Electrical Engineer: Nikola Tesla
Written by Stephan Aarstol
Nikola Tesla was the scientist and engineer who invented the eponymous Tesla coil as well as alternating-current electricity. The AC electrical system is the most widely used electrical system worldwide. Tesla immigrated to the United States from Croatia when he was 28 years old. After a short-lived partnership with Thomas Edison, he worked independently, filing hundreds of patents over the decades to come.
Tesla's Early Years
Tesla was born to Milutin Tesla and Djuca Mandic in 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia. His father was a priest, and his mother was a housewife and inventor. She invented many useful household appliances and encouraged her son to develop his scientific talent. Even though Tesla's father encouraged him to follow in his footsteps and become a priest, Tesla was intent on becoming a scientist instead.
Tesla studied at Karlstadt's Realschule, then moved on to the Graz Polytechnic Institute and the University of Prague. After completing his education, he worked for the Central Telephone Exchange in Budapest, Hungary. It was in Budapest where Tesla was first inspired to create an induction motor. After several years of a negative reception to his ideas, Tesla traveled to America, where he hoped his ideas would be welcomed.
Tesla's Relationship With Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison hired Tesla almost immediately after Tesla's arrival in the United States in 1884. They worked together to make adjustments and upgrades to Edison's existing inventions, which were fast becoming standard American technology. But Tesla's and Edison's relationship only lasted for a few months, largely because Edison was more focused on the marketing and commercial success of his inventions while Tesla was less business-oriented.
Tesla's Ventures and Inventions
Tesla's first solo venture was the Tesla Electric Light Company. His investors gave him funding in exchange for improving arc lighting. But even though he accomplished his goals, the investors forced him out. Tesla supported himself as a manual laborer for two years until a new set of investors granted him funding to form the Tesla Electric Company.
Many of Tesla's creations would be officially patented by other inventors. Examples of such inventions are the induction motor and dynamo generators. Tesla was a leading researcher behind X-ray technology, the rotating magnetic field, remote controls, and radar.
After Tesla's establishment of the Tesla Electric Company, he was able to patent all of the inventions that he created based on the AC system. The AC system fast became the dominant electrical system of the 20th century and has remained so to this day.
George Westinghouse, an American entrepreneur trying to establish a nationwide power supply, became enamored with Tesla's inventions. Tesla sold Westinghouse his patents in exchange for $60,000 and shares in the Westinghouse Corporation.
Thomas Edison, with his DC electrical system, became Tesla's main rival. Edison campaigned against Tesla's AC system in the press. Fortunately for Tesla, Edison's efforts came to naught when Tesla's company was chosen to supply the electricity for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where Tesla gave demonstrations to show off what AC power could do.
Two years later, Tesla was instrumental in designing America's first hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls. The plant was able to power the entire city of Buffalo and lent further legitimacy to the superiority of the AC electrical system.
Tesla followed this success with the patenting of his Tesla coil. The Tesla coil is the basis for radio and wireless technology, working in tandem with a capacitor to transfer and magnify electrical current from the source of power.
Not all of Tesla's projects were successful, however. Many investors, including J.P. Morgan, supported his vision of building a free electricity tower that would be the epicenter of an international wireless communication system. But as he labored to bring his vision to life, a new rival came to prominence: Guglielmo Marconi, whose advances in radio technology would lead to the downfall of Tesla's project. Lacking funding, he laid off the staff on his project in 1906, and the tower he was building would be foreclosed on in 1915. In 1917, Tesla was forced to declare bankruptcy, and his tower was torn down to be sold as scrap.
After that catastrophe, Tesla suffered a mental breakdown. Once he returned to his work, he began focusing on more outlandish ideas, like a "death beam" that could destroy anything and had a range of up to 200 miles. He spent a lot of his time feeding pigeons in New York City, where he lived for almost 60 years.
Tesla died at age 86 of coronary thrombosis in 1943, broke and alone. However, Tesla remains a iconic figure in the field of electrical engineering to this day.
- Nikola Tesla Timeline: Learn more about Tesla's life from the Nikola Tesla Memorial Center, built around his birthplace in Smiljan, Croatia.
- Nikola Tesla: Man Out of Time: Watch a video about Tesla's achievements made by the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.
- Tesla's Induction Motor: The induction motor made electricity generation more efficient and allowed for the provision of electricity across long distances.
- Tesla vs. Edison: Why Edison Is Revered While Tesla Is Still a Relative Unknown: While Tesla's inventions had a huge impact on our lives, he died poor, while Edison was able to turn his ideas into profit and fame.
- AC/DC: The Tesla-Edison Feud: Edison and Tesla were bitter rivals, but Tesla's greatest victory would be the adoption of alternating current over direct current.
- Case Files: Nikola Tesla: Find out more about Tesla's background and his many significant accomplishments on this page.
- George Westinghouse: Westinghouse was the businessman who had faith in Tesla's vision and allowed him to realize his most successful inventions.
- The Tesla Coil: The Tesla coil releases energy as a standing wave of electricity that is constantly regenerated.
- Nine Things You May Not Know About Nikola Tesla: Tesla was a brilliant inventor, but he could also be quite eccentric.
- Tesla and the World's Fair: Tesla's AC-powered fluorescent lightning was a phenomenon that ordinary people had never seen before.
- The Niagara Hydroelectric Power Plant: The first hydroelectric power plant is no longer operational, and only one building remains. The site has been registered as a national landmark.
- The Tesla Tower at Wardenclyffe: Tesla's work on a global free energy system was never completed because Tesla's funding dried up.
- Nikola Tesla and the Alternating-Current Motor: An MIT profile of Tesla includes information about his life and his major achievements.
- Tesla's Death Ray: Tesla claimed that he had invented a death ray as early as 1934, but he didn't provide much evidence for it. Even so, the FBI seized his research after his death, fearful that it could fall into Soviet hands.
- Tesla and The New Yorker Hotel: For the last decade of his life, Tesla lived on the 33rd floor of The New Yorker Hotel.
- FBI Vault: Nikola Tesla: Tesla's work attracted the attention of the FBI, which kept a file on him.
- Top 11 Things You Didn't Know About Nikola Tesla: Learn some interesting facts about Tesla from the U.S. Department of Energy.
- Wardenclyffe's Fate: The Wardenclyffe site where Tesla built his doomed tower is now the location of the Tesla Science Center.