Whenever you turn on the lights, charge your phone, fly a drone, listen to the music on the radio or use wifi — you have Nikola Tesla to thank for.
A man whose talents and mental abilities were so far advanced from the mindset of the time in which he lived, Nikola Tesla will always remain the mastermind who helped us get to where we all are today.
Nikola Tesla was born an ethnic Serb in the then Austrian Empire, in the village named Smiljan on July 10, 1856. The legend about his birth says that he was born during the night of a heavy thunderstorm, causing the midwife to say that he will be a child of darkness, to which Tesla’s mother replied with “No. He will be a child of light.”
The legend also says that, even though his mother was unschooled, she was extremely intelligent and was inventing small appliances during her spare time which helped her around the house. Whenever he was asked about who or what caused his love and passion for science, Nikola Tesla always mentioned his mother, thanking her for encouraging his career in science as well. His father, on the other hand, was a priest who wanted Nikola to follow in his steps, but growing up Tesla had different plans, as he was thinking about studying science abroad instead.
Another interesting story about Tesla is that he began seeing visions accompanied by flashes of light as a child, making him confused about what was real and what wasn’t, and this never went away, as these visions helped him formulate his inventions in his head to such detail that he didn’t even have to draw them out.
In Tesla’s own words, he was a sickly child, surviving many illnesses as a teen, malaria and cholera being one of them, which extremely weakened him and tied him to his bed for nine months on one occasion, barely pulling through at the end. Maybe the promise his father made to him about letting him study engineering abroad if he survives was a turning point for Tesla to find the strength and recover pretty quickly — in any event, Tesla went off to Austria to attend the Graz University of Technology at the age of 19.
He spent his college career working hard every day from 3 AM to 11 PM, causing his professors to write to his parents, worrying that he would die from exhaustion. Despite being an extremely gifted student who was also a fan of languages and fluently spoke eight, Tesla dropped out of college after getting addicted to gambling.
His career as an engineer started in 1882, by getting a job in Paris at one of Thomas Edison’s electric companies. Being recognized by his manager, he offered him a job at Edison Machine Works in New York, to which Tesla agreed and met Edison in person soon after. Tesla was a long-time admirer of Edison and Edison was also blown away by Tesla’s mind and talents, but the mutual admiration wouldn’t last for long. Despite having a different opinion from Edison about how electricity would be contained and delivered, Tesla continued to work for him and was asked to improve some of Edison’s machines that ran on direct current, with Edison offering him $50,000 if he succeeds. When he did, Edison refused to pay up, telling Tesla that he “didn’t understand American humor.” This unfairness and rudeness, together with great disappointment, made Tesla leave Edison, never turning back.
With no job and no income, Tesla started digging ditches for two dollars a day just to survive, but that didn’t stop him from working on his ideas and inventing an electromagnetic motor that ran on alternating current, in which the electric charge reverses direction periodically. This creation sparked an interest in George Westinghouse, who shared his opinion about AC and thought that Tesla’s induction motor could help him complete his alternating current system and compete against Edison on the market. Tesla licensed the patents for the AC motor to Westinghouse for $60,000, receiving stock and loyalties as well, with Westinghouse hiring him as his assistant for $2,000 a month (which is equivalent to more than $50,000 a month today).
Being the most efficient way to convert electricity to mechanical power to this day, Tesla’s motor design remains the main power generator for industry and household appliances.
The bitter rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse, who had Tesla on his team, ignited a war that would eventually become known as “The War of the Currents”. Edison, fearing that the public would prefer alternating over direct current, tried to mortify people in many ways by torturing and conducting dangerous and lethal experiments on animals using alternating current. He even went as far as electrocuting a circus elephant in public and producing a film about it.
Despite Edison’s schemes and bad press, Tesla and Westinghouse won the bid against Edison to supply power for Chicago’s World Fair in 1893, when they “electrified America”, making a spectacular statement that amazed the crowd, showing the public that AC was the current of the future.
Edison lost yet again when Tesla and Westinghouse won another bid to build the world’s first AC hydroelectric power station in Niagara Falls. This project placed Tesla on the map as a pioneer of renewable energy. The war of the currents was won by Tesla and Westinghouse, and the direct current was being discontinued from practice.
The glory didn’t last for long for Westinghouse and Tesla, since Westinghouse got into major debts, and politely asked Tesla if he would accept significantly reduced loyalties in attempts to save the company from bankruptcy. Tesla ripped up his contract, thanking Westinghouse for believing in him when no one else did, and willingly walked away from $12 million which in today’s worth would be over 300 million dollars! It is said that Tesla would have become the world’s wealthiest man and the first-ever billionaire if he had held on to his royalties a bit longer. Still, his gratitude towards Westinghouse, who was a friend as well, was more important than money to Nikola. This decision saved Westinghouse’s company from a doomed future. However, Westinghouse did pay Tesla $216,000 (equivalent to about $60 million today) for the rights to forever use the patents he’d licensed under Westinghouse’s company. This was enough for Tesla to get independent and set up laboratories around New York for his upcoming projects.
During his independence, Tesla was extremely productive and successful at turning his ideas into reality, making more than 300 patents in his lifetime. Among his creations were the first version of the neon lighting, the Tesla turbine, the world’s first-ever remote control, and the Tesla coil, among others. He was frequently visited at his laboratories by many celebrities at that time, such as Joseph Jefferson, Robert Underwood Johnson, Anthony Dvorak, Rudyard Kipling, and Mark Twain. Tesla was a big fan of Mark Twain and even said that reading Twain’s novels had a huge impact on him and helped him resist the effects of the illnesses he carried as a young boy. Tesla also pioneered X-ray technology, with the help of Twain himself — Tesla, together with the photographer Edward Ringwood Hewett, invited Twain one night to the lab to pose for a photo, using an electrical device called a Crookes tube. When the voltage applied to a Crookes tube is around 5,000 volts or greater, it can speed up the electrons to a high enough tempo to create X-rays when they hit the glass wall of the tube. Tesla reviewed the photograph to be ruined by splotches and spots, and it was only weeks later that Wilhelm Röntigen announced his discovery of what he called “X-radiation” produced by Crookes tubes — a discovery which earned him a Nobel prize in Physics in 1901.
Tesla’s coil was also one of Tesla’s greatest inventions, which used to produce high-voltage, low-current, high-frequency alternating-current electricity, and Tesla soon realized that he could send and receive strong radio signals when they’re resonating at the same frequency. Unfortunately, Tesla’s biggest lab in South Fifth Avenue suddenly caught fire in 1895, destroying a collection of early notes and research material as well as models and demonstration pieces, and Tesla didn’t sign up for registration of the patent for radio for another two years. At that same time, Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor, also worked on patenting the radio but was turned down since his discoveries were very similar to Tesla’s. Things turned in Marconi’s favor when he was the first person to send the world’s first transatlantic radio message (and guess what — he used Tesla’s 17 patents to successfully complete the project), and once Edison started to back him up financially, of course, just to get back to Tesla.
Tesla was disappointed when the US Patent Office allowed Marconi to register a patent for inventing the radio in 1904, despite using his inventions to make it happen. Marconi also received a Nobel prize in Physics for this invention in 1909, “in recognition of his contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy”. Justice, however, came when The Supreme Court of the United States handed down a decision on Marconi’s radio patents in 1943, restoring some of the prior patents of Nikola Tesla, just a couple of months after he died on January 7, an Orthodox Christmas day, alone and penniless.
So, why do you think that happened?
Why did the man with such an extraordinary mind end up in debt and die alone?
We can say that the reason why that happened was that Tesla was just unlucky at certain times, such as when the fire at South Fifth Avenue destroyed all his work, but we would be wrong. The most important reason why is because Tesla wasn’t financially driven at all. He dreamt of creating a source of clean energy with no limits, that would be free for everyone.
In a different scenario, where the greed and jealousy among his competitors wouldn’t put Tesla’s beautiful dream to stop, I firmly believe that he would succeed in making that dream a reality for all of us.
Tatjana Lukic, Project Assistant at Bridgewater Labs