Nikola Tesla Biography

Etching of Nikola Tesla from "History of the City of New York" published in 1910

Etching of Nikola Tesla from “History of the City of New York” published in 1910. Note the formidable ‘stache.

Nikola Tesla (10 July 1856 – 7 January 1943) was an inventor, mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, and futurist whose work is integrated into almost all facets of modern life. He is also almost completely absent from US classroom curriculum and history books.

However, plaques on buildings around the world — many in New York City — bear his name. Statues have been made in his honor. During Tesla’s lifetime he received honorary degrees from the world’s most prestigious universities like Yale, Columbia, and Graz Polytechnic Institute.

In 1960, The Institute Electrotechnical Committee adopted the name “tesla” as the SI unit measuring magnetic field B (also referred to as the magnetic flux density and magnetic induction) at the General Conference on Weights and Measures, in Paris. This honor has been bestowed upon other great inventors such as Hertz (hertz), Ampère (amps), Volta (volts), and Watt (watts).

Tesla appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1931 in honor of his 75th birthday, with a caption reading, “NIKOLA TESLA – All the world’s his power house”. The cover’s portrait was painted by Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy.

In 1983, the US Post Office honored Tesla with a commemorative stamp.

July 20, 1931 Time magazine cover honoring Nikola Tesla

July 20, 1931 Time magazine cover honoring Nikola Tesla

Upon his death in 1943, President and Mrs. Roosevelt expressed their gratitude by issuing a statement regarding his contributions to “science and industry and to this country.” While Vice President Wallace declared, “In Nikola Tesla’s death the common man loses one of his best friends.”

And New York City’s Mayor La Guardia read a eulogy on WNYC radio in which he called Tesla “a great American”, and said he was, “one of the most useful and successful men who ever lived.” La Guardia added, “But Tesla is not dead … the real, the important part, of Tesla lives on in his achievement, which was great, almost beyond calculation.”

But Tesla’s work and legacy fell into relative obscurity in the United States after all of his papers and personal effects were enigmatically seized by the FBI the day after his January 1943 death. The FBI reportedly took microfilm of everything, then handed it over to the Office of Alien Property (even though Tesla had been a proud US citizen since age 35), which in turn sent the entire lot to Belgrade under pressure from the then Yugoslavian Ambassador, who happened to be Tesla’s nephew.

Early Life

Nikola Tesla's birthplace (and now interactive museum) in Smiljan, Croatia

Nikola Tesla’s birthplace (and now interactive museum) in Smiljan, Croatia

Born in the remote village of Smiljan (just outside of Gospić,  in present day Croatia’s mountainous Northern Dalmatia region), Tesla was a subject of the Austrian Empire by birth (before becoming an American citizen at age 35). His father was an Orthodox minister and his mother was, as described by Tesla, “an inventor of the first order and would, I believe, have achieved great things had she not been so remote from modern life and its multifold opportunities.”

After immigrating to the United States he immediately began working for Thomas Edison, thanks to a recommendation from Charles Batchelor who ran the Edison Electric Light Company of Europe based in Paris, for which Tesla worked. After a dramatic falling out with Edison, Tesla worked as a day laborer in New York City digging ditches for nearly a year, while still working every evening on his AC induction motor until he finally found a financier in 1884 and formed the Tesla Electric Company on Pearl Street, just blocks from Edison’s power station.

War of the Currents

Nikola Tesla commemorative US postage stamp

Nikola Tesla commemorative US postage stamp

Telsa was an important contributor to the use of commercial electricity, and is best known for developing the modern polyphase alternating current (AC) electrical supply system using an induction motor he invented. His many revolutionary developments in the field of electromagnetism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were based on the theories of electromagnetic technology discovered by Michael Faraday. Without them, more dangerous, often deadly, AC apparatus would have continued to be used, or direct current (DC), which required a power plant to be located within one mile of it to operate. This led to the ‘War of the Electric Currents’ which further fueled his rivalry with Edison. During that period Edison was backed by J. Pierpont Morgan and Tesla financed by George Westinghouse.

Edison was partly genuinely concerned that AC was dangerous — as he didn’t have a full understanding of Tesla’s system. But mostly, he didn’t like the newly formed Westinghouse Electric Co. (which had bought Tesla’s patents) taking business way from Edison Electric Company and launched a ruthless smear campaign using his status as a darling of the press to discredit AC. His employees conducted the public electrocution of animals — dogs, cats, a horse, and even an elephant — using the AC current throughout NYC parks and in other cities.

Harold P. Brown, who was funded by Edison and allowed free reign to use his laboratory, developed the Electric Chair for executing prisoners on death row, after covertly licensing the rights to use Tesla’s AC system patents with a Westinghouse dynamo. The first criminal to be executed with electricity in New York State was William Kemmler who had killed his wife with a hatchet. Edison, Brown and other AC critics started dubbing the phrase “don’t get Westinghoused.” when referring to capital punishment as part of the smear campaign.

But Tesla’s polyphase AC system prevailed and Westinghouse Electric won the bid to electrify both the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the rushing waters of Niagara Falls, thus ending the ‘War.’ In the process, Edison was ousted from controlling his own electric company, Edison Electric Illuminating Company, upon consolidation with a syndicate of several others which formed the General Electric Company (ironically facilitated by J. P. Morgan).

Mark Twain in Tesla's Houston Street Lab

Mark Twain in Tesla’s Houston Street Lab

Tesla’s Inventions, Friends and Personality

Tesla was very well liked and possessed a lot of charisma, even though he also was very eccentric and known to be quite obsessive-compulsive. Franklin Chester wrote in an August 1897 edition of the Citizen that no one could look upon him without feeling his force. Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century magazine, became a close friend of Tesla’s and described his personality as one of “distinguished sweetness, sincerity, modesty, refinement, generosity, and force.”

He usually worked through the night, and often with observers present, including his good friend Mark Twain, who often visited Tesla’s Houston Street laboratory in the wee hours to watch and participate in experiments. In their off hours, they’d play cards at the Player’s Club.

Beyond his other achievements, Tesla’s patents and theoretical work also formed the basis of wireless communication and the radio. He further pioneered some of the first work with X-rays, wireless transmission of electricity, florescent lighting, radar, and neon, among many other inventions.

Wardernclyffe was dismantled in 1917

Wardenclyffe was dismantled in 1917

From 1899 to 1900 Tesla spent his time researching in Colorado Springs. Among other things, including wirelessly creating artificial lightning from up to 135 feet, he researched ways to transmit power and energy wirelessly over long distances. He transmitted extremely low frequencies through the ground as well as between the Earth’s surface and the Kennelly–Heaviside layer and was granted patents on wireless transceivers that developed standing waves by this method. In his experiments, he made mathematical calculations and computations based on his experiments and discovered that the resonant frequency of the Earth was approximately 8 hertz (Hz). In the 1950s, researchers confirmed that the resonant frequency of the Earth’s ionospheric cavity was in this range.

Tesla left Colorado Springs on January 7, 1900. The lab was torn down in 1905 and its contents sold to pay debts, of which he had accumulated many in one year of research. His Colorado experiments prepared Tesla for the establishment of a trans-Atlantic wireless telecommunications facility, and in 1901 with $150,000, the majority financed by J. P. Morgan, Tesla began building the Wardenclyffe Tower facility near Shoreham, Long Island in New York. In June 1902, Tesla’s lab operations were moved out to Wardenclyffe from his Houston Street lab in NYC. After a falling out with Morgan because Marconi beat him to a trans-Atlantic wireless transmission (albeit infringing on Tesla’s own patents), Morgan pulled funding which made it very difficult for Tesla to get backed by any other financiers. Tesla fell into debt and the tower was dismantled for scrap during World War I.

A New York Times headline from December 8th, 1915

A New York Times headline from December 8th, 1915

The New York Times reported Tesla was to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics (pdf), based on a Reuter’s dispatch from London on November 6, 1915. But it’s rumored he declined the award because it was to be shared with his arch rival Thomas Edison. The Royal Academy of Science of Sweden replied a half century later saying that was untrue. Neither Tesla or Edison ever subsequently won the Nobel Prize.

Tesla, who had always been very eccentric, grew reclusive in his later years. He spent all of his time either feeding beloved pigeons in Bryant Park (the intersection at 40th Street and Broadway is now named “Nikola Tesla Corner“), or conducting experiments in his New York City hotel rooms (he never lived in an apartment, always opting for hotels).

Tesla did however conduct an annual press conference on his birthday … and each year the claims about his work grew more and more strange to the public. His statements were partially misunderstood because his complex inventions were not yet easily deciphered by laymen, and partly due to his ever-growing eccentricity — including claiming the large wireless tower at his Wardenclyffe laboratory in Long Island could produce a “Death Ray.” Tesla gained a reputation in popular culture as the archetypal “mad scientist”. He died, penniless, at 87 years-old in his room at the New Yorker Hotel.

A working Tesla Coil wirelessly illuminates fluorescent lights held by thrilled visitors to the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.

A working Tesla Coil wirelessly illuminates fluorescent lights held by thrilled visitors of the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.

Tesla’s Legacy

There is now an interactive museum in his restored birthplace home in Smiljan, Croatia as well as the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, housing all of his personal effects and many working models of various inventions. Both have large-scale Tesla Coil demonstrations. The Belgrade museum is currently digitizing many of his papers as well as published writings for the public to access online.

The Ultimate Tesla Tour, hosted by Kim Mance on this site, takes viewers to both of these museums, the many buildings around NYC marked in his honor, as well as to his statue at Niagara Falls, the Wardenclyffe laboratory, and a few other fun Tesla spots.

There is a Tesla Memorial Society of New York, which works to preserve his legacy. They are currently also working to get the Wardenclyffe laboratory and tower site placed on the National Register of Historic places, as well as establish a museum and scientific research center.

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This work by Kim Mance is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at Nikola Tesla Tour.

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Kim Mance

A writer, traveler, and wiseass full of curiosity. She’s blogged for places like Condé Nast Traveler, Marie Claire, World Hum, and Huffington Post. Kim is also an ‘expert judge’ for a new cable show which will air nationwide in fall 2012.

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