Today, July 10th, is the 156th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest scientists, inventors, visionaries and/or madmen the world has ever known: Nikola Tesla. A Serbian-American who was born in the old Austrian Empire, Tesla studied electrical engineering and focused on studying alternating current. Doubts persist to this day as to whether or not he ever actually received an university degree. Not that he needed one. He moved from his small village in present-day Croatia to various European destinations (Graz, Prague, Budapest and eventually to Paris) before emigrating in 1884 to the USA, where he met and went to work for Thomas Edison.
Much of the interaction between Tesla and Edison is covered in controversy. This much, though, is true: Tesla was able to redesign and improve many of Edison’s generators and machine works. Expecting to be handsomely rewarded, Tesla turned to his boss, who responded by offering a $10 a week pay raise. Tesla, feeling cheated, quit and thus began both one of the fiercest rivalries in modern science as well as the biggest modern-day parable/folk story that modern science has had: Tesla, the innovator, the scientist and artist versus Edison, the tycoon, the business man, the corporation.
To list and describe the number of inventions, theories, experiments and breakthroughs that Tesla either pioneered or had a hand in evolving would be exhausting. A short run through would go from everything from the Tesla coil to the induction motor, rotary transformers, wireless communication systems, the effects of X-rays and cosmic rays, arc light systems, radar and sonar, the ionosphere, voltage multiplication circuitry and the Tesla principle. To say nothing of the fact that he was interested in robotics, Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft (which he filed a patent on in 1928) and electric vehicles. The man was working on electric vehicles before most homes in America had electricity!
His biggest triumph – and the core of his feud with Edison – was over their electricity delivery systems AKA “The War of the Currents”. To note, Tesla was hardly the only electrical engineer working on alternating current. Sebastian de Ferranti and William Stanley Jr. were two other engineers who were working on AC delivery systems at the same time as Tesla. Ferranti went onto build the first power plant in the world in London while Stanley’s induction coil became the basis for modern-day transformers.
But it was Tesla, who was working at the time for George Westinghouse, who would face off against Edison, who pioneered the direct current delivery system for electricity. The “War” was a dirty affair, with Edison engaging in a smear campaign against alternating current. He and his company would claim that AC was a danger and a threat. The work of Edison’s company to prove the dangers of alternating current led to them inventing the electric chair. Ultimately, the “War” was won by AC and Tesla, but it had left both Edison and Westinghouse nearly bankrupt. In one of his feats of largesse, Tesla forgave Westinghouse the entirety of their debt to him which would have made him the world’s first billionaire.
Financial troubles would continue to plague Tesla throughout his life as he sought out further benefactors to help finance his experiments. From American mogul JP Morgan to British PM Neville Chamberlain, Tesla sought both the backing and the support to develop everything from free electricity delivery systems to electrical machines to electrical-based weapons. Eventually, obsessive-compulsive disorder and senility began to take their toll. He spent the last decade of his life living in the Hotel New Yorker until his death on January 7, 1943, a man seldom thought of by that time or, known more for his eccentricities than his talents.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that Tesla was re-discovered in a sense by a new generation to whom he has become a great and complex symbol. As a Serbian-born Croat – and proud of each side of his heritage – Tesla has become a symbol for many of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia as they sought to heal from the horrors of the wars that tore them apart in the 90s. As a proud naturalized American citizen, he has also become a symbol for many immigrants to America of what they can offer their new home. And as a brilliant but misunderstood man, he became a “patron-saint” to the emerging geek culture of the 2000s, which culminated in his portrayal in the movie The Prestige by rock legend David Bowie.
In many ways, Tesla’s life and his works have given unto him an aura of magic and the supernatural that most scientists just don’t get. Tesla is a modern-day Merlin, with no story unbelievable enough if his name is attached to it. Consider it this way: the day after he died, government agents raided his hotel room and made off with a large collection of notes, including a private black notebook. The documents were analyzed and microfilmed before being marked “Top Secret” by the FBI. It took years before they were returned to his family, who housed them in the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia. And yet, if I were to claim that the government kept some of his notes to build everything from stealth tech to UFOs, who would dare claim it untrue?
Perhaps that is Tesla’s greatest legacy: the idea that the impossible is not really impossible; that man can come to understand, appreciate and harness the powers of nature. And that, in spite of his limitations or the forces aligned against him, a man can leave behind a great legacy.
“There is something within me that might be illusion as it is often case with young delighted people, but if I would be fortunate to achieve some of my ideals, it would be on the behalf of the whole of humanity. If those hopes would become fulfilled, the most exiting thought would be that it is a deed of a Serb.”
For further reading on Nikola Tesla:
Tesla: Master of Lightning (PBS)
Tesla’s Biography (The Tesla Society)
Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla (Amazon)
Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla (Amazon)
My Inventions (Amazon)