Compare the following figures – Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, Alfred Nobel and Nikola Tesla – with these biographical facts:
- Spoke eight languages
- Produced the first alternating current (AC) engine
- Developed the underlying technology for wireless communication over long distances
- It held approximately 300 patents
- He claimed to have developed a “super weapon” that would end all wars
The correspondence for each one, of course, is Nikola Tesla. Astonished? Most people have heard his name, but few know much about his place in modern science and technology .
The launch of a new biographical film by Tesla offers an opportunity to glimpse the life of a man who came from nowhere but became world famous; he claimed to be dedicated exclusively to discovery, but he appreciated the role of showman; attracted the attention of many women, but never married; and generated ideas that transformed daily life and created countless fortunes, but died almost penniless.
Nikola Tesla’s early years
Tesla was born in what is now Croatia on a summer night in 1856, during what he claimed to be a lightning storm – which led the midwife to say: “He will be a child of the storm”, and his mother attack prophetically, “No, from the light”. As a student, Tesla displayed such remarkable skills for calculating mathematical problems that teachers accused him of cheating. During his adolescence, he became seriously ill, recovering after his father abandoned his demand that Nikola become a priest and agreed that he could attend engineering school.
Although an exceptional student, Nikola Tesla eventually withdrew from polytechnic school and ended up working for the Continental Edison Company , where he focused on electric lighting and engines. Wishing to meet Edison himself, Tesla immigrated to the United States in 1884, and later claimed that he received an offer of $ 50,000 if he could solve a series of engineering problems that Edison’s company faced. Having achieved the feat, Tesla said that he was then informed that the offer was just a joke, and he left the company after six months.
Tesla then created a relationship with two entrepreneurs that led to the founding of Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing . He filed a series of electrical patents, which he assigned to the company. When their partners decided they wanted to focus strictly on electricity supply, they took the company’s intellectual property and founded another company, leaving Tesla with nothing.
Tesla reported that he then worked as a ditch digger for $ 2 a day, tortured by the feeling that his great talent and education would be wasted.
Nikola Tesla’s success as an inventor
In 1887, Tesla met two investors who agreed to support the formation of the Tesla Electric Company. He set up a laboratory in Manhattan, where he developed the alternating current induction motor , which solved a series of technical problems that hindered other projects. When Tesla demonstrated his device at an engineering meeting, the Westinghouse Company made arrangements to license the technology, providing an upfront payment and royalties on each horsepower generated.
The so-called “ Chain War ” was taking place in the late 1880s. Thomas Edison promoted direct current, saying it was safer than AC. George Westinghouse supported AC, as it could transmit energy over long distances. Since the two were cutting each other’s prices, Westinghouse had no capital. He explained the difficulty and asked Nikola Tesla to sell his patents to him for a single sum, which Tesla agreed to, renouncing what would have been a vast fortune if he had kept them.
Challenges along the way
Tesla encountered many obstacles. In 1895, his laboratory in Manhattan was devastated by a fire, which destroyed his notes and prototypes. At Madison Square Garden in 1898, he demonstrated wireless control of a boat, a feat that many labeled fraud. Soon after, he turned his attention to the wireless transmission of electricity. He believed that his system could not only distribute electricity around the globe, but also provide wireless communication around the world.
Seeking to test his ideas, Tesla built a laboratory in Colorado Springs . There he once extracted so much energy that it caused a regional power outage. He also detected signals that he claimed were from an extraterrestrial source. In 1901, Tesla persuaded JP Morgan to invest in the construction of a tower on Long Island that he believed would justify his plan to electrify the world. However, Tesla’s dream did not come true, and Morgan soon withdrew the funding.
In 1909, Marconi received the Nobel Prize for the development of radio. In 1915, Tesla unsuccessfully sued Marconi, alleging infringement of his patents. That same year, there were rumors that Edison and Tesla would share the Nobel Prize, but that did not happen. Unsubstantiated speculation suggested that their mutual animosity was the cause. However, Tesla has received numerous honors and awards throughout his life, including, ironically, the Edison Medal from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.
Nikola Tesla: a singular man
Tesla was a remarkable person . He said he had photographic memory, which helped him to memorize entire books and to speak eight languages. He also stated that many of his best ideas came up in the blink of an eye, and that he saw detailed images of many of his inventions in his mind before he started building prototypes. As a result, he initially did not prepare drawings and plans for many of his devices.
The 1.80 m Tesla was a bold figure and was popular with women, although he never married, claiming that his celibacy played an important role in his creativity . Perhaps because of his almost fatal illness as a teenager, he feared germs and practiced very strict hygiene, probably a barrier to the development of interpersonal relationships. He also exhibited unusual phobias, such as aversion to pearls, which led him to refuse to speak to any woman who used them.
Tesla maintained that his greatest ideas came to him in solitude. However, he was not a hermit, socializing with many of the most famous people of his time at elegant dinners he offered. Mark Twain attended his laboratory and promoted some of his inventions. Tesla enjoyed a reputation not only as a great engineer and inventor, but also as a philosopher, poet and connoisseur . On his 75th birthday, he received a congratulatory letter from Einstein and appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Nikola Tesla’s last years
In the popular imagination, Tesla played the role of a mad scientist . He claimed to have developed an engine that worked with cosmic rays; that he was working on a new non-Einsteinian physics that would provide a new form of energy; that he had discovered a new technique for photographing thoughts; and that he had developed a new ray, alternately labeled a ray of death and a ray of peace, with far greater military potential than Nobel ammunition.
With the money that was long gone, Tesla spent his last years going from place to place, leaving unpaid bills behind. Finally, he settled in a hotel in New York, where his rent was paid by Westinghouse. Always living alone, he frequented the local park, where he was regularly seen feeding and caring for pigeons , with whom he claimed to have a special affinity. On the morning of January 7, 1943, he was found dead in his room by a 86-year-old hotel maid.
Today, the Tesla name is still in circulation. Belgrade Airport takes its name, as does the world’s best-known electric car, and the strength of the magnetic field of MRI machines is measured in Teslas. Tesla was a real-life Prometheus: the mythical Greek titan who invaded the sky to set fire to humanity, but as a punishment he was chained to a rock where an eagle ate his liver every day. Tesla climbed great heights to bring lightning to earth, but his rare kind of mind and unusual habits eventually led to his downfall, leaving him almost penniless and alone.