Biography of Nikola Tesla, Serbian-American Inventor

A photograph of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) at age 40.
A photograph of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) at age 40. Nikola Tesla / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Nikola Tesla (July 10, 1856–January 7, 1943) was a Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, and futurist. As the holder of nearly 300 patents, Tesla is best known for his role in developing the modern three-phase alternating current (AC) electric power supply system and for his invention of the Tesla coil, an early advancement in the field of radio transmission.

During the 1880s, Tesla and Thomas Edison, inventor and champion of direct electrical current (DC), would become embattled in the “War of the Currents” over whether Tesla’s AC or Edison’s DC would become the standard current used in long-distance transmission of electrical power.

Fast Facts: Nikola Tesla

  • Known For: Development of alternating current (AC) electrical power
  • Born: July 10, 1856 in Smiljan, Austrian Empire (modern-day Croatia)
  • Parents: Milutin Tesla and Đuka Tesla
  • Died: January 7, 1943 in New York City, New York
  • Education: Austrian Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria (1875)
  • Patents: US381968A—Electro-magnetic motor, US512,340A—coil for electro-magnets
  • Awards and Honors: Edison Medal (1917), Inventor’s Hall of Fame (1975)
  • Notable Quote: “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”

Early Life and Education

Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856, in the village of Smiljan in the Austrian Empire (now Croatia) to his Serbian father Milutin Tesla, an Eastern Orthodox priest, and his mother Đuka Tesla, who invented small household appliances and had the ability to memorize lengthy Serbian epic poems. Tesla credited his mother for his own interest in inventing and photographic memory. He had four siblings, a brother Dane, and sisters Angelina, Milka, and Marica. 

In 1870, Tesla started high school at the Higher Real Gymnasium in Karlovac, Austria. He recalled that his physics teacher’s demonstrations of electricity made him want “to know more of this wonderful force.” Able to integral calculus in his head, Tesla completed high school in just three years, graduating in 1873.

Determined to pursue a career in engineering, Tesla enrolled at the Austrian Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria, in 1875. It was here that Tesla studied a Gramme dynamo, an electrical generator that produces direct current. Observing that the dynamo functioned like an electric motor when the direction of its current was reversed, Tesla began thinking of ways this alternating current could be used in industrial applications. Though he never graduated—as was not uncommon then—Tesla posted excellent grades and was even given a letter from the dean of the technical faculty addressed to his father stating, “Your son is a star of first rank.”

Feeling that chastity would help him focus on his career, Tesla never married or had any known romantic relationships. In her 2001 book, “Tesla: Man Out of Time,” biographer Margaret Cheney writes that Tesla felt himself to be unworthy of women, considering them to be superior to him in every way. Later in life, however, he publicly expressed strong dislike what he called the “new woman,” women he felt were abandoning their femininity in an attempt to dominate men.

The Path to Alternating Current

In 1881, Tesla moved to Budapest, Hungary, where he gained practical experience as the chief electrician at the Central Telephone Exchange. In 1882, Tesla was hired by the Continental Edison Company in Paris where he worked in the emerging industry of installing the direct current-powered indoor incandescent lighting system patented by Thomas Edison in 1879. Impressed by Tesla’s mastery of engineering and physics, the company’s management soon had him designing improved versions of generating dynamos and motors and fixing problems at other Edison facilities throughout France and Germany.

When the manager of the Continental Edison facility in Paris was transferred back to the United States in 1884, he asked that Tesla be brought to the U.S. as well. In June 1884, Tesla emigrated to the United States and went to work at the Edison Machine Works in New York City, where Edison’s DC-based electrical lighting system was fast becoming the standard. Just six months later, Tesla quit Edison after a heated dispute over unpaid wages and bonuses. In his diary, Notebook from the Edison Machine Works: 1884-1885, Tesla marked the end of the amicable relationship between the two great inventors. Across two pages, Tesla wrote in large letters, “Good By to the Edison Machine Works.”

By March 1885, Tesla, with the financial backing of businessmen Robert Lane and Benjamin Vail, started his own lighting utility company, Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. Instead of Edison’s incandescent lamp bulbs, Tesla’s company installed a DC-powered arc lighting system he had designed while working at Edison Machine Works. While Tesla’s arc light system was praised for its advanced features, his investors, Lane and Vail, had little interest in his ideas for perfecting and harnessing alternating current. In 1886, they abandoned Tesla’s company to start their own company. The move left Tesla penniless, forcing him to survive by taking electrical repair jobs and digging ditches for $2.00 per day. Of this period of hardship, Tesla would later recall, “My high education in various branches of science, mechanics, and literature seemed to me like a mockery.”

During his time of near destitution, Tesla’s resolve to prove the superiority of alternating current over Edison’s direct current grew even stronger.

Alternating Current and the Induction Motor

In April 1887, Tesla, along with his investors, Western Union telegraph superintendent Alfred S. Brown and attorney Charles F. Peck, founded the Tesla Electric Company in New York City for the purpose of developing new types of electric motors and generators.

Tesla soon developed a new type of electromagnetic induction motor that ran on alternating current. Patented in May 1888, Tesla’s motor proved to be simple, dependable, and not subject to the constant need for repairs that plagued direct current-driven motors at the time.

Patent drawing of Nikola Tesla’s alternating current electric motor
Patent drawing of Nikola Tesla’s alternating current electric motor. Tesla AC Motor / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In July 1888, Tesla sold his patent for AC-powered motors to Westinghouse Electric Corporation, owned by electrical industry pioneer George Westinghouse. In the deal, which proved financially lucrative for Tesla, Westinghouse Electric got the rights to market Tesla’s AC motor and agreed to hire Tesla as a consultant.

With Westinghouse now backing AC and Edison backing DC, the stage was set for what would become known as “The War of the Currents.”

The War of the Currents: Tesla vs. Edison

Recognizing the economic and technical superiority of alternating current to his direct current for long-distance power distribution, Edison undertook an unprecedently aggressive public relations campaign to discredit AC as posing a deadly threat to the public—a force should never allow in their homes. Edison and his associates toured the U.S. presenting grizzly public demonstrations of animals being electrocuted with AC electricity. When New York State sought a faster, “more humane” alternative to hanging for executing condemned prisoners, Edison, though once a vocal opponent of capital punishment, recommended using AC-powered electrocution. In 1890, murderer William Kemmler became the first person to be executed in a Westinghouse AC generator-powered electric chair that had been secretly designed by one of Edison’s salesmen.

Despite his best efforts, Edison failed to discredit alternating current. In 1892, Westinghouse and Edison’s new company General Electric, competed head-to-head for the contract to supply electricity to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. When Westinghouse ultimately won the contract, the fair served as a dazzling public display of Tesla’s AC system.

On the tails of their success at the World’s Fair, Tesla and Westinghouse won a historic contract to build the generators for a new hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls. In 1896, the power plant began delivering AC electricity to Buffalo, New York, 26 miles away. In his speech at the opening ceremony of the power plant, Tesla said of the accomplishment, “It signifies the subjugation of natural forces to the service of man, the discontinuance of barbarous methods, the relieving of millions from want and suffering.”

The success of the Niagara Falls power plant firmly established Tesla’s AC as the standard for the electric power industry, effectively ending the War of the Currents.

The Tesla Coil

In 1891, Tesla patented the Tesla coil, an electrical transformer circuit capable of producing high-voltage, low-current AC electricity. Though best-known today for its use in spectacular, lightening-spitting demonstrations of electricity, the Tesla coil was fundamental to the development of wireless communications. Still used in modern radio technology, the Tesla coil inductor was an essential part of many early radio transmission antennas.

Nikola Tesla sitting in his Colorado Springs laboratory next to his huge
Nikola Tesla demonstrates his Tesla coil “Magnifying Transmitter”. Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Tesla would go on to use his Tesla coil in experiments with radio remote control, fluorescent lighting, x-rays, electromagnetism, and universal wireless power transmission. 

On July 30, 1891, the same year he patented his coil, the 35-year-old Tesla was sworn in as a naturalized United States citizen.

Radio Remote Control

At the 1898 Electrical Exposition in Boston’s Madison Square Gardens, Tesla demonstrated an invention he called a “telautomaton,” a three-foot-long, radio-controlled boat propelled by a small battery-powered motor and rudder. Members of the amazed crowd accused Tesla of using telepathy, a trained monkey, or pure magic to steer the boat.

Finding little consumer interest in radio-controlled devices, Tesla tried unsuccessfully to sell his “Teleautomatics” idea to the US Navy as a type of radio-controlled torpedo. However, during and after World War I (1914-1918), the militaries of many countries, including the United States incorporated it.

Wireless Power Transmission

From 1901 through 1906, Tesla spent most of his time and savings working on arguably his most ambitious, if a far-fetched, project—an electrical transmission system he believed could provide free energy and communications throughout the world without the need for wires. 

In 1901, with the backing of investors headed by financial giant J. P. Morgan, Tesla began building a power plant and massive power transmission tower at his Wardenclyffe laboratory on Long Island, New York. Seizing on the then commonly-held belief that the Earth’s atmosphere conducted electricity, Tesla envisioned a globe-spanning network of power transmitting and receiving antennas suspended by balloons 30,000 feet (9,100 m) in the air. 

Nikola Tesla's Wardenclyffe laboratory wireless electricity transmitting tower
Nikola Tesla's Wardenclyffe wireless electricity transmitting tower. Dickenson V. Alley / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

However, as Tesla’s project drug on, its sheer enormity caused his investors to doubt its plausibility and withdraw their support. With his rival, Guglielmo Marconi—enjoying the substantial financial support of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison—was making great advances in his own radio transmission developments, Tesla was forced to abandon his wireless power project in 1906.

Later Life and Death

In 1922, Tesla, deeply in debt from his failed wireless power project, was forced to leave the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City where he had been living since 1900, and move into the more-affordable St. Regis Hotel. While living at the St. Regis, Tesla took to feeding pigeons on the windowsill of his room, often bringing weak or injured birds into his room to nurse them back to health.

Of his love for one particular injured pigeon, Tesla would write, “I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.”

By late 1923, the St. Regis evicted Tesla because of unpaid bills and complaints about the smell from keeping pigeons in his room. For the next decade, he would live in a series of hotels, leaving behind unpaid bills at each. Finally, in 1934, his former employer, Westinghouse Electric Company, began paying Tesla $125 per month as a “consulting fee,” as well as paying his rent at the Hotel New Yorker.

In 1937, at age 81, Tesla was knocked to the ground by a taxicab while crossing a street a few blocks from the New Yorker. Though he suffered a severely wrenched back and broken ribs, Tesla characteristically refused extended medical attention. While he survived the incident, the full extent of his injuries, from which he never fully recovered, was never known.

On January 7, 1943, Tesla died alone in his room at the New Yorker Hotel at the age of 86. The medical examiner listed the cause of death as coronary thrombosis, a heart attack.

On January 10, 1943, New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia delivered a eulogy to Tesla broadcast live over WNYC radio. On January 12, over 2,000 people attended Tesla’s funeral at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Following the funeral, Tesla’s body was cremated at Ferncliff Cemetery in Ardsley, New York.

With the United States then fully engaged in World War II., fears that the Austrian-born inventor might have been in possession of devices or designs helpful to Nazi Germany, drove the Federal Bureau of Investigation to seize Tesla’s possessions after his death. However, the FBI reported finding nothing of interest, concluding that since about 1928, Tesla’s work had been “primarily of a speculative, philosophical, and somewhat promotional character often concerned with the production and wireless transmission of power; but did not include new, sound, workable principles or methods for realizing such results.”

In his 1944 book, Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla, journalist, and historian John Joseph O’Neill wrote that Tesla claimed to have never slept more than two hours per night, “dozing” during the day instead to “recharge his batteries.” He was reported to have once spent 84 straight hours without sleep working in his laboratory.

Legacy

It is believed that Tesla was granted around 300 patents worldwide for his inventions during his lifetime. While several of his patents remain unaccounted for or archived, he holds at least 278 known patents in 26 countries, mostly in the United States, Britain, and Canada. Tesla never attempted to patent many of his other inventions and ideas.

Today, Tesla’s legacy can be seen in multiple forms of popular culture, including movies, TV, video games and several genres of science fiction. For example, in the 2006 movie The Prestige, David Bowie portrays Tesla developing an amazing electro-replicating device for a magician. In Disney’s 2015 film Tomorrowland: A World Beyond, Tesla helps Thomas Edison, Gustave Eiffel, and Jules Verne discover a better future in an alternate dimension. And in the 2019 film The Current War, Tesla, played by Nicholas Hoult, squares off with Thomas Edison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, in a history-based depiction of the war of the currents.

In 1917, Tesla was awarded the Edison Medal, the most coveted electrical prize in the United States, and in 1975, Tesla was inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame. In 1983, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Tesla. Most recently, in 2003, a group of investors headed by engineer and futurist Elon Musk founded Tesla Motors, a company dedicated to producing the first car fittingly powered totally by Tesla’s obsession—electricity.

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