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Who was Nikola Tesla?
Updated 12/30/08

Tesla2.jpg
Nikola Tesla 
1856 - 1943

 
Nikola Tesla was a prolific inventive genius, poet, and a humanitarian visionary. He was born in Croatia, of Serbian heritage, on July 10, 1856, the son of an Orthodox priest. He is known to have said, "I am equally proud of my Serbian birth and Croatian Fatherland". Schooled at the Austrian Polytechnic School in Graz and the University of Prague, he never graduated, being forced to drop out after two years due to a shortage of funds after his father died.  He began working at the American Telephone Company in Budapest, and then for Continental Edison in France in 1882. Somewhat surprisingly, Tesla's background was actually mechanical engineering, not electrical engineering. 

Forced to flee from war in his homeland in 1884 at age 28, he emigrated to the United States, arriving with only 4 cents in his pockets. Strongly recommended by Charles Batchelor, Manager of Continental Edison in France, he began working for Thomas Edison. Tesla quickly demonstrated his extraordinary abilities in electrical engineering to Edison, but he eventually quit in disgust when Edison reneged on a promise to pay him $50,000. Edison had previously promised this sum to Tesla if he could make Edison's DC generators more efficient. Tesla worked day and night, finally solving this "impossible" problem, but then Edison claimed he was merely joking. Following up on a design he had envisioned years before, Tesla constructed the very first brushless AC induction motor in 1887, demonstrating it before the prestigious American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) in 1888. Tesla then teamed with George Westinghouse, who owned the patents on AC transformers, and the "War of the Currents" (the fight between DC and AC power distribution) began between the two powerful men, Edison (DC) and Westinghouse (AC). 

During the period from 1887 through 1890, Tesla created and patented the foundation of modern polyphase AC generation, transmission, distribution, and utilization systems. His AC induction motor design eliminated the brushes and commutator common to all previously existing electric motors. His AC induction motor used the principle of electromagnetic induction that had already been embodied in the electrical transformer with the concept of a rotating magnetic field. Tesla originated the idea of using alternating currents, generated in multiple phases (called a “poly-phase system”), to produce rotating magnetic fields within the motor's stator windings.  Tesla and Westinghouse demonstrated the practicality of AC power by providing all the lighting for the beautiful 1893 Colombian Exposition at the World's Fair. Three years later, they harnessed the mighty Niagara Falls to provide polyphase power to Buffalo, NY, finally proving once and for all the superiority of AC over DC for practical long distance electrical power distribution. 

Tesla began researching higher frequency AC, first in his lab on Houston Street in New York City, and then at a lab on the outskirts of Colorado Springs, Colorado. First using high speed mechanical alternators (AC generators), and later on spark gap oscillators to achieve even higher frequencies, his early experiments uncovered the fundamental methods to enable practical radio communication (1893). Tesla demonstrated the power of high voltage RF by generating 16 foot discharges in his New York City laboratory in 1894. Tesla filed his basic Radio patents in 1897, and even demonstrated a radio remote controlled electric boat in 1898.  He became convinced that wireless transmission of electric power was possible while conducting high power RF research in Colorado Springs. Tesla gained funding and began construction of a giant 200 kW wireless power transmitter at Wardenclyffe, Long Island, NY in 1900 with this goal in mind. 

However, his main financial backer, J. Pierpont Morgan, initially believed that the new facility would be used for trans-Atlantic radio communications, and he eventually withheld further funding when Tesla informed him of the true nature of the system in 1903. In 1904, the US Patent office reversed Tesla's basic radio patent, and instead awarded the patent for radio to Guglielmo Marconi! Tesla ran out of funds in 1905, and was forced to close his Wardenclyffe lab. (The original Wardenclyffe main building is still standing today, located near the Shoreham Post Office and Shoreham Fire House on Route 25A, on the property owned by Agfa (GAF).) Tesla continued to invent, focusing on efficient bladeless turbines and other electromechanical designs.  He filed suit against Marconi for radio patents in 1915, and the court battles raged for another 29 years! However, Tesla's expenses continued to exceed income, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1916.

In 1917, Tesla was awarded the Edison Medal by the AIEE. During the presentation, his impressive inventions were recognized: 

"Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr. Tesla's work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead and idle"  - B. A. Behrend

"His work…. antedated that of Marconi and formed the basis of wireless telegraphy… throughout all branches of science and engineering we find important evidence of what Tesla has contributed." - W. W. Rice, president of AIEE

Tesla was awarded 221 worldwide patents, and 113 US patents. These covered polyphase AC power alternators, transformers, and motors, radio communication, fluorescent lighting, automotive ignition systems, VTOL aircraft, efficient bladeless turbines, etc. Tesla was relatively unconcerned about getting rich, seeking funds only to continue his research for the betterment of humanity. After 1915, Tesla slowly faded into obscurity, finally dying penniless in 1943. Later that year, the US Supreme Court declared Tesla the TRUE inventor of radio. 

The famous physicist, Niels Bohr summed it up nicely:
"Tesla's ingenious invention of the polyphase system as well as his explorations of the amazing phenomenon of high frequency oscillations were the basis for developing completely new conditions for industry and radio communications, and had a profound influence upon the whole civilization." 


Nikola Tesla was a true genius, and a generous humanitarian - a forgotten inventor whose works touch us all every day. This site is a small tribute to him...

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