected a telephone amplifier (which was never patented or publicly described).
In 1882, Tesla moved to Paris and began working at the Continental Edison Company, where he installed indoor incandescent lighting throughout the city. He gained a lot of practical experience in electrical engineering and began designing and building improved versions of generating dynamos and motors.
Tesla was charged with resolving engineering problems at other Edison utilities in France and Germany.
Tesla’s Arrival in America
Tesla immigrated to the US in June 1884 when he took a position at Edison Machine Works, the manufacturing division of Edison Electric, located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The building was overcrowded with several hundred machinists, laborers, managing staff and 20 “field engineers,” one of which was Tesla. One of his projects was to develop an arc lamp-based lighting system. At the end of only six months, Tesla quit the company over a financial dispute.
After leaving Edison, Tesla worked on patenting an arc lighting system…perhaps the same one he’d developed at Edison. He proceeded to submit patents and gained financing for his arc lighting manufacturing and utility company named the Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. He worked to improve the DC generator and installed the new system in Rahway New Jersey.
Early investors were not interested in Tesla’s ideas for new types of AC (alternating current) motors and electrical transmission equipment. His financial backers decided the manufacturing side of the business was too competitive and chose to form a new utility company; they abandoned Tesla’s company.
In 1887, Tesla secured funding for his new Tesla Electric Company and by the end of that year he had successfully filed several patents.
In 1901, JP Morgan gave Tesla $150,000 with the agreement that 51% of any profits generated from wireless patents would go to Morgan. The fact that Marconi beat Tesla to the punch put a damper on the Morgan agreement. When Tesla asked for more money, Morgan balked and didn’t invest another penny. Tesla continued to experiment for a few more months but in 1902, his inability to secure more investors forced him to put his wireless project on hold.
• Tesla had a photographic memory.
• He was a polyglot. He spoke eight languages: Serbo-Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian and Latin.
• Tesla was well known for designing the Alternating Current (AC) system of electricity in 1887. Today, the AC electrical system remains the standard around the world.
• In the late 19th century, he created the well known Tesla Coil, which laid is the foundation for wireless technologies and is still used today in radio technology. The Tesla coil is an inductor used in many early radio transmission antennas.
• In 1884, Tesla joined Edison Machine
Works, Located on Goerck Street in New York City’s Lower East Side. Several hundred employees worked in the machine shop – machinists, laborers, staff and about 20 engineers. The project was to build a large electric utility in Manhattan. About six months later, Tesla quit his job over a dispute relating to bonuses. There is evidence that Tesla met Edison, but only in passing.
1888, George Westinghouse was looking for a way to supply the nation with long-distance power and he was convinced that Tesla’s inventions would help him achieve his goal. With that in mind, George Westinghouse purchased Tesla’s patents for $60,000 in cash and Westinghouse stock. (Equivalent to approximately $1.5 billion in 2019 dollars.)
Tesla and Westinghouse teamed up to compete with Edison’s direct-current (DC) system, which he was designing to power the country. When the Westinghouse Corporation was selected to supply lighting to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, it was a direct hit on Edison’s DC system.
Throughout his career, Tesla developed ideas for a large number of inventions but most of them were patented by other inventors. He was a pioneer in the discovery of radar technology, X-ray technology, remote control and the rotating magnetic field, which is the foundation of most AC machinery.
Ten of Tesla’s Major Contributions
1. The Polyphase Alternating Current Induction Motor (1887-8).
The induction motor revolutionized the possibilities for the appliance industry and is based on the principle of rotating magnetic fields.
2. Alternating Current (1880s)
When George Westinghouse entered the electric lighting business in the mid-1880s, he partnered with Tesla. AC current could be was easier and cheaper to transmit over long distances and safer to use. Edison’s DC current was known to be dangerous and expensive over longer distances. To prove the safety of AC current, Tesla used a Tesla coil to to send electricity through himself to produce light at the World Columbian Exposition.
3. The Tesla Turbine (1913)
The Tesla Turbine consists of flat steel discs properly balanced in a chamber that are moved with an inlet of steam or compressed air. Conventional turbines used blades. The Tesla Turbine was patented in 1913 as an “alternative to piston engines” and could be used in automobiles, airplanes and other vehicles. Over time, it was deemed to be impractical and saw limited success.
4. One of The First Hydroelectric Plants (1896)
Westinghouse and Edison won the contract to build a hydroelectric AC power station at Niagara Falls. The project delivered power to Buffalo and by 1896 was one of the first power stations of its kind in the world.
5. Tesla Coil (1891)
Tesla experimented with Heinrich Hertz’s electromagnetic radiations and radio
waves and developed the Tesla Coil, which he patented in 1891. The Tesla Coil could wirelessly transmit electricity and led to the “magnifying transmitter” forming the basis of Tesla’s wireless electricity dream.
6. The Electro-Mechanical Oscillator (1893)
Tesla patented a steam-powered electric generator, known as Tesla’s electro-mechanical oscillator. The reciprocating electricity generator forces steam into the oscillator which exits through a series of ports. The steam pushes a piston (attached to an armature) up and down which causes a high-speed vibration that to produces electricity. Tesla developed many versions of his electromechanical oscillators in an effort to replace inefficient reciprocating steam engines used to power generators.
7. Radio Technology (1900, 1904, 1915 & 1943)
In 1895, Tesla was preparing to send his first radio signal about fifty miles.
Unfortunately, his lab burned down and before he could test his equipment, Guglielmo Marconi (who had financial backing from Andrew Carnegie and
Thomas Edison) patented his radio device in England, based on two circuits. Tesla’s s
patent for a multi-circuit radio device was awarded in 1900 in the US and the US Patent Office rejected Marconi’s patent. Soon, the wealthy and well-connected Marconi transmitted a radio signal across the Atlantic, which infringed on many of Tesla’s patents. In 1904, the US Patent Office reversed their 1900 judgment and gave the patent to Marconi. In 1915, Tesla sued Marconi but was financially too weak to fight the corporation.
Oddly, in 1943, after both Marconi and Tesla died, the US Patent Office decided to uphold Tesla’s radio patent.
8. Tesla’s Wireless Remote Control (1898)
In 1898, Tesla performed at an electrical exhibition in New York City’s MadisonSquare Garden when he wirelessly controlled a boat using radio wave technology. He tried to sell the technology, which he called tele automation” to the US military and a type of radio-controlled torpedo but there was no interest. Over the years the technology evolved and was used in television sets, DVD players, etc.
9. X-Ray Development (1894)
Tesla wanted to solve damage he saw in his photographs but the1895 fire in his lab
put a hold on that project. In the meantime,
Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen went public with his
“Roentgen Rays,” or X-Rays. Tesla continued his experiments to produce what he called “Shadowgraphs.” Tesla understood that strong shadows could be produced only at great object-film distances, with short exposure times. He was also the first to note that X-rays had biological hazards.
10. Nearly 300 patents
Tesla held nearly three hundred patents worldwide. Not all of his innovations were patented, and some remain hidden in the patent archives. At least 278 patents have been issued to Tesla in 26 countries – mostly in the United States, Britain and Canada. These include patents for the dynamo electric machine, electromagnetic motor, electric incandescent lamp, electrical distribution systems and generators, fluid propulsion and signaling systems.
Tesla never married and claimed that his chastity was helpful to his scientific abilities. He also said that he felt women were superior to men and that he could never be worthy enough for a woman. He was not impressed when he noticed that women were trying to outdo men and in doing so were losing their femininity. In 1924, he said, “In place of the soft voiced gentle woman of my reverent worship, has come the woman who thinks that her chief success in life lies in making herself as much as possible like man—in dress, voice and actions, in sports and achievements of every kind…The tendency of women to push aside man, supplanting the old spirit of cooperation with him in all the affairs of life, is very disappointing to me.”
Tesla did not engage in many relationships as he found enough stimulation in his work. In later years his bond was with pigeons that he fed and cared for on a regular basis. The few people who did know or work with him claimed he was “distinguished, sweet, sincere, modest, refined and generous.”
Tesla worked every day from 9:00am until 6:00pm and ate dinner at exactly 8:10pm at Delmonico’s restaurant and later at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Tesla would telephone his dinner order to the headwaiter who would also be the only one to serve him. “The meal was required to be ready at 8:00pm. He dined alone except on rare occasions when he would give a dinner to a group of people to meet his social obligations. Tesla would then return to his work, often staying at his offices until 3:00am. Tesla was 6’2” tall and consistently tipped the scales at 142 lbs. he was seen as an elegant, stylish man who was meticulously groomed. He was described as having light eyes, big hands and “remarkably big” thumbs. Tesla’s exercise regime included walking between eight and ten miles a day. Every night he curled his toes on each foot one hundred times, claiming that it stimulated his brain cells.
In the fall of 1937, one night after midnight, Tesla left the Hotel New Yorker to make his regular commute to the cathedral and the library to feed the pigeons. While crossing a street a few blocks from the hotel, Tesla was unable to dodge a taxi and was thrown to the ground. His back was severely wrenched and three of his ribs were broken. Since he refused to consult a doctor (a lifelong practice), the extent of his injuries was never known, and he never fully recovered.
On January 7, 1943 when he was 86, he died alone in Room 3327 at the New Yorker Hotel. A maid found his body two days later when she ignored the DO NOT DISTURB sign on his door. The assistant medical examiner, H.W. Wembley ruled that the cause of death was a heart attack.
At the time of his death, Tesla was poor and reclusive. He had lived in New York City for nearly 60 years. However, the legacy of the work Tesla left behind him lives on. In 1994, a street sign identifying “Nikola Tesla Corner” was installed near the site of his former New York City laboratory, at the intersection of 40th Street and 6th Avenue.
Tesla in the Movies
The Secret of Nikola Tesla, a 1980 biographical film starring Orson Wells as J.P. Morgan.
Nikola Tesla, The Genius Who Lit the World, a 1994 documentary produced by the Tesla Memorial Society and the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.
The Prestige, a 2006 fictional production about two magicians directed by Christopher Nolan with rock star David Bowie portraying Tesla.
By Naoma Welk