Without a doubt Nikola Tesla was one of the most interesting geeks that ever lived. The passion for Tesla by his fans and the stories about Tesla's scientific accomplishments has elevated Tesla to the status of mythological geek folk hero.
When the names of Edison and Tesla come together it appears that some people look at their relationship as a life long battle. Their great feud over the use of AC (alternating current) versus DC (direct current) known as the War of Currents lasted only about a decade. Tesla's career went on for many more years beyond his battles with Edison and the War of Currents.
Tesla's Early Days
At times the life story of Nikola Tesla flows like an epic science fiction saga. According to legend, the man known as the Master of Lightning was born at the stroke of midnight on July 10, 1856, during a lightning storm in a mountainous area of the Balkan Peninsula. The area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where Tesla grew up is the modern-day country of Croatia. Tesla's parents were Serbian, his father was an orthodox priest, his mother was an inventor of practical household gadgets.
The stories of Nikola Tesla growing up tell of a young man constantly craving knowledge. He had a powerful imagination and a photographic memory. Tesla was always the geek growing up, he learned to speak 8 languages and was known to recite books from memory. According to popular stories Nikola Tesla's dream to go to America one day also started when he was young. Upon seeing an engraving of Niagara Falls, Tesla told his uncle he would someday capture the energy of Niagara to produce electricity.
There is even a good story to explain how Tesla would go to college. Tesla's father expected young Nikola to follow in his foot steps and become a priest. Nikola was passionate about mathematics and science. At the age of 17 Nikola Tesla had a brush with death from Cholera. While on his death-bed from Cholera, Nikola was promised by his father he could go to college to study science if he survived. Nikola made an amazing recovery. He went on to study electrical engineering at the renowned Austrian Polytechnic School at Graz.
Tesla worked for Charles Batchelor with the Continental Edison Company In Paris installing lighting systems. In Germany and France, he attempted to interest investors in his concept for an AC motor, but had no success. In 1884, at age 28, Tesla left Paris and headed for New York City with a letter of introduction from Charles Batchelor.
The War of Currents
Thomas Edison was a shrewd businessman and a believer in DC (direct current). Tesla knew he would have to impress Edison to earn his trust, in order to get the opportunity to show him his ideas on
AC (alternating current). According to the often told story Tesla accepted a challenge by Edison to make improvements to his DC motors, with the understanding that if he was successful, Tesla would be rewarded with $50,000. When Tesla came back to Edison to proudly announce he had accomplished his task, and asked for his reward, Edison told him it was a misunderstanding. Edison allegedly told Tesla, "When you become a full-fledged American you will appreciate an American joke."
Frustrated by Edison's insult Tesla resigned and began digging ditches to earn a living. Tesla did not give up looking for an investor in his ideas for AC motors and components for AC power generation. Eventually Tesla found investors to finance his lab on Liberty Street in New York as he developed numerous patents for AC motors and generators.
In 1888 the first major event in Tesla's victory over Edison in the War of Currents happened when Tesla joined forces with George Westinghouse. Pittsburgh industrialist and inventor George Westinghouse was familiar with AC power, and founded the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886, established on the principle that electric company founded by his rival Thomas Edison was structurally flawed in its beliefs. Various versions of the story tell of how the deal went down and how the two men met. Tesla sold many of his patents to Westinghouse, and went on to work for Westinghouse to defeat Edison. Westinghouse paid Tesla around $60,000 for his patents for AC motors and generators. Tesla was also given a salary to work for Westinghouse to help him implement AC power.
Over the next few years Tesla and Westinghouse would work together and two major accomplishments would mark their victory in the War of Currents over Edison. In 1892, after a fierce battle versus Edison, Westinghouse won the contract to power the Columbian Exposition. On May 1, 1893, President Grover Cleveland pushed a button and a hundred thousand incandescent lamps illuminated the Columbian Exposition. The success of the Tesla Polyphase System installed at the exposition would help Westinghouse in their next major victory in being awarded the initial Niagara Falls contract. Since his childhood, Tesla had dreamed of harnessing the power of the great natural wonder Niagara Falls. In October 1893, Tesla's dream became a reality, when Westinghouse was awarded the Niagara Falls Power contract to create the powerhouse. The Westinghouse company, with Tesla's guidance, had won the War of Currents.
Tesla invented radio
After the work for Westinghouse was completed, Tesla focused his efforts on radio and wireless transmission of electricity. Probably Tesla's most well known invention is the Tesla Coil, a device used to produce high-voltage, low-current, high frequency alternating-current electricity. In 1899 Tesla created a lab in the mountains of Colorado Springs to experiment with high frequency electricity where he built a huge 52 foot Tesla Coil.
One of the areas where Tesla is least known, where arguably he could have been the most successful, is his work in radio. In 1898 Tesla patented a radio controlled boat which he demonstrated at Madison Square Garden, New York.
As the world was proclaiming Guglielmo Marconi as the father of radio in the early 1900s, Tesla seemed unconcerned because he held several patents that Marconi was using in his creations. At first the patents of Tesla were upheld, from 1900 to 1903 the US Patent Office rejected Marconi's patents for radio. But for reasons not clearly explained, in 1904 the US Patent Office gave Marconi a patent for the invention of radio. Tesla did not have the financial resources to fight Marconi over the patents. Sadly, it was after Tesla's death in 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Tesla's radio patent over Marconi.
Supporters of Nikola Tesla point to the 1943 ruling by the US Supreme Court as "proof" that Tesla should be called the father of radio because Marconi lost the patents to radio. As far as the decision proclaiming Nikola Tesla the inventor of radio, the following two sentences are from the remarks of Mr. Chief Justice Stone in delivering the opinion of the Court are pretty clear.
"Marconi's reputation as the man who first achieved successful radio transmission rests on his original patent, which became reissue No. 11,913, and which is not here [320 U.S. 1, 38] in question. That reputation, however well-deserved, does not entitle him to a patent for every later improvement which he claims in the radio field." ... Chief Justice Stone
The Supreme Court declared various Marconi patents invalid, it affirmed prior work and patents by not only Nikola Tesla, but also patents that were held by Sir Oliver Lodge and John Stone Stone. The Tesla argument sounds good on the surface, until you read the court ruling. The syllabus at the beginning of the 1943 U.S. Supreme Court decision provides a summary of the ruling. You really have to dig into the decision to find references to Tesla.
Colorado Springs 1899
With the War of Currents and his work for Westinghouse behind him, Tesla moved on to begin a new series of experiments. With $30,000 from John Jacob Astor IV, thought to be among the richest people in the world at that time, Tesla begin building a new experimental station near Pikes Peak, Colorado.
The thinner, more conductive air of the high altitude and the large amount of lightning storms attracted to the area, made Colorado Springs a great location for Tesla's "lightning factory" lab. Tesla was also attracted to the free AC power from the El Paso Power Company. The free power ended when Tesla s experiment had burned out the dynamo at El Paso Electric Company, knocking out power for all of Colorado Springs.
The wealthy John Jacob Astor IV gave Tesla the money he used to build the Colorado Springs lab under the assumption that Telsa was going to develop and produce a new lighting system. Tesla instead, used the money to fund his lab to experiment with high voltage, high frequency electricity, and the wireless transmission of power. Convinced that he achieved the wireless transmission of power, Tesla returned back to New York City.
Wardenclyffe New York 1901
In 1900, Tesla convinced J.P. Morgan he could build a trans-Atlantic wireless communication system. During the early 1900s John Pierpont "J.P." Morgan was one of the biggest high rollers in the world of corporate finance. Morgan agreed to give Tesla $150,000 to build the wireless communication system in return for a 51% control of the promised system.
Tesla designed and began to build his Wardenclyffe laboratory on Long Island, New York in 1901. Most accounts of the financial deal between Tesla and Morgan state it was for a specific amount of money for a specific project. J.P. Morgan thought he was investing in wireless communications, Tesla failed to mention the lab included his ideas of wireless power transmission. Tesla claimed he needed more money and Morgan cut him off, not giving him what he needed to fully fund his dream lab.
Making matters worse, while Tesla was asking for more money from Morgan to fund his lab, Guglielmo Marconi was demonstrating wireless radio transmissions across the Atlantic. In December 1901, Marconi successfully sent a signal from England to Newfoundland. In the end, Tesla never fully completed his Wardenclyffe laboratory because he ran out of money. Humiliated and defeated after the Wardenclyffe project was shutdown, Tesla experienced a complete nervous breakdown.
The wild and crazy later years
People often dwell of the War of the Currents and Tesla's battle with Edison as the focus of Tesla's life, but Tesla lived for more than four decades after the War of Currents. Tesla managed to maintain his super genius celebrity status in New York social circles. Tesla hung out at New York's finest restaurants mixing it up the New York elite. That's how he would meet his famous investors like J.P Morgan and John Jacob Astor. Tesla also became friends with Mark Twain who became a big fan of Tesla's party tricks with electricity.
Tesla had a great mind for science and technology, but his personal life was full of well noted obsessions and oddities. Tesla had the attention on many famous woman of the day, but his long list of phobias made it hard for him to have a relationship. Tesla had a phobia of round objects, particularly women’s earrings and couldn’t bear to touch hair. Tesla was also obsessed with cleanliness and the number three. Tesla was a proponent of a selective breeding and eugenics, he wanted to eliminate "undesirables" by sterilizing criminals and the mentally ill.
Tesla never married, his fondest love was a pigeon. Tesla was often found in the public parks feeding the pigeons. Tesla would rescue injured pigeons, taking them back to his hotel room to nurse them. He said the pigeons were his sincere friends.
In 1915 the New York times reported that Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison would be awarded the Novel Prize for physics. For unknown reasons the award went to neither, as rumors circulated that both refused to share the honor with the other.
Tesla became the bitter and angry malcontent scientist, he had very little praise for scientific discoveries of his day including relativity, and would often make negative statements about Albert Einstein. Tesla became close friends with George Viereck, a playboy, poet, and vampire novelist. Tesla composed the poem "Fragments of Olympian Gossip" in the late 1920s for Viereck. The poem made fun of the scientific establishment of the day, such as scientists Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.
Tesla's obsession with selling world governments his death beam consumed his final years. In numerous interviews Tesla said he was working on what he called "a machine to end war," a death beam that would make war impossible by offering every country an "invisible Chinese wall."
Tesla's life story starts out like an epic science fiction saga. The wild and crazy later years of Tesla sounded like something from the sci-fiction realm of the X-Files, as the prototypical mad scientist.
Tesla versus Edison and the search for the truth
In our next article in this series discussing Tesla, "Nikola Tesla versus Thomas Edison and the search for the truth," we will try to set the record straight in the battle of Nikola Tesla versus Thomas Edison. Ultimately there is Tesla's story, there is Edison's story, and then there is the truth somewhere in the middle.