The tragic story of Nikola Tesla, the man who was ahead of his time. When you think about the greatest inventors of all time, there are a few names that come to mind. Henry Ford, The Wright brothers, Thomas Edison. But there’s one name that is not as recognizable. The name is Nikola Tesla.
Nikola Tesla: The man behind electricity.
When you plug your phone in, turn on the lights, or use the refrigerator, you have Nikola Tesla to thank. This is the story of the forgotten genius who died a death he did not deserve. On January 7, 1943, a maid working at the New Yorker Hotel walked into room 3327, where she found the body of an 86 year-old man who called the hotel home for the past decade. Tesla died alone and broke. He lived off a diet of warm milk and crackers and was obsessed with feeding the pigeons outside. One of the greatest inventors of all time faded into obscurity and died penniless. The reason behind this will be clear by the end of the story.
Tesla was born in the town of Smiljan in present-day Croatia on July 10, 1856. He was born during a lightning storm. According to family legend, the midwife said halfway through the birth: this child will be a child of darkness, to which his mother replied, no, he will be a child of light. Little did she know how prophetic those words would be.
As a child, he began seeing visions accompanied by flashes of light, confusing what was real and what was imaginary. This never went away. The vision spurred his ability to conceive inventions in his head in such detail that he didn’t even need to draw them out. He explained how the designs were perfected in his mind in an article in 1919. “Invariably, my device works as I conceived that it should and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In 20 years there has not been a single exception.”
Tesla credits his mom for his interest in inventing. His Mother invented small household appliances in her spare time. She had an eidetic memory — the ability to recall an image from memory with high precision and she passed this on to her son.
Tesla’s father was a priest and wanted him to become one too but Tesla was interested in engineering. When he contracted cholera as a teen and nearly died, his father promised to send him to engineering school if he survived, and miraculously, he did.
He went to study in Austria at the Technical College of Graz where he is said to have worked from 3 am until 11 pm every day. Professors were worried that he would die from exhaustion. Tesla had a beautiful mind. He could perform calculus in his head and spoke eight languages. He was a good student at the start but would not finish school. Tesla dropped out and moved around Europe and eventually ended up in Budapest working as an electrician at a telephone company.
One day, while walking around a park in the city, he had an epiphany about developing a new way of generating electricity using alternating current. It would be his greatest invention that would change the world.
In 1882, he settled in Paris to work for the French branch of Thomas Edison’s electric company. He started off installing indoor lighting but the managers noticed his talents and had him doing more complicated work, designing and building dynamos and motors. He was soon travelling throughout Europe fixing problems at other Edison branches. Two years later, in 1884, Tesla’s manager offered him a job at Edison Machine Works in New York City. He agreed and arrived in America with only four cents in his pocket because his money was stolen on the boat ride over. Tesla initially had a good impression of Edison. Edison was also impressed by Tesla, later saying: “I have had many hard-working assistants but you take the cake.” This mutual admiration didn’t last.
Tesla VS Edison
The two men disagreed over how electricity should be contained and delivered. Edison preferred direct current which is a system where the electric charge only flows in one direction. Tesla was a fan of alternating current in which the electric charge changes direction periodically. This means it can provide more power and transmit power over longer distances. It’s the reason AC powers our homes and other large appliances whereas DC powers smaller items like flashlights. But Edison didn’t care about AC because it could have hurt the sales of direct current since he owned all the patents for DC.
An account of the story has Edison telling Tesla: “You don’t understand our American humour.” Regardless of how it played out, Tesla quit and set off to form his own electric company the following year in 1885. But his investors showed little interest and decided to take the company and all of Tesla’s patents which they could do because Tesla had assigned the patents to the company in exchange for stock which was now worthless. After losing his company, Tesla had to take a job digging ditches for two dollars a day just to survive.
But his fortunes would change. In 1887, Tesla invented an induction motor that ran on alternating current. The motor was the most efficient way to convert electricity to mechanical power. A version of it powers Elon Musk’s Tesla vehicles which took its name from the inventor. He patented the motor and showed it off the following year at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers that caught the attention of George Westinghouse, a major player in the electric market who realized Tesla’s AC motor might just be what he needed to complete his alternating current system and compete against Edison’s DC system. So Tesla licensed the patents for the AC motor to Westinghouse for $60,000 and also received stock and royalties.
Westinghouse hired him as a consultant for $2,000 a month which is the equivalent of over $50,000 a month today. The war of the currents began. Edison tried hard to try to discredit Westinghouse and Tesla. He secretly financed the electric chair that used the alternating current to prove how dangerous AC was. Edison’s company also publicly tortured animals to prove its point. In 1903, they electrocuted a circus elephant named Topsy and produced a film about it called Electrocuting an Elephant.
Despite Edison’s schemes, good things were happening for Westinghouse and Tesla. They underbid Edison and his newly formed company General Electric to illuminate the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The first all-electric fair celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America. It was clear to the 27 million people who attended that AC would power the future. Their success continued when they beat out Edison’s General Electric again to build the world’s first alternating current power plant in Niagara Falls. The hydroelectric power station was a massive success and helped light up Buffalo, New York. The building of the plant also meant Tesla became a pioneer in renewable energy. His statue can be found at Niagara Falls today. Westinghouse and Tesla won the war of the currents and direct current was being phased out.
But there were problems. Westinghouse’s company was running out of money and eventually went $10 million into debt. In 1897, he went to Tesla and asked if his royalties could be reduced in a desperate attempt to save the company. Tesla was so compelled by compassion for his friend that he ripped up his contract. He was grateful to Westinghouse for believing in him when no one else would. Tesla willingly walked away from $12 million in royalties which in today’s terms would be worth over $300 million. Had he held on to those royalties over time, he would have likely become the wealthiest person on the planet and the first person with a billion-dollar net worth. That act of compassion for his friend of tearing up his contract saved Westinghouse.
In return, Westinghouse paid Tesla $216,000 for the rights to use his AC patents forever. This is the equivalent of about $60 million today. With that money, Tesla became financially independent and set up a series of laboratories in New York for new projects where he was visited by the rich and famous, including his close friend and one of the greatest American writers of all time, Mark Twain. This was his period of many inventions.
Tesla held over 300 patents in his lifetime. He created an early version of neon lighting, the tesla turbine — a bladeless turbine for vehicles. He pioneered x-ray technology by experimenting with radiation. Another stand-out invention was one of the first remote controls. In 1898, he controlled a miniature boat at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was so far ahead of its time that the crowd thought he was using magic to make it move. That would be the ancestor to today’s remote-controlled drones.
The Tesla Coil
One of his most well-known inventions is the Tesla coil — a device that can produce large amounts of high voltage electricity. Because of the coils, he discovered he could send and receive powerful radio signals when they resonated at the same frequency. Tesla was getting ready to broadcast his first radio signal but disaster struck. A fire destroyed his lab in 1895. He lost years of research and equipment. Tesla didn’t apply for a patent for the radio until two years later.
The Downhill Journey
The fire would be the turning point in his life that led to a downhill spiral. At the same time that he was working on radio, an Italian entrepreneur, Guglielmo Marconi, was also working on the radio in England. He tried to acquire patent rights in the US but was turned down because it was too similar to Tesla’s. However, things changed when Marconi was able to send the world’s first transatlantic radio message in 1901 using 17 of Tesla’s patents. Edison then threw his financial support behind Marconi. Tesla had no problem with Marconi’s achievements but in 1904, the US Patent Office suddenly changed its mind and awarded Marconi a patent for the invention of the radio. There has never been a reason given for this decision but the powerful financial backing Marconi received could explain it.
Tesla’s dream projects
Marconi went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1911 which was only possible due to Tesla’s work. Tesla was furious and sued Marconi. The case dragged on in court for years and was only settled in Tesla’s favour after his death. That radio incident negatively impacted the rest of Tesla’s career. For example, Tesla was obsessed with bringing wireless communication to the world and built a huge wireless transmission station in Long Island, New York called Wardenclyffe Tower. He imagined a world where we could send and receive messages wirelessly. There were many of his inventions which could never be built. Those included:-
- Wireless transmission of Electricity – Yes, He already had the idea of how to wirelessly transmit the electricity from one place to another but could never build it.
- The Thought Camera – He had an idea for a camera which could project your thoughts on a screen, which has not been possible till date.
- The Earthquake Machine – He made a machine which could create artificial earthquakes. It could have been used by scientists to find important minerals inside the earth.
- The Death Ray – This powerful ray could vaporize everything in its path only could be limited by the curvature of the earth.
He was, again, well ahead of his time. But financial backers did not have enough faith in his project. They pulled out and banked on Marconi’s radio invention instead. This left Tesla in financial ruin. He had no choice but to abandon his dream project in 1905 and eventually lost Wardenclyffe Tower to foreclosure.
Tesla’s mental health deteriorated. He lived his last decade in the New Yorker Hotel beginning in 1933. Westinghouse Corporation hired him as a consultant and paid for his room. He lived rent-free but died in debt.
So why did one of the greatest inventors of all time fade into obscurity and die penniless? You could say Tesla was unlucky at times like when the fire burned down his New York lab. But the main reason is that Tesla was not a capitalist. Tesla made decisions that those with more business acumen would not have made such as giving up his royalties for the AC motor. He wasn’t concerned about money. He was concerned about the pursuit of science for the betterment of humanity. Telsa wanted to change the world and he did. Thanks in part to Elon Musk’s company, people are starting to learn more about the man who inspired the company, a man whose inventions would power our entire planet. It’s because of Tesla that modern society functions the way it does. Tesla’s mother called him a child of light and she was quite right.
Thanks for reading the story of Nikola Tesla, the man who revolutionised the world.