Capable Men of History: Nikola Tesla

Born on 10 July 1856 in the Austrian Empire (now Croatia), Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American inventor, engineer, physicist and a futurist with around 300 patents in his name. He is better known for patenting a rotating magnetic field to produce Alternating Current (AC). After studying physics and engineering, he gained real-world experience in the telephony and electric power industry. He then emigrated to the US and worked for a short time in New York at the Edison Machine Works.

Tesla found the right partners and set up his own labs in New York to develop different electrical and mechanical devices. However, it was his AC (Alternating Current) related patents that made him a celebrity and earned him a big fortune. Like Thomas Edison, the main objective of Tesla was to invent, improve and market electrical and mechanical devices, but he was not totally focused just on the financial side of things.

Early Life of Nikola Tesla

Tesla was born in Croatia which was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time. He was the fourth of the five children (three sisters and a brother). His father was a priest in a church while his mother used to manage the family farm and other family affairs. Death of his brother in a riding accident was the turning point in his life. He was only five at that time and started showing signs of mental illness, including seeing visions.

Initially, he tried to control these visions using his will power, but later on in his life, he almost turned into a mystic able to communicate with the city’s pigeons. He studied mathematics & physics (Technical University of Graz) and philosophy (University of Prague). He became interested in electricity demos conducted by his physics professor. He had the ability to perform integral calculus in his mind, which made his teachers think that he was cheating.

His abilities helped him complete a 4-year-term in three years during his early education. He completed early education in 1873. Soon after returning to his hometown, Tesla contracted cholera and neared death many times during his 9-month illness. After losing the elder son, his father wanted him to become an orthodox priest. Seeing his condition, he promised to send him to the top engineering school if recovered. He eventually recovered and escaped conscription into the army by running away into the mountains.

Tesla got a Military Frontier scholarship at the Graz Imperial -Royal Technical College in 1875. He earned the highest grades and passed almost twice as many as required exams. The dean also commended and called him a ‘star of first rank’. However, he was failing in the school by the third year and never actually graduated. He left the school in 1878, but his family did not hear about him for some time. News came to his family that he has been working as a draftsman across the border in Slovenia.

Early Career of Nikola Tesla

Early Career of Nikola Tesla

After the death of his father, he moved to Budapest in 1881 and started working in the Budapest Telephone Exchange, which was not fully functional by then. He soon became the chief electrician and made many improvements during his employment, including ‘perfecting’ the amplifier/telephone repeater.

Tesla came up with the idea of a brushless Alternating Current (AC) motor during a walk in 1882 following which he started making sketches in the sand. He got a job in Paris as a repairman in Continental Edison Company and repaired Direct Current power plants. Just two years after that he emigrated to the US.

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla

Right after his arrival in 1884 in New York, he got a job as an engineer at the Manhattan HQ of Thomas Edison. Charles Batchelor oversaw the Paris installation where Tesla worked and brought him to the New York HQ. Tesla impressed Edison with his ingenuity, but only worked for around 6 months.

Tesla was offered $50,000 for improving an existing design of Edison’s DC dynamos. However, after a lot of hard work and presenting a solution, Tesla was denied his reward following which he left the company. Edison termed it a ‘practical joke’, but Tesla took it seriously.

Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing

Tesla began working on an arc lighting system, which is believed to be the same he developed while working at Edison. He applied for a patent in 1885. Two businessmen got interested in his ideas and agreed to finance a company in his own name i.e. Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. He obtained the patents within a year for an improved version of DC generator and gained attention of the technical press.

Initially, there was little interest in AC (Alternating Current) motors, which is why they decided to run an electric company instead of manufacturing and switching to AC. Tesla’s company was abandoned and a new utility company was formed. He also lost his own patents because he had exchanged them for company stock.

After turning out to be penniless, Tesla had to work hard to make ends meet and even worked as a digger at $2 per day and as a repairman at different electrical repair shops. This is said to be the toughest time in his life when his education and experience became a mockery.

Alternating Current and the Induction Motor

In April 1887, Tesla established Tesla Electric Company, which was financially and legally backed by Alfred S. Brown (Western Union superintendent) and Charles Fletcher Peck (New York Attorney). The company was based on Tesla’s innovative ideas for electrical equipment. A lab was setup in Manhattan where Tesla worked on developing new types and improving on existing generators, motors and other electrical devices.

The AC system was gaining rapid popularity in the US and Europe based on which Tesla developed and patented an induction motor in 1888. The motor had a self-starting design with no sparking required, saving users from a lot of maintenance and regular servicing. The motor was demonstrated at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in May 1888. Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company took notice of the invention and wanted to obtain a patent.

A licensing deal between Westinghouse and Tesla was finalized in July 1888 for $60,000 plus a royalty of $2.50 per horsepower generated by each motor. The deal was finalized at a time of stiff market competition between different electric companies during what is known as ‘the war of currents’. These companies included Westinghouse, Thomas-Houston and Edison. Edison Electric were busy propagating the notion that AC is dangerous and a threat to humans.

Westinghouse Electric landed in troubled waters just two years after finalizing the deal with Tesla, which followed by the 1890’s financial panic made matters even worse. Until then, Tesla’s induction motor was struck in the development phase, while Westinghouse was paying a heavy fee in terms of guaranteed royalty. Realizing the financial troubles of the company and advantages of championing the induction motor, Tesla released Westinghouse from the royalty payment.

New York Labs

New York Labs

Tesla made enough money from licensing patents and other fees and became independently wealthy. He had plenty of time and financial resources to pursue his dreams and interests. He rented a series of lab spaces in Manhattan in 1889 and hired staff to conduct more experiments, including the oscillating transformer aka the Tesla coil. It produced low-current high-voltage and high-frequency AC electricity. The Tesla coil was patented in July 1891, the same year Tesla became a US naturalized citizen.

Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla

Tesla became friends with Mark Twain in the 1890s and both were mutual admirers. Although one was a writer and the other an inventor, both were dreamers. Twain was also fascinated with new inventions and visited Tesla’s lab and posed one night for one of the very first photographs. Twain was invited once again in 1895 for another photograph using another device. Fascinated by electricity, Twain frequently visited Tesla’s lab and even took part in experiments.

Wireless Power and Lighting System

Tesla experimented with wireless power transmission through near-field inductive and capacitive coupling in the 1890s. He used Tesla coil to generate high AC-voltage and was able to lit incandescent bulbs in public demos. However, none of these experiments were able to make his invention a commercial success.

Tesla spent a lot of time and effort in transmitting power without wires. He had already demonstrated wireless lighting and worked on transmitting large amounts of power wirelessly. Back then there were no practical means of transmitting even weak wireless communication signals over long distances, so transmitting high-power remained a dream.

Radio Remote Control

Tesla demonstrated a radio remote control to operate a boat in 1898 and called it tela-automation. He tried to sell his idea to the military, but it received little attention and the idea remained a novelty for quite some time. It was used in different military programs after World War 1.

Final Years of Nikola Tesla

Tesla’s NY lab burned in 1895 after which he relocated to Colorado Springs. The fire destroyed a lot of equipment and years of notes. He returned to New York in 1900 and secured $150,000 capital from J.P. Morgan to work on wireless broadcasting. However, the funds soon dried up and nothing came out of the project.

Tesla ran up a large bill while living in New York City in the 1900s. He kept moving from one hotel to another until the 1920s without paying the bills. He used to take a walk in the park every day. He fed and rescued injured pigeons and spent around $2,000 on a single injured pigeon.

Tesla said that he fed thousands of pigeons for years and one of them even became a purpose of his life. Because of unpaid bills and mess created by pigeons, he was evicted from different hotels in the 1930s. Most of his patents also ran out by that time and he effectively became bankrupt.

From 1934, Westinghouse started paying his rent and a $125 per month stipend to Tesla after he moved to the Hotel New Yorker. Westinghouse was concerned about their public image due to impoverished conditions Tesla was living in. The company took care of rent and kept paying Tesla a ‘consultation fee’ for the rest of his life.

Tesla got struck by a taxicab, wrenched his back severely and broke three ribs at the age of 81 in 1937. Despite such severe injuries, Tesla opted not to consult a doctor and never fully recovered. He died alone in his room at the age of 86 on 7 January 1943. The medical examiner declared a type of heart attack as the cause of his death. He was among the world’s most revolutionary minds that helped transform the whole world and an inspiration to those who receive little recognition despite their hard work and brilliant ideas.