Nikola Tesla

There is so much that is noteworthy and intriguing about Nikola Tesla, that it is difficult to know just where to start, and how much to include in this short biography. Let us begin, though, by acknowledging that this eccentric, outlandish man was, perhaps, one of the greatest geniuses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His inventions, some of which have been attributed to others, have had an immeasurable impact on our lives today. Furthermore, some of the concepts that he envisioned are still being developed and improved upon almost 60 years after his death.   Tesla was born at the stroke of midnight between July 9 and July 10, 1856 in Smilgan, Croatia which, at the time, was Austria-Hungary. It is a fitting precursor to the events that shaped his unusual life. From an early age, it was evident to Tesla's parents that he possessed an unusually advanced intellect. Thus, when Nikola was young, his father attempted to hone his memory and reason through various mental exercises. When it was time to send his son to college, the senior Tesla supported his son's desire to become an engineer, even though he desperately wanted him to follow in his own ministerial footsteps.   Tesla's older brother, Dane, perished at the age of 12 as the result of an equestrian accident. Nikola had shot a pea at Dane's horse, causing it to throw the young man. His brother's resulting death may have been a catalyst for a number of unusual characteristics that developed in Tesla over his lifetime. For instance, he claimed to have what could be characterized as psychic abilities, which manifested themselves in the form of vivid hallucinations. In addition to his claims of precognitive abilities, Tesla exhibited numerous symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. He avoided physical contact of any kind, and feigned injuries to absolve him of the obligatory handshake. He required that the number of footsteps he took in a walk be divisible by the number three, and calculated the exact volume of his food before he ate it. He could be seen measuring his food with a ruler, and dipping portions of his meal into water so that he could measure how much liquid was displaced. At times, when he was concentrating on a project, he would forget to eat for days at a time. In one such occurrence, the result was complete amnesia that lasted for several days.   In accordance with what many think of as the eccentricities of a genius mind, Nikola Tesla did not use blueprints and prototypes. Instead, he developed inventions in his mind, and then built the final product from his own memory. He was also a terrible businessman, which is likely the factor which caused him to die in near obscurity and complete poverty.   Nikola Tesla began inventing things when he was a child. One of his first inventions was a simple hook-and-line device that he and his friends used for catching frogs, which was so effective that they severely diminished the local frog population. He also created a windmill-like machine that was powered by June bugs, which were glued to the blades and caused the rotor to spin. As he got older, his inventions became more and more advanced. Tesla currently has over 700 patents in his name. Included in these are the Tesla Coil, which is an induction coil used in radios, televisions, and various forms of wireless communication. He is also credited with the development of the wireless transmission of electricity, the creation of remote control boats and submarines, and an "electrotheraputic" device now known as ultrasound. After his death, the Supreme Court ruled that he, and not Guglielmo Marconi, was the rightful inventor of the radio. He has also been acknowledged as the inventor of the fluorescent bulb, the vacuum tube amplifier, and the X-Ray machine. Given the scope and broad application of his inventions, this little-known genius is certainly a hero in our modern times.   Tesla attended college at Graz Polytechnic Institute where he was thrilled to be able to study electricity. Perhaps he was propelled by a desire to please his parents, or perhaps he hoped that, one day, he would go to America and meet his hero, Thomas Edison. Whatever the reason, Tesla pursued his education with remarkable vigor, studying and attending courses from 3:00 in the morning until 11:00 at night. He was known as an exceptional student, even if he did tend to question his instructors to the point of infuriation. It was during his studies at Graz that he became interested in what was then a far-fetched theory of alternating current, which would allow the transmission of power over long distances without the use of wires.   In 1882, Tesla obtained a position at the Continental Edison Company in Paris, where he quickly excelled and developed a reputation as an outstanding engineer. Within two years, he realized his dream of going to America to meet the president of the company, Thomas Edison. Alas, the meeting foreshadowed the first of a number of poor business decisions on Tesla's part. Edison saw his bright employee as somewhat of a crank because of his interest in A/C power. In an attempt to impress his employer, Tesla proposed to make Edison's D/C dynamos 25% more efficient in a period of two weeks. Edison obviously believed that Tesla was incapable of such a feat. He verbally promised the young inventor $50,000 if he could complete the task. When Tesla not only finished his project on time, but exceeded the efficiency goal, Edison claimed to have been joking about the monetary reward. Tesla became enraged and quit on the spot.   Shortly thereafter, Tesla was approached by investors who wanted to market the arc lamp that he had developed, and together they formed the Tesla Electric Company. By this time, Tesla had developed in his mind a plan for the construction of an A/C dynamo. When he attempted to pursue this project, his associates voted him down, and he was thus estranged from the business. After his departure, the company began to fail, resulting in the diminishment of his stock values. Before long, he was broke. To top it off, he no longer had the rights to his arc lamp, so he could not pursue a business of his own. It was at this point that he went to work shoveling on a labor crew for $1.00 a day.   When A.K. Brown of Western Union became aware of the fact that this genius was wasting away, he furnished Tesla with a laboratory and backed him financially in his pursuit of A/C. When Tesla assembled the dynamo that he had conceived of in his mind, it worked perfectly. When he presented his work in a highly publicized lecture, he became an overnight celebrity among engineers. Included among his admirers was George Westinghouse, who negotiated with Tesla to produce the dynamos. In 1895, Tesla's dynamos went to work harnessing the power of Niagara Falls, and sending power 22 miles, to Buffalo, New York. Because this new form of power conversion and transmission was so affordable and efficient, it meant that electricity would no longer be relegated only to the upper-class. Now, it would be affordable and accessible to the every-day citizen. Tesla stood to make a fortune based upon the contract that he signed with Westinghouse. However, when the businessman complained of the drain it would impose on his company, Tesla tore up the contract in a gesture of friendship. It is unfortunate that his generosity was not reciprocated, and that he, once again, was left to deal with the consequences of a na¥ve business decision.   In 1891, Tesla was proud to become an American citizen, and he wanted to give his countrymen a gift: Free electricity. An attorney named Leonard Curtis, who was also an officer at a Colorado power company, financed Tesla and provided him free electricity with which to conduct his experiments. Tesla set up a lab in Colorado Springs, which resembled a giant barn, atop which was a 180' tower that he called a "magnifying transformer." He believed that he could use the earth's surface as a giant conductor of energy. Though he did succeed in lighting 200 lamps from a distance of 25 miles, his experiments went awry in 1899, when he pumped ten million volts of electricity into the earth's surface. The current went through the earth at the speed of light, and returned like ripples in a pond. The resulting resonant rise was spectacular, producing 130' bolts of lightning, and thunder that was audible over twenty miles away. Unfortunately, it also caused the Colorado Springs power plant to burst into flames. Needless to say, he was no longer able to get free power, much less funding for his experiments.   Before long, it became apparent to Tesla that his goal of giving free electricity to the populace was less-than-popular among the financial giants who dominated the power industry. Thus, he changed the intended outcome of his work. Instead, he claimed, he wished to provide a way of transmitting communication, such as news and weather reports. He went back to New York and convinced J.P. Morgan, the renowned businessman, to back him financially and set him up with a laboratory on Long Island. Due to a series of mishaps, Morgan quickly became reluctant to fund Tesla's research. When Tesla, in an attempt to win over his benefactor, revealed that the true nature of his work had to do with free power distribution, Morgan withdrew completely. Around the same time, Tesla entered into a military contract with the German Marine High Command to build sophisticated turbines for use in warships. However, when World War I began, he decided to give up his royalties for fear of being charged with treason. Once again, Tesla was left rich with ideas, but painfully short on funds.   Tesla did attempt to assist the U.S. Military in its defensive efforts during the war. He claimed to have developed a death ray, which was some sort of particle accelerator that concentrated energy into a thin beam. If the claim is true, his idea is likely a precursor to the Strategic Defense Initiative. As the story goes, he tested the device one night, aiming it at a remote area near the North Pole. He later learned that, though no evidence of impact could be found, scientists believed that a meteorite had collided with the earth in a remote area of Siberia called Tunguska, causing the destruction of 500,000 square acres of land. Tesla was convinced that he had caused the massive destruction by overshooting his target, and dismantled his invention immediately. Six years later, he wrote to President Wilson and offered the use of his death ray as a way to knock down enemy attackers, but got only a form letter from the President's secretary in reply. In 1917, Tesla proposed the construction of a station that would send out waves of energy, enabling operators to determine the location of enemy aircraft. Though the War Department dismissed Tesla's "exploring ray" as a joke, a generation later, "radar" was implemented to assist the Allies in World War II.   Nikola Tesla died in New York on January 7, 1943, at the age of 87. He was financially destitute, and lived in the Hotel New Yorker, where he shared his room with a flock of pigeons that he considered to be his only friends. He left as his legacy a number of businesses that he helped to build, but from which he was shut out. His colleagues derided him because of his outrageous ideas, and he was generally considered to be a lunatic. The extent to which he was ridiculed is exemplified by the fact that the 1940's "Superman" comics featured a mad scientist named Tesla, who employed the use of death rays.   It is evident that some sense of fear existed with regard to this great inventor. After his death, the Custodian of Alien Property impounded his papers, diplomas, letters, and lab notes, even though he had been an American citizen since 1891, and therefore was not an alien. The government subsequently decided that his work posed no threat to national security, and his nephew, Sava Kosanovich, later inherited his possessions. These items are now housed in the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade.   One can only hope that Nikola Tesla's name will one day take its rightful place in history books, and become a recognized household name, as it should be. Perhaps then we can begin to appreciate the impact this great intellect and humanitarian has had on our lives and the lives of our progeny.