Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) was a Serbian-American engineer and physicist. He invented alternating current, wireless power transmission, the induction motor, and the Tesla coil, which played a crucial role in early radio devices. Tesla’s alternating current (AC) triumphed over Thomas Edison’s direct current (DC) in lighting up the world. Moreover, Tesla rightly claimed to have beaten Guglielmo Marconi in the invention of wireless signaling.
A photograph of Nikola Tesla at age 34
Tesla’s most important discovery was his first—the idea of generating currents by induction from a rotating magnetic field, the basis of AC power. He visualized this motor at the age of 25 while still a student (who never finished college) in Austria.
At 26, Tesla joined the Edison company in Paris. There, he built his first induction motor and was invited to work for Edison in America two years later. He spent six months working for Edison before quitting for unknown reasons, but Edison had just put aside Tesla’s designs for a better arc lamp.
The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine.
Edison’s lamps were dimly lit by DC power, which needed numerous power stations due to the challenge of achieving high voltages required for efficient long-distance transmission. Tesla’s AC power provided a solution by flowing in both directions through the same power lines in rapid cycles, during which it can be quickly transformed to high voltages. In 1888, George Westinghouse purchased the patent rights to Tesla’s AC system for $60,000, sparking the famous “war of the currents” with Edison.
Edison opposed AC because he was already invested in a DC empire in New York and tried to convince the public that high-voltage AC was too dangerous. Tesla countered by demonstrating the safety of AC in his laboratory, where he would light bulbs by holding them in his hands as AC power flowed through his body.
A multiple exposure picture of Tesla sitting next to his “magnifying transmitter” generating millions of volts, 1899
In 1895, Tesla designed one of the earliest hydroelectric power plants in the United States, located at Niagara Falls. The following year, it powered the entire city of Buffalo, New York, garnering worldwide attention and advancing the use of AC electricity as the global power system.
During the 1890s, Tesla invented electric oscillators, meters, improved lights, and the high-voltage transformer called the Tesla coil. He also experimented with X-rays, demonstrated short-range radio communication two years before Guglielmo Marconi, and piloted a radio-controlled boat in Madison Square Garden’s pool.
Mark Twain in Tesla’s South Fifth Avenue laboratory, 1894
Tesla had few close friends (one being Mark Twain) and suffered from OCD and other eccentricities. He was ridiculed for extreme claims, such as having invented a death ray capable of destroying planes from 250 miles away. By the end of his life, he lived alone and poor in a New York hotel room, spending his days in a park surrounded by pigeons and his nights solving scientific problems in his head.
Words of wisdom
“The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true. ” —J. Robert Oppenheimer
“Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.” —Arthur Schopenhauer
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” —Max Planck
“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” —Arthur C. Clarke