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Nikola Tesla

alternating current pioneer

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla was born in the early minutes of July 10, 1856, in Smiljan, Croatia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). His interest in electrical invention was spurred by his mother, Djuka Mandic, who invented small household appliances in her spare time. Milutin Tesla, hoped his son would follow him into the priesthood (of the Orthodox Church), but Nikola had vastly different ideas. After completing his primary education, he studied at the Realschule, Karlstadt (later renamed the Johann-Rudolph-Glauber Realschule Karlstadt) and the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria. A dispute with one of his professors at the Institute (over the use of commutators in a dynamo) led Tesla to stop attending classes, and he never received his degree.

In 1881, Tesla moved to Budapest, where he worked as chief electrician for the Central Telephone Exchange. According to Tesla, he was walking through a Budapest park with a friend, reciting poetry, when a vision came to him. Grabbing a stick, he drew a crude diagram in the dirt, of a motor using the principle of rotating magnetic fields created by two or more alternating currents (an induction motor). While AC electrification had been employed before, a practical, working motor run on alternating current had yet to be developed. After spending several years trying to gain interest in his motor, Tesla decided to try his luck in America.

Tesla arrived in New York City in 1884, with all of four cents in his pocket. He also had a letter of recommendation from Charles Batchelor, a former employer, to Thomas Edison, which was purported to say, “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!” Whether the letter actually bore those exact words is unknown, but whatever it said must have impressed Edison, as he immediately put Tesla to work as an engineer in his Manhattan laboratory. Although Tesla quickly proved himself invaluable at making improvements to Edison's DC dynamos, his insistence on being allowed to work on alternating current led to conflict between the men. That conflict escalated when Edison refused to pay a promised bonus, and Tesla left Edison's employ in 1885.

After leaving Edison, Tesla partnered with Robert Lane and Benjamin Vale, who agreed to finance Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. The company installed electrical arc lights based on illumination systems designed by Tesla and also had designs for dynamo electric machine commutators, the first patents issued to Tesla in the US., but Lane and Vale were just as disinterested in alternating current as Edison had been and eventually forced Tesla out of his own company.

Tesla had to spend time digging ditches for $2 a day before finding anyone willing to invest in alternating current. In late 1886, he met Alfred S. Brown and Charles F. Peck, who saw promise in Tesla's patents and agreed to back him financially. The men established the Tesla Electric Company in April 1887, and by the end of 1888 Tesla had been granted more than 30 patents. The most important of those patents was for an alternating current induction motor that used electricity to generate a rotating magnetic field to turn the motor.

patent drawing for Tesla's AC induction motor
patent drawing for Tesla's AC induction motor

In 1888 Tesla was invited to demonstrate his alternating current system before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Word of that demonstration made its way to George Westinghouse, who had launched the world's first AC power system near Boston. Brown and Peck negotiated a licensing deal with Westinghouse for Tesla's polyphase induction motor and transformer designs for $60,000 in cash and stock and a royalty of $2.50 per AC horsepower produced by each motor. The infusion of cash allowed Tesla to establish his own laboratory, and also put him smack in the middle of the "current war" between Westinghouse and Edison. Westinghouse and alternating current eventually won out, but only after Tesla agreed to relinquish his royalty rights, which freed up enough money for Westinghouse to carry on the fight.

In his new laboratory, Tesla worked on high frequency apparatus, wireless transmission, and theories on the relationship between electromagnetic radiation and light. With high frequencies, Tesla developed some of the first neon and fluorescent illumination and also took the first x-ray photographs. But these discoveries paled in comparison to his illuminating a vacuum tube wirelessly, having transmitted energy through the air using an early version of what is now known as a Tesla Coil (which was patented in 1891).

Tesla became a naturalized citizen on June 30, 1891, an event he considered one of the most positive in his life. By 1892 he was one of the most well known electrical engineers in the world, and that same year his AC distribution system was chosen over Edison's DC system to power the upcoming World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The success of that system led to Westinghouse being awarded the contract to harness the electricity-producing potential of Niagara Falls.

Tesla's streak of good fortune came to an abrupt end when his laboratory was destroyed by fire in 1895. Tesla worked out of rented space until moving to Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1899. In Colorado, he focused all of his energy on the wireless transmission of electricity. That work led him to experiment with wireless communication, and in 1901 he was able to convince J.P. Morgan that he could build a system capable of transmitting both sounds and pictures around the world. Using Morgan's money, Tesla oversaw construction of what became a gigantic, futuristic-looking, and startling transmission tower in the middle of Wardenclyffe, Long Island, New York. Work on the tower had barely begun when, in December 1891, Guglielmo Marconi successfully sent a radio signal from England to Newfoundland. Tesla claimed that Marconi used at least 17 of his patents, but the courts ruled in Marconi's favor. Morgan had already pulled his backing by then, and Tesla was forced to pay for both Wardenclyffe and the patent fights on his own. Work on Wardenclyffe ended in 1906, but Tesla continued working on other projects.

Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower
Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower

The failure of Wardenclyffe was followed by a string of successes for Tesla, primarily with steam turbines. None of those successes translated into financial security, however, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1916. He spent his last decades working on a variety of projects, some of which resulted in limited financial success. In 1931 he made the cover of Time magazine, which featured his inventions on his 75th birthday. In 1934 the New York Times reported that Tesla was working on a “Death Beam” capable of knocking 10,000 enemy airplanes out of the sky. He hoped to fund a prototypical defensive weapon in the interest of world peace, but his appeals to J.P. Morgan Jr. and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went nowhere. Tesla did receive a $25,000 check from the Soviet Union, but the project languished.

Nikola Tesla died in his room at the New Yorker Hotel on January 7, 1943. Later that year the U.S. Supreme Court voided four of Marconi's key patents, belatedly acknowledging Tesla's innovations in radio. The AC system he championed and improved remains the global standard for power transmission.

The World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1978

History Channel
Smithsonian Magazine
Tesla, Master of Lightning
Tesla Universe

Thomas Edison
George Westinghouse
World's Columbian Exposition
Niagara Falls
Guglielmo Marconi

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This page was last updated on July 10, 2018.