Nikola Tesla was born in 1857 in modern-day Croatia in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. His father was an Orthodox priest and his mother was a housekeeper, and like the future inventor that she raised, was noted for her creativity and her ingenuity; she was a known innovator of household appliances that included looms and churns popular in the vicinity of the rural Serbian community from which the Tesla’s came. Tesla claimed that he inherited his memory and creativity from her too. Tesla began inventing early, and there are some reports that claim that Tesla built a small waterwheel when he was just merely a few years old.
As a student in Carstatt, Croatia, Nikola Tesla suffered from a bout of cholera in 1873; after surviving this incident, Tesla vowed to dedicate himself to experimentation in electricity and magnetism. Despite his family’s will for him to pursue a vocation in the Eastern Orthodox church, Tesla enrolled himself at the Polytechnic School at Graz in Austria to study mathematics and physics. After his second year, Tesla pursued engineering. It is believed that Tesla became addicted to gambling and billards,and was forced to abandon his studies due to his financial mistakes because he was unable to afford tuition.
After the death of his father, Tesla took up a job in Budapest as an assistant for the Government Telephone Engineering Department. While he was working there, he thought of many innovations that could be made to telephones and dynamo electricity. The ambitious Tesla was then was able to secure employment in Paris as an electrical engineer, then migrated to the United States, because he presumed that Americans were eager to advance the applications of electricity, and Tesla had greatly admired the electrical inventor and famed Thomas Edison. Tesla was recruited by a manager working for Edison named Charles Batchelor.
A young Nikola Tesla in 1879
Upon arriving in America, Tesla worked for Thomas Edison at his company called Edison Machine Works. Tesla, unlike many of the current engineers in the field, was eager to work with Alternating Current (AC) and wanted to construct a motor that operated with high frequency. Tesla worked for Thomas Edison and Charles Batchelor for six months until he quit. There was a falling out between Tesla and Edison when Tesla believed that he was deserving of an unpaid bonus for inventing several machines. Edison claimed this task was a practical joke and that Tesla simply did not understand American humor.
After leaving Edison’s company, Tesla went on to start his own company that he named Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing; however, Tesla’s investors abandoned the project, and left the inventor poor. Tesla was then forced to take on hard labor and took up ditch digging to make a living.
The falling out between Tesla and Edison is a remarkable point of interest between the inventors. In the 1870s and throughout the 1880s, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse opposed each other in what many scholars refer to as the “War of the Currents.” Westinghouse was a large advocate of Alternating Current (AC) whereas Edison was critical of this method claiming it was unsafe and saw Direct Current (DC) as a better alternative.
In 1888, after the falling out between Edison and Tesla, Westinghouse licensed some of Tesla’s patents demonstrating the application of Alternating Current (AC) and helped earn Tesla some money during that time. One of Westinghouse and Tesla’s greatest feats during this time was when Westinghouse’s company beat out a bid for Edison company to light the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Westinghouse implemented Tesla’s induction motor utilizing Alternating Current (AC) proving the efficiency and capability of using AC at a high-voltage and a high-frequency.
Upon inventing an induction motor running on Alternating Current (AC), Westinghouse hired Tesla in 1888, and Tesla became a consultant at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. However, unfortunately for Tesla, the Financial Panic of 1890 caused Westinghouse’s investors to question the royalties that Westinghouse was paying for some of Tesla’s patents, and the projects relating to his induction motor were abandoned by the company. Westinghouse still applauded and commended Tesla’s invention of the induction, but Tesla did not continue to make money for his invention until six years later when Westinghouse purchased the patent.
The money that Tesla earned from Westinghouse helped Tesla fund his own laboratories in Manhattan from 1892 to 1902. It was in his own laboratories during this period that Tesla began experimenting with electricity and magnetism. During this period, Tesla invented the Tesla coil, a steam powered generator, and a polyphase system using Alternating Current (AC). It was during this time that he inadvertently helped invent and experiment with X-Rays, remote controls, and wireless power. He also delivered a series of lectures in America and Europe that helped him become one of the most celebrated scientists of the era.
In 1899, Tesla conducted experiments in Colorado Springs where the air pressure was lower and his laboratory was at a higher altitude. A patent attorney named Leonard Curtis helped Tesla with this arrangement, and Curtis was also associated with Colorado Springs Electric Company. Tesla wanted to develop a new wireless lighting system and he wanted to learn how to send energy cheaply and all over the world. He conducted many other experiments in his new laboratory, and it was here that he reportedly developed a transmitter that some scholars
He also attempted to develop a radio system that was better than the one invented by Guglielmo Marconi; however in 1901, Marconi beat Tesla and sent the first radio transmission across the Atlantic Ocean from England to Canada. To achieve this, Tesla built Wardenclyffe Tower in Long Island, New York. He referred to the tower as the “wonder tower.” After Marconi’s success. Investors started to back Marconi’s system in favor of Tesla’s system, and unfortunately, in 1915 Tesla’s property went into foreclosure, and the tower was demolished in 1917.
Wardenclyffe Tower, Long Island New York, 1904
On July 10, 1906, on his 50th birthday, Tesla tested several turbines at Waterside Power Station in New York. Over the next few years, Tesla began to perfect and work about bladeless turbines, and Maymont Group has a patent that relates to the work that he was doing during this part of his career.
British Patent for Nikola Tesla Turbine in Maymont Group Collection
Tesla eventually filed his last patent in 1928 for an aircraft that was proposed to take off vertically like a helicopter. While he continued to live in the United States, he went from different hotels in New York, and left many unpaid bills behind. In 1937, he was hit by a taxicab but never consulted with a doctor and never recovered. On January 7, 1943, a maid at the New Yorker Hotel found Tesla, and a medical examiner judged that Tesla had died from a coronary thrombosis. Tesla was 86 years old. During his lifetime he filed hundreds of patents in multiple countries. Many of his patents serve as the basis and the foundation for a lot of the technology that we still use today.
Nikola Tesla in 1890
Thomas Commerford Martin, The Inventions and Writings of Nikola Tesla, New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1894, accessed June 3, 2019, https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=HfMRAwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA3&dq=nikola+tesla&ots=ga1Wf6Zq5z&sig=ZmLfR_Zx98BBPd7A78X4Y-N5Rq8#v=onepage&q=nikola%20tesla&f=false.
Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time, New York: Dorset Press, 1981, accessed June 4, 2019, https://archive.org/details/teslamanoutoftim00chen/page/n7.