Today we tell you the story of Nikola Tesla, Austrian inventor, born on July 10, 1856 in Smiljan, a village of the Austrian Empire that is now Croatia. He has left several very important contributions to technological development. Among his main studies are radio transmission, robotics, remote control, radar, nuclear physics, computer science and alternating current.
He was the most prolific inventor ever known, with 900 patents filed, not to mention the many works that he never patented and those that were usurped from him.
But let’s go from the beginning …
Childhood and studies of Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla was born to an illiterate but creative and intelligent mother. His father was an Orthodox priest. Legend has it that Tesla was born during a lightning storm.
From an early age, Nikola was able to perform very complicated mathematical calculations in his head, which normally required calculation tables. In addition, he was also very good at learning languages and his visual memory was sensational. In fact, he had the ability to represent a machine so precisely that he could even reproduce its functioning.
A sort of forerunner of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, a series that pays homage to Tesla and his inventions over and over again.
In 1875 he entered the Graz Polytechnic School in Austria. He already dreamed of creating a flying machine. When he studied Gramme’s dynamo, which worked sometimes as a generator and other times as a motor depending on the direction of the current, he imagined the advantages that could be obtained from alternating current.
He also studied philosophy, among other things. The student impressed all his teachers with his intellectual abilities which surpassed not only those of all his classmates, but also of the teachers themselves.
In 1881, due to lack of means, Nikola Tesla abandoned his studies for a job as an official at the Central Bureau of Hungarian Telegraphs. Very quickly he became chief engineer for the first telephone system in Hungary. But it was in 1882 that Tesla discovered something that would mark a turning point in people’s lives at that time: the rotating magnetic field, for which he filed patents in 1886 and 1888.
The rotating magnetic field is a fundamental principle of physics, which underlies all devices that use alternating current.
In parallel, Tesla began working at the Edison Continental company in Paris. A few years later he was invited by Thomas Edison himself to work with him, and it was then that Tesla moved to New York.
Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison: allies and rivals
As we said earlier, in 1884 Nikola Tesla arrived in the United States alongside Edison, who had just built a DC power grid for the entire city of New York. However, this system suffers frequent accidents, breakdowns and fires. Furthermore, electricity cannot be transported over long distances, and therefore requires the use of relay stations every 3 km. To all this is added another big problem: the voltage cannot be changed. Therefore, the current must be produced directly at the same voltage required by the devices. This therefore requires several specific distribution circuits, depending on the desired voltage.
To solve this problem, Tesla proposes to use alternating current which would be a suitable solution. But Thomas Edison is opposed, as a fervent defender of the direct current. After a heated debate, Tesla can finally work on alternating current and Edison promises him $ 50,000 if he can. Tesla succeeds, but Edison does not offer him the promised sum, which is why he resigns in 1885.
This clash over the current is well explained in the 2017film The Current War, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison and Nicholas Hoult as Tesla.
…and then rivals
In 1886 Nikola Tesla created his company: Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. But very quickly he had to resign, because he did not agree with financial investors who asked him to develop an arc lamp model, without using alternating current. Having invested all of his savings in this business, Tesla finds himself on the street, while his associates enjoy the profits from his work and his patents.
In 1888, Georges Westinghouse bought Tesla’s patents for $1 million and hired the young man. He then developed an alternating current production system in competition with Thomas Edison’s direct current. Thus, in 1893, the Westinghouse company had the opportunity to install the entire electrical infrastructure of the United States.
Meanwhile, the prolific inventor created the Tesla coil. It is a high frequency alternating current transformer which can greatly increase the voltage. Today this coil is found in electrical systems that require high voltage, such as televisions, computers, and hi-fi devices.
Thomas Edison goes to great lengths to prove that alternating current is not the right solution, proving that it can be dangerous. He kills many animals by electrocution. Tesla defends himself strongly. In fact, he invents a bulb with a better light output than those of the Edison types, which we can currently use. However, it needs a high frequency power supply. Prove that the high frequency current is harmless. For this reason, Nikola Tesla lends itself to being used as a current conductor to demonstrate its harmlessness.
Edison then ended up losing the electric current war. Ironically, his defeat came due to corporate financial interests who realized that the Tesla system was much cheaper and more functional, becoming the global standard.
Nikola Tesla’s global recognition
In 1896, Tesla developed a hydroelectric system that converted Niagara Falls energy into electricity, thus powering industries in the city of Buffalo. The generators were produced by the Westinghouse company. The company is almost on the verge of bankruptcy due to numerous lawsuits over the Tesla patents it uses, but also due to expensive investments to equip homes and industries with electricity. Additionally, Westinghouse realizes that the contract signed with Nikola Tesla mentions a $ 2.5 royalty for the engineer, and that’s for each power sold.
Thus, Westinghouse owes him nearly $ 12 million! The leaders then manage to convince Tesla to buy back his rights and patents for $ 216,000, because Nikola thought that the Westinghouse company would not have sunk and that the alternating current could benefit everyone. Therefore deciding not to claim the royalties promised by the contract. Tesla prevented the Westinghouse company from going bankrupt.
In the same year he filed the patents for the first radio system. But Marconi will falsely claim to have filed one before. For this latter Marconi received the Nobel Prize in Physics, thinking he was the inventor of the radio. In 1943, shortly after Tesla’s death, the United States Congress revoked Marconi’s radio patent. Despite this, many still believe that radio was born thanks to Marconi and not Tesla, which is absolutely false!
Most famous inventions by Nikola Tesla
In 1898 Nikola Tesla built a radio-controlled boat. The automaton, certainly too ahead of its time, did not catch the attention of many people. Few saw the point of such a machine, while others thought it was a deception.
In 1899 he additionally discovered the terrestrial standing waves, which for him was his greatest discovery. He wanted to show that we can carry energy through the ground or through the upper atmospheric layers. He then built a high voltage transformer surmounted by a copper sphere placed 37 meters high. During an experiment, he turns on 200 wireless lamps 40 kilometers away! Wireless is an understatement!
In 1900 he undertook the construction of a 57 meter high tower. This Wardenclyffe tower could theoretically draw its energy from the earth’s crust, thus transforming it into a gigantic generator. Tesla believed that everyone, anywhere on the planet, could and should have access to electricity, for free.
However, short of means and funding, he stopped his project in 1903 before the tower was destroyed in 1917.
Gradually, Nikola Tesla sinks into oblivion. His promising inventions, with the aim of being available to everyone almost free of charge, compete with large companies interested in money. Few people want to finance his work in this way. However, he continues his experiments and continues to create and imagine, because his only goal is to improve the human condition.
He had dreamed of flying from his youth and had left his job aside to take care of electricity. In 1921 he filed a patent for a propeller flight device with vertical takeoff, similar to today’s helicopters.
In 1928 he filed his last patent which took over his 1921 flight device, to which he made improvements.
Mystery around Nikola Tesla
Tesla died of a heart attack, alone, in the New Yorker Hotel, between January 5 and 8, 1943, at the age of 86, in a room that is still used today.
At the time of his death, the inventor was continuing to work on the teleforce, a project he had unsuccessfully proposed to the US War Department; it appears that the proposed ray – which the press had renamed “ray of peace” or “ray of death”.
Although Tesla was forgotten by many after his death, the FBI did not forget him. Over time he collected all of Tesla’s patents, works and inventions and classified them as top secret. Gradually, however, the FBI made his inventions and patents public. But the mystery persists: why did the FBI recover all of his work? And today has he revealed all the works classified as top secret or is he still hiding some of them?
Some articles and interviews with Nikola Tesla show that he had many projects and works in progress, in addition to the one on the “death ray”. There are those who speak of a flying machine that can move in any direction with self-propulsion thanks to certain frequencies that are reflected on the surfaces. Furthermore, Nikola Tesla talks about this invention in one of his autobiographical books. That is why the mystery surrounding this machine is even greater! Why is there no trace of this in what the United States government has revealed?
Others think Tesla would have created a time machine. This device would be both transmitter and receiver. It does not move, but acts as a “portal” between different eras.
There are still many mysteries surrounding Nikola Tesla’s inventions, with for example the use of free energy. Sometimes, when we talk about some of his inventions, we no longer know where the limit is between myth and reality. The only things we are certain of are found in his patents, in his autobiographical writings, in interviews of the time or in the testimonies of his relatives which are in the public domain.
He was certainly a man who had predicted the future. In an interview, then advanced in years, he stated that we could video call each other and stay connected with each other at any time of the day through wireless technology. Maybe that’s why David Bowie, the man who came from outer space, wanted to play him in the movie The Prestige.
In 1975, Nikola Tesla was officially described as one of America’s greatest scientists. 2006 was proclaimed by UNESCO and the governments of Serbia and Croatia as the year of Nikola Tesla. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth, on 10 July 2006, the reconstructed village of Smiljan was opened to the public together with the house of the great scientist, set up as a museum in memory of him; a new multimedia center was also dedicated to Tesla’s life and work.
Maybe we can make a leap, since, at the moment, we are not too far from this city. And maybe we go aboard a Tesla car, which obviously pays homage to the brilliant inventor that we also remember today.