Nikola Tesla: A Biography of the Wizard - Part I
Change was gradually gaining speed. While mankind had not yet begun to experiment with automobiles or with airplanes in 1856, men had always dreamed of speed and of flight. Many of the inventions that constitute the infrastructure of our modern world had not yet been conceived of, let alone put into use. The use of electricity was in its infant stages, but men were emerging who attempted to harness this strange phenomenon of nature. At first thought, one would assume that the great British Empire or the up-and-coming American innovators must have had the market of ideas cornered, yet we begin our story in an unexpected locale.
A Wizard is Born
Roughly 4,290 miles from New York City, USA, a boy named Nikola Tesla was born. He entered a small town named Smiljan, in the region that we today call Croatia. It was a region that had seen its share of war and hardship, but the Tesla family loved life and survived with what God gave them. Father Tesla was a minister in the Greek-Orthodox Church; he loved his wife and had five children with her. Their son Nikola was the fourth.
Young Nikola grew close to his older brother, Dane, and together they lived as country children in all times and countries have. Nikola himself recorded many of their adventures in his autobiography, My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla . A favorite anecdote of many who are familiar with Tesla's life involves his "may bug propeller."
Tesla was a self-described inventor, who traced his profession back to an early age. His goal, then as always, was "to harness the energies of nature to the service of man." In this particular inventive instance, Tesla affixed bugs to a propeller and harnessed the "power" of their flight, small though it was. Tesla observed that the bugs were "remarkably efficient" because they never stopped buzzing about and he felt that the invention was a success. One qualification: "All went well until a strange boy came to the place." Any guesses as to what this strange boy did? Well if you guessed that he had an acquired taste for bugs and ate the source of Tesla's motive power, then you guessed right! One more observation from Tesla, concerning the intrusive bug eater: "That urchin ate May-bugs alive and enjoyed them as tho they were the finest blue-point oysters." Obviously, Tesla had a penchant for story-telling flare as well as a vivid memory. History is grateful for both of these qualities.
Shaping a Young Life
Tesla's young life and Arcadian world was shocked one afternoon. According to Tesla, when he was five years old his older brother and close friend Dane was killed when the horse he was riding spooked and threw the boy to his death. Father and Mother Tesla were fond of young Dane and he showed great promise as a child. Tesla claimed, later in life, that the premature death of his brother cast a shadow over Nikola's own childhood, and he felt that his parents overlooked his own achievements because they were so distraught over Dane's death.
In retrospect, the tragic death of Dane was also partially responsible for prodding Nikola toward the lifelong pursuit of invention and science. Tesla attended school as did most children his age, but Nikola excelled, completing his four-year course in only three. He succeeded his primary schooling by attending the Polytechnic School in Graz, Austria. In Austria, Tesla began to study engineering. Initially, he threw himself headlong into his studies, investing upwards of twenty hours a day at his work. His diligence would become a lifelong trait, but early in his life Tesla struggled with his relationship to others.
His classmates and peers ridiculed him for his "monastic" habits of long hours and endearment with the faculty. Tesla's reaction? He took up gambling and billiards as a distraction and means of acceptance with his peers. Like most vices, it began small, and like most vices it did not remain small.
Struggles to Overcome
His vices began to grow, finally reaching the point that his family became ashamed of his behavior. His father was, after all, a minister, and any shameful light shone by Nikola cast a shadow upon the whole family. Nikola never did finish his college education at the Polytechnic. Some historians believe that he was discharged for his gambling habits, but no matter the cause, he did not receive final grades.
Rather than return to his home, Tesla chose to travel south. Most probably, he was loathe to confront his family about his actions, choosing rather to "escape" the trouble. He wandered from city to city doing odd jobs and learning from whoever he stumbled upon. Father Tesla, however, loved his son dearly and sought for word of Nikola's whereabouts. When he finally discovered Nikola's location, Father Tesla made the journey, hoping to reconcile with his son. A promise of a new start, a new university at which to study proved to be the promise that reunited Nikola with his family at home.
In one of history's oft-repeated twists of fate, Tesla's father would die shortly after Nikola's return home. This event lit a fire in Tesla to go and study once again, to fulfill his father's last wishes. He enrolled for the summer term at the University of Prague, a place where he would receive quality instruction from some of Europe's foremost professors. Integral in shaping the young man's thoughts was Ernst Mach, a pioneer in the field of wave mechanics.
A Unique Man for a Unique Destiny
During his early education and subsequent college schooling, several unique qualities began to manifest themselves in Tesla. One of the most noted of these was his eidetic, or photographic memory. At a young age, he began to have random bouts of blank vision and white lights accosting his mind and eyesight. It was during these times that he claimed to see vivid visions of imaginary things. Occasionally, these images were so vivid that he enlisted his sisters to help him distinguish reality from imagination.
With this amazing ability, he saw not only imaginary things, but also inventions of which he was theorizing. He described the ability to conceive an idea, and then construct working, three-dimensional models within his mind's vision. He used these mental models to experiment, tinker and calculate with, ultimately arriving at the point where a perfect working model could be constructed, all using the models which he had retained in his mind. I imagine that most of us wish we had the "problem" of a photographic memory!
These abilities would play a major role in the rest of his life. During the same period in which he developed these special abilities, he began to fixate on one particular concept. We know it today as alternating current electricity, but during Tesla's early life, it had been written off as an impossibility. Direct current electricity was the form adopted by the early electrical pioneers and they believed unflinchingly that alternating current was useless and uncontrollable. Tesla, however, believed that alternating current (AC) could be harnessed and used to produce much more than direct current (DC) would ever be possible of producing. This early AC idea in Tesla's mind became a driving force in his education and early life.
In the Mind's Eye
The new avenue of schooling proved to be short lived for Tesla. His father had died, forcing Nikola to earn his own living. At the suggestion of a family friend, he moved once again, this time to Budapest. The year was 1881.
Assorted odd jobs and sporadic employment left Tesla with spare time, time that he spent in theory and invention. Some of his jobs allowed him to gain practical experience in electricity, experience which he put to good use. Every spare moment was spent in tinkering with his AC theories; unfortunately, Tesla pushed himself too hard and suffered a physical breakdown. His passion for life proved to be his salvation, as he recovered from his lapse and emerged with as much energy as before.
Here another of Tesla's marvelous abilities comes to the fore. He described an epiphany that led him to realize his dream of a practical AC application. Similarly to incidents of his youth, Tesla said that the revolutionary principles were fully envisioned by him in a single instant while walking through the park with his friend. Where he stood, Tesla knelt and drew a diagram of his vision in the dirt pathway. History would prove that Tesla had discovered the theory behind the rotating magnetic field, an invention that would prove integral in electric development.
Another Wanderer Arrives in America
After envisioning his sought after breakthrough, Tesla feverishly set out to make those visions reality. He was able to construct working models of many various motors that utilized his newly discovered principles and as any young inventor would, he set out to find the people with the money.
Tesla's quest for funding and recognition led him to Paris, the center of fashion. He was not interested in fashion though, but rather in a European offshoot of a famously American inventor's company. Edison Continental was Thomas Edison's mission to spread his influence overseas from his iconic enclave, Menlo Park, New Jersey. By aligning himself with Edison Continental, Tesla hoped to first of all secure gainful employment and then boost his reputation within the company so he could present the leaders with is new ideas and inventions.
He was hired by the company to assist with their endeavors in and around Paris. This job was extremely beneficial for the young Tesla, as he gained hands-on experience with power, lighting and wiring various buildings in France. Having bolstered his reputation with the American-based company, Tesla approached them with his ideas and a working model he had labored to build during his scarce spare time.
Some debate exists as to what exactly Edison Continental's response was. The debates could occupy a large space, so suffice it to say that Tesla was referred in some manner to take his ideas to the big man himself, Mr. Thomas Edison, The Wizard of Menlo Park. Tesla was not wealthy in the least and he only secured his passage through the aid of his family back home, but secured it he did. Just as aspiring men and women have for several hundred years, Nikola Tesla, native of Croatia and rising mind in electrical theory circles, departed for the New World in the spring of 1884. He endured a theft and a hard journey, but he debarked in New York City with all that he needed to change the world safely lodged within the repositories of his mind.
This is Part One of a multi-part biography. Check back soon for Part Two!
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