Hand color tinted photo of Nikola Tesla, Inventor & Scientist
Nikola Tesla (Serbian Cyrillic: Никола Тесла; 10 July 1856 – 7 January 1943) was a a Serbian-American inventor, mechanical engineer, and electrical engineer. He was an important contributor to the birth of commercial electricity, and is best known for developing the modern alternating current (AC) electrical supply system. His many revolutionary developments in the field of electromagnetism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were based on the theories of electromagnetic technology discovered by Michael Faraday. Tesla’s patents and theoretical work also formed the basis of wireless communication and the radio.
Born in the village of Smiljan (now part of Gospić, present day Croatia), Tesla was a subject of the Austrian Empire by birth and later became an American citizen. Because of his 1894 demonstration of short range wireless communication through radio and as the eventual victor in the “War of Currents”, he was widely respected as one of the greatest electrical engineers who worked in America. He pioneered modern electrical engineering and many of his discoveries were of groundbreaking importance. In the United States during this time, Tesla’s fame rivaled that of any other inventor or scientist in history or popular culture. Tesla demonstrated wireless energy transfer to power electronic devices in 1891, and aspired to intercontinental wireless transmission of industrial power in his unfinished Wardenclyffe Tower project.
Tesla became reclusive towards the end of his life, living alone in a New York City hotel room and only appearing occasionally to make unusual statements to the press. Because of his pronouncements and the nature of his work over the years Tesla gained a reputation in popular culture as the archetypal “mad scientist”. He died without much money to his name.
Tesla’s work fell into relative obscurity after his death but since the 1990s his reputation has experienced a popular culture comeback. In 2005 he was listed amongst the top 100 nominees in the TV show “The Greatest American”, an open access popularity poll conducted by AOL and The Discovery Channel.
The SI unit measuring magnetic field B (also referred to as the magnetic flux density and magnetic induction), the tesla, was named in his honor (at the CGPM, Paris, 1960).
Nikola Tesla was born to Serbian parents in the village of Smiljan, Austrian Empire near the town of Gospić, in the territory of modern-day Croatia. His baptismal certificate reports that he was born on 28 June (N.S. 10 July) 1856 to father Milutin Tesla, a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church. His mother was Đuka Tesla, née Mandić, whose father was also a Serbian Orthodox priest. She was talented in making home craft tools and memorized many Serbian epic poems, but never learned to read. Tesla’s biographer John O’Neill relates that “the Tesla and Mandić families originally came from the western part of Serbia near Montenegro.”
Nikola was the fourth of five children, having one older brother (Danilo, who was killed in a horse-riding accident when Nikola was five) and three sisters (Milka, Angelina and Marica). His family moved to Gospić in 1862. Tesla attended school at Higher Real Gymnasium in Karlovac. He finished a four-year term in the span of three years.
Tesla went on to study electrical engineering at the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz (1875). While there, he studied the uses of alternating current. Some sources say he received Baccalaureate degrees from the university at Graz. However, the university says that he did not receive a degree and did not continue beyond the first semester of his third year, during which he stopped attending lectures. In December 1878, Tesla left Graz and broke all relations with his family. His friends thought that he had drowned in the Mur River. He went to Marburg, (today’s Maribor, in Slovenia), where he was first employed as an assistant engineer for a year. He suffered a nervous breakdown during this time. Tesla was later persuaded by his father to attend the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague, which he attended for the summer term of 1880. Here, he was influenced by Ernst Mach. However, after his father died, he left the university, having completed only one term.
Tesla engaged in reading many works, memorizing complete books, supposedly having a photographic memory. Tesla related in his autobiography that he experienced detailed moments of inspiration. During his early life, Tesla was stricken with illness time and time again. He suffered a peculiar affliction in which blinding flashes of light would appear before his eyes, often accompanied by visions. Much of the time the visions were linked to a word or idea he might have come across, at other times they would provide the solution to a particular problem he had been encountering; just by hearing the name of an item, he would be able to envision it in realistic detail. Modern-day synesthetes report similar symptoms. Tesla would visualize an invention in his mind with extreme precision, including all dimensions, before moving to the construction stage; a technique sometimes known as picture thinking. He typically did not make drawings by hand, instead just conceiving all ideas with his mind. Tesla also often had flashbacks to events that had happened previously in his life; these began during his childhood.
In 1880, he moved to Budapest to work under Tivadar Puskás in a telegraph company, the National Telephone Company. There, he met Nebojša Petrović, a young, Serbian inventor who lived in Austria. Although their encounter was brief, they did work on a project together using twin turbines to create continual power. On the opening of the telephone exchange in Budapest, 1881, Tesla became the chief electrician to the company, and was later engineer for the country’s first telephone system. He also developed a device that, according to some, was a telephone repeater or amplifier, but according to others could have been the first loudspeaker.
Working for Edison in France and the U.S
In 1882 he moved to Paris, to work as an engineer for the Continental Edison Company, designing improvements to electric equipment brought overseas from Edison’s ideas. According to Tesla’s autobiography, in the same year he conceived of his induction motor and began developing various devices that use rotating magnetic fields for which he received patents in 1888. The paternity of the invention remains controversial since a prototype induction motor was demonstrated in Europe in 1885 by Galileo Ferraris. Ferraris published his findings in 1888.
On 6 June 1884, Tesla first arrived in the United States, in New York City with little besides a letter of recommendation from Charles Batchelor, a former employer. In the letter of recommendation to Thomas Edison, it is claimed that Batchelor wrote, ‘I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man’, but the exact contents of the letter is disputed in McNichol’s book. Edison hired Tesla to work for his Edison Machine Works. Tesla’s work for Edison began with simple electrical engineering and quickly progressed to solving some of the company’s most difficult problems. Tesla was even offered the task of completely redesigning the Edison company’s direct current generators.
In 1885 Tesla claimed he could redesign Edison’s inefficient motor and generators, making an improvement in both service and economy. According to Tesla, Edison remarked “There’s fifty thousand dollars in it for you – if you can do it”. This has been noted as an odd statement from an Edison whose company was stingy with pay and did not have that sort of cash on hand. After months of work when Tesla finished the task and inquired about payment Edison claimed he was only joking replying, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor”. Edison offered a $10 a week raise over Tesla’s US $18 per week salery, but Tesla refused it and immediately resigned.
Tesla, in need of work, eventually found himself digging ditches for a short period of time for the Edison company. He used this time to focus on his AC polyphase system.
In 1886, Tesla formed his own company, Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. The initial financial investors disagreed with Tesla on his plan for an alternating current motor and eventually relieved him of his duties at the company. Tesla worked in New York as a laborer from 1886 to 1887 to feed himself and raise capital for his next project. In 1887, he constructed a brushless alternating current induction motor, which he demonstrated to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (now IEEE) in 1888. In the same year, he developed the principles of his Tesla coil, and began working with George Westinghouse at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company’s Pittsburgh labs. Westinghouse listened to his ideas for polyphase systems which would allow transmission of alternating current electricity over long distances.
In April 1887, Tesla began investigating what would later be called X-rays using his own single terminal vacuum tubes (similar to his patent #514,170). This device differed from other early X-ray tubes in that it had no target electrode. The modern term for the phenomenon produced by this device is bremsstrahlung (or braking radiation). We now know that this device operated by emitting electrons from the single electrode through a combination of field electron emission and thermionic emission. Once liberated, electrons are strongly repelled by the high electric field near the electrode during negative voltage peaks from the oscillating HV output of the Tesla Coil, generating X rays as they collide with the glass envelope. He also used Geissler tubes. By 1892, Tesla became aware of the skin damage that Wilhelm Röntgen later identified as an effect of X rays.
In the early research, Tesla devised several experimental setups to produce X-rays. Tesla held that, with his circuits, the “instrument will … enable one to generate Roentgen rays of much greater power than obtainable with ordinary apparatus”.
He also commented on the hazards of working with his circuit and single-node X-ray-producing devices. Of his many notes in the early investigation of this phenomenon, he attributed the skin damage to various causes. He believed early on that damage to the skin was not caused by the Roentgen rays, but the ozone generated in contact with the skin, and to a lesser extent, nitrous acid. Tesla incorrectly held that x-rays were longitudinal waves, such as those produced in waves in plasma. There are known examples of this and these plasma waves can occur in the situation of force-free magnetic fields. His hypotheses and experiments were confirmed by others.
Tesla continued research in the field. He performed several experiments prior to Roentgen’s discovery (including photographing the bones of his hand; later, he sent these images to Roentgen) but did not make his findings widely known; much of his research was lost in the 5th Avenue laboratory fire of March 1895.
Tesla demonstrated wireless energy transmission as early as 1891. The Tesla effect is a term for an application of this type of electrical conduction (that is, the movement of energy through space and matter, not just the production of voltage across a conductor).
On 30 July 1891, at the age of 35, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Tesla established his South Fifth Avenue laboratory in New York in the same year. Later, Tesla established his Houston Street laboratory in New York at 46 E. Houston Street. He lit electric lamps wirelessly at both of the New York locations, providing evidence for the potential of wireless power transmission.
Soon thereafter, in 1892, Tesla was awakened from a dream in which his mother had died. He returned to Europe for her funeral. After her death, Tesla fell ill. He spent two to three weeks recuperating in Gospić and the village of Tomingaj near Gračac, his mother’s birthplace.
Some of Tesla’s closest friends were artists. He befriended Century Magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson, who adapted several Serbian poems of Jovan Jovanović Zmaj (which Tesla translated). Also during this time, Tesla was influenced by the Vedic philosophy (i.e., Hinduism) teachings of the Swami Vivekananda; so much so that, after his exposure to Hindu-Vedic thought, Tesla started using Sanskrit words to name some of his fundamental concepts regarding matter and energy.
When Tesla was 36 years old, the first patents concerning the polyphase power system were granted. He continued research of the system and rotating magnetic field principles. Tesla served, from 1892 to 1894, as the vice president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the forerunner (along with the Institute of Radio Engineers) of the modern-day IEEE. From 1893 to 1895, he investigated high frequency alternating currents. He generated AC of one million volts using a conical Tesla coil and investigated the skin effect in conductors, designed tuned circuits, invented a machine for inducing sleep, invented a cordless gas discharge lamp, and transmitted electromagnetic energy without wires, building the first radio transmitter. In St. Louis, Missouri, Tesla made a demonstration related to radio communication in 1893. Addressing the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the National Electric Light Association, he described and demonstrated in detail its principles. Tesla’s demonstrations were written about widely through various media outlets. Tesla also investigated harvesting energy that is present throughout space. He believed that it was merely a question of time when men would succeed in attaching their machinery to the very wheelwork of nature, stating: “Ere many generations pass, our machinery will be driven by a power obtainable at any point of the universe.”
At the 1893 World’s Fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, an international exposition was held which, for the first time, devoted a building to electrical exhibits. It was a historic event as Tesla and George Westinghouse introduced visitors to AC power by using it to illuminate the Exposition. On display were fluorescent lamps developed by Westinghouse and single node bulbs. An observer noted:
Within the room was suspended two hard-rubber plates covered with tin foil. These were about fifteen feet apart, and served as terminals of the wires leading from the transformers. When the current was turned on, the lamps or tubes, which had no wires connected to them, but lay on a table between the suspended plates, or which might be held in the hand in almost any part of the room, were made luminous. These were the same experiments and the same apparatus shown by Tesla in London about two years previous, “where they produced so much wonder and astonishment”.
Tesla also explained the principles of the rotating magnetic field and induction motor by demonstrating how to make an egg made of copper stand on end in his demonstration of the device he constructed known as the “Egg of Columbus”.
The Tesla generator was developed by Tesla in 1895, in conjunction with his developments concerning the liquefaction of air. Tesla knew from Lord Kelvin’s discoveries that more heat is absorbed by liquefied air when it is re-gasified and used to drive something than is required by theory; in other words, that the liquefaction process is somewhat anomalous or ‘over unity’. Just before Tesla’s completion of his work and the filing of a patent application, Tesla’s laboratory burned down, destroying all his equipment, models and inventions. Immediately after the fire, Carl von Linde, in Germany, filed a patent application for the same process.
A “world system” for “the transmission of electrical energy without wires” that depends upon the electrical conductivity of the earth was proposed, in which transmission in various natural media with current that passes between the two points are used to power devices. In a practical wireless energy transmission system using this principle, a high-power ultraviolet beam might be used to form a vertical ionized channel in the air directly above the transmitter-receiver stations. The same concept is used in virtual lightning rods and the electrolaser electroshock weapon, and has been proposed for disabling vehicles.
Also in the late 1880s, Tesla and Thomas Edison became adversaries in part because of Edison’s promotion of direct current (DC) for electric power distribution over the more efficient alternating current advocated by Tesla and Westinghouse. Until the development of the induction motor, AC’s advantages for long distance high voltage transmission were counterbalanced by the inability to operate motors on AC. As a result of the “War of Currents”, Edison and Westinghouse went nearly bankrupt, so in 1897, Tesla released Westinghouse from contract, providing Westinghouse a break from Tesla’s patent royalties. Also in 1897, Tesla researched radiation, which led to setting up the basic formulation of cosmic rays.
In 1897, at age 41, Tesla filed the first radio patent (U.S. Patent 645,576). A year later, he demonstrated a radio-controlled boat to the US military, believing that the military would want things such as radio-controlled torpedoes. Tesla claimed to have developed the “Art of Telautomatics”, a form of robotics, as well as the technology of remote control. In 1898, he demonstrated a radio-controlled boat to the public during an electrical exhibition at Madison Square Garden. Tesla called his boat a “teleautomaton”. In the same year, Tesla devised an “electric igniter” or spark plug for Internal combustion gasoline engines. He gained U.S. Patent 609,250, “Electrical Igniter for Gas Engines”, on this mechanical ignition system. Tesla lived in the former Gerlach Hotel, renamed The Radio Wave building, at 49 W 27th St. (between Broadway and Sixth Avenue), Lower Manhattan, before the end of the century where he conducted the radio wave experiments. A commemorative plaque was placed on the building in 1977 to honor his work. Remote radio control remained a novelty until World War I and afterward, when a number of countries used it in military programs.
In 1899, Tesla decided to move and began research in Colorado Springs, Colorado in a lab located near Foote Ave. and Kiowa St., where he would have room for his high-voltage, high-frequency experiments. Upon his arrival he told reporters that he was conducting wireless telegraphy experiments transmitting signals from Pikes Peak to Paris. Tesla’s diary contains explanations of his experiments concerning the ionosphere and the ground’s telluric currents via transverse waves and longitudinal waves. At his lab, Tesla proved that the earth was a conductor, and he produced artificial lightning (with discharges consisting of millions of volts, and up to 135 feet long). Tesla also investigated atmospheric electricity, observing lightning signals via his receivers. Reproductions of Tesla’s receivers and coherer circuits show an unpredicted level of complexity (e.g., distributed high-Q helical resonators, radio frequency feedback, crude heterodyne effects, and regeneration techniques). Tesla stated that he observed stationary waves during this time.
Tesla researched ways to transmit power and energy wirelessly over long distances (via transverse waves, to a lesser extent, and, more readily, longitudinal waves). He transmitted extremely low frequencies through the ground as well as between the Earth’s surface and the Kennelly–Heaviside layer. He received patents on wireless transceivers that developed standing waves by this method. In his experiments, he made mathematical calculations and computations based on his experiments and discovered that the resonant frequency of the Earth was approximately 8 hertz (Hz). In the 1950s, researchers confirmed that the resonant frequency of the Earth’s ionospheric cavity was in this range (later named the Schumann resonance).
In Colorado Springs Tesla carried out various long distance wireless transmission-reception experiments. Tesla effect is the application of a type of electrical conduction (that is, the movement of energy through space and matter; not just the production of voltage across a conductor). Through longitudinal waves, Tesla transferred energy to receiving devices. He sent electrostatic forces through natural media across a conductor situated in the changing magnetic flux and transferred electrical energy to a wireless receiver.
In the Colorado Springs lab, Tesla observed unusual signals that he later thought may have been evidence of extraterrestrial radio wave communications coming from Venus or Mars. He noticed repetitive signals from his receiver which were substantially different from the signals he had noted from storms and earth noise. Specifically, he later recalled that the signals appeared in groups of one, two, three, and four clicks together. Tesla had mentioned that he thought his inventions could be used to talk with other planets. There have even been claims that he invented a “Teslascope” for just such a purpose. It is debatable what type of signals Tesla received or whether he picked up anything at all. Research has suggested that Tesla may have had a misunderstanding of the new technology he was working with, or that the signals Tesla observed may have been non-terrestrial natural radio source such as the Jovian plasma torus signals.
Tesla left Colorado Springs on 7 January 1900. The lab was torn down ca. 1905 and its contents sold to pay debts. The Colorado experiments prepared Tesla for the establishment of the trans-Atlantic wireless telecommunications facility known as Wardenclyffe near Shoreham, Long Island.
In 1900, with US$150,000 (51% from J. Pierpont Morgan), Tesla began planning the Wardenclyffe Tower facility. In June 1902, Tesla’s lab operations were moved to Wardenclyffe from Houston Street. The tower was dismantled for scrap during World War I.
On his 50th birthday in 1906, Tesla demonstrated his 200 hp (150 kW) 16,000 rpm bladeless turbine. During 1910–1911 at the Waterside Power Station in New York, several of his bladeless turbine engines were tested at 100–5000 hp.
Nobel prize and Tesla
Since the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Guglielmo Marconi for radio in 1909, Thomas Edison and Tesla were mentioned in a press dispatch as potential laureates to share the Nobel Prize of 1915, leading to one of several Nobel Prize controversies. Some sources have claimed that because of their animosity toward each other neither was given the award, despite their scientific contributions; that each sought to minimize the other’s achievements and right to win the award; that both refused ever to accept the award if the other received it first; and that both rejected any possibility of sharing it.
In the years after these rumors, neither Tesla nor Edison won the Prize (although Edison did receive one of 38 possible bids in 1915, and Tesla did receive one bid out of 38 in 1937). Earlier, Tesla alone was rumored to have been nominated for the Nobel Prize of 1912. The rumored nomination was primarily for his experiments with tuned circuits using high-voltage high-frequency resonant transformers.
Tesla died on 7 January 1943 at age 86 from heart thrombus, alone in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel. A few days after Tesla’s death, the information center of the Yugoslav royal government-in-exile released a statement giving a short review of Tesla’s achievements and the schedule for his memorial service and funeral. The speech, written by Louis Adamic, was read in a live broadcast on Radio New York by the mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia, on 10 January 1943. The remains of Nikola Tesla were taken to Campbell cemetery. The protocol anticipated the funeral service would be conducted on 12 January in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan. Bishop William T. Manning delivered the introductory and the last prayer in English. The funeral service was conducted in the name of the Serbian Orthodox Church by priest Dusan Sukletovic, the superior of the Church of St. Sava of the New York parish. The bereaved family members present at the funeral were Sava Kosanovic and Nikola Trbojevic. A state funeral was attended by 2000 people. Tesla’s casket was draped with U. S. and Yugoslav flags. The pallbearers were Nobel prize winners. Telegrams of condolence were received from many notables including the First Lady of the United States, Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt and Vice-President Henry A. Wallace. Tesla’s body was cremated and his ashes taken to Belgrade, Serbia, then-Yugoslavia in 1957. The urn containing his ashes was placed in the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade. Despite having sold his AC electricity patents, Tesla died with significant debts. Later that year the US Supreme Court upheld Tesla’s patent number 645576 in a ruling that served as the basis for patented radio technology in the United States.
Soon after his death Tesla’s safe was opened by his nephew Sava Kosanović. Shortly thereafter Tesla’s papers and other property were impounded by the United States’ Alien Property Custodian office in Tesla’s compound at the Manhattan Warehouse, even though he was a naturalized citizen.
Dr. John G. Trump was the main government official who went over Tesla’s secret papers after his death in 1943. At the time, Trump was a well-known electrical engineer serving as a technical aide to the National Defense Research Committee of the Office of Scientific Research & Development, Technical Aids, Div. 14, NTRC (predecessor agency to the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence). Trump was also a professor at M.I.T., and had his feelings hurt by Tesla’s 1938 review and critique of M.I.T.’s huge Van de Graaff generator with its two thirty-foot towers and two 15-foot-diameter (4.6 m) balls, mounted on railroad tracks—which Tesla showed could be out-performed in both voltage and current by one of his tiny coils about two feet tall. Trump was asked to participate in the examination of Tesla’s papers at the Manhattan Warehouse & Storage Co. Trump reported afterwards that no examination had been made of the vast amount of Tesla’s property, that had been in the basement of the New Yorker Hotel, ten years prior to Tesla’s death, or of any of his papers, except those in his immediate possession at the time of his death. Trump concluded in his report, that there was nothing that would constitute a hazard in unfriendly hands.
After the FBI was contacted by the War Department, his papers were declared to be top secret. The personal effects were sequestered on the advice of presidential advisers; J. Edgar Hoover declared the case most secret, because of the nature of Tesla’s inventions and patents. One document stated that “he is reported to have some 80 trunks in different places containing transcripts and plans having to do with his experiments…”. Altogether, in Tesla’s effects, there were the contents of his safe, two truckloads of papers and apparatuses from his hotel, another 75 packing crates and trunks in a storage facility, and another 80 large storage trunks in another storage facility. The Navy and several “federal officials” spent two days microfilming some of the material at the Office of Alien Properties storage facility in 1943, and that was it, until Oct., 1945.
Tesla’s family and the Yugoslav embassy struggled with the American authorities to gain these items after his death because of the potential significance of some of his research. Eventually Mr. Kosanović won possession of the materials, which are now housed in the Nikola Tesla Museum.