Nikola Tesla did as much to electrify the second industrial revolution as any man. If only he weren't painted as a mad scientist.
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When the 28-year-old immigrant Nikola Tesla arrived in New York City in 1884, he had with him four cents, a letter of recommendation for a job with Thomas Edison, and a brain possessed of revolutionary ideas. When he died alone in the New Yorker Hotel in 1943 (of heart failure), he was penniless and in debt. Although he left behind a wealth of innovation that changed the course of history, he has often been remembered more for his eccentricity than for his work on electricity, which he, as much as his early employer and later rival Edison, made a mainstay of American life.
The dashingly mustachioed Tesla stood 6 feet 4 inches tall and dedicated himself to the promotion of health (and eventually vegetarianism), though he rarely slept more than two or three hours a night. He credited his inventiveness to his mother, a housewife with a penchant for DIY engineering—she built appliances like mechanical eggbeaters to improve housework—and spent the hours of his youth studying the books of his father’s library. If his father had gotten his way, young Nikola—dubbed Niko—would have followed him into the Orthodox priesthood. It was only after Nikola survived a near-fatal bout of cholera that Dad relented and allowed him to pursue engineering at the Austrian Polytechnic Institute at Graz.
He excelled in his studies, but also occasionally clashed with educators. Motors of the time relied on direct current, meaning that the current of electricity always traveled in the same direction and thus needed to be constantly reversed by “commutators.” Tesla’s teachers were puzzled by his insistence that this arrangement could be ditched in favor of what we would later come to know as an induction motor that relied on more efficient alternating current.
According to PBS’s Tesla: Life and Legacy, it was a few years later, when he was working at Budapest’s Central Telephone Exchange, that a vision of his induction motor appeared to him. Tesla writes:
“One afternoon, which is ever present in my recollection, I was enjoying a walk with my friend in the city park and reciting poetry. At that age I knew entire books by heart, word for word. One of these was Goethe’s Faust. The sun was just setting and reminded me of a glorious passage:
“‘The glow retreats, done is the day of toil; / It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring; / Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil / Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!’
“As I uttered these inspiring words the idea came like a flash of lightning and in an instant the truth was revealed. I drew with a stick on the sand the diagram shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.”
It wasn’t long afterward that Tesla stood before his idol, Thomas Edison, handing him a letter of recommendation written by Edison’s associate Charles Batchelor. It read, quite simply, “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!”
At the time, New York was powered by Edison’s DC power station, which, while remarkable, was also dangerous. PBS notes that “residents of Brooklyn became so accustomed to dodging shocks from electric trolley tracks that their baseball team was called the Brooklyn Dodgers” (though others would argue they were simply dodging the cars themselves).
Tesla hoped to wow Edison with his prototype for alternating current, but Edison merely put him to work around the clock refining the existing DC motors. The Wizard of Menlo Park did promise to pay Tesla $50,000 should the immigrant manage to build a practical AC motor. However, when Tesla accomplished just that, Edison not only refused to pay, but embarked on a smear campaign against Tesla’s system—thus begetting the infamous War of the Currents, in which Edison depicted Tesla as an unreliable dreamer and alternating current as dangerous. Ultimately, after Tesla’s Westinghouse Corporation–backed AC-powered “City of Light” wowed onlookers at the 1893 World’s Fair, his model became the dominant electrical paradigm. Since then, 80 percent of U.S. electrical devices have used variants of his alternating-current model.
“My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!”
During his life, Tesla struggled to maintain financial health, and he was acutely aware of his persona as a dreamer.
When Guglielmo Marconi earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909 for the invention of radio—giving the Italian scientist the name the Father of Radio—Tesla was livid. He had been poised to send radio signals using his eponymous coils as early as 1895, though a fire at his studio set him back a few years, and he only filed a basic radio patent in 1897. For the next few years, he and Marconi worked independently of each other, but it was Marconi who sent and received the first successful transatlantic radio signals, using 17 of Tesla’s patented inventions, most notably the “Tesla oscillator.” The U.S. Patent Office, however, refused to enforce Tesla’s claim.
“My enemies have been so successful in portraying me as a poet and a visionary that I must put out something commercial without delay,” Tesla famously said in response to Marconi’s award. In fairness to those who called him a visionary—which held a far less flattering connotation than it does today, suggesting someone prone to naive optimism or cockeyed schemes—few scientists claim to have been divinely inspired with their most towering inventions while quoting Goethe in response to an eye-catching sunset.
It wasn’t until 1943, after Tesla’s death, that the Patent Office reversed its decision, and recognized him as radio’s true father. That outcome is perhaps fitting, as the story of his life unfolded more like something out of Nathanael West than Horatio Alger—his financial troubles at times rising in direct proportion to his ambitions.
Tesla’s other innovations include the first version of modern hydroelectric power (a dramatic and successful harnessing of Niagara Falls), an early version of radar (too ahead of its time to be immediately implemented), the first examples of neon and fluorescent lighting, and the first instance of wireless remote control. Rarely is Tesla credited as the father of robotics, but it was his invention, a battery-powered “tele-automated” boat that responded to wireless radio signals, that gave birth to the discipline.
He envisioned an era in which man could harness energy from the sun and a “‘world system’ of
wireless communications to relay telephone messages across the ocean.”
His dreams sometimes became nightmares—the costly and mysterious experiments with lightning and the transmission of wireless power in Colorado Springs suggest there was at least some madness to his science—though that didn’t stop the man from dreaming. He envisioned an era in which man could harness energy from the sun and a “‘world system’ of wireless communications to relay telephone messages across the ocean; to broadcast news, music, stock market reports, private messages, secure military communications, and even pictures to any part of the world.” The notion seems far less shocking today, especially if you’re reading this online.
When The New York Times ran Tesla’s obituary, on January 8, 1943, the article included a subtitle in all capital letters, reading “CLAIMED A ‘DEATH BEAM,’” followed by “He Insisted the Invention Could Annihilate an Army of 1,000,000 at Once.” The story dedicated as much ink to Tesla’s end-of-life eccentricities—fear of germs, sensitivity to light, living in relative isolation in the hotel, his never-developed “death beam,” which he imagined would prevent war rather than to accelerate it—as it did to his genius.
Today we can thank Elon Musk, who named his electric automobile company after the Wizard of the West, and the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which prominently displays massive Tesla coils in the middle of its grounds every year, for aiding a resurgent appreciation for the inventor. Those two images offer a fitting dichotomy of the man—at once a creator of game-changing technology and a wide-eyed onlooker at the spectacular poetry of human life.
To meet the daunting energy challenges of the 21st century, we’ll need to draw upon both the poetry and the technological diligence that characterized Tesla’s work. More than that, it’s incumbent on us as a nation to fork over the money for ambitious (even risky) energy research; Tesla found himself destitute after relying on fickle, profit-focused investors to fund his work.
Let’s just hope that when the next young dreamer proposes an energy solution that, rather than simply refining an existing model, asks us to believe in something fantastic, we’ll have the foresight—nay, the vision—to hear him out.
illustration by Junyi Wu