The Tortured Life of Nikola Tesla
When thinking of electricity the first person that comes to mind is Thomas Edison, an esteemed inventor and business man. However, Edison’s discovery of electricity was perfected by Nikola Tesla, the Serbian engineer, physicist, and inventor. Tesla discovered alternative current, and he is the one we have to thank for the electricity we use today. He lived a cruel life littered with failure, disappointment, and pilferage of his ideas.
Tesla has museums and national holidays, but is not widely recognized for his accomplishments he deserves credit for. Nikola Tesla was one of five children, he was born on July 10th 1856 in what is now known as Smiljan, Croatia. His father, Milutin Tesla, was a Priest for the Serbian Orthodox Church and a writer, he pushed Tesla to become a priest and follow in his footsteps (Biography Editors). Djuka Mandic was Tesla’s mother and truly inspired him to be an inventor and scientist. His mother invented small household appliances in his childhood. Tesla had three sisters and one brother (Vujovic).
His only brother Daniel was killed in a horse riding accident at twelve years old when tesla was only seven years old. It is rumored that tesla startled the horse accidentally causing his death, this event was most likely very traumatic at that age. A link can be seen in this incident, to the start of his tortured life, and cause to his multiple disorders (History Staff). Tesla grew to have extraordinary mental and physical freshness (Vujovic). He also carried his symptoms of OCD he demonstrated at an early age to his adult hood, and grew to have a talent for memorizing logarithmic tables and books. This talent helped him easily learn languages and excel in school.
Despite his father’s strong influence and pressure on him to become a priest, Tesla decided to go to study math and physics at the Technical Institute of Graz and philosophy at the University of Prague in the early 1870’s (King; History Staff). Tesla was an amazing student but was distracted from his studies by his obsession with his AC motor designs and electromagnetic fields, he would spend the next six years of his life pondering them. Tesla often only thought of his designs and inventions because of his ability to construct and deconstruct his inventions fully in his mind Professors of his warned his father of this and his peculiar sleeping habits, that they were sure were killing him (King). In April of 1879 Tesla’s father died, this caused him to gamble away his tuition money (King; “Tesla, Nikola” The Encyclopedia). Not long after Tesla left the University of Prague without a degree, one of many nervous break downs followed his dropping out (King). In 1881, after recovering from his breakdown, he moved to Budapest that same year he was hired at a phone company there (Vujovic; King).
It was also here that tesla had his most valued discovery, the AC motor. While on a walk with a friend in a park, the prototype of an AC motor struck him. Using a stick tesla sketched his thought into the dirt to immortalize it in his brain and to attempt to give his friend an explanation of his idea for the AC motor. He soon designed the motor, placed a patent on it, and began to search for someone to take interest in the prototype (Vujovic). The AC motor worked using the principle of rotating magnetic fields created by two or more alternating currents.
Although alternative current was applied before there was never a more efficient or practical way to use it (King). After being unable to interest anyone in Britain with his AC motor Tesla planned a trip to the USA. Before moving to the USA he designed dynamos at the Continental Edison company in Paris, and heard of the job opportunity in the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City (Vujovic). In 1884 Tesla traveled to New York City, he arrived with little more than the clothes on his back and a letter of recommendation from a former employer, Charles Bachelor, to Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison at this time was the founder and owner of the Edison Electric Light Company (King).
Tesla met with Edison about the job at the Edison Electric Light Company, and after describing the types of engineering he was working on Edison hired him even though he remained slightly skeptical of him (King). Tesla and Edison worked together for several months until Edison joked about giving Tesla fifty thousand dollars to improve his direct current generation plants (Vujovic; History Staff). Tesla took this offer seriously and got to work. After he thought he had improved them, he reported to Edison that if he switched to alternative current his generators would run more efficiently, and demanded payment. When Edison refused to pay him he promptly quit and attempted to start his own electric company but due to lack of funds it failed so he began digging ditches for a living (King; History Staff). Though Tesla and Edison differed in many ways their greatest difference is their preference between direct and alternative current.
This disagreement climaxed when Tesla’s AC electricity threatened Edison’s investments in DC. Edison’s DC generators were inefficient because DC could not be transported very far due to its low voltage. Tesla saw this and thought that AC could be the solution. When he pointed it out to Edison he was offended, but Tesla was right, AC was more efficient (Vujovic). Due to the rise of AC electricity, DC electricity supporters and AC electricity supporters waged a War of the Currents where each would compete to be the dominant and most efficient power source of the world.
Soon tesla found people to back his research and invented a polyphase alternating current system of generators, transformers and dynamos, obtaining about 30 patents on the system. During a lecture at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the attention of a key person to Tesla’s success was caught, George Westinghouse. George Westinghouse was a major competitor to Edison in the War of Currents, he bought the patents and inventions for sixty thousand dollars, determined to spread the word of the “Tesla system” or alternative current (History Staff; Vujovic; Biography Editors). Westinghouse hired Tesla and gave him a lab of his own. Edison became bitter at the thought of losing his DC Empire.
He would soon begin to run a vigorous negative press campaign against Westinghouse and Tesla. In an attempt to maintain his empire, Edison arranged for a murder on death row to be put to death using an AC electric chair in front of the public as a stunt to make AC seem dangerous (History Staff). Tesla did not respond to the attacks and would continue to patent seven more inventions in that time. In 1893 at the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Westinghouse Corporation was chosen to supply the lighting, and Tesla was allowed the opportunity to conduct a demonstration of his system there (Biography Editors). Two years later Tesla’s generators were used to harness the power of Niagara Falls in the Westinghouse Niagara Falls Power Plant Project.
The AC power that was produced by the generators was transported twenty two miles away to the city of Buffalo, NY (“Tesla, Nikola” The Encyclopedia). This was “the final victory” for AC energy, and it fulfilled one of his lifelong visions of harnessing water power (Vujovic). Despite Edison’s attempts to discredit AC power, Westinghouse and Tesla still emerged the victor of the War of Currents. AC power was simply a superior power source so no matter how hard Edison could have tried to maintain his DC power empire, it would have never prevailed over AC power (“Tesla, Nikola” The Encyclopedia). AC became the standard power for the twentieth century, and is still widely used today (Vujovic). The AC motor and polyphase system were Tesla’s most successful inventions but they were not his only inventions and discoverers.
The Tesla coil was invented by Tesla in 1891 and they are still used today in some radios and televisions (Vujovic). They are powerful coils that could generate high enough voltages and frequencies that it led him to the discovery of new light forms such as x-rays, florescent, and neon. They also made it possible for the relaying of radio signals (King). Though Tesla never fought for credit for his discovery of the x-ray he did discover them before Wilhelm Roentgen. Tesla actually discovered x-rays on accident while experimenting with carbon button lamps and shadowgraphs around 1895, just before his lab burned down, that would later be used by Roentgen (Vujovic).
Yet another example of someone else claiming credit was in the year of 1901 when he was working on the Wardenclyffe Tower. Tesla was obsessed with wireless communications and set out to build a global wireless communication system. His intention was to create the Wardenclyffe Tower to make it possible to send energy and information around the world. Tesla patented the designs for this tower in 1897. In 1900 Tesla received backing from J.P Morgan to construct a global wireless communication tower (King; History Staff).
In 1901 Tesla fully designed the Wardenclyffe tower and construction began. It would soon become apparent to Tesla that he would run out of funds before he could finish the tower but could not find anyone to invest because they were all throwing their money at Guglelmo Marconi (King). Guglelmo Marconi is an Italian inventor and one of Tesla’s most dreaded rivals. Marconi sent a signal from England to New Found land in December of 1901. He then became rich and was credited with the invention of the radio even though he used Tesla’s patients.
As it is quoted from Tesla “It is not a dream, it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive- Blind, faint-hearted, doubting world!” (King). It would not be until 1943 that he would be properly recognized for his role in inventing the radio. Wardenclyffe Tower construction was halted, forgotten and sold for scrap in1917 because Tesla went bankrupt. This defeat caused another breakdown, possibly his worst (King). After this breakdown he was not the same. He did return to work as a consultant but his ideas became more nonsensical as time went on.
He was also starting to become more eccentric, he devoted most of his time to pigeons in New York City parks (Biograpgy Editors). Tesla was withdrawing himself from people and the world. He was also at this time clearly showing signs of multiple mental disorders. Some of the disorders he was said to have are obsessive- compulsive disorder, sleep disorders, and some accusations of being a high functioning autistic (Vujovic). The faint sighs of OCD shown in his youth were now more apparent than ever.
Tesla counted his steps everywhere he went, and felt uneasy during meals whenever there weren’t eighteen napkins on the table. He also began obsessing with cleanliness and would wash his hands in intervals of three. He obsessed over the number three so much that he would do most thing in intervals of three, including shaking hands (King). Another habit of Tesla’s youth that followed him was his sleep disorders. He would function on very few hours of sleep for days which was obviously not healthy.
His professors in college warned him that these habits were killing him and it is thought that this may be a contributing factor to his brain deterioration over the years (King). He also claimed to have sound sensitivity, acute sight and would have fits over women’s earrings. It is not known exactly why he hated women’s earrings so much (King). Another previously mentioned eccentricity was Tesla’s dedication to pigeons. He loved to go to parks and feed pigeons in New York, he even believed he could communicate with them. He had one white female pigeon in particular that he loved more than most humans.
One night in 1922 it flew into Tesla’s window and landed near him, he thought that it was dying so tesla picked it up. He claimed that two beams of strong light come from its eyes and then the pigeon died. Tesla took this as a sign that his life’s work was over (King). Tesla would continue to make the news though. In 1934 Time magazine reported on an invention they called a “Death Beam”.
The invention was said to be able to knock 10,000 enemy planes from the sky. The Death Beam’s purpose intended by tesla was to create world peace by ending war. He never ended up creating the beam because his funding attempts failed. Although the Soviet Union offered Tesla $25,000 but it was not nearly enough. Tesla was investigated by the FBI for the Death Beam rumors. Since he could not obtain the funds he never started construction so he could not be charged.
Although this invention like a few others could not accumulated the proper amount of funds, he received many honors and awards for his work. Several of books were dedicated to him as well as some movies, documentaries, and museums. In 1894 Tesla received honorary doctoral degrees from both Yale University and Columbia University (“Tesla, Nikola” The World). Shortly after in 1895 Tesla’s statue was incorporated into the Niagara Falls power station (Vujovic). A few of the medals he was awarded along with the previous honors include; The Franklin institute who awarded him the Elliot Cresson Medal in 1894, the Edison Medal from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in1917, and the John Scott medal for his AC polyphase power system in 1934 (Vujovic; “Tesla, Nikola” The World). The Edison Medal is considered one of the most prestigious medals in electrical engineering.
Thirteen years after his death, 1956, a unit of magnetic flux density was even named after him (“Tesla, Nikola” The World). In 1994 the “Nikola Tesla Corner” sign was installed at the intersection of 40th and 6th Avenue New York City. Tesla may have even received a Nobel Prize for his work. Time magazine in 1915 made an announcement that the Nobel Prize for physics would be shared by Tesla and Edison though neither ever actually received it. It is rumored that the two both refused to accept the award because it would be shared, it is also said that tesla was not interested in it in the first place because Marconi already won the one he wanted (Vujovic).
January 7, 1943 tesla died in his New York hotel where he resided for the last ten years of his life and continued to work on inventions. By the later years of his life his energy, physical and mental health was failing. He only grew more eccentric with age. Tesla liked to spend his last days with pigeons in local parks who he claimed could communicate with him (History Staff). Tesla also never married or had any children so he had little to no human interaction as he began to withdraw from the outside world (Biograpgy Editors).
As for the half-finished Wardenclyffe project site, in 2008 a group called the Tesla Scientific Center formed because they believed the site should be turned into a museum. A year later they started raising funds to support their goal. Thanks to a man named Mathew Inman of TheOatmeal, in collaboration with the TSC in an internet fundraising project, they built up enough money to purchase the site in May of 2013. Currently the restoration process is still underway.