Nikola Tesla: A Man Ahead of His Time

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He grew up to be over six feet tall, a fashionable
dresser, and friends with some of the most famous Americans of his time. But he started life in a corner of the Austrian
Empire… Early Life
When Nikola Tesla was born, the Austrian Empire still existed. An ethnic Serb, he came into the world in
modern-day Croatia on July 10th, 1856. His birth seemed to foreshadow his life’s
work, as his mother was in labor during a massive lightning storm. The lightning that flashed during Tesla’s
birth was considered an ill omen by the midwife, but Tesla’s mother didn’t agree. Instead, she proclaimed that:
“He will be a child of light.” His mother was not wrong – as we know today,
Tesla is the reason we have alternating current electricity. But, on top of that, starting in childhood,
Tesla saw flashes of light that reportedly came to him before he had ideas. There’s another side of the story to the
flashes of light that has emerged, however. It’s possible that these flashes – or visions
– were actually caused by a traumatic event he witnessed in childhood. When Tesla was just five years old he saw
his only brother, Dane, die in a horse riding accident. It was after this that Tesla began having
the flashes of lights and visions. He had them for the rest of his life. The family lived in a modest home, one that
has since been rebuilt complete with a statue of Tesla in the yard. Tesla’s father was an Eastern Orthodox minister,
and his mother was a brilliant woman who was an inventor herself. She created mechanical appliances to use around
the house, and her tinkering and creative thinking undoubtedly influenced her son. Tesla’s mother also had an incredible memory. She could memorize entire epic poems, and
Tesla credited his own photographic memory to the genes he inherited from his mother. He memorized entire books, visualized his
projects and ideas, and spoke several languages. In his early years at school, Tesla’s studies
focused on German, math, and religion. By the time he entered the later years of
his education science had become a key focus. He moved away from his family to attend the
Higher Real Gymnasium. Here, Tesla was accused of cheating because
of his photographic memory. His outstanding memory allowed him to perform
integral calculus using only his mind – no pen or paper required – and so his teachers
became suspicious. Nonetheless, Tesla was able to finish the
necessary work to graduate in only three years instead of the customary four. During his three years at the Higher Real
Gymnasium, Tesla was introduced to a phenomenon that ultimately defined his career and how
he’s remembered today. In his physics class, the teacher demonstrated
electricity. Tesla was fascinated. But it would be some time before he could
launch a career studying and using electricity. He became ill shortly after graduating in
1873. For nine months, he was bedridden with cholera
and only narrowly escaped death. His brush with death helped form Tesla’s
lifelong germaphobe tendencies…he was so fearful of germs that it took him 18 napkins
to get through a single meal. In 1874, Tesla was expected to be conscripted
into the military. Tesla had no interest in serving, and managed
to escape from the requirement by running away to a mountainous region where he was
able to disguise himself as a hunter. After a year, Tesla was able to emerge from
the mountains and start seriously studying science. He began attending classes at Austria Polytechnic,
where he quickly showed himself to be both a talented and diligent student. In fact – he may have been too diligent. Years after he left the school, and after
his father had died, Tesla discovered a pile of letters that the school sent to his father
warning them that Tesla was overworking himself. According to Tesla himself, he was working
incredibly hard – getting up at 3 AM, and not going to bed until 11 PM. During that time, he was fully focused on
his studies. He didn’t even take off holidays or Sundays
from this routine. By the time his first year was over, he had
passed twice as many exams as he needed to and received the highest grades possible. But even someone with a brain like Tesla’s
couldn’t sustain that kind of schedule. His second year in school was a complete reversal
from his first. After losing a scholarship at the end of his
second year, Tesla began gambling. Gambling wasn’t just a pastime for him – he
was addicted to it. He lost his tuition money gambling, and then
when final exams rolled around he was unprepared to take them. He never did take them…and so he never graduated. Unwilling to face his family and tell them
he did not graduate, Tesla simply fled to the town of Maribor and took up work as a
draftsman. He started gambling again, playing cards on
the street. At first, some of Tesla’s friends thought
he had drowned, but Tesla’s father figured out the truth eventually. He tried to get his son to return home, but
Tesla refused. Eventually, he was forced to return home when
he was arrested for not having a residence permit. For a year, Tesla worked as a teacher in Gospic,
the town where his family lived. But his extended family wanted to help him
get back to school…so they pooled their funds and off to Prague he went. But it wasn’t an easy jump back into academia. He arrived too late to actually enroll. And even if he hadn’t been late, Tesla was
missing some of the key studies required to enroll. Namely, Czech and Greek. So he did not achieve his academic dreams,
but by 1881 Tesla was able to find work in his preferred field. He had found a job as an electrical engineer
with the Central Telephone Company in Budapest. While working there, he and a friend had a
habit of walking through the park. One day during the walk, Tesla got one of
his visions – he knew how to build an induction motor. He picked up a stick, found a patch of dirt,
and sketched out his idea there and then. He then built a prototype of the motor. It made sense to him, and he knew the importance
of it, but he couldn’t drum up much interest for his invention in Europe. America
While Tesla was working in Europe, Thomas Edison had launched his Edison Company – which
included a branch in Paris. Tesla secured a job at the Continental Edison
Company helping with the installation of lighting in Paris. His talents were soon taken advantage of for
design and for troubleshooting. And within two years, he was recruited to
travel to America to work for Edison directly in New York. He and hundreds of others worked in Manhattan,
installing lights and building out an electric utility for New York City. Tesla described his experiences and impressions
of Edison: “I came from Paris in the Spring of 1884,
and was brought in intimate contact with him [Thomas Edison]. We experimented day and night, holidays not
excepted. His existence was made up of alternate periods
of work and sleep in the laboratory. He had no hobby, cared for no sport or amusement
of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene. There can be no doubt that, if he had not
married later a woman of exceptional intelligence, who made it the one object of her life to
preserve him, he would have died many years ago from consequences of sheer neglect. So great and uncontrollable was his passion
for work.” But as he had in his first year of school,
Tesla was also a non-stop worker. One story relates that he stayed out all night
working, and took some gibes from people for being out all night. When Edison found out he was actually out
working, Tesla earned Edison’s respect. Working for Edison wasn’t ideal for Tesla,
though. He only lasted six months at the company. Edison and Tesla disagreed over the alternating
current and the direct current, with Tesla favoring alternating and Edison favoring direct,
but it’s still unclear if that disagreement was the primary reason Tesla ended up leaving
the company. Tesla and Edison also differed in their approaches
to business and science – Edison was attuned to the marketing side of things, while Tesla
was highly focused on the scientific invention and innovation part of the work. It’s possible his leaving may have been
precipitated by a bonus he thought he was getting…and was then refused. The manager at the Edison Company challenged
employees to design two dozen different machines. The first person to successfully do so would
receive a huge bonus – fifty thousand dollars! That translates to millions of dollars by
today’s standards. Tesla jumped at the chance to tackle the invention
and earn a huge amount of money. He completed the task, presented his work…and
was denied the bonus. The manager and Edison claimed the challenge
had been issued jokingly…and Edison himself told an upset Tesla:
“Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” Regardless of the reason, the fact is that
Tesla departed from Edison’s company after only a few short months. He had it in his mind that he was going to
start his own company, researching and working with alternating currents. It wasn’t so easy to just get started, though. When Tesla quit Edison’s company, he had
to earn money to live on by digging ditches for only two dollars a day. “My high education in various branches of
science, mechanics and literature seemed to me like a mockery,” he said of this time. While he was doing that, though, he was pitching
investors. He found people who liked what they heard,
and trusted the scientific knowledge of this young immigrant. By 1885, he was working on getting his arc
lighting system patented and had a funding promise from two businessmen to start Tesla
Electric Light and Manufacturing. Only a year into the venture, though, they
pulled out and left Tesla in the lurch. Yet again, the inventor was penniless. In 1886, though, he met two men who were looking
to invest in scientific inventions. They set Tesla up with a laboratory in New
York City, established a profit-sharing structure, and the Tesla Electric Company was born. In only a year, Tesla had created an induction
motor that ran on alternating current. This time, he had two business partners who
were ready and willing to handle the marketing and business end of things. Soon after, Tesla published a paper entitled:
“A New System of Alternating Current Motors and Transformers.” It laid out his ideas, and it got him noticed. George Westinghouse read the paper, and he
liked what he read. Westinghouse licensed Tesla’s induction
motor, and also gave him a consulting job at the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing
Lab in Pittsburgh. Westinghouse wanted to be the person who provided
the United States with long distance power, and he believed Tesla was the person to help
him achieve his goal. In the early 1890s, Westinghouse and Edison
were competing heavily in the electric industry. Edison was throwing out claims that Tesla’s
AC current wasn’t safe, and meanwhile Westinghouse was facing financial difficulties. But Westinghouse paid Tesla for the licensing,
and so he had the ability to continue working on projects that he wanted to. One of those projects was the Tesla coil. The Tesla Coil, which he patented in 1891,
allowed electricity to be transmitted wirelessly. It was the first invention of its kind, and
it was used in antennas, used to send telegraphs, and even though the original design isn’t
used anymore, a different version of it is still used in tv and radio to this day. 1891 was a landmark year in Tesla’s life
for another reason, too. Along with the patent for the Tesla Coil,
he was also granted U.S. citizenship. Tesla continued his relationship with Westinghouse
into the 1890s, as they sought out his help for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Westinghouse was in charge of lighting the
entire event, but also had its own display. Here, he gave demonstrations to the public,
showing how an AC current worked. Tesla’s next major project came at Niagara
falls. Power was being generated at the falls, but
there was a need for an efficient transmission system. Based on Tesla’s recommendation, Westinghouse
was hired to build an AC generation system at Niagara. Tesla did the design work, and the resulting
hydroelectric power plant began providing electricity to the city of Buffalo, New York. With all of these projects, Tesla was gaining
visibility both in American and around the world. And he was getting to know other high profile
people, too. Not all of them were in the scientific sphere,
either. One of the American celebrities that Tesla
got to know was Mark Twain. Even when he was living in Croatia, Tesla
was reading Twain’s books. The two met in New York City, having crossed
paths at a social event. Twain had always been interested in technological
innovation, and so the two spent much time together in Tesla’s lab. A photograph of Twain’s hand that Tesla
took using light from “Crookes Tubes” brought Tesla right to the edge of discovering
x-rays…unfortunately he didn’t realize how close he had come until x-rays were actually
discovered and the use of crookes tubes in the invention was made known. Twain was also a part of another Tesla experiment…an
experiment specifically designed to address Twain’s digestive issues. Twain was often constipated, and he wasn’t
shy about complaining of the condition. Tesla had developed a vibrating disk that
would essentially shake whoever stood on top of it. He urged his author friend to climb on board
the device, and literally have his digestion issues solved by shaking his bowels loose. When Tesla thought Twain had had enough of
the shaking treatment, he told him to get off. But Twain didn’t want to get off. He stayed on top of the disk, and continued
to be shaken, ignoring Tesla’s urgings. He shouldn’t have ignored Tesla – eventually
the shaking did its job, and then some, on Twain’s bowels. He couldn’t control them. The famous author had quite literally gone
to the bathroom in his suit in the middle of Nikola Tesla’s laboratory. Tesla never stopped inventing. He said that he only slept two hours per night,
and he was always looking for the next project. Wireless transmission of electricity was one
of his main goals, but he needed funding to achieve it. Living in New York, he had ample access to
wealthy people. He was able to convince J. Pierpont Morgan
of the viability of wireless transmission, and the banker provided him with one hundred
fifty thousand dollars to build a transmission tower. He was competing with Marconi to transmit
wireless messages, but Marconi got there first. Investors, including Morgan, pulled their
funds from Tesla’s project and he was forced to abandon the effort in 1906. When the project was abandoned, Tesla didn’t
just have to stop construction – he had to actually mortgage the property. Tesla owed huge amounts of money to the Waldorf
Astoria. He lived at the lavish hotel, and he lived
large – spending twenty thousand dollars – that’s nearly five hundred thousand today – in the
short time he lived there. In 1917, the transmission tower was demolished
after Tesla lost it in foreclosure. He also tried to sue Marconi, asserting that
he had stolen Tesla’s ideas to create his wireless transmission technology. Tesla was a genius, there’s no doubt about
it. But he was a difficult man – he had many quirks
and obsessions, and was completely, utterly focused on his work. He never married, thinking a woman in his
life would interfere with his work. As he said,
“I do not think you can name many great inventions that have been made by married
men.” But there also indications Tesla didn’t
think he was worthy of women. Then, he became dissatisfied with the attitude
of modern women in the 1920s. In 1924 interview, Tesla explained his thoughts
on women: “I had always thought of woman as possessing
those delicate qualities of mind and soul that made her in these respects far superior
to man. I had put her on a lofty pedestal…I worshiped
at the feet of the creature I had raised to this height, and, like every true worshiper,
I felt myself unworthy of the object of my worship.But all this was in the past. Now the soft-voiced gentle woman of my reverent
worship has all but vanished. In her place has come the woman who thinks
that her chief success in life lies in making herself as much as possible like man–in dress,
voice and actions, in sports and achievements of every kind.” Tesla put some of his social and nurturing
energy that he wasn’t putting towards women towards the pigeons that flocked throughout
New York City. And one in particular caught his attention. “I have been feeding pigeons, thousands
of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure
white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would
come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman,
and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose
to my life. “
When that pigeon was hurt, Tesla invented a device to help heal its injured wing and
leg. Tesla lived out his life in New York City,
never married, but surrounded by the famous and the intellectual. He invented constantly, right up through the
1930s when he was well into his seventies. In January 1943, a maid decided to enter Tesla’s
hotel room even though he had put up a Do Not Disturb sign. It had been up for 48 hours…when the maid
opened the door, she was confronted with the sight of the famous inventor’s body. He died of coronary thrombosis at 86 years
old. Behind him, Tesla left a legacy of invention,
innovation, and scientific exploration. He played a crucial role in the spread of
electricity and the creation of devices that led to the technology we have today.

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