Nikola Tesla: a short biography


Nikola Tesla was born at precisely midnight between July 9/10, 1856, in the village of Smiljan, province of Lika (Austria-Hungary). His father, the Reverend Milutin Tesla, was a Serbian-Orthodox priest; his mother, Djuka (Mandich), was unschooled but highly intelligent. Both families came originally from western Serbia and for generations had sent their sons to serve Church or Army and their daughters to marry ministers or officers. A dreamer with a poetic touch, as he matured, Tesla added to these earlier qualities those of self-discipline and a desire for precision.

Training for an engineering career, he attended the Technical University of Graz, Austria, and the University of Prague (1879-1880). At Graz he first saw the Gramme dynamo, which operated as a generator and, when reversed, became an electric motor; and he conceived a way to use alternating current to advantage. His first employment was in a government telegraph engineering office in Budapest, where he made his first invention, a telephone repeater. Later, he visualized the principle of the rotating magnetic field and developed plans for an induction motor, that would become his first step toward the successful utilization of alternating current. In 1882 Tesla went to work in Paris for the Continental Edison Company, and while on assignment to Strasbourg in 1883, he constructed, in after-work hours, his first induction motor. Tesla sailed to America in 1884, arriving in New York City with four cents in his pocket, a few of his own poems, and calculations for a flying machine. He first found employment with Thomas Edison in New Jersey, but the two inventors, were far apart in background and methods, and their separation was inevitable.

In May 1885, George Westinghouse, head of the Westinghouse Electric Company in Pittsburgh, bought the patent rights to Tesla's polyphase system of alternating-current dynamos, transformers, and motors. The transaction precipitated a titanic power struggle between Edison's direct-current systems and the Tesla-Westinghouse alternating-current approach, which eventually won out.

After a difficult period, during which Tesla invented but lost his rights to an arc-lighting system, he established his own laboratory in New York City in 1887, where his inventive mind could be given free rein. He experimented with shadowgraphs similar to those that later were to be used by Wilhelm Röntgen when he discovered X-rays in 1895. Tesla's countless experiments included work on a carbon button lamp, on the power of electrical resonance, and on various types of lighting.

Tesla gave exhibitions in his laboratory in which he lighted lamps without wires by allowing electricity to flow through his body, to allay fears of alternating current. He was often invited to lecture at home and abroad.

The Tesla coil, which he invented in 1891, is widely used today in radio and television sets and other electronic equipment for wireless communication. That year also marked the date of Tesla's United States citizenship.

Brilliant and eccentric, Tesla was then at the peak of his inventive powers. He produced in rapid succession the induction motor (utilizing his rotating magnetic field principle) and other electrical motors, new forms of generators and tranformers, and a system of alternating-current power transmission. Tesla also invented fluorescent lights and a new type of steam turbine, and he became increasingly intrigued with the wireless transmission of power.

A controversy between alternating-current and direct-current advocates raged in 1880s and 1890s, featuring Tesla and Edison as leaders in the rival camps. The advantages of the polyphase alternating-current system, as developed by Tesla, soon became apparent, however, particularly for long-distance power transmission. Westinghouse used Tesla's system to light the World Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. His success was a factor in winning him the contract to install the first power machinery at Niagara Falls, which bore Tesla's name and pattent numbers. The project carried power to Buffalo by 1896.

In 1898 Tesla announced his invention of a teleautomatic boat guided by remote control. When skepticism was voiced, Tesla proved his claims for it before a crowd in Madison Square Garden.

In Colorado Springs, where he stayed from May 1899 until early 1900, Tesla made what he regarded as his most important discovery - terrestrial stationary waves. By this discovery he proved that the earth could be used as a conductor and would be as responsive as a tuning fork to electrical vibrations of a certain pitch. He also lighted 200 lamps without wires from a distance of 25 miles (40 kilometres) and created man-made lightning, producing flashes measuring 135 feet (41 metres). At one time he was certain he had received signals from another planet in his Colorado laboratory, a claim that was met with derision in some scientific journals.

Returning to New York in 1900, Tesla began construction on Long Island of a wireless world broadcasting tower, with $150,000 capital from the U.S. financier J. Pierpont Morgan. Tesla claimed he secured the loan by assigning 51 percent of his patent rights of telephony and telegraphy to Morgan. He expected to provide worldwide communication and to furnish facilities for sending pictures, messages, weather warnings, and stock reports. The project was abandoned because of a financial panic, labour troubles, and Morgan's withdrawal of support. It was Tesla's greatest defeat.

Tesla's work shifted to turbines and other projects. Because of a lack of funds, his ideas remained in his notebooks, which are still examined by engineers for unexploited clues. In 1915 he was severely disappointed when a report that he and Edison were to share the Nobel Prize proved erroneous. Tesla was the recipient of the Edison Medal in 1917, the highest honour that the American Institute of Electrical Engineers could bestow.

Tesla allowed himself only a few close friends. Among them were the writers Robert Underwood Johnson, Mark Twain, and Francis Marion Crawford. He was quite impractical in financial matters. An eccentric, driven by compulsions and a progressive germ phobia, Tesla had a way of intuitively sensing hidden scientific secrets and employing his inventive talent to prove his hypotheses. He was a godsend to reporters who sought sensational copy, but a problem to editors who were uncertain how seriously his futuristic prophecies should be regarded. Caustic criticism greeted his speculations concerning communication with other planets, his assertions that he could split the earth like an apple, and his claim to having invented a death ray capable of destroying 10,000 airplanes, 250 miles (400 kilometres) distant.

Tesla demanded much of his employees but inspired their loyalty. Though he admired intellectual and beautiful women, he had no time to become involved.

Tesla died in New York City on January 7, 1943, the holder of more than 700 patents. The Custodian of Alien Property impounded his trunks, which held his papers, his diplomas and other honours, his letters, and his laboratory notes. These were eventually inherited by Tesla's nephew, Sava Kosanovich, and later housed in the Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Hundreds filed into New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine for his funeral services, and a flood of messages acknowledged the loss of a great genius. Three Nobel Prize winners in physics (Millikan, Compton, and W.H. Barton) addressed their tribute to:


Based on "The New Encyclopædia Britannica", 15th edition, "The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography", and "Tesla: Man out of time" by Margaret Cheney

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