Most people know that Tesla worked, at one time, with inventor Thomas Edison, and that the two became rivals. Most are also familiar with today’s Tesla, the automotive/energy company co-founded and headed by Elon Musk. But apart from these somewhat fuzzy images, many know little more about the man and his many contributions to the energy industry.
Tesla’s Early Life in Europe
Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in what is now Croatia. He was one of five children, born of Serbian parents, Milutin and Djuka Tesla. His father was an orthodox priest as well as a writer, and he dreamed of his son Nikola becoming a priest as well, following in his footsteps. But as it turns out, Nikola Tesla was far more inspired by his mother, Djuka, who invented small household appliances when she wasn’t busy caring for her five children and running the household. She inspired Nikola’s interest in the sciences — an interest that he pursued throughout his education at schools like the Realschule, the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria and the University of Prague. Tesla left his homeland in 1884 at the age of 28 and sailed to America. He’d given up trying to promote his invention — the induction motor — in Europe and decided that he might have better luck in the States.
Tesla’s Life in the U.S.
Throughout Tesla’s career in the U.S. — which included a brief stint working with Thomas Edison which ended badly — he designed, invented and patented many innovations including the AC (alternating-current) electrical system, which is still in use today. He also created the “Tesla Coil”, still used in radio technology, as well as several inventions and ideas that ended up being officially patented by other inventors. (These included radar technology, dynamos, X-ray technology and remote technology.)
His two most well-known inventions — the AC electrical system and the Tesla Coil — were patented by Tesla, along with several other AC-based inventions thanks to his finally finding funding for the Tesla Electric Company in 1887. Tesla sold his patents to engineer and businessman George Westinghouse, founder of the Westinghouse Corporation in 1888, who believed that Tesla’s inventions would help him in his quest to find a way to provide long-distance (nationwide) electrical power. In exchange for his patents, Tesla received $60,000 in cash, stock in Westinghouse and royalties for future sales.
Tesla’s Successes and His Ultimate Downfall
As interest in the AC system grew, Tesla found himself, along with Westinghouse, in direct competition with Thomas Edison, who was equally determined to sell his DC (direct-current) system to the nation. Edison ultimately lost the competition, and the AC system was the system chosen to supply lighting for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, where Tesla triumphantly conducted demonstrations to awed crowds.
A couple of years later, in 1895, Tesla designed one of the first hydroelectric power plants in the country, located at Niagara Falls. Within a year, it was powering the city of Buffalo, New York to much public acclaim, both in the U.S. and abroad.
What followed these successes, would become one of Tesla’s biggest failures — a venture utilising the famous Tesla Coil, which was already poised to lead to new forms of light such as neon and fluorescent, as well as X-rays. Capital for the venture — a gigantic radio tower — was provided by J.P. Morgan, after Tesla discovered that his coils could be used to send and receive radio signals. The rush was on to complete the tower to beat Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi to success. Unfortunately, the loan from J.P. Morgan was not enough to get the job done, and Morgan was unwilling to extend more. In the meantime, investors were rushing to back Marconi, the man who ultimately succeeded when he sent the first radio signal from England to Newfoundland. A court battle ensued since Marconi had been using several of Tesla’s patents to achieve his end, but Marconi prevailed. Ironically, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled in Tesla’s favour — but not until shortly after Tesla’s death in 1943.
There’s little doubt that Tesla possessed an extraordinary mind — a fact that he himself was also convinced of. What Tesla did not possess, to his ultimate detriment, was a mind for business. Those that did possess such a mind — such as George Westinghouse, for example — would ultimately use Tesla’s genius to their own ends. An example: Tesla, at the behest of Westinghouse, tore up his contract for royalties out of loyalty to the man who had stood behind him at a crucial moment.
In the end, Tesla died penniless in New York City, in a third-floor room in The New Yorker Hotel, a room whose rent had been paid for by his old friend George Westinghouse for years. By then he was believed to be suffering from various mental health problems, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and spending his days feeding pigeons in a park near his hotel. A sad end to a great man.