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Nikola Tesla: Everything You Didn't Know About The Famous Inventor

People | October 22, 2020

Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), Serbian-American physicist sitting in his Colorado Springs laboratory with his "magnifying transmitter," 1899 (multiple exposure). (Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)

For decades, Nikola Tesla was overshadowed by his frenemy, Thomas Edison, but time has vindicated this eccentric inventor. An electrifying personality, Nikola Tesla was a genius who, some say, crossed the line into madness.

Tesla's house in Smiljan, now in Croatia, where he was born. (MayaSimFan/Wikimedia Commons)

Tesla's Early Life

Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856 in the village of Smiljan in what is now Croatia. He was the fourth of five children born to Milutin, an Eastern Orthodox priest, and Duka Tesla. Despite having no education, Duka had the ability to easily memorize epic poems and build mechanical appliances for her home based on plans she visualized in her head, and she passed these gifts on to her only surviving son. (Tesla's older brother died in a horseback-riding accident, leaving him the only brother of three sisters.)

Nikola Tesla went to elementary school in his village before his family moved to the nearby town of Gospic, where he completed middle school before transferring to a high school in Karlovac. Tesla's impressive memory and ability to work out complex math problems in his head made him a great student, so much so that his teachers thought he must be cheating. During this time, Tesla became fascinated with electricity.

After he graduated from high school, Tesla returned to his family home in Smiljan but soon fell ill with cholera. He spent nine months in bed and came close to death on several occasions. During one of his brushes with death, Milutin Tesla, who had been pressuring his son to join the priesthood, promised to allow him to enroll in the best engineering school around once he pulled through his illness. 

Edison Machine Works on Goerck Street, New York, 1881. (Charles L. Clarke/Wikimedia Commons)

Tesla And Edison

In 1875, Tesla started classes at Austrian Polytechnic University on a scholarship. His freshman year, Tesla was a model student who never missed class, studied from 3:00 A.M. until 11:00 P.M. every day of the week, and earned top grades. In his second year of school, however, he clashed with some of his teachers because he had developed innovative engineering methods that ran counter to their teachings. In his third year, he developed a gambling problem and lost his academic scholarship, forcing him to drop out.

Of course, that wasn't the end of Tesla's engineering career. In the early 1880s, he took a job at the Paris location of Thomas Edison's Continental Edison Company. He proved to be a great asset to the company and impressed Charles Batchelor, a former employee of Edison, enough to earn an invitation to the U.S. When Tesla arrived in New York City in June 1884, he had four cents in his pocket and a letter from Batchelor to Edison, which read, "My dear Edison: I know two great men, and you are one of them. The other is this young man."

Although Tesla technically worked for Edison, he had some great ideas about ways to improve Edison's inventions. One of the most publicized ideas that Tesla proposed was to use an alternating current to deliver electricity, as opposed to Edison's direct current method. Both methods were viable, but Edison had the power, prestige, and money to ensure that his delivery method was favored. Soon after, Tesla left Edison's employment, most likely because Edison refused to pay him a promised bonus, to start his own company.

Tesla demonstrating wireless lighting by "electrostatic induction" during an 1891 lecture at Columbia College via two long Geissler tubes (similar to neon tubes) in his hands. (Nikola Tesla/Wikimedia Commons)

Tesla's Inventions

Nikola Tesla received several patents for his inventions, one of the most important of which was his innovative electric motor. The invention did away with the need for a spark by using a current generated via a rotating magnetic field, making it easier to use and requiring less maintenance. Tesla later licensed his motor to the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company.

Next was his famous Tesla coil, a device that used high-voltage electricity and high-frequency sound waves that he hoped could produce fluorescent and neon lights, X-rays and gamma rays, and send and receive wireless radio signals. He filed a patent for his Tesla coil before Guglielmo Marconi, who invented the radio, could file his, but Marconi struck it rich after he sent a wireless transmission across the Atlantic Ocean. Tesla was furious that Marconi, who used several of Tesla's patented inventions to transmit and receive the message, got all the credit for the event. It sent Tesla into a downward spiral.

Tesla applied for and received his last patent in 1928 for a unique biplane that could take off vertically. Most people at the time thought the invention was impractical and useless, but the same design is currently used in the V-22 Osprey, a U.S. military plane. 

Tesla on TIME Magazine commemorating his 75th birthday. (Keystone/TIME Magazine/Wikimedia Commons)

Tesla's Later Years

Tesla had always exhibited signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the incident with Marconi significantly worsened his mental health. He was obsessed with washing his hands, always counted his steps, dined with exactly 18 napkins on the table, and certain visual triggers, like a woman wearing pearl earrings, sent him into fits. He withdrew from the public as his quirks became apparent, seeking refuge in his lab.

In the final years of his life, Tesla devoted himself to creating his masterpiece: a death ray. According to rumors, Tesla's death ray could produce a beam of electromagnetic energy strong enough to wipe out entire armies from miles away, down 10,000 enemy airplanes with one blast, and set fire to tanks and trucks. Tesla attempted to sell his death ray to the British prime minister, who turned it down, but he did find a buyer in the Soviets.

He never managed to produce a working prototype, which is probably for the best, although there are some who believe otherwise. Two days after Tesla died on January 7, 1943, the FBI raided his apartment and seized 80 boxes of notes, 60 of which were presented to a noted electrical engineer and professor at M.I.T. several months later. The professor concluded that they didn't contain any information that was groundbreaking or a threat to national security, but some believe the plans for Tesla's death ray lie in wait in the other 20 boxes, though the government claimed they had merely consolidated the papers into fewer boxes. Incidentally, the M.I.T. professor was John G. Trump, uncle of President Donald Trump. But it's probably fine.

Tags: famous people | inventions | science

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.