In 1884, at the dawn of the electrical age, a slender, well-dressed young man stepped off a ship in New York with only four cents in his pocket. But in his mind he carried inventions that would revolutionize the world.
The man was Nikola Tesla. He was born in Croatia, in southeast Europe, in 1856, and when he was still a little boy he became fascinated by electricity. On winter nights he would pet his cat and watch with wonder as "my hand produced a shower of crackling sparks."
Lots of other things fascinated young Nikola. To learn how clocks worked, he took them apart ("I was always successful," he said), then tried to rebuild them ("at this, I often failed"). He built waterwheels and other machines, including a motor powered by 16 June bugs glued to a spinning disk. (He was proud of this invention and showed it to a friend, who promptly ate some of the bugs. Nikola threw up.) Watching the pigeons that flew around his family's small farm made Nikola curious about flight. He climbed to the roof of a barn, breathed in and out rapidly to make himself feel lighter, then jumped into the breeze holding an umbrella. He spent several days in bed recovering from the landing.
As a child, young Tesla spent a lot of time in bed because he was often sick. But during those long weeks he created magnificent inventions in his mind. He was an excellent student, and when he was 19 he left home to study engineering.
One of his professors showed Tesla an invention that could be connected to an electrical generator to act as a simple motor. Tesla studied it, then told his professor it would be a much more efficient motor if it were powered by alternating current. (Electricity comes in two flavors. Direct current -- DC -- flows through a wire in one direction only, while alternating current -- AC -- changes direction constantly, flowing forwards and backwards). But no one knew how to build an AC motor, and Tesla's professor told him it was impossible.
In 1881, Tesla left the university. He got sick again. His doctors called it a nervous breakdown (we'd probably call it depression). When he finally got better, Tesla realized his mind had been working on the AC motor the whole time -- and one day, walking with a friend, he had the answer! "The idea came like a flash of lightning," he said, "and in an instant the truth was revealed." Tesla picked up a twig and began drawing in the dirt. "See my motor," he said to his friend. "Here."
Soon afterward, Tesla stepped off that boat in New York, where Thomas Edison was building generators and developing an electrical system. Edison used direct current, which couldn't be transmitted more than a mile. It worked too inefficiently. That meant that even a small town would need hundreds of power stations. Tesla knew his AC system was better--its current could be transmitted hundreds of miles. Edison, however, was stubborn. He told Tesla he wasn't interested.
But Edison had a rival in the race to develop electricity. His name was George Westinghouse, and he was very interested in alternating current. He bought Tesla's ideas, and developed an AC system that lit up the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Three years later an AC system began turning the energy of Niagara Falls into electricity.
Tesla's invention, says Barney Finn, curator of electricity at the National Museum of American History, "gave life to alternating current," and ended Edison's dream of electrifying America with direct current. The motors we use every day--all of them--to run electric drills, to open cans of cat food, or to power refrigerators and hair dryers, are based on the idea that came to Tesla like a flash of lightning.
Soon Tesla, who proudly became an American citizen in 1891, was one of the most famous inventors in the world. He loved to entertain friends like Mark Twain with hair-raising demonstrations of AC. Dressed in a tuxedo, he would stand near a huge generator while a million volts of high-frequency current sent lightning dancing over his body. In his hands, light bulbs shone like suns and gas-filled tubes blazed like Darth Vader's light saber.
Tesla didn't stop experimenting. He found that high-frequency alternating current, transformed by the device that's still called a "Tesla coil," could send signals through the air without wires; he had invented radio -- the "wireless."
Tesla built a laboratory in Colorado Springs to study electricity. He created lightning bolts that flashed more than 100 feet into the Rocky Mountain night. The equipment--a 180-foot metal tower--was so powerful that it set fire to the Colorado Springs power plant. Then Tesla decided to build an even more powerful tower near New York. He hoped it would beam electricity around the world--but he couldn't raise the money for the project.
His fame began to flicker out. Edison--who had fought Tesla's AC system--had become known as the wizard of electricity; Guglielmo Marconi was called "the father of radio," although the Supreme Court took away some of Marconi's patents because Tesla (and others) had come up with the ideas first.
Why did the world remember men like Edison yet forget Nikola Tesla? For one thing, Tesla was a terrible businessman. He didn't patent his work enough; he talked himself out of a good contract with Westinghouse for his AC system; he couldn't drum up curiosity using the media the way Edison did.
Tesla was nearly forgotten when he died in 1943. His only friends seemed to be the sick pigeons he brought home and nursed back to health in his New York apartment. But he always believed that "harnessing the forces of nature to meet human needs" was the most important contribution one could make. "I have had more than my full measure of this exquisite enjoyment," Nikola Tesla said. "My life was little short of continuous rapture."