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Nikola Tesla has long fascinated many scientists, historians and biographers due to his many contributions to scientific knowledge, as well as his unusual and eye-catching life story.

Born an ethnic Serb in the small village of Smiljan, in the then Austrian empire (now Croatia), Tesla was captivated by science from an early age. His lifelong fascination with electricity was kindled through his physics professor at his secondary school, whose demonstrations of electricity fascinated the young Tesla.

The most famous period of his life began after he emigrated to Paris to work for the Continental Edison Company, helping to install their new indoor lighting systems. Soon after this he emigrated once again, this time to the USA, to work in the Edison Machine Works. It is here that he met Edison for the first time, although exactly how well the two men knew each other is uncertain.

This period of work for a man who would become his main rival ended in a dispute, probably over unpaid bonuses Tesla felt he had earned. He left the Edison Company altogether at the end of the year, starting work on the project that made him a household name, the development of the Alternating Current (AC) induction motor.


Tesla polyphase AC 500hp generator at 1893 exposition


After falling foul of predatory business partners when setting up his first company, Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing, Tesla was able to develop the first AC induction motor in 1887 thanks to the funding of Western Union superintendent Alfred S. Brown and New York attorney Charles F. Peck.

Tesla’s motor was unique due to its use of a polyphase current to create a rotating magnetic field, the rotations of which then turn the motor. The rotating magnetic field removed the need for commuters to reverse the current direction within the motor, thereby preventing sparking and reducing maintenance costs when compared to other motors at the time.

This invention drew the attention of one of the major figures in the electrical business at the time, George Westinghouse of the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. Westinghouse needed an AC motor to power the AC Current system his company had developed, and in May 1888 Brown and Peck brokered a deal that transferred Tesla’s polyphase induction motor and transformers designs to Westinghouse.

This deal, along with Tesla’s subsequent licencing of his AC patents, made him a wealthy man, and for a while he was able to pursue his own interests. One of these was his second most famous invention, the Tesla coil. Tesla got the idea when attempting to use an induction coil transformer as part of an arc lighting experiment he was performing, but the current required melted the iron insulation between the windings within the coil.


746px Tesla colorado


Tesla fixed this problem with his own coil, which used air instead of iron to insulate the windings, allowing his coil to withstand much higher currents and temperatures than other transformer coils available at the time. In 1891 Tesla patented this design, and it went on to have a huge impact in radio technology in the early 20th century.

Tesla would go on to experiment with X-rays, wireless communication, radio remote control, wireless power systems, and more during the next few decades. His Colorado Springs experiments became famous for the iconic pictures of Tesla surrounded by arcs of electricity, while his showmanship went so far as to demonstrate a radio remote controlled boat to a crowd in Madison Square Garden.

Sadly, Tesla’s prosperity would not last forever, as he began to have mounting financial troubles in the 1900’s. These were mainly caused by the collapse of the Wardenclyffe tower project in 1906 that Tesla had hoped would provide transatlantic wireless communication. His lodgings became more modest, his patents ran out and by 1915 he was essentially bankrupt. He began living in hotels around New York, leaving a string of unpaid bills in his wake.

He was helped in 1934 by his former employers at Westinghouse, who paid his hotel rooms from then on along with a $125 ‘consulting fee’, as Tesla was known to be too proud to accept charity. He died alone in his New Yorker Hotel room on January 1943, at the age of 86.

Blue Portrait of Nikola Tesla


Tesla was relatively unknown for the first few decades after his death, since many of his innovations had by the mid 1900’s been overshadowed by later celebrity scientists such as Einstein. He received a boost in reputation at the General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1960, after the SI unit of magnetic flux density was named the tesla in his honour. In 1975 The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) created the Nikola Tesla Award for ‘outstanding contributions to the generation and utilization of electric power’, furthering his standing within the scientific community.

Today Tesla is one of the best known scientists of the early 20th century, his fame boosted significantly through the use of his name by companies such as the electric car manufacturer ‘Tesla, Inc’. His innovations in the field of electric motors were essential to the development of modern electrical power systems, and he remains one of the best known, and most important, scientists of the last century.

“Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine” – Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943)

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