Photo of the Day

Nikola Tesla, in his Colorado Springs laboratory in 1899, sits in front of the operating transformer. Credit: Public domain

Nikola Tesla, in his Colorado Springs laboratory in 1899, sits in front of the operating transformer. Credit: Public domain

The Genius Who Lit The World

Nikola Tesla was born around midnight, between July 9 and July 10, 1856 during a fierce lightning storm. According to family legend, midway through the birth, the midwife wrung her hands and declared the lightning a bad omen. This child will be a child of darkness, she said, to which his mother replied: “No. He will be a child of light.”

The boy spent much of his early childhood enduring Serbian traditions, including an overabundance of sloppy kisses from two wrinkly old aunts, one of whom had “two teeth protruding like the tusks of an elephant,” Nikola Tesla wrote in his autobiography. So one day, when his mother asked him which of the two aunts he thought was prettier, Tesla thoughtfully mulled it over, declaring, “This here is not as ugly as the other,” and thus revealing an early and wicked sense of humor.

Tesla, the forefather of the internet and the man who essentially invented the 20th century — with everything from modern electrical engineering advances such as the electric motor to X-rays, remote controls, radars and radio — didn’t just have a remarkable mind; he also had a witty one. Recognized as one of the greatest inventors of his time, his celebrity status saw him hobnobbing with the likes of Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Edison and J.P Morgan.

But behind that exceptional brain was a dark secret. His obsessive mind, helped by an eidetic memory that focused the direction of his experiments, would often give way to overwhelming mania that some historians say resembled the chronic symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He rarely slept, claiming to only need two hours a night, but he admitted to dozing occasionally to recharge. He hated the feel of jewellery and wrote that he had “a violent aversion against the earrings of women” and that “the sight of a pearl would almost give him a fit.”

He would not touch another person’s hair, unless he was perhaps, at the point of a revolver, and he could contract a fever just by looking at a peach. At Tesla’s most extreme, he was reportedly obsessed with a white pigeon he believed was communicating with him. There were moments where he would be the toast of the town and moments where he seemed to want to sit in a dark hotel room and be by himself.

Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856 in Smiljan, Lika, which was then part of  the Austo-Hungarian Empire, region of Croatia. His father, Milutin Tesla was a Serbian Orthodox Priest and his mother Djuka Mandic was an inventor in her own right of household appliances. Tesla studied at the Realschule, Karlstadt in 1873, the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria and the University of Prague. At first, he intended to specialize in physics and mathematics, but soon he became fascinated with electricity. He began his career as an electrical engineer with a telephone company in Budapest in 1881. It was there, as Tesla was walking with a friend through the city park that the elusive solution to the rotating magnetic field flashed through his mind. With a stick, he drew a diagram in the sand explaining to his friend the principle of the induction motor. Before going to America, Tesla joined Continental Edison Company in Paris where he designed dynamos. While in Strassbourg in 1883, he privately built a prototype of the induction motor and ran it successfully. Unable to interest anyone in Europe in promoting this radical device, Tesla accepted an offer to work for Thomas Edison in New York. His childhood dream was to travel to America and harness the power of Niagara Falls.

Young Nikola Tesla went to the United States in 1884 with an introduction letter from Charles Batchelor to Thomas Edison: “I know two great men,” wrote Batchelor, “one is you and the other is this young man.” Tesla spent the next 59 years of his productive life living in New York. Tesla set about improving Edison’s line of dynamos while working in Edison’s lab in New Jersey.  It was here that his divergence of opinion with Edison over direct current versus alternating current began. This disagreement climaxed in the war of the currents as Edison fought a losing battle to protect his investment in direct current equipment and facilities.

Tesla pointed out the inefficiency of Edison’s direct current electrical powerhouses  that have been build up and down the Atlantic seaboard. The secret, he felt, lay in the use of alternating current ,because to him all energies were cyclic. Why not build generators that would send  electrical energy along distribution lines  first one way, than another, in multiple waves using the polyphase principle?

Futurist Nikola Tesla, seen here at age 34 in 1890, is the inventor of the Tesla coil and alternating current machinery. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Futurist Nikola Tesla, seen here at age 34 in 1890, is the inventor of the Tesla coil and alternating current machinery. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Edison’s lamps were weak and inefficient  when supplied by direct current. This system had a severe disadvantage in that it could not be transported more than two miles due to its inability to step up to high voltage levels necessary for long distance transmission. Consequently, a direct current power station was required at two mile intervals.

Direct current flows continuously in one direction; alternating current changes direction 50 or 60 times per second and can be stepped up to vary high voltage levels, minimizing power loss across great distances. The future belongs to alternating current.

Nikola Tesla developed polyphase alternating current system of generators, motors and transformers and held 40 basic U.S. patents on the system, which George Westinghouse bought, determined to supply America with the Tesla system. Edison did not want to lose his DC empire, and a bitter war ensued. This was the war of the currents between AC and DC. Tesla -Westinghouse ultimately emerged the victor because AC was a superior technology. It was a war won for the progress  of both America and the world.

Tesla introduced his motors and electrical systems in a classic paper, “A New System of Alternating Current Motors and Transformers” which he delivered before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1888. One of the most impressed was the industrialist and inventor George Westinghouse. One day he visited Tesla’s laboratory and was amazed at what he saw. Tesla had constructed a model polyphase system consisting of an alternating current dynamo, step-up and step-down transformers and A.C. motor at the other end. The perfect partnership between Tesla and Westinghouse for the nationwide use of electricity in America had begun.

In February 1882, Tesla discovered the rotating magnetic field, a fundamental principle in physics and the basis of nearly all devices that use alternating current. Tesla brilliantly adapted the principle of rotating magnetic field for the construction of alternating current induction motor and the polyphase system for the generation, transmission, distribution, and use of electrical power.

Tesla’s A.C. induction motor is widely used throughout the world in industry and household appliances. It started the industrial revolution at the turn of the century. Electricity today is generated transmitted and converted to mechanical power by means of his inventions. Tesla’s greatest achievement is his polyphase alternating current system, which is today lighting the entire globe.


Tesla astonished the world by demonstrating the wonders of alternating current electricity at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Alternating current became standard power in the 20th Century. This accomplishment changed the world. He designed the first hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls in 1895, which was the final victory of alternating current.  The achievement was covered widely in the world press, and Tesla was praised as a hero world wide. King Nikola of Montenegro conferred upon him the Order of Danilo.

Tesla was a pioneer in many fields.  The Tesla coil, which he invented in 1891, is widely used today in radio and television sets and other electronic equipment. That year also marked the date of Tesla’s United States citizenship. His alternating current induction motor is considered one of the ten greatest discoveries of all time. Among his discoveries are the fluorescent light, laser beam, wireless communications, wireless transmission of electrical energy, remote control, robotics, Tesla’s turbines, and vertical take off aircraft. Tesla is the father of the radio and the modern electrical transmissions systems. He registered over 700 patents worldwide. His vision included exploration of solar energy and the power of the sea. He foresaw interplanetary communications and satellites.

Tesla was possessed of a striking physical appearance over six feet tall with deep-set eyes and a stately manner. Tesla, was a man endowed with remarkable physical and mental freshness, ready to surprise the world with more and  more inventions as he grew older.  A lifelong bachelor he led a somewhat isolated existence, devoting his full energies to science.

In 1894, he was given honorary doctoral degrees by Columbia and Yale University and the Elliot Cresson medal by the Franklin Institute. In 1934, the city of Philadelphia awarded him the John Scott medal for his polyphase power system. He was an honorary member of the National Electric Light Association and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. On one occasion, he turned down an invitation from Kaiser Wilhelm II to come to Germany to demonstrate his experiments and to receive a high decoration.

On Nikola Tesla's 75th birthday in 1931, the inventor appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. On this occasion, Tesla received congratulatory letters from more than 70 pioneers in science and engineering including Albert Einstein. These letters were mounted and presented to Tesla in the form of a testimonial volume.

On Nikola Tesla’s 75th birthday in 1931, the inventor appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. On this occasion, Tesla received congratulatory letters from more than 70 pioneers in science and engineering including Albert Einstein. These letters were mounted and presented to Tesla in the form of a testimonial volume.

By the end of his brilliant and tortured life, the Serbian physicist, engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla was penniless and living in a small New York City hotel room. He spent days in a park surrounded by the creatures that mattered most to him—pigeons—and his sleepless nights working over mathematical equations and scientific problems in his head. That habit would confound scientists and scholars for decades after he died, in 1943. His inventions were designed and perfected in his imagination.

Tesla believed his mind to be without equal, and he wasn’t above chiding his contemporaries, such as Thomas Edison, who once hired him. “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack,” Tesla once wrote, “he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labour.

By 1912, Tesla began to withdraw from that doubting world. He was clearly showing signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and was potentially a high-functioning autistic. He became obsessed with cleanliness and fixated on the number three; he began shaking hands with people and washing his hands—all done in sets of three. He had to have 18 napkins on his table during meals, and would count his steps whenever he walked anywhere. He claimed to have an abnormal sensitivity to sounds, as well as an acute sense of sight, and he later wrote that he had “a violent aversion against the earrings of women,” and “the sight of a pearl would almost give me a fit.”

Near the end of his life, Tesla became fixated on pigeons, especially a specific white female, which he claimed to love almost as one would love a human being. One night, Tesla claimed the white pigeon visited him through an open window at his hotel, and he believed the bird had come to tell him she was dying. He saw “two powerful beans of light” in the bird’s eyes, he later said. “Yes, it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.” The pigeon died in his arms, and the inventor claimed that in that moment, he knew that he had finished his life’s work.

Nikola Tesla would go on to make news from time to time while living on the 33rd floor of the New Yorker Hotel. In 1931 he made the cover of Time magazine, which featured his inventions on his 75th birthday. And in 1934, the New York Times reported that Tesla was working on a “Death Beam” capable of knocking 10,000 enemy airplanes out of the sky. He hoped to fund a prototypical defensive weapon in the interest of world peace, but his appeals to J.P. Morgan Jr. and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went nowhere. Tesla did, however, receive a $25,000 check from the Soviet Union, but the project languished.  Tesla died on January 7th, 1943 in the Hotel New Yorker, where he had lived for the last ten years of his life. Room 3327 on the 33rd floor is the two-room suites he occupied. He died in debt, although Westinghouse had been paying his room and board at the hotel for years.

Nikola Tesla’s Awards and Recognition

In 1917, Tesla was awarded the Edison Medal, the most coveted electrical prize in the United States.

Nikola Tesla’s name has been honored with an International Unit of Magnetic Flux Density called “Tesla.”

The United States Postal Service honored Tesla with a commemorative stamp in 1983.

Tesla was inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1975.

The Nikola Tesla Award is one of the most distinguished honors presented by the Institute of Electrical Engineers. The award has been given annually since 1976.

The Nikola Tesla Statue is located on Goat Island to honor the man whose inventions were incorporated into the Niagara Falls Power Station  in 1895. Tesla is known as the inventor of polyphase alternating current.

The Nikola Tesla Corner Sign, located at the intersection of 40th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, is a constant reminder to all New Yorkers of the greatness of this genius.

Nikola Tesla – Engineer, Inventor –

Nikola Tesla – Inventions –

Tesla’s Biography – Tesla Memorial Society of New York

8 Things You Didn’t Know About Nikola Tesla | PBS NewsHour

Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived – The Oatmeal

Nikola Tesla: Biography, Inventions & Quotes – Live Science

The Rise and Fall of Nikola Tesla and his Tower | History | Smithsonian

Nikola Tesla | Serbian-American inventor |

Nikola Tesla | Inventor – Lucidcafé Home

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