A man ahead of his time. Nikola Tesla was controversial in his time as he proposed and enacted ideas that many thought would be impossible. Tesla’s brilliance is best remembered for the impact he made in designing the modern Alternating Current (AC) electricity supply system, which is still the most popular system today.
Tesla was born on the 10th of July 1856 in Smiljan, a small village in modern day Croatia, in the then Austrian Empire. Tesla came from a large family where he was the 4th youngest out of 5 children. His dad, Milutin Tesla was an Eastern Orthodox Priest and wished strongly for Nikola to one day follow in his foot steps. His mom, Đuka Tesla had a great memory despite never receiving formal education. She invented household appliances on her spare time in order to make her household chores easier. Tesla credits his eidetic memory and creativity to his mom.
Nikola excelled at school to the point where his teachers accused of cheating. However this was not the case as Tesla was simply a genius.
He was able to do integral calculus in his head and finished a four year term in 3 years which resulted in him graduating in 1873. Shortly after, Tesla contracted Cholera and suffered from it for 9 months leaving his father desperately declaring that he would send his son to the best engineering school if he were to survive.
Nikola managed to evade conscription into the Austro-Hungarian Army by running away to a place called Tomingaj where he spent time absorbing the nature and reading Mark Twain with whom he developed a close friendship.
In 1875 Tesla enrolled at the Austrian Polytechnic University where he received the top marks in his first year. Unfortunately, due to overworking himself and forming an addiction to gambling, Tesla never graduated from university.
He cut all family ties and distanced himself from his peers in order to hide the fact that he did not complete his studies.
After working numerous jobs, Tesla began working for the Continental Edison Company in Paris which resulted in him emigrating to the United States in 1884 to work with Edison himself.
He arrived in New York with only 4 cents in his pocket. Tesla’s ideas differed substantially from that of Edison’s and the two inevitably split after 6 months at the company.
Tesla's Big Break
Tesla’s big break came when he met Alfred Brown and Charles Peck. They agreed to invest in his idea of an AC motor. The Tesla Electric Company opened in April 1887 and the profits were split between the 3 men equally. With the help of Brown and Peck, Tesla successfully constructed and patented his AC Polyphase Electrical System. This system competed directly with Edison’s DC system.
Edison used his fame and influence to slander Tesla and his work, but despite this Tesla attracted the attention of George Westinghouse, an American entrepreneur, engineer and the owner of Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. A feud broke out between these companies which is known as the War of Currents where Edison tried to prove that his DC system was the best.
Westinghouse hired Tesla for a considerable fee of $2000 dollars a month to be a consultant at his company and negotiated a licensing deal 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.
Another one of Tesla’s inventions, the Tesla Coil, invented in 1891 is still widely used today in radios and other electronic equipment.
In 1893, Westinghouse used Tesla’s AC system to light the World’s Columbian Exhibition. This resulted in Tesla getting the go ahead to generate power from the Niagra Falls using his AC system.
Unfortunately, Tesla was unable to put many of his ideas in to practice due to a lack of funding. He was awarded the Edison Medal in 1917 for his outstanding contribution to the field.
Tesla was an eccentric man. He lived the majority of his life in hotel rooms where he would rescue and feed pigeons, then leave a few years later leaving behind unpaid bills. He stated that he could speak eight languages and would never sleep more than two hours a night. He never married and claimed his chastity was helpful for his scientific ideas.
Tesla died penniless on 7 January 1943 in New York City at the age of 86. Tributes poured in from around the world, including from 3 Nobel Prize winners. He will be forever remembered for his eccentricities and genius.