Nikola Tesla: July 10th, 1856 – January 7th, 1943

✪ Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer and futurist best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system.

Tesla was born and raised in the Austrian Empire. He studied engineering and physics in the 1870s without receiving a degree. He gained practical experience in the early 1880s by working in telephony and at Continental Edison in the new electric power industry. In 1884 he emigrated to the United States and became a naturalized citizen.

Attempting to develop inventions he could patent and market, Tesla conducted a range of experiments with mechanical oscillators/generators, electrical discharge tubes and early forms of X-ray imaging. He also built a wirelessly controlled boat; one of the first ever exhibited. Tesla became well known as an inventor and often demonstrated his achievements to celebrities and wealthy patrons at his lab,. He was noted for his showmanship at public lectures.

Nikola Tesla was born an ethnic¬†Serb¬†in the village of¬†Smiljan, within the¬†Military Frontier of the¬†Austrian Empire¬†(present day¬†Croatia) on July 10, 1856.¬†His father, Milutin Tesla (1819‚Äď1879)¬†was a priest in the¬†Eastern Orthodox Church.

Tesla’s mother, ńźuka Mandińá (1822‚Äď1892) had a father who was also an¬†Eastern Orthodox Church¬†priest &¬†had a talent for making home craft tools and mechanical appliances; Her father also displayed a remarkable ability to memorize¬†Serbian epic poems. ńźuka never received a formal education. Tesla credited his¬†eidetic memory¬†and creative abilities to his mother’s genetics and influence.¬†Tesla’s ancestors were from western Serbia, near¬†Montenegro.

Tesla was the fourth born of five children. In 1861, Tesla attended primary school in Smiljan where he studied German, arithmetic and religion. In 1862, the Tesla family moved to nearby¬†Gospińá, where Tesla’s father worked as parish priest. Nikola completed primary school, followed by middle school.

Tesla later wrote that he became interested in demonstrations of electricity by his physics professor.¬†He noted these demonstrations of this “mysterious phenomena” made him want “to know more about this wonderful force‘”¬†Tesla was able to perform¬†integral calculus¬†in his head at a relatively young age, which prompted his teachers to believe that he was cheating.¬†He finished his four-year high school term in three years, & graduated in 1873.

After graduation, Tesla returned to Smiljan but soon contracted¬†cholera, & was bedridden for nine months; coming close to near death multiple times. In a moment of despair, Tesla’s father (who had originally wanted him to enter the priesthood), promised to send him to the best engineering school if only he would recover from the illness.

Tesla evaded mandatory military¬†conscription¬†into the¬†Austro-Hungarian Army¬†in Smiljan¬†by running away southeast into the mountains where he explored the terrain wearing hunter’s garb. Tesla said that this contact with nature during this time made him stronger, both physically and mentally. He read many books while in isolation and later said¬†Mark Twain’s works helped him to miraculously recover from his earlier illness.

Tesla enrolled at the¬†Imperial-Royal Technical College in Graz¬†in 1875 on a Military Frontier scholarship. In his autobiography Tesla said he worked hard to earn the highest grades possible. He passed nine exams¬†(nearly twice as many as required) and received a letter of commendation from the dean of the technical faculty to his father, which stated, “Your son is a star of first rank.”

In January 1880, two of Tesla’s uncles put together enough money to help him leave Gospińá for¬†Prague, where he was to study. He arrived too late to enroll at¬†Charles-Ferdinand University; he had never studied¬†Greek, a subject required for admittance; and he was illiterate in¬†Czech, another required subject. Tesla did, however, attend lectures in philosophy at the university as an auditor but he received no grades for those courses.

In 1881, Tesla moved to Budapest, Hungary to work under Tivadar Puskás at a telegraph company, the Budapest Telephone Exchange. Upon arrival, Tesla realized that the company, then under construction, was not functional, so he worked as a draftsman in the Central Telegraph Office, instead. Within a few months, the Budapest Telephone Exchange became functional and Tesla was promoted to position of the chief electrician position.

In 1882, Tivadar Puskás got Tesla another job in Paris; this time with the Continental Edison Company. Tesla began working in what was then considered a brand new industry, installing indoor incandescent lighting citywide for a large scale electric power utility company.  Management soon took notice of his advanced knowledge in engineering and physics and soon had him designing and building improved versions of generating dynamos and motors.

In June 1884, Tesla emigrated to the United States¬†and began working almost immediately at the Edison Machine Works on¬†Manhattan’s¬†Lower East Side in an overcrowded shop with a workforce of several hundred machinists, laborers, managing staff and 20 “field engineers” struggling with the challenge of building the large electric utility in that city.

Historian W. Bernard Carlson notes Tesla may have initially met company founder¬†Thomas Edison¬†only a couple of times.¬†One of those times was noted in Tesla’s autobiography¬†where, after staying up all night repairing the damaged dynamos on the ocean liner¬†SS¬†Oregon, he ran into Batchelor and Edison, who made a quip about their “Parisian” being out all night. After Tesla told them he had been up all night fixing the¬†Oregon, Edison commented to Batchelor that “this is a damned good man.”

Tesla had been working at the Edison Machine Works for only a total of six months when he quit.¬†What event precipitated his leaving is unclear. It may have been over a bonus he did not receive, either for redesigning generators or for an arc lighting system which was later shelved.¬†Tesla had earlier run-ins with the Edison company over unpaid bonuses he believed he had earned.¬†In his autobiography, Tesla stated the manager of the Edison Machine Works offered him a $50,000 bonus to design “twenty-four different types of standard machines, but the assignment turned out to be a practical joke.”¬†Later versions of this story have Thomas Edison himself offering and then reneging on the offer, quipping “Tesla, you just don’t understand our American humor.”

Tesla’s diary contains only one comment regarding what actually happened at the end of his employment. A note he scrawled across the two pages covering 7 December 1884 to 4 January 1885, saying “Good by to the Edison Machine Works.”

In late 1886, Tesla met Alfred S. Brown, a¬†Western Union¬†superintendent and New York attorney Charles Fletcher Peck.¬†The two men were experienced in setting up companies and promoting inventions and patents for financial gain.¬†Based on Tesla’s new ideas for electrical equipment, including a¬†thermo-magnetic motor¬†idea,¬†they agreed to back the inventor financially and handle his patents. Together they formed the Tesla Electric Company in April 1887.

In 1887, Tesla developed an induction motor that ran on alternating current (AC), a power system format that was rapidly expanding in Europe and the United States because of its advantages in long-distance, high-voltage transmission. This innovative electric motor design was patented in May 1888.

Engineers working for the¬†Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company reported to¬†George Westinghouse¬†that Tesla had a viable AC motor and related power system design‚ÄĒsomething Westinghouse needed for the alternating current system he was already marketing.

In July 1888, Brown and Peck negotiated a licensing deal with George Westinghouse for Tesla’s polyphase induction motor and transformer designs for $60,000 in cash, stock and a royalty of $2.50 per AC horsepower produced by each motor. Westinghouse also hired Tesla for one year for the then large fee of $2,000 ($65,100 equivalent in today’s dollars) per month as a consultant at the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company’s¬†Pittsburgh¬†labs.

Tesla’s demonstration of his induction motor and Westinghouse’s subsequent licensing of the patent, both in 1888, came at the time of extreme competition for market dominance between rival electric companies.The three big firms, Westinghouse, Edison and¬†the Thomson-Houston Electric Company were trying to grow in a capital-intensive business while financially undercutting each other. There was even a “war of currents” propaganda campaign going on, with Edison Electric claiming their¬†direct current¬†system was superior and safer than the Westinghouse alternating current system¬†

The money Tesla made from licensing his AC patents made him independently wealthy and gave him the time and funds to pursue his own interests. Tesla served as a vice-president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers from 1892 to 1894. On 30 July 1891 at age 35, Tesla became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Westinghouse Electric asked Tesla to participate in the 1893¬†World’s Columbian Exposition¬†in Chicago where the company had a large space in the “Electricity Building” devoted to electrical exhibits. Westinghouse Electric won the bid to light the Exposition with alternating current and it was a key event in the history of AC power, as the company demonstrated to the American public the safety, reliability, and efficiency of an alternating current system.

In the early morning hours of 13 March 1895, the South Fifth Avenue building which housed Tesla’s lab caught fire. It started in the basement of the building and was so intense Tesla’s 4th-floor lab burned and collapsed into the second floor. The fire not only set back Tesla’s ongoing projects, but it also destroyed a collection of early notes and research material, models, and demonstration pieces, including many that had been exhibited at the 1893 Worlds Colombian Exposition. Tesla told¬†The New York Times¬†“I am in too much grief to talk. What can I say?”

In 1898, Tesla demonstrated a motorized model boat using a¬†coherer-based¬†radio control‚ÄĒwhich he dubbed “telautomaton”‚ÄĒto the public during an electrical exhibition at¬†Madison Square Garden.¬†Tesla tried to sell his idea to the US military as a type of radio-controlled¬†torpedo, but they showed little interest. Remote¬†radio control¬†remained a novelty until World War I and afterward, when a number of countries began using it in their¬†military programs.

From the 1890s through 1906, Tesla spent a great deal of his time and fortune on a series of projects trying to develop the transmission of electrical power without wires. At the time Tesla was formulating his ideas, there was no feasible way to wirelessly transmit communication signals over long distances, let alone large amounts of power. 

Tesla made the rounds in New York trying to find investors for what he thought would be a viable system of wireless transmission, wining and dining them at the¬†Waldorf-Astoria’s Palm Garden (the hotel where he was living at the time),¬†The Players Club and¬†Delmonico’s.¬†In March 1901, he obtained $150,000 ($5,276,400 in today’s dollars) from¬†J. P. Morgan¬†in return for a 51% share of any generated wireless patents.

The project came to a halt in 1905 and in 1906, the financial problems and other events may have led to what Tesla biographer¬†Marc J. Seifer¬†suspects was a nervous breakdown on Tesla’s part.

On 6 November 1915, a¬†Reuters¬†news agency report from London had the 1915¬†Nobel Prize in Physics¬†awarded to Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla; however, on 15 November, a Reuters story from Stockholm stated the prize that year was being awarded to¬†William Henry Bragg¬†and¬†Lawrence Bragg¬†“for their services in the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays.”¬†There were unsubstantiated rumors at the time that either Tesla or Edison had refused the prize.

There have been subsequent claims by Tesla biographers that Edison and Tesla were the original recipients and that neither was given the award because of their animosity toward each other; that each sought to minimize the other’s achievements and right to win the award; that both refused ever to accept the award if the other received it first; that both rejected any possibility of sharing it; and even that a wealthy Edison refused it to keep Tesla from getting the $20,000 prize money.

Tesla won numerous medals and awards over this time. They include:

  • Grand Officer of the¬†Order of St. Sava¬†(Serbia, 1892)
  • Elliott Cresson Medal¬†(Franklin Institute,¬†USA, 1894)
  • Grand Cross of the¬†Order of Prince Danilo I¬†(Montenegro, 1895)
  • AIEE Edison Medal¬†(Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers,¬†USA, 1916)
  • Grand Cross of the¬†Order of St. Sava¬†(Yugoslavia, 1926)
  • Cross of the¬†Order of the Yugoslav Crown¬†(Yugoslavia, 1931)
  • John Scott Medal¬†(Franklin Institute¬†&¬†Philadelphia City Council,¬†USA, 1934)
  • Order of the White Eagle¬†(Yugoslavia, 1936)
  • Grand Cross of the¬†Order of the White Lion¬†(Czechoslovakia, 1937)
  • Medal of the¬†University of Paris¬†(Paris, France, 1937)
  • The Medal of the University St. Clement of Ochrida (Sofia, Bulgaria, 1939)

Tesla was 6¬†feet 2¬†inches (1.88¬†m) tall and weighed 142 pounds (64¬†kg), with almost no weight variance from 1888 to about 1926. His appearance was described by newspaper editor¬†Arthur Brisbane¬†as “almost the tallest, almost the thinnest and certainly the most serious man who goes to Delmonico’s regularly.”¬†He was an elegant, stylish figure in New York City, meticulous in his grooming, clothing, and regimented in his daily activities, an appearance he maintained so as to further his business relationships.¬†He was also described as having light eyes, “very big hands,” and “remarkably big” thumbs.

Tesla read many works, memorizing complete books, and supposedly possessed a photographic memory. He was a polyglot, speaking eight languages: Serbo-Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian and Latin. Tesla related in his autobiography that he experienced detailed moments of inspiration. During his early life, Tesla was repeatedly stricken with illness. Blinding flashes of light would appear before his eyes, often accompanied by visions.

Tesla claimed never to sleep more than two hours per night.¬†However, he did admit to “dozing” from time to time “to recharge his batteries.” Tesla could visualize an invention in his mind with extreme precision, including all dimensions, before moving to the construction stage; a technique sometimes known as¬†picture thinking. He typically did not make drawings by hand but worked from memory.

Tesla developed a passionate proficiency for billiards, chess and card-playing; sometimes spending more than 48 hours at a stretch at a gaming table.

Tesla worked every day from 9:00¬†a.m. until 6:00¬†p.m. or later, with dinner at exactly 8:10¬†p.m., at¬†Delmonico’s¬†restaurant and later the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. He dined alone, except on the rare occasions when he would give a dinner to a group to meet his social obligations.Tesla became a vegetarian in his later years, living on only milk, bread, honey, and vegetable juices.

Tesla was a lifelong bachelor, who had once explained that his chastity was very helpful to his scientific abilities. He once said in earlier years that he felt he could never be worthy enough for a woman, considering women superior in every way. Tesla chose to never pursue or engage in any known relationships, instead finding all the stimulation he needed in his work.

Tesla was asocial and prone to seclude himself with his work. However, when he did engage in social life, many people spoke very positively and admiringly of him.¬†Robert Underwood Johnson¬†described him as attaining a “distinguished sweetness, sincerity, modesty, refinement, generosity, and force”. His secretary, Dorothy Skerrit, wrote: “his genial smile and nobility of bearing always denoted the gentlemanly characteristics that were so ingrained in his soul.”¬†Tesla’s friend,¬†Julian Hawthorne wrote, “seldom did one meet a scientist or engineer who was also a poet, a philosopher, an appreciator of fine music, a linguist, and a connoisseur of food and drink.”

Tesla expressed the belief that human “pity” had come to interfere with the natural “ruthless workings of nature.” Tesla was raised an¬†Orthodox Christian. Later in life he did not consider himself to be a “believer in the orthodox sense,” saying he opposed¬†religious fanaticism and said “Buddhism and Christianity are the greatest religions both in number of disciples and in importance.”

Tesla lived at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City from 1900 and ran up a large bill. He moved to the St. Regis Hotel in 1922 and followed a pattern from then on of moving to a different hotel every few years and leaving unpaid bills behind.

Tesla walked to the park every day to feed the pigeons. He began feeding them at the window of his hotel room and nursed injured birds back to healthHe said that he had been visited by a certain injured white pigeon daily. He spent over $2,000 (equivalent to $34,970 in 2022) to care for the bird, including a device he built to support her comfortably while her broken wing and leg healed.Tesla stated:

I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.

Tesla’s unpaid bills, as well as complaints about the mess made by pigeons, led to his eviction from St. Regis in 1923. He was also forced to leave the¬†Hotel Pennsylvania¬†in 1930 and the Hotel Governor Clinton in 1934.¬†At one point he also took rooms at the¬†Hotel Marguery.

In 1931, a young journalist whom Tesla befriended,¬†Kenneth M. Swezey, and organized a celebration for the inventor’s 75th birthday.¬†Tesla received congratulations from figures in science and engineering such as¬†Albert Einstein¬†and he was also featured on the cover of¬†Time¬†magazine.¬†The cover caption “All the world’s his power house” noted his contribution to¬†electrical power generation. The party went so well that Tesla made it an annual event,

At the 1934 occasion, Tesla told reporters he had designed a¬†superweapon¬†he claimed would end all war.¬†He called it “teleforce,” but was usually referred to as his¬†death ray. In 1940, the¬†New York Times¬†gave a range for the ray of 250 miles (400¬†km), with an expected development cost of US$2¬†million (equivalent to $41.78¬†million in 2022).Tesla described it as a defensive weapon that would be put up along the border of a country and be used against attacking ground-based infantry or aircraft. Tesla never revealed detailed plans of how the weapon worked during his lifetime but, in 1984, they surfaced at the¬†Nikola Tesla Museum¬†archive in¬†Belgrade.

In 1937, at his Grand Ballroom of Hotel New Yorker event, Tesla received the¬†Order of the White Lion¬†from the Czechoslovak ambassador and a medal from the Yugoslav ambassador. On questions concerning the death ray, Tesla stated: “But it is not an experiment¬†… I have built, demonstrated and used it. Only a little time will pass before I can give it to the world.”

In the fall of 1937 at the age of 81, after midnight one night, Tesla left the Hotel New Yorker to make his regular commute to the cathedral and library to feed the pigeons. While crossing a street a couple of blocks from the hotel, Tesla was unable to dodge a moving taxicab and was thrown to the ground. His back was severely wrenched and three of his ribs were broken in the accident. The full extent of his injuries was never known; Tesla refused to consult a doctor, an almost lifelong custom, and never fully recovered.

On 7 January 1943, at the age of 86, Tesla died alone in Room 3327 at the¬†Hotel New Yorker. His body was found by maid Alice Monaghan when she entered Tesla’s room, ignoring the “do not disturb” sign he had placed on his door two days earlier. Assistant medical examiner H.W. Wembley examined the body and ruled that the cause of death had been¬†coronary thrombosis¬†(a type of¬†heart attack).

Two days later the¬†Federal Bureau of Investigation¬†ordered the¬†Alien Property Custodian¬†to seize Tesla’s belongings.¬†John G. Trump, a professor at¬†M.I.T.¬†and a well-known electrical engineer serving as a technical aide to the¬†National Defense Research Committee was called in to analyze the Tesla items. After a three-day investigation, Trump’s report concluded that there was nothing which would constitute a hazard in unfriendly hands, stating:

His [Tesla’s] thoughts and efforts during at least the past 15 years were primarily of a speculative, philosophical, and somewhat promotional character often concerned with the production and wireless transmission of power; but did not include new, sound, workable principles or methods for realizing such results.

On 10 January 1943, New York City mayor¬†Fiorello La Guardia¬†read a eulogy written by Slovene-American author¬†Louis Adamic¬†live over the¬†WNYC¬†radio while violin pieces “Ave Maria” and “Tamo daleko” were played in the background. On 12 January, two thousand people attended a state funeral for Tesla at the¬†Cathedral of St. John the Divine¬†in Manhattan. After the funeral, Tesla’s body was taken to the¬†Ferncliff Cemetery¬†in Ardsley, New York, where it was later cremated.

The ashes are displayed in a gold-plated sphere on a marble pedestal in the Nikola Tesla Museum.

Tesla obtained around 300 patents worldwide for his inventions.¬†Some of Tesla’s patents are not accounted for, and various sources have discovered some that have lain hidden in patent archives. There are a minimum of 278 known patents issued to Tesla in 26 countries. Most of Tesla’s patents were issued in the United States,¬†Britain and¬†Canada.‚ú™


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