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's Education

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's Death

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.