The name “Tesla” is most often associated with the electric-powered car manufactured by Telsa, Inc., named after inventor Nikola Tesla. Because Thomas Edison and other inventors received more notoriety and have been celebrated for inventions and concepts pioneered by Nikola Tesla, few people know how truly brilliant and pioneering Tesla was.
Born on July 10, 1856 in the small town of Smiljan, which was then a part of the Austrian Empire and is now a territory of Croatia, Nikola Tesla was an inventor, engineer and futurist who was best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply. Tesla studied engineering and physics in the 1870s without having completed a degree. He gained practical experience in 1882 in the telephony industry and later at Société Electrique Edison, a subdivision of Continental Edison Company in Paris.
During his time at Société Electrique Edison, Tesla gained a great deal of experience in electrical engineering when he began working in what was then a brand-new industry — indoor incandescent lighting installed citywide in the form of electric power utility. Management took notice of his advanced knowledge of engineering and physics and tasked him with designing and building improved versions of generating dynamos and motors as well as troubleshooting engineering problems at other Edison utilities in France and Germany.
In 1884, Charles Batchelor, who had been overseeing the Paris electrical power installation, was brought back to the U.S. to manage Edison Machine Works in New York City. He requested that Tesla be brought to the U.S. as well, and soon after, Tesla arrived in New York City. He immediately began working at Edison Machine Works, an overcrowded shop on Manhattan’s lower east side that employed 20 “field engineers” who struggled with the task of building the city’s large electric utility (today known as “ConEdison” or, simply, “ConEd”).
After his short time at Edison Machine Works, Tesla struck out on his own. With the help of partners who helped him finance and market his ideas, he set up laboratories and companies through which he developed electrical and mechanical devices. His alternating current (AC) induction motor and related polyphase AC patents, licensed by Westinghouse Electric (WE) in 1888, earned him a considerable amount of money and became the cornerstone of the polyphase system that was eventually marketed by WE.
Tesla’s induction motor and WE’s licensing of the patent in 1888 came at a time of extreme competition among the three big electric companies — WE, Edison, and Thomson-Houston — which financially undercut one another in their quest to grow in a capital-intensive industry. Edison Electric even launched a “war of currents” campaign in which they claimed that their direct current (DC) system was better and safer than WE’s AC system.
Competing in this market meant WE would not have the resources to immediately develop Tesla’s motor and related polyphase system, and just two years after signing the Tesla contract, WE fell into financial trouble. The financial panic of 1890 caused investors to call in their loans to WE, and the sudden cash shortage forced WE to refinance its debts. As part of their refinancing deals, new lenders demanded that WE cut back on “excessive spending” on research, patents (including Tesla’s per-motor royalties) and the acquisition of other companies. At that point, the development of the Tesla induction motor had come to a standstill. Despite that, and even though operating examples of the motor and the polyphase power systems needed to run it were rare, WE continued to pay Tesla’s annual $15,000 royalty.
In early 1891, Tesla was informed that if WE continued to fall short of their lenders’ demands, George Westinghouse would lose control of WE. Tesla would be left on his own to collect his royalties directly from WE’s lenders. Thus, Tesla agreed to release WE from its royalty obligations. Six years later, WE purchased Tesla’s patent for a lump sum payment of $216,000, part of a patent-sharing agreement with General Electric (created via the merger of Edison and Thomson-Houston).
Tesla became a naturalized citizen of the United States on July 30, 1891, at the age of 35. In the same year, he patented his Tesla Coil. Throughout the rest of the 1890s, Tesla pursued his ideas for wireless lighting and worldwide wireless electric power distribution in his high-voltage, high-frequency power experiments. In an attempt to develop inventions that he could patent and market, Tesla conducted experiments with mechanical oscillators/ generators, electrical discharge tubes and early X-ray imaging. He also built a wireless-controlled boat, one of the first ever exhibited. He became well known as an inventor and he demonstrated his achievements to celebrities and wealthy patrons at his lab.
In 1893, Tesla proclaimed the possibility of wireless communication with his devices and attempted to put his ideas to practical use in the Wardenclyffe Tower project, an intercontinental wireless communication and power transmitter. But he ran out of funding before he could complete it. He subsequently began investigating what he referred to as radiant energy of “invisible kinds” (1894), after he noticed damaged film in his laboratory in previous experiments (later identified as “Roentgen rays” or “X-Rays”) and experimented with Crookes tubes, a cold cathode electrical discharge tube. As a result, he may have inadvertently captured an X-ray image — predating, by a few weeks, Wilhelm Röntgen’s December 1895 discovery of X-rays when he tried to photograph Mark Twain illuminated by a Geissler tube, an earlier type of gas discharge tube.
In March 1896, after hearing of Röntgen’s discovery of X-ray and X-ray imaging (radiography), Tesla proceeded to do his own X-ray imaging experiments, developing a high-energy single terminal vacuum tube that had no target electrode and worked from the output of the Tesla Coil (the modern term for the phenomenon produced by this device is “braking radiation”). He devised several experimental setups to produce X-rays and held that, with his circuits, the “instrument will … enable one to generate Roentgen rays of much greater power than obtainable with ordinary apparatus.”
Two years later, Tesla demonstrated a radio-controlled boat that he had hoped to sell as a guided torpedo to navies around the world. He experimented with a series of other inventions in the 1910s and 1920s, all with varying degrees of success. Having spent most of his money, he lived in a succession of hotels, where he left behind unpaid bills, and died in New York City on January 7, 1943.
Tesla’s work fell into relative obscurity until the General Conference on Weights and Measures named the SI unit of magnetic flux density the “tesla” in his honor in 1960. There has been a resurgence in popular interest in Tesla since the 1990s, and, of course, the Tesla electric-powered automobile is named after him.