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Nikola Tesla – Electrical Genius or Madman?

Updated on August 27, 2016

A Serbian-born inventor and engineer, Nikola Tesla is known for his many contributions in the field of science, particularly in the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. Renowned for his achievements and showmanship, he now earns a reputation in popular culture as an archetypal "mad scientist". This is his story.

Early Years and Education

Nikola Tesla was born on 10 July 1856 on the stroke of midnight, where he claimed a fierce electrical storm raged that night. He was born of Serbian parents in the village of Smiljan, on the eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in what is today Croatia. His father, Milutin Tesla was an Orthodox priest who expected his son to follow him in the clergy. Tesla's mother, Duka Tesla was also born to an Orthodox priest.

At the place Tesla grew up in, there were only two choices for children in those days; either joining the army or to become a priest. To the distress of his father, Tesla was not attracted to any of them. He disliked this father's trainings which comprised of guessing another person's thoughts and repeating long verses and passages. Tesla's mother on the other hand invented and constructed all kinds of hand craft tools and mechanical appliances. She also displayed her brilliance in memorizing many Serbian epic poems despite never receiving any formal education. Nikola credited his incredible memory and creative abilities to his mother's genetics and influence.

Tesla went to a primary school in his village Smiljan, where he studied German, arithmetic, and religion. In 1870 he moved to Karlovac and attended high school where he was greatly influenced by his mathematics teacher Martin Sekulic. The classes were held in German, as it was a school within the Austro-Hungarian Military Frontier. Tesla was able to perform integral calculus in his head, causing his teachers to think that he was cheating. He graduated in 1873, finishing a four-year term in only three years.

At the age of 17, while preparing for the seminary, Tesla contracted cholera and was bedridden for nine months, coming close to death several times. Out of despair Tesla's father promised to let him study engineering, even to send him to the best technical institutions in the world if he recovered from the illness. To everyone's relief, Tesla got better and recovered fully.

In 1877, at the age of 21, Tesla travelled to Graz, Austria to begin his college education at the Graz University of Technology on a Military Frontier scholarship. Tesla excelled in his first year, never missing a lecture and earned the highest grades possible. It was during this time that he quickly became obsessed with electricity and wanted to know more of this wonderful science. More than five decades earlier in England, Michael Faraday had discovered the principal of electro-magnetic induction, which made it possible to generate electricity. Faraday discovered that having an electric circuit in a changing magnetic field would induce an electric current to run in the wire. This was the invention of the method of creating oscillating or alternating current. And it was that invention that Tesla later harnessed into the electrical system that drives our civilization. Early electric motors operated on direct current electricity and required a system of sparking connections to induce a rotary effect in the machine.

Tesla remarked to his professor that the design of generators and motors could be greatly improved by using currents that alternated. His professor ridiculed his ideas and repeatedly tried to embarrass him in front of his classmates. At the end of his second year, Tesla lost his scholarship and became addicted to gambling. His performance grew poor, and later left the university in his third year without graduating. Embarrassed, Tesla severed relations with his family and later suffered a nervous breakdown. His father who unsuccessfully tried to bring him home died in 1879 from an unspecified illness.

Birthplace of Tesla in Croactia

Early Works

In 1880 Tesla moved to Budapest where he found employment at the Central Telegraph Office. Within a few months, Tesla was allocated the chief electrician position. Tesla made many improvements to the Central Station equipment during his time there, and claimed to have perfected a telephone repeater or amplifier, which was never patented nor publicly described. In 1882 Tesla moved to France, where he began working for the Continental Edison Company, designing and making improvements to electrical equipment.

Tesla soon undertook a journey to the United States. After passing through a series of mishaps, where he lost his money and tickets, and almost lost his life when a mutiny broke out on the ship he was boarding, Tesla finally landed on the shores of America with only four cents in his pocket. He arrived in New York on June 6th, 1884. With a letter of recommendation from one of Edison's associates in Europe, he was hired by Thomas Edison to work at his Edison Machine Works on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Tesla was tasked to improve the performance of Edison's Direct Current (DC) generators. In 1885, Tesla remarked that he could redesign Edison's inefficient motor and generators, making an improvement in both service and economy. Edison then claimed he would reward Tesla $50,000 if he succeeded. After months of work, Tesla fulfilled the task and inquired about payment. Edison replied that he was only joking, saying, "Tesla, you don't understand our American humor", and instead offered a slight raise in salary. Tesla refused the offer and resigned immediately. The fact was, Edison had built his business on the direct current system and any talk of alternating currents aggravated him.

The War of Currents

Tesla initially paid dearly for his pride, living through a painful year of hard labor digging ditches for $2 a day to make ends meet. But he was still determined to develop his AC motor. At this time the electrical revolution was taking place across the world. The sudden leaps in manufacturing, household technology and general efficiency of work due to electricity lifted the economy tremendously and America experienced an enhanced growth period that would last for decades. Similarly, billion dollar industries were arising out of nowhere. Tesla decided to put his energy into joining the electric revolution after being cheated by his former employee.

With help from a group of investors he opened a laboratory on Liberty Street only a few blocks from Edison's offices. There he began to assemble a prototype of the motor he had envisioned years earlier along with all the components of the system of Alternating Current (AC) power generation. In May of 1888, Tesla unveiled his motor to the world. He eventually struck up a partnership with industrialist George Westinghouse. Over the next five years 22 U.S. patents were awarded to Nikola Tesla for AC motors, generators, transformers and transmission lines - the most valuable patents since the invention of the telephone.

This put him in direct competition with Edison and his DC system, backed by General Electric. Edison's DC system created dangerous sparks, causing fires to break out and horses on the streets would get shocks through their shoes and run away. The DC system also couldn't transmit electricity very far, and required a power plant every few kilometers, with cables as thick as an arm. Tesla's AC system, on the other hand, used thinner wires, had higher voltages and could transmit electricity over long distances.

During the late 1880s Edison began a negative media campaign to discredit the AC system being developed by Tesla and Westinghouse. Edison publicly electrocuted cats, dogs and even circus elephants using Tesla's AC current to prove that it was too dangerous to be used in any home. In addition to this, Edison aided in the creation of the electric chair, making sure that it used AC current.

In response, Tesla put on remarkable demonstrations to prove that the AC was safe. At the 1893 World Fair, Tesla would put his hand on a terminal which shot electric current through his own body to produce light, impressing spectators. As the years went on AC increased in popularity and became the standard due to its technical advantages. As a result of his inventions, Tesla became famous and rubbed shoulders with the most important people of his time.

Edison on the other hand eventually became despised by people within his company and eventually lost control of the company, which was consolidated into the conglomerate General Electric and converting to an AC delivery system at that point.

Good Video Biography of Tesla

Middle years (1890s)

Throughout the 1890s, Tesla continued making significant research and was behind many discoveries and inventions that aren't fully credited by his name.

In 1891 Tesla invented the Tesla coil, an instrument used to produce high-voltage, low-current, high frequency alternating-current electricity. The device essentially transmitted radio signals, and was used commercially in spark gap radio transmitters. Tesla also theorized that radio waves can transmit information and successfully demonstrated a radio controlled boat, all before Guglielmo Marconi was known for his works in pioneering long-distance radio transmission.

In 1893 Tesla was approached for help in generating hydro-electric power from the Niagara Falls. What's interesting is that as a child he already envisioned harnessing energy from moving water. Tesla succeeded in designing the first ever hydro-electric plant that was powerful enough to light a city at Niagara Falls, showing the world the potential of waterfalls in generating large scale practical energy.

Tesla also inadvertently captured the very first X-ray images, predating Wilhelm Rontgen's December 1895 announcement of the discovery of X-rays by a few weeks. Tesla also noted the hazards of X-rays early on and warned people of the dangers of exposure to its radiation.

Unfortunately, not all went well doing this period. In 1895 a fire broke out in the basement of the building that housed Tesla's laboratory, engulfing the entire structure. Tesla almost lost everything at this stage, forcing him to start his entire life's work all over again.

Tesla in his laboratory in Colorado Springs around 1899, supposedly sitting reading next to his giant "magnifying transmitter" high voltage generator while the machine produced huge bolts of electricity. The photo was a promotional stunt.
Tesla in his laboratory in Colorado Springs around 1899, supposedly sitting reading next to his giant "magnifying transmitter" high voltage generator while the machine produced huge bolts of electricity. The photo was a promotional stunt.

Wardenclyffe Tower

In the summer of 1900, Tesla moved to Shoreham, Long Island and began construction of the Wardenclyffe Tower under the backing of financier J.P. Morgan. The tower rose 187 feet and was meant for wireless transmission. Tesla however had larger ambitions, and decided to scale up the facility and add his ideas of wireless power transmission to provide free energy to the world. This was to better compete with Guglielmo Marconi's radio based telegraph system. Morgan however was a practical businessman, and decided to withdraw his backings and fund Marconi instead.

The project dragged on without Morgan and ran way over time and ridiculously over budget until it finally collapsed. Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower was abandoned in 1906, never becoming operational. Tesla's most ambitious and ingenious project ended up a failure, the tower itself demolished for scrap in 1917. This was Tesla's first major failure, bringing him shame and set him on a downward path that would eventually lead to his fall.

Nikola Tesla's Wardenclyffe wireless station, located in Shoreham, New York, seen in 1904. The 187 foot (57 m) transmitting tower appears to rise from the building but actually stands on the ground behind it.
Nikola Tesla's Wardenclyffe wireless station, located in Shoreham, New York, seen in 1904. The 187 foot (57 m) transmitting tower appears to rise from the building but actually stands on the ground behind it.

Final Years and Legacy

Tesla's story of rise to international prestige and fame was followed by an equally dramatic retreat into public shame, depression and loneliness. Denial of his failures starting with the Wardenclyffe Tower, led to further failure and further denial - a downward spiral which eventually led Tesla to a mental breakdown.

By the later part of his life, Tesla became clinically insane. He hallucinated to such an extent that the boundaries between reality and his imagination became blurred. He also developed a strange attraction towards pigeons, seemingly having delusions of love between himself and a particular white pigeon.

Over his lifetime, Tesla had obtained more than 100 patents and 700 inventions. But despite all of this, he was poor. For many years he worked alone in a room at the hotel New Yorker - where he died in 1943 living on a diet of milk and crackers.

Tesla could have been the world's first billionaire by a long shot by he just didn't care about money. As an example, after the "War of Current", Westinghouse was in financial trouble, nearly becoming bankrupt. So Westinghouse pleaded Tesla to temporarily cut back his royalties just so the company could get through those tough times. Shockingly Tesla just ripped up the contract, denying himself what would have amounted to billions of dollars. He stated that he was just happy that Westinghouse believed in him when no one else would. All the rest of the money he had accumulated was spent on numerous failed projects such as the Wardenclyffe Tower.

Tesla's ideas helped America grow into an industrial nation and powerhouse of the 20th century yet his marginalization was prevalent then and continues today. He is non-existent in many of today's textbooks. This is due to the fact that he didn't care much about profit or fame, only wanting to improve the world. This was a polar opposite of most of the businessmen during that time who unfortunately took advantage of his nature.

As quoted by Tesla, "Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine".

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    • dougwest1 profile image
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      Doug West 13 months ago from Raymore, MO

      That is what I have heard too. There is a Tesla museum in Belgrade that gets quite a few visitors per year. I've never been there but read about it on-line. Looks like an interesting place.

    • Readmikenow profile image

      Readmikenow 13 months ago

      Excellent hub! I really enjoyed reading it. I have a friend from Serbia and he tells me Tesla is still a real big deal in that country.