Nikola Tesla

by Mimi from Fredericksburg

"Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine."

Tesla is a largely unrecognized inventor who has been called The Genius Who Lit the World by many and who had many of his greatest inventions stolen from him, to be claimed by others.

Tesla was born in Smiljan, Croatia at midnight the morning of July 10, 1856. His father, Milutin Tesla, was a Serbian Orthodox Priest and his mother, Djuka Mandic, was an inventor of kitchen appliances in her own right. His childhood dream was to harness the power of Niagra Falls. When he went to university, he planned to specialize in physics and mathematics, but found that he was fascinated by electricity. He began his first career as an electrical engineer with a telephone company in 1881, when he came upon the solution to a problem that had been plaguing the engineers for some time: how to get an alternating electrical current to work, which he solved with the rotating magnetic field. He was walking through a park with a friend when the answer flashed into his mind, and he drew out for his friend the principle of the induction motor with a stick in the dirt. He also took a job with Continental Edison Company, where he privately designed an induction motor and ran it successfully, and moved to America when no one in Europe would follow his radical ideas.

The young Tesla, coming to America in 1884, was carrying a letter of introduction from Charles Batchelor to Thomas Edison, recommending him, and Batchelor said that “I know two great men. One is you and the other is this young man.” Edison quickly took him on as an assistant, though it was not to last as the two’s differing opinions would clash and drive them apart. Edison had been on the side of using electricity as direct current, as he had invested in many companies for it already and generators had been built every two miles along the Atlantic coast to provide for the energy needed. Tesla looked at the inefficiencies of the system, and the weaknesses of using direct current itself, and proposed a different form that would work far easier: the alternating current that he had designed. To him, all energy was cyclic, so he put out into the metaphorical air a system that would send electricity first one way, then another, in multiple waves using the polyphase principle. Not only would the energy be allowed to travel farther, it would also give lamps a brighter, clearer glow than that of direct current. Something to keep in mind here is that when Tesla joined Edison, the man promised him $50,000 dollars in exchange for finding a more efficient way to transmit electricity. Now that Tesla had done just that, Edison turned right around on the deal and said (and this is a direct quote): “Tesla, you don’t understand American humor.”

Just to show him, Tesla worked to develop the polyphase alternating current system of generators, motors, and transformers, and eventually held more than 40 patents on the system. George Westinghouse bought them from him and spread them across America, determined to spread the Tesla way. Edison, in the meantime, was determined not to lose his direct current empire and took to publically electrocuting animals, trying to show people that alternating current was dangerous. Tesla rebutted this by lighting lamps without wires, letting the current flow through his own body. To rephrase that, he electrocuted himself multiple times, because he knew he was right. The man had a bit of a theatric flair, as evidenced by the fantastical demonstrations given to those who attended his lectures. And he was right—alternating current won the war in the end, as it was the superior system, and that victory insured the progress of both America and the world.

Westinghouse and Tesla went on to become great partners, and together they brought nationwide use of electricity to America. Tesla, with Westinghouse’s help, went on to create the AC induction motor, used commonly in industry and household appliances. By the end of his life, Tesla held over one hundred patents and had doubtless invented hundreds of inventions besides, and many of his creations were stolen by others. A good example is that of Marconi, who until 1948 held a patent on the radio, which Tesla had already created. When asked about how he felt about this, he said "Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents."

I could go on and on about this guy — he’s really an awesome dude, check him out — but I shall have to conclude this shortly. So, to wrap it all up, Tesla is heroic to me because he fought all his life against people who were opposing his ideas and against his own demons. Oh, did I forget to mention those? Well, here are just a few: He was prone to nervous breakdowns, and would claim to see visions in the night and receive electromagnetic signals from aliens on Mars. In case that’s not good enough, he was also obsessive-compulsive and hated round objects, human hair, jewelry, and anything that wasn’t divisible by three. To top it all off, he was completely asexual and celibate all of his life. So he’s my hero not only because he was probably the best example of a mad scientist that the world has ever seen, he did all of it whilst struggling with himself. That’s strength. It’s easy to fight against someone else; what’s hard is fighting with one’s own mind.

Page created on 12/11/2010 6:02:19 PM

Last edited 12/11/2010 6:02:19 PM

Related Links

Nikola Tesla - PBS - Tesla, Master of Lightning