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Nikola Tesla: The Unusual Life of a Forgotten Genius

Team StoryWeavers|July 09, 2022, 11:27 IST|

Life of Nikola Tesla

A bright boy was born on a dark, stormy day in the Smiljan town of present-day Croatia — on July 10, 1856. According to family legend, the midwife claimed, the boy would be a child of darkness. To which, his mother replied, “No. He will be a child of light.”

In that moment, Nikola Tesla’s mother, Duka Mandic, had predicted his future, as he would go on to bring light to the entire world. 

His mother had given him a lot more than a life; he also inherited a photographic memory and a love for innovation from her. She would often spend her spare time inventing household gadgets.

His father, a priest, insisted that Nikola follow in his footsteps. But, the boy wanted to become an engineer instead, and so he did.

An Extraordinary Mind

From an early age, Nikola demonstrated incredible intelligence. He could memorise entire books, store logarithmic tables in his brain, and perform calculus in his mind. He even spoke eight languages.

Tesla had the ability to see visions in his head. And eventually, through these visions, he would perceive his inventions in such detail that he did not even have to draw them out on a piece of paper.

Nikola Tesla doing one of his experiments.

Tesla in the middle of one of his experiments.

Finding Passion

At the age of 19, he went to the Polytechnic Institute at Graz in Austria, to study electrical engineering. He quickly became a star student.

Here, he was fascinated by the mysterious phenomenon of electricity and was curious to know more. Unfortunately, he became addicted to gambling and dropped out of school. But, he never stopped yearning for knowledge.

Tesla moved to Budapest to work as an electrician at a telephone exchange. One day, while walking around a park, a vision came to him. He drew a diagram on the dirt with a stick – it was of a motor to generate electricity using Alternating Current. 

It would be the greatest invention that would change the world.

The Edison Era

In 1882, Tesla went to Paris to work for the Continental Edison Company. At first, he simply installed indoor lighting, but his managers recognised his talent and gave him more complicated projects.

Soon, he was designing dynamos and motors and travelling across Europe to fix problems in other branches. In 1884, he was offered a job at Edison Machine Works in New York, where he worked with Thomas Edison.

Edison Machine Works where Nikola Tesla worked

Edison Machine Works in New York. Tesla found the change from working in Europe to Manhattan’s lower east side, a “painful surprise”.

Tesla worked on electric inventions under Edison, including an arc lighting system, which was never implemented. Edison said to him, “I have had many hard-working assistants but you take the cake.”

Tesla and Edison often disagreed over how electricity should be contained and delivered. Edison preferred Direct Current (DC), while Tesla felt strongly about Alternating Current (AC).

They eventually became rivals, and Tesla quit Edison’s company.

An Entrepreneurial Sprint

In 1885, Tesla formed his own company – Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. But, his business partners did not want to continue investing in his ideas. They took the company’s intellectual property and shut it down, which left him penniless.

After losing his company, he had to dig ditches for $2 a day to survive. He felt that his knowledge about science and technology had gone to waste. But, his mind never stopped innovating.

A Turn of Fortunes

In a stroke of genius, Tesla invented his induction motor that ran on Alternating Current, in 1887. The motor was the most efficient way of converting electricity into mechanical energy. 

Electric induction motor by Nikola Tesla

A drawing from the patent of Tesla’s alternating current induction motor.

George Westinghouse, who was in the electric business, took an interest in his invention and realised it was just what he needed to compete against Edison.

Tesla finally earned some wealth when he licensed his patent to Westinghouse for $60,000 and received a steady stream of stock royalties. Westinghouse also hired him as a consultant at Westinghouse Electric & Light Manufacturing Co. for $2000 a month.

The War of the Currents

In the late 1880s, the rivalry between Westinghouse and Edison grew intense. Edison tried multiple ways to discredit the Alternating Current system, but wasn’t completely successful. Edison’s entire business was based on Direct Current, meanwhile, Tesla’s Alternating Current showed more promise for larger electrical projects.

Westinghouse and Tesla won the war when they secured a contract to light up the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Tesla helped the fair illuminate more light bulbs than could be found in the entire city of Chicago. The 27 million people who attended had witnessed without a doubt that AC would power the future.

Nikola Tesla and Westinghouse at World's Columbian Exposition

A display of the “Tesla Polyphase System” at the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Next, the duo built the world’s first AC power plant at Niagara Falls. Their hydroelectric power was a massive success and helped light up Buffalo, New York.

Tesla became a pioneer in renewable energy. His statue is seen today at Niagara Falls.

Choosing Friendship Over Fame

Westinghouse eventually ran out of money and went into $10 million in debt. Out of desperation to save his company, he asked Tesla if his royalties could be reduced.

In an act of compassion, Tesla ripped up his contract. He was simply grateful to his friend for believing in him when no one else did.

Tesla willingly walked away from $12 million in royalties. Today, this would have been worth over $3oo million. He might have even become the world’s first billionaire and the wealthiest person on the planet.

As compensation for using his AC patents forever, Tesla received $216,000, which he used to set up laboratories in New York.

The Golden Era of Inventions

Thus began a period of many inventions. Tesla held over 300 patents in his lifetime.

In 1891, he invented his most well-known invention – the Tesla Coil. This device could produce large amounts of high voltage electricity.

Tesla Coil Nikola Tesla

Tesla sitting next to his “magnifying transmitter” generating millions of volts.

With his technology, he invented many things, including an early version of neon lighting. He also invented the Tesla Turbine, a bladeless turbine for vehicles.

By experimenting with radiation, he pioneered X-ray technology.

An X-ray of Nikola Tesla's hand

An X-ray that Tesla took of his own hand.

In 1989, he built one of the first remote controls. He used it to control a miniature boat in Madison Square Garden, New York. It was so ahead of its time that people thought he was using magic to make it move.

radio-controlled boat by Nikola Tesla

Tesla’s radio-controlled boat.

He even experimented with and demonstrated wireless lighting. But, he never received backing for his idea.

wireless lighting demonstration by nikola tesla

Tesla demonstrating wireless lighting by “electrostatic induction” at Columbia College via two long Geissler tubes in his hands.

The Tesla Coil helped him send and receive radio signals. He believed that wireless technology could one day power the globe. The visionary that he was, he devoted his time and research to this project.

He had invented the technology for the radio, or as he called it, wireless telegraphy.

When Tragedy Struck

Tesla was finally getting ready to broadcast his first radio signal, when disaster struck. In 1895, a fire broke out in his New York lab and years of his research and equipment went up in flames. 

Two years after the incident, Tesla applied for a patent for his radio. At the same time, Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian entrepreneur was also working on the radio. 

In 1901, Marconi was able to send the world’s first transatlantic radio message. But, he had used 17 of Tesla’s patents to do it. The US patent office awarded Marconi the patent for the invention of the radio, and he even won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Marconi radio

Marconi with the device he used in his first long-distance radio transmissions.

Tesla was furious and sued Marconi claiming infringement on his patents. The case dragged on for years and only settled in Tesla’s favour after his death.

Things went downhill for Tesla after the Radio incident.

The Final Attempts

Tesla was passionate about introducing wireless communication to the world. He believed that his system could not only distribute electricity around the globe, but also help the world communicate with only a tiny device.

He built a large wireless transmission station in New York called the Wardenclyffe tower to give life to his theory. Unfortunately, he did not find anyone to invest in his idea. He had no choice but to abandon his dream project in 1905. 

Once again, Tesla was well ahead of his time.

Nikola Tesla's Wardenclyffe plant

Tesla’s Wardenclyffe plant on Long Island, NY

In 1933, he was out of money, and went to live in the New Yorker hotel, which was paid for by his friend, Westinghouse. A decade later, he died penniless in the same hotel.

Despite his defeats, Tesla had not stopped innovating in his mind, even towards the end. He said that he had invented a motor powered by cosmic rays, which could run for 500 years. He claimed to have built a machine to photograph thoughts. And, also mentioned that he invented a “peace ray” that could bring down 10,000 aeroplanes at 200 miles. 

Nikola Tesla thought camera

A representation of the thought camera Tesla described at his 1933 birthday party

Although he was thought to be a “mad scientist”, he promised to show the world his inventions in due time, but never could.

Remembering a Remarkable Man

Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest inventors of all time. But, he failed in many of his ventures because he was not a capitalist. He did not make the decisions that a typical person with a business mind would. 

He was not concerned about wealth; rather, he was always in the pursuit of science for humanity. This conviction is also probably why he is not as well-remembered as the other great scientists that we know of.

Tesla wanted to change the world, and whether he knew it or not, he did. His story, full of ups and downs, leaves us wondering — if he was given the right resources and shown a little faith, where would the world be today?

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About the Author

Vandya is a copywriter by the day and an amateur illustrator by the night. She's a cat mom 24/7. As a certified organisation freak, she lives and breathes in Notion. With a head full of ideas, she is passionate about crafting interesting concepts - for work or play. To kick back at the end of the day, she likes binge-watching shows with an inclination for all things spooky.

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