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A Biography of Nikola Tesla

ScienceOct 20, 2016, 1:22:57 AM

(Born: July 10, 1856, Smiljan, Croatia - Died: January 7, 1943 New York, New York)


     Nikola Tesla was a Serbian born inventor, engineer, and physicist credited with contributions to alternating current, generators, motors, Tesla coils, X-ray imaging, radio controlled machines, fluorescent lights and was one of the most influential scientists of all time. Tesla gained notoreity for his stunning list of accomplishments and metaphysical genius. He had a remarkable ability to visualize his inventions down to miniscule details before constructing prototypes. Nikola was a true visionary way ahead of his contemporaries and serves as an inspiration to brilliant minds around the world.


Nikola Tesla at the age of 23.

Early Life

     Tesla was born in the small town of Smiljan near the Austria-Hungary border in modern day Croatia. His father, Milutin Tesla, was a Serbian Orthodox Priest and author. His mother, Djuka Mandic, was an inventor of small household appliances. The family consisted of five children, including his older brother, Dane, and three sisters, Angelina, Milka, and Marica. Dane was extraordinarily gifted and showed great potential, but passed away after a horse-riding accident at the age of 12. Young Nikola came under tremendous pressure from his parents to perform as well as Dane. While growing up, Nikola's father urged him to join the priesthood, but he had a profound interest science and engineering.

     Throughout the 1870's, Tesla studied at the Realschule Karlstadt, the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria, and the University of Prague. He started his formal career in 1881 working for the American Telephone Company. Within several months, the company became operational and Tesla was promoted to chief electrician. He made many improvements to the company's equipment and produced one of his first inventions, which was an amplifier or loudspeaker. In 1882, he relocated to Paris, to begin working as an engineer for the Continental Edison Company, designing and improving electric equipment. During this time, he had one of his metaphysical visualizations regarding the principles of an induction motor and began developing various devices that utilized rotating magnetic fields.


The Inventor

     In 1884, he emigrated to the United States and worked for Edison in the "Edison Machine Works." He was offered a sizable prize, which was approximately equivalent to $1,000,000 USD in today's terms, if he completed design improvements to the direct current motor and generator. After one year of working diligently with Edison to produce several very profitable products and patents, Edison reneged on the deal and resigned after rejecting a miniscule 25 dollar per week raise. Tesla was never known for his business saavy and ran into financial problems many times in his life.


The carbon button lamp is a single electrode incandescent lamp invented by Tesla.

     In 1886, Tesla received funding to start the Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing company and was given the task of developing improvments to arc lighting.  After successfully designing arc light illumination systems, his investors showed little interest in inventing new systems and instead focused on creating an electrical utility. He also began developing dynamo electric machine commutators, the first US patents issued to Tesla. Eventually, they forced Tesla out of the company leaving him broke and stealing his patents in the process. Nikola resorted to working several electrical repair jobs and even as a ditch digger for 2 dollars perday. Later in life, Telsa reminisced, "My high education in various branches of science, mechanics, and literature seemed to me like a mockery."

     In the spring of 1887, driven by his observation of mysterious damage to photographic plates, Nikola began preliminary investigations in the area of x-rays using his own single node vacuum tubes. At this point in time, x-rays were still unknown and unnamed. Tesla realizaed that the source of x-rays was the site of the initial impact of the "cathodic stream" within the bulb, which was either the anode in a bipolar tube or the glass wall in the unipolar tube that he invented. This realization came much before the discovery made by Roentgen, who was also a pioneer in this field. Today, this form of radiation is called Bremsstrahlung or braking radiation. The primary reason why Tesla's contribution to the discovery of x-rays hasn't become better known is due to much of his research being lost after his laboratory burnt down.

     Tesla's AC system eventually caught the attention of American engineer and captain of industry George Westinghouse, who was looking for a practical solution to supplying the nation with long-distance power. After becoming convinced that Tesla's inventions would achieve this goal, Westinghouse purchased his patents for $60,000 in cash and stock in the Westinghouse Corporation. As interest in AC systems spread, Tesla and Westinghouse were in direct competition with Thomas Edison, who was set on making DC the standard across the nation. In an attempt to cast AC power in a negative light, Edison waged a negative press campaign. 

     Much to the chagrin of Edison, the Westinghouse Corporation was selected to supply the lighting at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. During the event, Tesla conducted demonstrations of his AC system for the world to see. Two years later, Tesla designed one of the first AC hydroelectric power plants at Niagara Falls. Once construction was completed and the plant was operational, it supplied power to the city of Buffalo, New York, an accomplishment that garnered much attention across the world. With its repeat successes and favorable press, the alternating-current system rapidly became the most widely used power system of the 20th century, and remains a global standard.


Tesla appears in a multiple-exposure photo, while a Tesla coil discharges millions of volts.

     During a period of time from 1893 to 1895, Tesla investigated high frequency alternating currents. He produced AC in excess of 1,000,000 volts using a cone shaped Tesla coil. One of his most impressive experiments involved a Tesla coil in Colorado Springs that produced artificial lightning discharges over 130 feet long. This also managed to blow up electrical generators in the area. He also researched the skin effect in conductors, designed tuned circuits, invented cordless gas discharge lamps, and transmitted electromagnetic energy without wires. This was in effect the first radio transmitter. Although his first radio patents were filed in 1896, he wasn't formally recognized as the inventor of radio, until after his death.  Many of these inventions provided the foundation for wireless technology and some are still widely used in radio technology to this day.


Tesla's remote-controlled boat.

     In 1897, Tesla demonstrated a radio-controlled boat to the US military. Using a small, radio-transmitting control box, he was able to navigate a small ship around a pool of water and even flash lights on and off, all without any visible connection between the boat and controller. A year later, the radio-controlled boat was unveiled to the public during an electrical exhibition at Madison Square Garden. In the same year, Nikola invented an electric ignitor or spark plug for internal combustion engines, which operates similar to the Tesla coil in principle.


Later Years

     After becoming obsessed with the wireless transmission of energy, Tesla started working on his boldest project. His goal was to build a global, wireless communication and energy transmission system by using a large electrical tower. Funding was provided from a group of investors that included financial giant J.P. Morgan. In 1901, Tesla started working on the project by designing and building a lab with a power plant and a giant transmission power in Long Island, New York. The site became known as Wardenclyffe. Doubts as to the feasibility of the project arose, while Tesla's rivals, Guglielmo Marconi and Thomas Edison, continued to make advances with his own radio technologies. Eventually, the project was abandoned and the Wardenclyffe staff was laid off in 1906. By 1915, the site had fallen into floreclosure and two years later Tesla himself declared bankruptcy. The tower was dismantled and sold for scrap to help pay the debts he had accrued.

     After suffering a nervous breakdown, Nikola returned to work as a consultant. But as time progressed, his ideas became more and more outlandish and impractical. Meanwhile, he also grew increasingly eccentric, devoting much of his time to the care of wild pigeons around New York city. During his later years, Tesla worked on plans for a directed-energy weapon called a death ray. Tesla tried to interest the US War Department into helping develop the device and a contract was entered. Poor and reclusive, Nikola Tesla died of heart failure in the New Yorker Hotel in 1943, at the age of 86.

     Immediately after his death, all his papers were seized and sealed by the FBI, which marked them as "Top Secret." Despite numerous scientific discoveries and an incredible number of patents, the great Tesla was essentially destitute and died with substantial debts. Less than a year after his death, the US Supreme Court upheld Tesla's patent on radio, in effect recognizing him as the inventor of radio. The posthumous recognition came after 47 years and he never received the Nobel Prize. Nikola Tesla was a remarkably talented scholar and a man vastly ahead of his time who has made many important, long lasting contributions to the world.