The Extraordinary Life of Nikola Tesla

January 7, 2018

Spoke eight languages

Produced the first motor that ran on AC current

Developed the underlying technology for wireless communication over long distances

Held approximately 300 patents

Claimed to have developed a “superweapon” that would end all war

The match for each, of course, is Tesla. Surprised? Most people have heard his name, but few know much about his place in modern science and technology.

The 75th anniversary of Tesla’s death on Jan. 7 provides a timely opportunity to review the life of a man who came from nowhere yet became world famous; claimed to be devoted solely to discovery but relished the role of a showman; attracted the attention of many women but never married; and generated ideas that transformed daily life and created multiple fortunes but died nearly penniless.

Early years

Tesla was born in Serbia on a summer night in 1856, during what he claimed was a lightning storm – which led the midwife to say, “He will be a child of the storm,” and his mother to counter prophetically, “No, of the light.” As a student, Tesla displayed such remarkable abilities to calculate mathematical problems that teachers accused him of cheating. During his teen years, he fell seriously ill, recovering once his father abandoned his demand that Nikola become a priest and agreed he could attend engineering school instead.

Although an outstanding student, Tesla eventually withdrew from polytechnic school and ended up working for the Continental Edison Company, where he focused on electrical lighting and motors. Wishing to meet Edison himself, Tesla immigrated to the U.S. in 1884, and he later claimed he was offered the sum of US$50,000 if he could solve a series of engineering problems Edison’s company faced. Having achieved the feat, Tesla said he was then told that the offer had just been a joke, and he left the company after six months.

Tesla then developed a relationship with two businessmen that led to the founding of Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. He filed a number of electrical patents, which he assigned to the company. When his partners decided that they wanted to focus strictly on supplying electricity, they took the company’s intellectual property and founded another firm, leaving Tesla with nothing.

Tesla reported that he then worked as a ditch digger for $2 a day, tortured by the sense that his great talent and education were going to waste.

Success as an inventor

In 1887, Tesla met two investors who agreed to back 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 number of technical problems that had bedeviled other designs. 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 “War of the Currents” was raging in the late 1880s. Thomas Edison promoted direct current, asserting that it was safer than AC. George Westinghouse backed AC, since it could transmit power over long distances. Because the two were undercutting each other’s prices, Westinghouse lacked capital. He explained the difficulty and asked Tesla to sell his patents to him for a single lump sum, to which Tesla agreed, forgoing what would have been a vast fortune had he held on to them.

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