Electrical engineer and genius, Nikola Tesla was born in Smiljan, Austrian Empire (now Croatia) on July 9th or 10th, 1856, making this weekend his 166th birthday! He showed an interest in engineering from a very young age. Some inspiration probably came from his mother Duka, who was known for fashioning her own tools for use around the house. His father Milutin was a priest of the Eastern Orthodox Church and had a talent for memorizing Serbian epic poetry. Nikola was a very bright child with an eidetic memory, he could also speak eight languages (Serbo-Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin).
Tesla attended the Imperial-Royal Technical College at Graz (Now Graz University of Technology) where he became obsessed with proving alternate currents merits. He was so preoccupied with these thoughts that he was unable to concentrate on his schoolwork. He dropped out due to failing grades and lost his tuition money to gambling. His father eventually found him, brought him home, and helped him prepare to continue his education at the University of Prague. Milutin unexpectedly died in April of 1879 before he could arrange everything. For the rest of that year Tesla spent his time teaching at the local school. The next year Tesla’s uncles gathered enough money for him to attend school in Prague. However, he arrived too late in the year to enroll. In addition, he did not have the prerequisite levels of Greek and Czech to be accepted. While he attended lectures at Charles-Ferdinand University, he never received grades.
In 1981 he moved to Budapest where he worked at the Budapest Telephone Exchange. After making several improvements there, he was recommended the next year for a job at the Continental Edison Company in Paris. In 1883 Tesla built his first induction motor.
Tesla was recommended again for a job, this time with Thomas Edison’s lab. He arrived in America in 1884 to begin this job. Tesla and Edison’s relationship quickly fell apart because of creative differences. Tesla took a job digging ditches in order to support himself before he found investors in his work.
Inventors quickly found Tesla, interested in his induction motor and use of alternating current. A deal was brokered and he licensed his invention for a polyphase system of alternating current dynamos, transformers, and motors to be sold to George Westinghouse. This sale included a year of work for Tesla at Westinghouse’s lab in Pittsburgh. In 1891 Westinghouse was facing financial difficulties, and Tesla agreed to release the company from paying him according to their agreement, believing that a major company promoting the wonders of alternating current would further the cause.
Over the next several years, Tesla continued to be a pioneer in widespread use of electricity. In order to assuage fears of electricity, he invited the public to his lab to see demonstrations where he let electric currents run through his body to show how safe the technology was. He moved to Colorado Springs where he established a lab and discovered terrestrial stationary waves, proving that the earth can resonate at certain electrical frequencies. Eventually he moved back East where he set up a laboratory at Wardenclyffe in New York. Here he experimented with radio waves, but eventually lost the lab due to financial difficulties. The lab at Wardenclyffe would be his last large-scale laboratory. He would spend the rest of his life working on several projects, but never again would he find widespread success.
Tesla died on January 7th, 1943, at the age of 86. He was found in his room at the Hotel New Yorker where he had lived for several years (his rent was covered by Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company). Many conspiracy theories have claimed that Tesla had developed a working death ray or that his papers held proof of aliens. An investigation by the FBI found no proof, and that his papers were mostly theoretical in nature. The “working death ray” was found to be a multidecade resistance box. Tesla’s remains were cremated and can be found at the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade.
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (n.d.). Nikola Tesla | Lemelson. Lemelson-MIT. https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/nikola-tesla
Newhall, M. (2013, November 18). Top 11 Things You Didn’t Know About Nikola Tesla. Energy.gov. https://www.energy.gov/articles/top-11-things-you-didnt-know-about-nikola-tesla
Whitaker Hunt, I. (n.d.). Nikola Tesla | Biography, Facts, & Inventions. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nikola-Tesla