Nikola Tesla: Man of Lightning

Now days, when people think of electricity, they think of Thomas Alva Edison but seldom do they remember the works of one great man who achieved remarkable feats which led us into the future technology. One of the most brilliant minds of his time, “Nikola Tesla”was a man who dreamed beyond his era. Most people have forgotten his numerous contributions and the ones who do know him, remember him as a unit of “magnetic flux density” or “magnetic field” ( 1 Tesla= 1weber per metre square) or the person who invented “Alternating Current”, from their physics text books. But he was a master the field of Electrical and Mechanical sciences. His ideas paved a way to many of the futuristic devices that were invented decades after his demise like wireless networks, neon fluorescent lights, remote controlled devices, robotics, X-Rays, guided missile systems and many more. But his ill fate and the envy of the then inventors set him down before he could accomplish his final dream of attaining unlimited energy through self-sustaining clean sources. Today, the likes of such a remarkable person remains only in the books. In spite of being constantly put down by other jealous inventors, Nikola Tesla never lost his passion for science particularly “Electromagnetism”. Some of his futuristic ideas were portrayed as weapons in science fiction movies. One particular example is the “Death Ray” adapted in the movie “Star Trek”.


Early Life:

Nikola TeslaNikola Tesla, coincidentally enough was born during a fierce lightning storm on the stroke of midnight between 9th and 10th of July in 1856 in a village in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire which would fall under today’s Croatia. He was born to Serbian Parents Milutin Tesla (father) and Duka Tesla (mother). His father was a priest and hoped that Nikola would follow his footsteps. Nikola’s alternate option was to join the Army. But he was interested in neither of the two. He was greatly fond of nature as he observed the magical properties shapes and shades that were caused by sunlight. His father made him memorize long phrases and verses. His mother was a skilled weaver and built her own tools to make fine cloth.


The ‘Spark’ That Triggered it All

At the age of seventeen, Nikola was infected with cholera and was in a fatal stage. He told his father that he may get well if he could pursue his further studies outside in Geneva to which his father replied that he can go to the best institution in the world and since then he amazingly recovered and went to study in Austria. At the university he became obsessed with “electricity”. The only known form of current at the time was Direct Current which was produced with a very low efficiency by DC generators. Tesla read the research of Michael Faraday on the theories of electro magnetism that current could be produced by a changing or moving magnetic field. So, Nikola Tesla proposed to his professor that the efficiency of the electric motors could be greatly enhanced by using currents that alternated in a time period. His professor mocked him in front of his classmates saying, “Mr Tesla will never accomplish this perpetual scheme.”


Migration to America: The Promise Land

Later during a stroll in the park, a sudden idea struck him while staring at the Sun. His idea for an AC generator came into existence by introducing a revolving field of magnetism that will produce an Alternating current at certain frequencies. With this idea in his head, he endured a lot of struggles; he reached New York in 1886 with four cents in his pocket and reference letter to work with Thomas Edison. Edison himself had many problems with his DC systems. Tesla was promised fifty thousand dollars to improve Edison’s machines. When he completed his task he went to Edison for his promised amount. Edison laughed at him and told him “You just don’t understand our American humour Mr Tesla” and left him broke.

Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison

Nikola Tesla on the left and Thomas Edison on the right

After a year, working bitterly and laboriously Tesla finally designed his AC motor and presented it to the crowd on May 18th, 1888. He went on to secure 22 U.S patents in the next five years. As a result, an Investor and Industrialist, George Westinghouse bought Tesla’s AC motor patents for a sum of one million dollars and offered him a royalty of two dollars and fifty cents for each horse power generated by an AC motor. Today this would sum up to trillions of dollars.


Nikola Tesla’s Patent for AC motor

Nikola Tesla’s Patent for AC motor

Later upon seeing Tesla’s success, Edison panicked as the DC current was falling down. Many of Edison’s scientists tried to demote Tesla’s AC current by electrocuting animals to show the dangers of AC current. But during the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Westinghouse group had secured the contract to light up the exhibition which was to become


The world’s first fully lit up exhibition to the bitter disappointment of the Edison Electric Company and the Thomson Houston Electrics (Collectively known as the “General Electric” (G.E)). Tesla’s AC motors were used in a large scale for the first time and was a grand success proving in front of the world that Alternating current was not dangerous. He went on to install large scale AC generators which harvested the power of the Niagara Falls which became the first use of a non-renewable to produce electricity. Later electricity was transmitted by power lines seven hundred kilometres away to provide electricity to the entire city of New York. Tesla’s AC had finally won the battle against Edison’s DC. Edison had run out of business and so had Westinghouse for over extending his resources to support Tesla. Tesla then tore up his royalty sum per kilo Watt of power produced to work on his next breakthrough; “Wireless Transmission”.


Social and Love Life

After claiming worldwide usage of AC electric supply, Tesla became famous. Everyone around the world wanted to know who this mystery over achiever was. He was a star figure among the people as his invention had relieved common man from his laborious life and offered him comforts. He made friends with powerful politicians and famous celebrities of that time. One of which included the writer “Mark Twain” who regularly participated to volunteer in Tesla’s experimental demonstrations.


Tesla was tall and handsome with raised cheek bones. He had deep blue eyes which had a fire in them. He kept himself far from love and marriage even though many famous women in that time were madly in love with him. He was the most sought after bachelor in his field. His only love was his inventions. He disliked being in an intimate relationship. He even mentions that he destroyed his sexuality in order to concentrate more on his work, at the age of forty.


The Wireless: High Frequency AC

Nikola Tesla started to wonder whether signals can be transmitted without connecting wires. For this he developed a high frequency coil that stepped up the voltage to a high voltage at a high frequency which set sparks of current passing through air in between two rods. Just like a lightning in the sky. The device he invented to study this theory was known as the “Tesla Coil”. The Tesla coil even produced radio waves and X-rays using which he took the first X-Ray photo in 1890. Later during testing, a vacuum tube illuminated in his hand without having any wired connections, he was transmitting electrical energy through air. After this discovery, based on the theory of Heinrich Hertz that high frequency currents give rise to electromagnetic waves called “Radio Waves”, he built the first radio transmitter and receiver using the tesla coil and patented it. This could transmit energy to long distances without any connections when they were tuned to resonate at the same frequency.  Based on this principle he went on to invent and theorize revolutionary things which could give mankind a leap into ground breaking technology. He even suggested the transmission of electricity to any place in the world wirelessly. He started to build the wireless power transmitter which was stopped in between due to financial losses of the Westinghouse Group. No one could believe that power could be transmitted wirelessly and thought that Tesla was starting to lose his mind. No one was willing to risk investing in Tesla’s revolutionary idea. His career came to grinding halt at this point.


Death of Tesla
Nikola Tesla in his last days

Nikola Tesla in his last days

At a point everyone considered Tesla to be a mad man and left him alone. He lost trust on mankind but still believed in what he had proposed. He was left penniless after devoting all his fortunes just to be let down by the public. Later Tesla’s lab had gotten fire and his entire life’s work had been diminished. In 1896 an inventor in Italy, “Marconi” had taken advantage of Tesla’s invention and invented a device to promote wireless telegraphy. Tesla quickly realized this and quickly patented his fundamental radio system. After a few years all of Nikola Tesla’s patents had expired leaving the inventors to make use of his inventions freely. Later Marconi went on to build the first radio as Tesla’s patent had expired and made a fortune. In the last few stages of his life Tesla and Edison were selected to be awarded the Nobel Prize for physics but only Edison received the honour. After losing everything Tesla received free boarding and a stipend in recognition to his contribution to the Westinghouse Company at the age of 81. A few years later in 1943, Nikola Tesla had interested the American government regarding a “death ray” weapon which can be used to defend the country and was given a meeting. Sadly, the meeting never happened as he had passed in the Hotel New Yorker in room 3327 at the age of 87 on 7th January, 1943. His diaries and all his written work were immediately seized by the American government to avoid it falling into the wrong hands.Thus came an end to the greatest electrical engineer of the millennium. Memorials of him were made in New York and in Croatia in his hometown.