Nikola Tesla was born and raised in modern-day Croatia, or the Austrian Empire as it was known at the time, July 10th, 1856 during what he claims was a lightning storm. As if prophetizing his life to be, the midwife and his mother agreed that he would be a “child of the light.” During the 1870’s, he received an advanced physics and engineering education where this prophecy began to play out. As a young student, he displayed such profound abilities to calculate mathematical problems that he was often accused of cheating on his school work. As his miraculous abilities progressed into his teen years, Tesla’s father agreed to send him to an engineering school after many failed attempts to get him to enter the priesthood.
Even though he was an excellent student, he withdrew from polytechnic school to use his skills practically at the Continental Edison working in telephony during the 1880’s, focusing primarily on electrical lighting and motors. In 1884, Tesla immigrated to the United States, driven by the hope to meet Edison, where he later became a naturalized citizen. Getting his start in New York, he briefly worked for the Edison Machine Works. Tesla later claimed that he was offered US$50,000 to solve the engineering problems that Edisons company faced. After he solved the problem, he was informed that the offer was a “joke,” received no compensation for his work and left the company after six months. So began the long rivalry between the two inventors in a battle of the minds in what is commonly known as the “War of the Currents.”
After the debacle at the Edison Machine Works, Tesla proceeded to find two businessmen that helped in the founding of the Tesla Electric Lighting and Manufacturing company. He filed a number of patents, assigning them to the company, after which his partners took the intellectual property to start a new firm that focused solely on supplying energy. Tesla was left with nothing to his name and not a dime in his pocket. Having hit rock-bottom, he reported temporarily working as a ditch digger for $2.00 a day.
The run-down Nikola Tesla began his search for partners to finance and market his own ideas, workshops, and laboratories. He did so successfully and with these funds, he founded several laboratories and companies in his lifetime to develop several electrical and mechanical devices. In 1888, he struck gold when Westinghouse Electric licensed his alternating current (AC) induction motor and the related polyphase AC patents. This earned him a considerable amount of money as it became the cornerstone of the polyphase system and would eventually market.
It was during this time that the battle of the minds ensued between Tesla and Edison, where they competed for dominance in the “War of the Currents” among other power struggles between the two. Edison insisted that Tesla’s ideas were impractical and claimed that his own ideas were superior, in particular, that his direct current (DC) was far better for practicality. Tesla commented on Edison to The New York Times that, “If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once, with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. … I was almost a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor.” Ultimately Tesla’s AC won the battle of the wits.
After his achievement with Westinghouse Electric, he was given the honor and opportunity to display his alternating current to the masses at the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 by providing lighting. He wowed his audience with the wireless transmission of electricity. It was around this time that he began to conduct public lectures, for which he quickly became known for his showmanship. Having become a well-known inventor, he regularly demonstrated his achievements and abilities to the various wealthy patrons of his laboratory and eventually held over 300 patents.
While attempting to develop other products Tesla could market, he conducted several experiments with the various technological advancements of the time, including mechanical oscillators and generators, electric discharge tubes, and the early x-ray technology. During his experimentation, he built a wirelessly controlled boat in 1898, which was the first of its kind and branded as a hoax. This is when he returned his attention to the wireless transmission of electricity.
In the 1890’s, he experimented with his high-voltage, high-frequency power in pursuit of his ideas for wireless lighting and wireless power distribution on a global scale. 1893 is when he began to speak publicly about the possibility of wireless communication between his devices and began his attempt to put this into practical use. To test his ideas he built a laboratory in Colorado Springs where he once drew so much power that he caused a regional power outage and where he claimed to have detected signals from an extraterrestrial source.
Tesla convinced J.P. Morgan to invest in the construction of a tower that he believed would see his plan to remotely distribute electricity to the entire world through. Unfortunately, this project went unfinished. The Wardenclyff Tower project was proposed to be an intercontinental wireless communication and power transmitter, but J.P. Morgan withdrew funding from the project when Tesla’s dream did not materialize. If this project had been completed, it promised incredible advancement beyond the technology of the age but turned out to be the beginning of the slow descent of his reputation.
After Wardenclyff, he slowly gained an identity as the archetypal “mad scientist”. Through the 1910’s to the 1920’s he began developing a series of inventions that had varying degrees of success. Since most of his funding had been spent at this point, he would live in hotels and proceed to leave unpaid bills. However, it was the combination of his earlier work and the pronouncements to the press that he made later that earned him his new identity, from brilliant inventor to mad scientist.
Despite his spotted reputation, Tesla received a number of awards throughout his lifetime for his achievements, including the Electrical Engineers Edison Medal. There had been rumors that Edison and Tesla were to share the Nobel Prize, but this did not occur. It is believed that their animosity toward one another is responsible for this loss.
After his death in New York City, January 7th, 1943, he began to fall into obscurity until the General Conference on Weights and Measures named the SI unit of magnetic flux density “The Tesla” as an act of recognition of the great mastermind. Around 1990, there was a resurgence of interest in the life and inventions of Nikola Tesla.
For additional information about Nikola Tesla’s life and work, view the biography by the Smithsonian for additional information here. For more information on the details of Tesla’s life, view the biography by the Tesla Memorial Society of New York here.