Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest scientists in history. He was well ahead of others of his day.
Much of the importance of his work has not been realised until recent years and as a result he is not accorded the full credit he is due.
In his life he was something of an eccentric and he was a loner, having very few friends. When he died he was on his own, his body being discovered possibly a day or more after his death. Yet in his life his scientific achievements were truly impressive. He invented an enormous variety of electrical items from the induction motor, to the fluorescent light. He was well ahead of his time in the newly developing field of wireless, beating Marconi in many areas, and he also successfully demonstrated applications of wireless including remote control.
Nikola Tesla was born at exactly midnight between the 9th and 10th of July 1856. He was the son of the Reverend Milutin Tesla, a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church and his wife Duka Mandic. Their home was a small house that stood next to the church in the small village of Smiljan situated between the Velebit Mountains and the eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea. Although they lived in Croatia the Teslas were of Serbian extraction and they held to their traditions very strongly. They enjoyed singing their folk songs as well as dancing, writing poetry, weaving and celebrating the saints' days, of which there were plenty.
The were five children in the family. The eldest was Daniel who was a brilliant child, and Nikola was the fourth. The remaining three children were girls. It was tradition in the Tesla family that boys either joined the army of went into the ministry, and the daughters married either army officers or ministers of the church. However neither the army nor the ministry were to be for Nikola.
Form a very early age Tesla took a keen interest in all around him and made inventions of his own. Some were more successful than others. At the age of five he made a small waterwheel that spun smoothly in the current even though it was of a completely different design to any he had seen locally. However not all his early designs were so successful. He designed a motor that was powered by sixteen insects that were glued to the wheel. The idea was that when the flapped their wings they would turn the wheel.
When Tesla was about five years old his elder brother was killed in an accident and this had a major impact on Tesla. A few years after the accident he started to develop some strange phobias. For example he could not tolerate earrings on women particularly if they were pearls. He also could not tolerate the smell of camphor, and he always had to be able to calculate the cubic capacity of soup, or any drinks he had, otherwise he would not enjoy his meal.
The young Tesla started school in Gospic, the town to which his parents had now moved. Here he became fascinated in the way machines worked. Later he continued his studies at the high school in Karlsadt in Croatia. As a result of his brother's death, Tesla was determined to excel, partially to make up to his parents for the loss of his brother. As a result he became very studious, often working late into the night.
From his birth Tesla's parents had intended for him to enter the ministry. However he was very keen to study engineering and in 1875 he managed to enter the Polytechnic of Gratz in what is the Czech Republic today, supported by a military bursary. Unfortunately for Tesla boundary changes meant that he was unable to obtain the bursary for his second year, and he had to leave. Nevertheless in Gratz he had seen some DC motors and understood many of the basic electrical principles, although no satisfactory AC motor existed. He had to find a job which he found very difficult at first, and initially he turned to gambling. Eventually he managed to secure a position with an Edison Company based in Budapest, moving later to one based in Paris. It was whilst he was in these jobs that he produced his first AC induction motor.
Tesla had been very successful and had been promised some rewards for his performance. However when these did not materialise he walked out. With the expansion in the USA, he had been advised to go there. Accordingly he set sail for the USA arriving there in 1884 at the age of 24 with four cents in his pocket along with a few poems and some calculations on some sheets of paper and no job.
Fortunately Tesla quickly managed to get a job, working for Edison himself. He soon won Edison's approval working very hard, often from 10.30 am through to 5 am the following morning. Indeed his level of work won him the comment from Edison, "I have many hardworking assistants but you take the cake."
Unfortunately the relationship between the two men deteriorated. They were both very different, Edison having a "try it and see" attitude, whereas Tesla designed everything to great detail in his mind before building it. Also Edison favoured direct current as he had a heavy investment in this technology, whilst Tesla saw the distinct advantages of AC. Accordingly it was not long before Edison and Tesla parted company.
After this, Tesla was approached by financial backers to set up an electrical company, where he developed a safe arc light. But he was soon eased out of his company. With little money to live on, the ensuing period was very difficult. Work was scarce as a result of a financial downturn and he had to spend time as a labourer on the New York streets. Nevertheless he continued to work on his own and was granted seven patents.
Eventually his luck turned and he was again able to set up another company in 1887. This time he was able to investigate and develop his ideas for alternating current motors and polyphase systems. Within six months of founding the company Tesla had lodged two patents for ideas relating to his induction motor. News of this spread and he was invited to speak at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and George Westinghouse, owner of a growing electrical company, came to hear of him. Unlike Edison, Tesla could work with Westinghouse, and even accepted a position as consultant to him.
Westinghouse went into direct competition with Edison, and a fierce battle between the two ensued, Edison stating that AC was lethal, whilst Westinghouse demonstrating it was no more dangerous than DC. The battle went on for some time, costing Westinghouse a great deal. During this period he bought Tesla's patents to enable him to succeed. Years later in 1938 in a speech at the Institute of Immigrant Welfare, Tesla stated that Westinghouse was the only man who could have taken his alternating current system against all the prejudice and vested interests and win the battle. Westinghouse, he said was "one of the world's true noblemen."
Despite the fact that Tesla worked closely with Westinghouse, he still retained his own laboratory, and was very happy when he was working there. He continued to make new discoveries, one of which was a lamp that fluoresced, and was actually a forerunner of today's fluorescent tubes. These hit the market some fifty years after Tesla's prototypes! He also investigated many other phenomena including X-rays and a vacuum tube or valve very similar to the Audion or triode valve pioneered by de Forest in 1907.
Tesla and radio
Not only was Tesla heavily involved in the development of electrical machinery and lighting, but he also made some significant discoveries in the newly developing world associated with Hertzian waves. Having studied the work of Hertz and actually visiting him, Tesla undertook many researches and in 1897 he filed a patent for transmitting electrical energy in the upper atmosphere. To achieve this "terminals" held high in the sky (possibly using balloons) would be required. He also noted that transmission of telegraphy would require a much smaller signal to operate a sensitive receiver. Indeed he had previously proved that long distance communications were possible by receiving signals over a distance of 25 miles. It was even said that when it was optimised then the distances that the signals could "go to any extent."
Tesla again made headlines when in 1898 he put on a public demonstration of a radio controlled boat in Madison Square Garden. The boat could be given a variety of commands so that the steering, and propulsion could be controlled. In view of the state of the technology used by other researchers, this was yet another example that showed Tesla was well ahead of his time.
In 1899 Tesla left New York to set up a new research laboratory just outside Colorado Springs. Being around 6000 feet above sea level and in the Rocky Mountains he planned to use the site for some high voltage high frequency alternating current tests. Here he regularly made tests of large electrical discharges. During one of his larger tests he managed to produce a spark over 135 feet long, and the noise from it was heard over 20 miles away. However of more importance to the local community was the fact that in undertaking the experiment he burnt out the generator in the local power station and left the city without power for some time.
After a year of research, he believed that he had learned all he needed to know to enable him to transmit signals or electrical power to anywhere on earth. He commenced building a prototype world broadcasting station on a 200-acre plot on Long Island. He named this Wardenclyffe and the tower was to have been around 185 feet high. Unfortunately lack of funds prevented its completion and the project was never finished. The tower itself was dismantled in 1917. By this time Tesla was experiencing considerable financial difficulties. He was forced to confess in court that he was penniless and had lived for years on credit at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and was swamped with debts.
Yet amidst this personal crisis he was still able to look into many other inventions. Some of these he used to help bring himself out of his financial problems such as licensing his system for an automobile speedometer. One idea that that occupied his research efforts was to use the reflections of radio waves to detect the enemy submarines that were sinking shipping at this time in the First World War. Later he also investigated the possibility of releasing a new form of energy from atoms, although when pressed to reveal more about the idea he declined. He also had ideas for vertical take-off aircraft.
In the following years, Tesla continued to make many new discoveries. He was involved at the leading edge of technology in many areas. However by the 1940s he was quite ill from a weak heart that gave him regular dizzy attacks. He was living in the Hotel New Yorker where on the evening of 5 January 1943, he went to bed, giving orders that he was not to be disturbed. This was not an unusual request because he often told staff to leave him undisturbed for two or three days at a time. However this was to be the last time he would be seen alive. Tesla died of heart failure some time between the evening of Tuesday, 5 January and the morning of Friday, 8 January. He was found by a maid on the Friday morning.
During his life Tesla allowed himself few close friends, one of which was the writer Mark Twain. He was also impractical in financial matters and quite an eccentric, driven by compulsions and a germ phobia. Yet he certainly rates amongst the top geniuses of all time. In fact it has been said of Tesla that he invented everything. An exaggeration, but during his life he made a truly enormous number of discoveries and had over 700 patents to his name.
However there were some of these discoveries that were more important to him. Tesla summed up his own life bay saying: "I continually experience an inexpressible satisfaction from the knowledge that my polyphase system is used throughout the world to lighten the burdens of mankind and increase comfort and happiness, and that my wireless system, in all its essential features, is employed to render a service to and bring pleasure to people in all parts of the world."