The Forgotten Genius - Nikola Tesla
We take the enticing power and boundless possibilities we have at our disposal for granted; Without realizing the sacrifices numerous individuals made to allow the conversation of innovation to be furthered.
This blog should have never existed. Due in part to systems in place, when we think of the incredible legendary minds of this world, we are bound to think of individuals like Thomas Edison for his contributions in fields such as electricity, photography, sound recording, and “for the lightbulb”. Or, Albert Einstein for his contributions and his influence on the philosophy of science. Do not get me wrong, these are truly majestic individuals in their respective fields. However, in terms of innovations that are the basis of technologies roaming our modern world, it was Nikola Tesla who was, by far, the most brilliant of them all. Sadly, he is rarely, if at all, mentioned anywhere.
Today, Tesla is an electric car. Just about everyone knows that. However, it is less widely known that the car was named in tribute to Nikola Tesla.
Who is Nikola Tesla
“No, he will be a child of light!” - Duka Tesla
According to History, Nikola Tesla was born on July 10th of 1896 in Smiljan, a village in the mountainous region of Western Lika in Croatia. It is said, on the dark night of his birth, there was a violent lightning storm outside. Reading this as a horrific superstition, his mother’s midwife suggested Nikola would be a child of “darkness”. Tesla’s mother, Duka Tesla, immediately replied “No, he will be a child of light”. Later, you would understand the significance of this statement. From an early age, he displayed an unusual astute that would puzzle and delight those around him. Nikola Tesla simply had a mind of the rarest and scarcest kind. He had an extraordinary eidetic memory that allowed him to memorize entire books and store logarithmic tables in his head, learn and speak different languages with ease, and visualize engineering inventions from the inside out with precise accuracy.
Tesla was one of five children. He had three sisters, and an older brother, who was tragically killed in a horse-riding accident when Tesla was only seven years old. Tesla would have a close encounter with death as well when at 17 years old he contracted Cholera - a bacterial disease usually spread through contaminated water. Cholera causes severe diarrhea and dehydration. Left untreated, cholera can be fatal within hours, even in previously healthy people. Fortunately, modern sewage systems and water treatment have virtually eliminated cholera in industrialized countries. Due to cholera, Tesla was bedridden for nine months and in a moment of despair, Tesla's father promised to send him to the best engineering school if he recovered from the illness. This divine promise was significant because Tesla’s father always wanted him to enter the priesthood, or have a career in the army. But, Nikola was adamantly passionate about engineering. To everyone’s surprise, Nikola miraculously recovered.
Nikola went on to finish high school in three years and enrolled at an Austrian University for engineering. As a freshman in college, Nikola was able to completely dominate and speak eight different languages and achieved the highest grades possible in all his classes. You probably are not surprised to hear of his excellence in college but, actually, as a sophomore in college, his life took a surprising downward trajectory when he became addicted to gambling. By his junior year, He would go on to gamble away his tuition money and never receive a degree from college. He never even got the grades of his last semester. After enduring harsh critics from his family for his reckless mistakes, he decided to cut ties with them and in 1880, moved to Budapest, Hungary. There, he sought a job in what he knew best; engineering. He began working as a draftsman in the Central Telegraph Office of the Budapest Telephone Exchange. A draftsman is an engineering technician who makes detailed technical drawings or plans for machinery, buildings, electronics, among others. After months of Tesla’s improvements to the telephone repeater or amplifier, the Budapest Telephone Exchange was having phenomenal success, and Tesla was appointed the Chief Electrician position.
Years later, he decided to work for the Continental Edison Company (owned by Thomas Edison) in Paris. There he gained humongous practical experience in electrical engineering and went on to impress management once again. He was tasked with improving versions of generating dynamos and motors as well as troubleshooting engineering problems at other Edison facilities around France and Germany. Soon, the manager overseeing the Paris facility was brought to the United States and requested to bring Nikola Tesla with him. With four cents in his pockets, Nikola Tesla took a boat to the city of New York.
For several months, Nikola began working for Edison at Machine Works on Manhattan's Lower East Side before quitting. Why would he quit? Tesla suggested he could redesign Edison’s Direct Current Motors and generators making them more efficient and capable of avoiding break downs. Edison and management loved the idea and offered Tesla millions of dollars in today’s currency to do such improvements. To no surprise, Tesla revolutionized the motors of the company and exceeded what he initially promised. Tesla’s motor designs were now a much simpler design and astronomically more efficient. His technology was so revolutionary, Tesla’s motor designs are seen today in household appliances, power tools, smartphones, and of course, the Tesla Electric Vehicle. After completing his promises of improvements and innovation, Thomas Edison refused to give Nikola Tesla the money. He famously stated: “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor”. Like you, I still don’t get the joke today. More importantly, Nikola quit working for Thomas Edison.
Feeling betrayed and upset, Nikola started the “Tesla Electric Light Company” to compete against Edison with two businessmen, Robert Lane and Benjamin Vail. After all the devoted hours to inventions, Nikola would go on to make a business mistake when he exchanged his patents on revolutionizing technology for stocks of the company. When Lane and Vail moved on to make their own electricity company with control of the patents, Nikola was left penniless with worthless stocks. Defeated, to make ends meet, Nikola worked as a ditch digger for two dollars a day and continued his pursuit of inventions.
The War of Currents
Nikola Tesla decided to join the race of lighting the world with electricity partnering with Edison’s main competitor: George Westinghouse. Today, we are all born into a world full of light around us but this was not the case during the late 1800s. Nonetheless, Edison was ahead in the race after furthering direct current (or DC for short) with his company General Electric. However, DC systems were unable to transmit energy over long distances without a huge plant in between and the cables were probably as thick as your neck. In other words, Edison’s methods at the time were not practical for powering up homes. On the contrary, Tesla’s alternating current (or AC) system was capable of transmitting over long distances, used thinner wires, and had higher voltages. As the public began understanding the benefits of AC over DC, Edison, not wanting to lose the royalties he was earning from patents, began a campaign to spread misinformation about alternating current (Lantero, 1). In addition, Edison aided in the creation of the electric chair and ensured it was AC powered to create a negative perception of it. Tesla responded by famously demonstrating it’s “safety” when he transmitted alternating currents through his own body to produce light at the World Fair of 1893 in Chicago. The lighting of the fair marked a turning point in the AC-DC battle to power the country and eventually the world. Quickly after, Nikola Tesla gained money and fame with his designs while Edison lost control of his company General Electric. To put his achievements into perspective, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, numerous designs developed by Tesla are still used today to power our homes and to Edison’s defense, DC is used in some computers and LEDs.
Tesla was credited with over 300 patents worldwide and responsible for hundreds of inventions we use today.
Numerous inventions of today are a direct or indirect result of research and development by Nikola Tesla. For instance, If you browse the internet on who invented the “Radio”, Guglielmo Marconi might be the person at the top of the results credited with the creation; He is often called the “father of radio”. However, years before Marconi sent the first transatlantic message using radio waves and became world-famous, Tesla had already developed tools capable of communicating with radio waves. Tesla famously claimed Marconi was even using some of his patents to create the radio he built. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, The U.S. Supreme Court eventually upheld and supported Tesla’s claims, “clarifying Tesla’s role in the invention of the radio—but not until 1943, after he died”. Furthermore, In 1898, Tesla was playing around with one of his famous creations: a radio-controlled toy boat, on a small pool in Madison Square Garden. Today, we are not impressed with remote control toy cars and even gift them to our younger relatives for Christmas. However, people gathered around Tesla controlling his radio-controlled boat thought he was a magician.
Have you ever broken a bone? Gotten x-rays? Wilhelm Roentgen is credited with the discovery of x-rays. However, long before Roentgen, Tesla had already taken an x-ray image after running experiments in his lab and warned scientists of its dangers. According to RadioGraphics, Tesla used to call them “shadowgraphs” and even sent a few images to Wilhelm Roentgen shortly after Roentgen published his discovery on November 8, 1895.
Most people know a dam is a barrier constructed to hold back water and raise its level, forming a reservoir more importantly used to generate electricity. But, did you know Tesla designed the first hydroelectric plant powerful enough to power a city at Niagara Falls? He was told his work in the field would not work on a large scale but his vision and designs of water-powered motors are critically used today in hydroelectricity. Also, Tesla would later in his life retell a story in which he claimed he caused an earthquake on a building in New York City. Nikola Tesla designed and built a device, one that may fit in your pockets, capable of vibrating the structure of a building to the point of collapse when it matched the natural frequency of the building. It was popularly called “The Earthquake Machine”. Furthermore, Tesla invented a powerful coil, later called “Tesla Coil”, that was capable of generating high voltages and frequencies, leading to new forms of light, such as neon and fluorescent. In a world of darkness, Nikola Tesla was light.
Tesla’s main “problem” was that he was a humanitarian to the utmost degree. As you know, his patents were often stolen without proper reward, taken advantage of in different ways, and because his intentions of innovation sometimes disrupted the way factors in society were monetized he was shamed. To make matters worse, In 1895, days before a demonstration about his breakthroughs in long-distance wireless receiver, Nikola Tesla’s lab in New York City caught on fire and all of his research and development work inside was burned to ashes. The place where he evolved ideas into fruition was completely destroyed. Years of work were gone. Inventions went to ruins. Many people believe his lab was purposely set on fire due to the disruption in industries his inventions caused and could have at the time; I have no comment on that.
On the other hand, the persistence he displayed to overcome his mistakes and achieve stardom, may have led him to continue a path of financial mistakes later in his life. Numerous of his late inventions on the verge of breakthrough would go on to fail. Which is fine, as we all know, that is part of the process in engineering and life. However, these failures would cost him a fortune. For instance, the Tesla Tower, also known as Wardenclyffe Tower, was a prototype wireless transmission tower designed by Nikola Tesla in Shoreham, New York to enable free wireless electricity and the sending of messages across the earth. The Tesla Tower was humongous; According to a Google search, The tower was “a pyramid having eight sides; smallest dimensions across the base, 95 feet; height, 154 feet; total height from ground to top, 187 feet; and the cupola on top, 65.68 feet in diameter”. It would cost a fortune to build and another fortune to maintain it. Essentially, this project was to receive funding from J.P. Morgan in order to further develop it. But, after Marconi’s innovation with radio communications (at a much cheaper price, more practical, and more profitable), funding was devoted to radio communication. As for electricity, funding for research and development to further power lines took place instead. Drowned in debt, Nikola Tesla could not afford to keep the laboratory up and running any longer by himself and was forced to take down the tower and sell it for scraps. Tesla lived his last feeble decades in a New York hotel, working on new inventions and feeding the city’s pigeons as the days passed.
How is it that such a revolutionizing figure is vastly forgotten in public knowledge? This will be entirely up to you. I encourage you to learn more about him. New generations are growing up in a world that is much different than my generation and successively, previous generations. With the flip of a switch, we can light up entire buildings with electricity, we can know exactly which bone is broken with a visit to the ER, and even travel miles across the country on an all-electric vehicle. It’s all drastically changing as the days pass by virtue of numerous innovators and industry pioneers. But, where did most of these revolutionizing ideas come from? If in your presence, Nikola Tesla would probably smile if you asked him that. At least, you may know why.
Gone. But never forgotten. Rest in peace Nikola Tesla.
Photo by Damir Spanic from Unsplash