Nikola Tesla: The Life and Times of the Genius Who Lit the World

Nikola Tesla was a truly remarkable man who turned the American Dream into a the stuff of legends.
Christopher McFadden
Nikola Tesla sitting in his lab next to his "magnifying transmitter" Tesla coil which is producing 22 foot bolts of electricity.Dickenson V. Alley/Wikimedia Commons

Nikola Tesla, often cited as the "Genius Who Lit the World", made a name for himself with his contributions to science and engineering. His development of the radio, the bladeless turbine, and many other inventions, earned him a place in the hall of fame of engineers. Despite this, Tesla died penniless and without the recognition he deserved during his tempestuous life.

In the following few thousand words, we'll take a tour of Tesla's life and times, follow him from his birthland to America, and explore his tragic end in 1943. 

Early sparks of life

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in the Austrian Empire. According to Tesla, his mother had a talent for making homemade appliances and tools and an excellent memory. He credited his eidetic memory and creative abilities to his mother's genetics and influence.

Tesla studied at both Realschule, Karlstadt Polytechnic Institute in Graz, and Charles-Ferdinand University. Though he didn't graduate from either, he was considered a star student. It was in these classes that he became obsessed with electromagnetic fields and a hypothetical motor powered by alternate-current. 

In 1882, Tesla got a job in Paris with the Continental Edison Company. He quickly impressed his managers and they soon had him designing and building improved versions of generating dynamos and motors. One of the managers at the Edison Company, Charles Batchelor, invited Tesla to work with him at Edison Machine Works in New York City and Tesla accepted. 

The American dream

Tesla arrived in the U.S. in 1884 and began working at Edison Machine Works. He was tasked with developing an arc lamp-based street lighting system, among other responsibilities. According to Tesla's autobiography, it was during this time that he met Thomas Edison. Edison had been pushing fiercely for the standard adoption of his DC-based system to electrify the country.

It's unclear exactly how their relationship panned out during the six months Tesla was at the Machine Works. In his autobiography, Tesla explains that a manager at the company offered him a $50,000 bonus ($1.4 million in today's money) to design "twenty-four types of standard machines." In another telling of the story, Thomas Edison is the person offering the deal.

Either way, it turns out that the offer was "a practical joke." Understandably deflated, Tesla decided to part ways with the company around January 1885.

Source: Pixabay

In 1885 Tesla managed to secure private funding from investors for an arc lighting and utility company, the Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. 

Unfortunately, Tesla's investors showed little interest in his designs and plans for his new form of alternating current motors and electrical transmission equipment, however. Poor Tesla worked as a laborer to make ends meet after being ousted from the venture.

One door closes, another opens

In 1887,  Tesla found further interest in his ideas, and the Tesla Electric Company was born. He now had a laboratory located in Manhattan, and he developed an induction motor that ran on alternating current. He was able to patent this innovative motor in 1888, and with the help of his investors, even get the press excited about it.

In 1888 Tesla caught the attention of George Westinghouse, who was looking for a method of long-distance power supply. Westinghouse convinced that Tesla's AC system would be perfect for this, licensed his patents for $60,000, stock, and royalties. He even hired Tesla as a consultant. 

In 1889, Tesla traveled to the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris and, inspired by Heinrich Hertz's experiments, decided to explore electromagnetic radiation and radio waves. This led to him developing the Tesla coil. 

The Tesla coil is an impressive machine that transforms energy into extremely high voltage charges. This creates powerful electrical fields that can generate spectacular electrical arcs. As impressive as these are for visual spectacles they also have a rather practical use and were used in wireless radio technology and medical devices.

Tesla's patents and discoveries

After patenting the induction motor, Tesla would go on to patent a significant amount of inventions. Several dozen of Tesla’s patents were related to alternating current science. Over the course of his career, there were countless additional unpatented ideas that he developed during his life and times. 

Below are some of the patents he obtained between 1890 and his passing, along with some of his more notable discoveries and contributions to engineering.  

The Radio. As early as 1892, Tesla was tinkering and playing with radio wave technology. In 1897, Tesla applied for two patents: US 645576, and US 649621. News of Tesla's work got out, it was picked up and ran with by Italian Inventor Guglielmo Marconi. In 1904, The U.S. Patent Office reversed its decision on Tesla's patents, awarding them to no other than Marconi. Could they be influenced by Marconi's financial backers? These backers were no other than Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie, clearly, they held a grudge.

This decision allowed the U.S Government, amongst others, to avoid paying royalties to Tesla for use of the technology. Tesla's financial naivety once again cost him, figuratively and literally, when Italian Guglielmo Marconi completed his first trans-Atlantic radio transmission. This message was a piece of Morse code sent from England to Newfoundland effectively using Tesla's innovations.

This battle between Marconi and Tesla waged for decades before the U.S Supreme Court ultimately revoked some of Marconi's patents in 1943. This, at least, restored Tesla's place as the father of radio in a legal sense.

Alternating Current. The Westinghouse Corporation was chosen to supply the lighting at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Tesla conducted further demonstrations of his AC system at this event. 

Tesla's alternating current systems could overcome some major restrictions of Edison's Direct Current power plants and distribution systems. DC power, for example, sent electricity flowing in one direct, straight line; AC could change direction easily and deliver power at a much higher voltage.

Tesla designed one of the first AC hydroelectric power plants in the US at Niagara Falls in 1895. Tesla's AC system was also used to power the city of Buffalo, New York.

AC's continued success and favorable press catapulted it to become the world's go-to power supply system of the 20th Century. An acumen it still holds to this day.

X-Rays. Tesla's work on X-Rays was driven by his observation of mysterious damage to photographic plates in his laboratory. At this time they had no official name, it was only 1894 after all.

Tesla experimented with Crookes Tubes but also built his own vacuum tubes to assist in his studies. Tesla's apparatus was a special unipolar X-Ray bulb. It consisted of a single electrode that emitted electrons. The tube had no target electrode and, therefore, the electrons were accelerated by peaks of the electrical field which was produced by a high voltage Tesla Coil.

Tesla, even then, realized that the source of the X-Rays was the site of the first impact of the "cathodic stream" within the bulb. He suspected this was either the anode in the bipolar tube or the glass wall in the tube itself. Today we call this form of radiation Bremsstrahlung or braking radiation.

Nikola Tesla: The Life and Times of the Genius Who Lit the World
Source: Pixabay

At around this time, Tesla appears to have produced the first X-Ray image in the US, when he attempted to obtain an image of Mark Twain using his tube. Tesla later managed to obtain images of the human body that he termed shadowgraphs.

Radio remote control. Tesla's US patent No. 613809 was for his first remote-controlled boat, first demonstrated in 1898. This was naturally an extrapolation of his work on radio technology.

His design used several large batteries, radio signal-controlled switches, and of course more traditional boat bits. The switches energized the boat's propeller, rudder, and even some scaled-down running lights. Although not used regularly for some time we can now appreciate the power of this technology. Whether it be for recreation or indeed, less happily, war. Radio-controlled tanks were actually used by the Germans During WW2.

What goes up must come down

Starting in the 1890s, Tesla became obsessed with creating wireless transmission of energy. He was set about attempting to develop a global, wireless communication system. His design centered around a large electrical tower for sharing information and providing free electricity to the world.

Investors in his idea included J. P. Morgan. In 1901 Tesla began construction of a laboratory, with a dedicated power plant, and the required tower. This site was on Long Island, New York, and became known as Wardenclyffe.

Sadly, doubts began to rise about the project viability amongst his investors. Tesla's situation was made worse by Guglielmo Marconi's advancements in Radio technology. Marconi received financial support from Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie.

This market pressure saw Tesla forced to abandon the Wardenclyffe project. Wardenclyffe's staff were laid off in 1906 and the site fell into foreclosure in 1915. Tesla was forced into bankruptcy in 1917. Wardenclyffe closed the same year, which was later dismantled and sold for scrap to help clear his arrears.

Nikola Tesla: The Life and Times of the Genius Who Lit the World
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Death and legacy

Tesla, sadly, suffered a nervous breakdown but eventually returned to work as a consultant engineer. Growing increasingly eccentric, Tesla began to withdraw from society and spent a lot of his time caring for wild pigeons in New York's parks. He reportedly spent over $2,000 to care for one pigeon, including a device he built to support her comfortably while her broken wing and leg healed.

After living in New York for 60 years, Tesla died alone in a hotel room as a result of coronary thrombosis. He was 86 at the time of death. A sad, sad end to a great and prolific scientist and inventor.