The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. No big laboratory is needed in which to think. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.
— Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla was born July 10, 1856 to Serbian parents in the village of Smiljan, located in the Austrian Empire (modern-day Croatia). Tesla was born around midnight, during a fierce lightning storm. According to family legend, midway through his 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.”
His father, Milutin Tesla (1819-1879), was a Serbian Orthodox priest. Tesla's mother, Đuka Tesla (Mandic) (1822-1892), whose father was also a Serbian Orthodox priest, had a talent for making home craft tools and mechanical appliances; she also had the ability to memorize Serbian epic poems. Duka never received a formal education. Nikola credited his eidetic memory and creative abilities to his mother's genetics and influence.
Tesla was the fourth of five children. He had an older brother named Dane and three sisters, Milka, Angelina and Marica. Dane was killed in a horse-riding accident when Nikola was five.
Early Years (1856–1885)
Nikola Tesla’s Family – Nikola is on the left
Nikola Tesla’s Mother Duka Mandic
In 1861, Tesla attended the Lower School (primary school) in Smiljan where he studied German, mathematics, and religion. In 1862, the Tesla family moved to Gospić, in the Austrian Empire, where Tesla's father worked as a pastor. Nikola completed primary school, followed by the Lower Real Gymnasium (junior high). In 1870, Tesla moved to Karlovac to attend school at Higher Real Gymnasium (high school), where he was profoundly influenced by a math teacher Martin Sekulić. Tesla was able to execute integral calculus in his head at ease. This prompted his teachers to believe that he was cheating. Because of his unique quick-wittedness and exceptional ability in mathematics, at the age of 17, he completed a four-year term in three years, graduating in 1873.
In 1873, Tesla returned to his birth town Smiljan, but shortly after he arrived, he contracted cholera. He was bedridden for nine months and was near death multiple times. In despair, Tesla's father (who had wanted Tesla to enter the priesthood) promised to send him to the best engineering school if he recovered. Tesla did eventually recover, but his strength was weak.
Tesla was born in the Village of Smiljan; then part of the Austrian Empire (now modern-day Croatia).
Tesla’s rebuilt house in Smiljan
In 1874, Tesla evaded being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army by running away to Tomingaj, near Gračac. There Tesla explored the mountains and claimed that this intimate contact with nature made him stronger, both physically and mentally. He read many books while in Tomingaj, and later said that Mark Twain's works had helped him to further recover from cholera. Later in life, Mark Twain and Tesla actually became close friends.
In 1875, Tesla enrolled at the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, Austria, on a Military Border scholarship. During his first year, Tesla never missed a lecture, earned the highest grades possible, and passed nine exams (nearly twice as many required). He started a Serbian culture club and received a letter of commendation from the dean of the technical faculty to his father, which stated, "Your son is a star of first rank". Tesla claimed that he worked from 3 a.m. to 11 p.m. In fact, there was concern about his over working in his studies and school duties. Throughout his entire life, Tesla slept only 2-3 hours a night.
Later in life, Mark Twain and Tesla became close friends.
During his second year at the Austrian Polytechnic, at a lecture on electrical engineering given by professor Poeschl, Tesla witnessed a demonstration of a dynamo operating as a motor. It was then that Tesla, for the first time, had an idea of an alternating current motor, without commutators and brushes. Tesla came into conflict with Professor Poeschl over the Gramme dynamo, when he suggested that commutators were not necessary. Gramme dynamo is an electrical generator that produces direct current, named for its Belgian inventor, Zénobe Gramme, and was built as either a dynamo or a magneto. It was the first generator to produce power on a commercial scale for industry. A commutator is a rotary electrical switch in certain types of electric motors and electrical generators that periodically reverses the current direction between the rotor and the external circuit.
That same year, Tesla developed a passionate proficiency for billiards, chess, and card-playing, sometimes spending more than 48 hours in a stretch at a gaming table. It was reported that during his third year, he gambled away his allowance and his tuition money, but later won back his initial losses and returned the financial balance to his family. He then announced that he had "conquered his passion for gambling.” However, when exam time came, Tesla was unprepared and asked for an extension to study but was denied. He never graduated from the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz.
In December 1878, at the age of 22, Tesla left Graz and severed all relations with his family to hide the fact that he had dropped out of school. Tesla traveled to Maribor (now in Slovenia), where he worked as a draftsman for 60 florins a month. He spent much of his free time playing cards with locals on the streets. In March 1879, Tesla’s father Milutin traveled to Maribor to ask his son to return home, but Nikola refused. Nikola suffered a nervous breakdown around the same time.
In March 1879, Tesla was returned to Gospić under police guard for not having a residence permit. On April 17, 1879, Milutin Tesla died at the age of 60 after contracting an unspecified illness. That year Tesla taught a large class of students in his old high school, Higher Real Gymnasium, in Gospić.
Nikola Tesla, age 23
In January 1880, two of Tesla's uncles financed Nikola to leave Gospić for Prague to further his studies at the Charles-Ferdinand University. Unfortunately, he arrived too late to formally matriculate, which meant he never studied Greek (a required subject); at the time, he was also illiterate in Czech, another required subject. Tesla did, however, audit lectures. (Later in life, Tesla would become multilingual, speaking eight languages: Serbo-Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin.)
In 1881, Tesla moved to Budapest to work under Ferenc Puskas at a telegraph company called the Budapest Telephone Exchange. This company invented devices for telephone sound amplification. Upon arrival, Tesla realized that the company, then under construction, was not functional. He instead worked as a draftsman in the Central Telegraph Office. Within a few months, the Budapest Telephone Exchange became functional and Tesla was assigned the position of chief electrician. During his employment, Tesla made many improvements to the Central Station equipment and claimed to have perfected a telephone repeater or amplifier, which was never patented nor publicly described.
In 1882, Tesla began working for the Continental Edison Company in Paris, France, designing and making improvements to electrical equipment. He later worked for about a year for the French branch of the Edison Electric Light Co. in Strasbourg, where he created several inventions. Tesla discovered a rotating magnetic field and the multiphase currents producing it.
At the beginning of 1884, Tesla returned to the headquarters of the Continental Edison Company (CEC) in Paris and attracted considerable attention with his improvements of Edison's dynamo-electric machines and his design of a voltage regulator. He hoped his superiors would take interest in his other inventions: the rotating magnetic field and asynchronous motor. One of the administrators of the CEC was Charles Batchelor, who was a former assistant and close friend of Thomas Edison. Batchelor advised him to seek his fortune in the United States.
Edison's Jumbo Dynamo, 1882
(Direct Current Generator)
Immigration to the U.S.
Workers Standing Outside
Edison Machine Works, New York
In 1884, Nikola Tesla immigrated to the U.S., where he would later become a naturalized citizen. Unfortunately, on the way to the boat he lost all his possessions (train ticket and personal assets). He arrived with only four cents in his pocket, a letter of recommendation, and a few poems.
Because of an exceptional letter of recommendation by Charles Batchelor and having successfully performed tests given by Edison (repair of dynamo machines), Tesla gained employment with Edison Machine Works in New York. Edison gave him the difficult project of redesigning and improving the dynamo-machines for the ever-increasing market. The direct current electrification era had begun, particularly in cities such as New York.
After months of work, Tesla completed the task and inquired about an agreed payment Edison had promised him for the project. Edison reneged on the agreement, however, and instead offered a $10/week raise over Tesla's $18/week salary.
Tesla also expected that Edison would understand and accept his ideas to develop polyphase alternating currents as a more convenient solution for production, transmission, and distribution of electric energy. Edison refused to accept Tesla’s revolutionary idea. Tesla also assumed that the arc lighting system that he invented for the Edison Company would be valuable and that he would be financially compensated for his invention and work. This also did not happen.
For all these reasons, a disappointed Tesla left Edison's company after less than one year.
In 1886, Tesla founded his own company, Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. The company was formed as a partnership between Tesla, and financiers Robert Lane and Benjamin Vale. Tesla was given the task of designing an arc lighting system for the fast-growing segment of the new electric light industry - used mostly for outdoor lighting. Tesla’s arc lamp design had an automatic adjustment and a fail-switch as well as improved dynamos. These were the first patents issued to Tesla in the U.S. By 1886, he had installed a central station-based system in Rahway, New Jersey, lighting streets as well as a few factory buildings.
Tesla proposed that the company develop his ideas for alternating current transmission systems and motors. The investors disagreed and eventually abandoned him, leaving him penniless. Tesla was forced to work as a ditch digger for $2 per day. Tesla considered the winter of 1886-87 as a time of "terrible headaches and bitter tears". While digging ditches for the installation of cables connecting the headquarters of the Western Union Telegraph Company with Stock and Commodity Exchanges, Tesla’s unique abilities came to the attention of Alfred S. Brown, the then-director of Western Union. Brown took a liking to Tesla and introduced him to Charles Peck, a lawyer who had just made a fortune selling his Mutual Union Telegraph Company.
With the backing of Charles Peck and Alfred Brown, in April 1887, Tesla started a new company, the Tesla Electric Company. They set up a laboratory for Tesla at 89 Liberty Street in Manhattan so he could work on his alternating current motor and other devices for power distribution. They agreed to share 50-50 with Tesla any profits generated from patents. It was here, in 1887, that Tesla constructed a brushless alternating current induction motor, based on a rotating magnetic field principle, an idea he claimed to have conceived of in 1882. He received a U.S. patent for the AC motor in May 1888.
A rotating magnetic field is a magnetic field that has moving polarities in which its opposite poles rotate about a central point or axis. Ideally, the rotation changes direction at a constant angular rate. This is a key principle in the operation of the alternating-current motor. Although magnets lose their magnetism with every reaction, this is an entirely self-contained motor with no outside power source. This formed the basis for alternating current electrical engines and modern day “green energy”.
The Middle Years (1886-1899)
Tesla's first Rotating Magnetic Field Induction Motor.
This historic model is one of the two first presented before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.
Also, in 1887, Tesla began investigating what would later be called X-rays using his own single node vacuum tubes. This was long before Röntgen’s discovery. This device differed from other early X-ray tubes in that it had no target electrode. The modern term for the phenomenon produced by this device is “Bremsstrahlung” (or braking radiation). We now know that this device worked by emitting electrons from the single electrode through a combination of field and thermionic emissions. Once liberated, electrons are strongly repelled by the high electric field near the electrode during negative voltage peaks from the oscillating HV output of the Tesla coil, generating X-rays as they collide with the glass envelope.
War of the Currents
Despite all the advantages of the AC system over DC, Edison refused to acknowledge its superiority. And so began “the War of the Currents” - an epic battle between two geniuses and their technologies. George Westinghouse, who made his fortune by inventing the railway air brake, saw the possibilities in alternating current systems and bought up Tesla’s and various European patents.
This put Westinghouse and Tesla and their AC system into direct conflict with Edison and his DC system. Advocates of DC, as well as Edison, began a malicious campaign to discredit AC power, culminating in the accusation that AC current was a danger to human life. The battle ended in defeat for Edison since DC systems could only supply customers up to a mile from the power station - whereas high-voltage AC could be transmitted several hundred miles.
Tesla’s alternating current induction motor and related polyphase AC patents, now licensed by Westinghouse Electric, earned him a considerable amount of money and became the cornerstone of the polyphase system which that company would eventually market.
Attempting to develop inventions he could patent and market, Tesla conducted a range of experiments with mechanical oscillators/generators, electrical discharge tubes, and early X-ray imaging. He also built a wireless-controlled boat, one of the first ever exhibited. Tesla became well known as an inventor and would demonstrate his achievements to celebrities and wealthy patrons at his laboratory. He soon became renowned for his showmanship at public lectures.
After visiting an exposition in Paris in 1889, Tesla came to know about the existence of electromagnetic radiation which was proved by Heinrich Hertz. Soon, he established his own laboratory and invested his time and energy on numerous experiments, including the “Tesla Coil” and carbon button lamp.
On July 30, 1891, Tesla became a naturalized citizen of the United States at the age of 35. That same year, he patented his famous Tesla Coil. Tesla established his 35 S. Fifth Avenue laboratory in New York. Later, Tesla would establish his Houston Street laboratory in New York at 46 E. Houston Street. He lit vacuum tubes wirelessly at both of the New York locations, providing evidence for the potential of wireless power transmission.
The Tesla Coil is a circuit that transforms energy into extremely high voltage charges, creating powerful electrical fields capable of producing spectacular electrical arcs. The coil consists of two parts: a primary coil and secondary coil, each with its own capacitor. (Capacitors store electrical energy just like batteries.) The two coils and capacitors are connected by a spark gap - a gap of air between two electrodes that generates the spark of electricity. An outside source hooked up to a transformer powers the whole system.
Essentially, the Tesla coil consists of two open electric circuits connected to a spark gap. A Tesla coil needs a high-voltage power source. A regular power source fed through a transformer can produce a current with the necessary power (at least thousands of volts). In this case, a transformer can convert the low voltage of main power into the high-frequency voltage. The resulting high-frequency voltage can illuminate fluorescent bulbs several feet away with no electrical wire connection.
Tesla invented the coil to investigate the realm of high-frequency and high-voltage. It was originally patented to be used in modern lighting systems. Other reasons it was invented was to experiment with phosphorescence, X-ray generating, alternating currents, electrotherapy, and transmitting electricity without wires.
Tesla continued to experiment on the power of electrical resonance and various types of lighting. Soon his technology dominated the world’s developing electrical infrastructure, and by 1900 he was widely regarded as America’s greatest electrical engineer. This reputation was reinforced by his other major innovations, including the radio transmitter and fluorescent lamps.
The Tesla Coil
The Electrotherapeutic Society was formed in 1890 and electrotherapy quickly grew in popularity. Colleges and private schools teaching electrotherapy were established and medical health devices based on the magnetic fields from the patented “Tesla Coil” became extremely popular.
In 1898, Tesla published a paper that he presented at the eighth annual meeting of the American Electro-Therapeutic Association in Buffalo, NY entitled, "High Frequency Oscillators for Electro-Therapeutic and Other Purposes." He stated that, “One of the early observed and remarkable features of the high frequency currents, and one which was chiefly of interest to the physician, was their apparent harmlessness which made it possible to pass relatively great amounts of electrical energy through the body of a person without causing pain or serious discomfort.” Coils up to three feet in diameter were used to treat the body without contact, producing ten to a hundred thousand volts.
Tesla described the use of oscillating alternating electromagnetic fields at various frequencies using a Tesla coil. Tesla also stated that the after-effect from his coil treatment was long-term beneficial for many health conditions. This was the beginning of numerous electromagnetic frequency devices including pulsating magnetic field therapy (PEMF) that has only recently (after 100 years!) become mainstream in such areas of medicine as orthopedics and pain management.
Electrotherapy treatments fall into different frequency ranges. Frequency is a measure in cycles per second, also known as Hertz or Hz. Galvanic treatment is the slowest; in fact, it has a frequency of zero, since it produces a constant current and does not cycle at all. Galvanic Electrotherapy is mostly used in the beauty industry to renew old or damaged skin. Faradic, also known as EMS, has a frequency range of 50 – 100 Hz. EMS is mostly used for muscular therapy and muscle toning. It’s not necessarily a pain relief device, though it can be if you’re experiencing muscle soreness. Microcurrent therapy can be the next highest frequency. It has the ability to range from slow to high frequencies, from .1 – 680 Hz. Microcurrents affect tissues on a cellular level and promote your body’s natural healing response.
High-Frequency electrotherapy offers the highest frequencies available. Tesla extensively developed this type of therapy. Frequencies generally fall into the range of 100,000 – 250,000 Hz. High-frequency treatment uses low-current high-frequency alternating currents, delivered via a glass electrode. Because the high frequency current converts some of the oxygen in the air into ozone, the treatment has a germicidal action, and is also drying and warming.
Consequently, high-frequency electrotherapy is used to aid healing and also to help desquamation (the skin's natural exfoliation) and stimulate sweat and sebaceous glands. At up to 250,000 Hz frequency, the hollow glass electrode behaves like a glow discharge tube and is sometimes called a "violet ray" or "violet wand" (though the color depends on the gas in the glass). Two electrodes are not required and sparking may occur when the electrode is close to the skin.
In 1932, at a seminar presented by the American Congress of Physical Therapy, held in New York, Dr. Gustave Kolischer announced, “Tesla’s high-frequency electrical currents are bringing about highly beneficial results in dealing with cancer, surpassing anything that could be accomplished with ordinary surgery.”
The Development of High Frequency Oscillators for Electrotherapy
If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.
– Nikola Tesla
The Later Years (1900-1943)
Alternating Current Power Plants
First commercial use of Tesla's Alternating Current System (1891)
Tesla’s focus was always on the betterment of humanity; never on profit. In 1907, Westinghouse, on the brink of bankruptcy, asked Tesla to release the company from its contractual obligations - Tesla, ever the humanitarian, tore up their contract on the spot. Not only did Tesla relinquish nearly $12 million in patent royalties owed him by Westinghouse then and there - he also forewent future royalties (which would have made him one of the world’s first billionaires).
The Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant, constructed in 1890 near Ophir, Colorado, was the world's first commercial system to produce and transmit alternating current electricity for industrial use - and one of the first AC hydro-electric plants ever constructed. In 1895, Tesla designed an AC hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls. The Niagara Falls Power Company opened and within a year, sent alternating current (AC) to Buffalo, NY, 25 miles away, thanks to Tesla AC generators. Cities throughout the world followed suit and made commercial AC power available to the general public.
When Tesla was 36 years old, the first patents concerning the polyphase power system were granted. In 1890, he showed for the first time the heating effect of high frequency current in meat tissue. This invention was the forerunner of microwave cooking.
From 1893 to 1895, he continued to investigate high frequency alternating currents. He generated AC of one million volts using a conical Tesla coil and investigated the skin effect in conductors, designed tuned circuits, invented a machine for inducing sleep and cordless gas discharge lamps, and transmitted electromagnetic energy without wires, effectively building the first radio transmitter.
During this time, Tesla began new research in X-rays. The first experiments involved cold cathode electrical discharge tubes known as Crooke's tubes. In 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen, a German mechanical engineer and physicist, produced and detected electromagnetic radiation in a wavelength range known as X-rays or Röntgen rays, an achievement that earned him the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901. Tesla built on Röntgen's work by building a vacuum tube powered by the Tesla coil. The output of Tesla's vacuum tube is now called braking radiation. Tesla came up with multiple methods for producing X-rays, some of which are still in use today.
In 1894, Tesla received honorary doctoral degrees from Columbia and Yale Universities and the Elliot Cresson Medal by the Franklin Institute. Tesla also served from 1892 to 1894 as the vice president of AIEE, the forerunner (along with the Institute of Radio Engineers) of the modern-day IEEE.
Around this time, Tesla patented the basic system of radio and published schematic diagrams describing all the basic elements of the radio transmitter - which was later used by Marconi. He constructed an instrument to receive radio waves and experimented with this device and transmitted radio waves from his laboratory on South 5th Avenue to the Gerlach Hotel at 27th Street in Manhattan. The device had a magnet which gave off intense magnetic fields up to 20,000 lines per centimeter.
In 1895, Tesla’s South 5th Avenue laboratory burned down, destroying years’ worth of notes and equipment. Tesla then moved into the sixth and seventh floors of 46-48 East Houston (Manhattan) in July 1895.
Tesla’s East Houston Street Building
Tesla Lighting an Incandescent Lamp Wirelessly
In 1898, a radio-controlled boat was demonstrated to the public during an electrical exhibition at Madison Square Garden. In the same year, Tesla devised an “electric igniter” or spark plug for internal combustion gasoline engines.
In 1899, Tesla, on the invitation of L.E. Curtis, decided to move to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he would have room for his high-voltage, high-frequency experiments. Tesla and several assistants began constructing the Tesla Experimental Station in Colorado Springs primarily to research wireless telegraphy using high-voltage and high-frequency electricity.
Tesla’s diary contains explanations of his experiments concerning the ionosphere and the ground’s telluric currents via transverse and longitudinal waves. At his laboratory, Tesla proved that the Earth was a conductor, and he produced artificial lightning (with discharges consisting of millions of volts, and up to 135 feet long). He investigated atmospheric electricity, observing lightning signals via his receivers.
Tesla was concerned about the fact that technology was using up the Earth's resources too quickly, and he wanted to ensure that one could utilize non-fossil, renewable fuels. This was his motivation for developing wireless electricity and the Tesla coil. He built the largest Tesla coil in history at Colorado Springs, almost 50 feet in diameter, a preliminary model of the magnifying transmitter he would build at Wardenclyffe just a few years later.
In the Colorado Springs laboratory, he “recorded” what he believed were extraterrestrial radio signals, though his announcements and data were rejected by the scientific community. He noted measurements of repetitive signals from his receiver which were substantially different from the signals he had noted from storms and “earth noise”. Specifically, he later recalled that the signals appeared in groups of one, two, three, and four clicks. Irrespective of his claims, this was the first such attempt towards radio astronomy.
Tesla left Colorado Springs in January 1900, and his laboratory was dismantled and sold to pay his debts in 1905. Shortly thereafter, he received patents for a “system of transmitting electrical energy” and “an electrical transmitter”.
Tesla’s Colorado Springs Laboratory
Tesla Experimental Station in Colorado Springs
An experiment demonstrating resonance, conducted by Tesla at his Colorado Springs laboratory in 1899-1900 using his magnifying transmitter, a huge Tesla coil. The secondary winding of the transmitter is visible at left as the 60 ft diameter circular "fence" surrounding all the other coils. A 50 kHz radio frequency current in this coil creates a magnetic field that induces a high voltage in all the other coils by electromagnetic induction. The 20 ft tall output "resonance coil" of the transmitter is at right. Its parasitic capacitance causes it to act like a resonant circuit; it is tuned to the frequency of the secondary, generating millions of volts which creates a large discharge of "streamer" arcs at its top. The corona discharges visible at the top of all the other coils shows they are also generating high voltages. Much smaller than the large coil, they have lower inductance and capacitance and thus higher resonant frequencies. Tesla claimed they are tuned to harmonics of the fundamental 50 kHz frequency.
After Colorado Springs, Tesla continued to experiment with electrical transmission and envisioned free wireless electricity throughout the world. He tried to put these ideas to practical use in constructing his Wardenclyffe Tower project, an intercontinental wireless communication and power transmitter.
In March 1901, he obtained $150,000 from J. Pierpont Morgan in return for a 51% share of any generated wireless patents. In order to get J.P. Morgan to invest in Wardenclyffe, Tesla sold Wardenclyffe as a project in radio, promising that he would send signals across the Atlantic in 6-8 months’ time. At the time, the furthest his rival Marconi had sent signals was 67 miles.
Tesla acquired the land for the tower from James S. Warden, a lawyer/banker. Mr. Warden believed the resort community he built, "Wardenclyffe-On-Sound," would become one of the world's first "Radio Cities”. He donated 200 acres to Tesla's project, and Tesla began planning the Wardenclyffe Tower facility to be built in Shoreham, New York, 100 miles (161 km) east of the city on the North Shore of Long Island.
Tesla imagined that it would be the beginning of a network of towers, 30 at least, around the world. Atop his tower was perched a 55-ton dome of conductive metals, and beneath it stretched an iron root system that penetrated more than 300 feet into the Earth’s crust. Tesla’s global power grid was designed to “pump” the planet with electricity which would intermingle with the natural telluric currents that move throughout the Earth’s crust and oceans. At the same time, towers like the one at Wardenclyffe would emit columns of raw energy skyward into the electricity-friendly ionosphere 50 miles up.
To tap into this energy conduit, customers’ homes would be equipped with a buried ground connection and a relatively small spherical antenna on the roof, thereby creating a low-resistance path to close the giant Earth-ionosphere circuit. Oceangoing ships could use a similar antenna to draw power from the network while at sea. In addition to electricity, these currents could carry information over great distances by bundling radio-frequency energy along with the power, much like the modern technology to send high-speed Internet data over power lines.
Construction at Wardenclyffe continued through 1902, and in June of that year Tesla began moving his laboratory operations from East Houston Street laboratory to the brick building at Wardenclyffe. By the end of 1902, the tower reached its full height of 187 feet.
His decision to scale up the facility and add his ideas of wireless power transmission to better compete with Guglielmo Marconi's radio-based telegraph system was met with refusal to fund the changes by the project's primary backer, financier J.P. Morgan. Tesla wrote more than 50 letters to Morgan, asking for additional funding to complete the construction of Wardenclyffe. Morgan’s refusal was final and Tesla could not drum up any other investors.
Wardenclyffe Tower Project
Tesla sitting in front of one of his coils at the Wardenclyffe lab
The Wardenclyffe team tested their tower a handful of times during construction, and the results were very encouraging; but the project soon devoured Tesla’s personal savings, and it became increasingly clear that no new investments were forthcoming. Prior to the First World War, Tesla looked overseas for investors to fund his research. When the war started, Tesla lost funding he had been receiving from his European patents.
Tesla mortgaged the property to pay debts owed and eventually, as his financial troubles grew deeper, he lost it altogether. Tesla took out a second mortgage on Wardenclyffe (the first had been to cover his debts at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which reached $20,000). He had to abandon the project in 1906, never to become operational.
Tragically, in 1917, the new owner dynamited the tower and sold the remnants as scrap metal (its large octagonal base, however, survived, as did the original brick lab). The site was purchased in 2013, and with funding from private donations and from social media the site was restored as a museum dedicated to Tesla and his achievements. On July 27, 2018, the U.S. National Park Service approved Wardenclyffe for inclusion on the National Historic Register.
Had Wardenclyffe been completed without interruption, Tesla may have once again managed to alter the course of history. The fall of Wardenclyffe plunged the brilliant inventor into a deep depression and more financial distress. In the years that followed, his colleagues began to seriously question his mental well-being. Having spent most of his money, he lived in different New York hotels, and had trouble paying bills.
His eccentricities became increasingly exaggerated, underscored by his tendency to bring home and care for the injured pigeons he encountered during his daily visits to the park. He became a vegetarian in his later years, living only on milk, bread, honey, and vegetable juices. He also developed an unnatural fear of germs, washing his hands compulsively and refusing to eat any food which had not been disinfected through boiling.
Wardenclyffe Tower (1902)
Tesla experimented with a series of inventions in the 1910s and 1920s with varying degrees of financial success. In 1907, he invented the first turbine model based on a new principle of the utilization of the energy of fluid by viscous friction.
He described radar technology in 1917, almost twenty years before it became a reality. Also, in 1917, Tesla was awarded the Edison Medal, presented by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers "for a career of meritorious achievement in electrical science, electrical engineering or the electrical arts”. It is the oldest and most coveted medal in the field of engineering in the United States.
In 1928, at the age of 72, Tesla filed one of his last patents. It described an ingenious lightweight flying machine that was an early precursor to today’s tilt-rotor Vertical Short Takeoff and Landing planes such as the V-22 Osprey.
On his 75th birthday, Tesla received a congratulatory letter from Einstein and was featured on the cover of Time magazine. His money long gone, Tesla spent his later years at a New York hotel, where his rent was paid by Westinghouse. He continued to work on new inventions even as his energy and mental health faded.
Tesla with Einstein and other scientists (1921)
Time Magazine, Volume 18 Issue 3, July 20, 1931
Poor and reclusive, Tesla was found dead on January 8, 1943 in his NYC hotel room where he had lived the last 10 years of his life. He was 86 years old. It was determined that he died of coronary thrombosis the previous day (January 7).
A state funeral was held at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City. Telegrams of condolence were received from many notables, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Vice President Wallace. Over 2000 people attended, including several Nobel Laureates. He was cremated in Ardsley on the Hudson, New York. His ashes were interred in a golden sphere, Tesla’s favorite shape, on permanent display at the Tesla Museum in Belgrade.
Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court voided four of Marconi’s key patents, belatedly acknowledging Tesla’s innovations in radio. The AC system he championed and improved remains the global standard for power transmission.
Tesla never married and was generally a very solitary individual. He was much happier with his own company than in large crowds and spent most of his time in his workshop or his own imagination.
He was no hermit, however, as he socialized with many of the most famous people of his day at elegant dinner parties he hosted. Mark Twain frequented his laboratory and promoted some of his inventions. Tesla enjoyed a reputation as not only a great engineer and inventor, but also a philosopher, poet and connoisseur. He wore white gloves to dinner every night and prided himself on being a “dapper dresser”.
Immediately following the announcement of Tesla’s death, the U.S. Government quickly moved to acquire Tesla's research papers and personal items. The FBI instructed the Office of Alien Property to immediately take possession of all that remained of his property and possessions.
Because of the apparent nature of Tesla's work, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared it "most secret". In the U.S. Government's view, it was vitally important to get hold of his work before any foreign powers did, especially the Soviet Union. Thus, much of Tesla's work fell into government hands and relative obscurity.
Tesla's extended family, including his nephew Sava Kosanovic, requested to have at least his personal effects returned. Their requests were eventually granted and some of his personal items were returned to the family. Many of his papers, belongings and inventions are now housed in the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade. But some of Tesla's papers are still classified by the U.S. government.
Death and Legacy
Nikola Tesla at 78
Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia
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 Tesla’s genius.
In 1960, the General Conference on Weights and Measures named the SI unit of magnetic flux density the “tesla” in his honor. Since the 1990s, there has been a resurgence in popular interest in Tesla and his inventions.
Tesla discovered that the earth itself could create power (a lesson we only really seem to be learning – or perhaps relearning – now), created a motor with rotating magnetic fields, and received the foundation patents to everyday items like the remote control, lasers, and X-rays.
He dreamt of robotics at a time when the very idea was at the limit of sci-fi writers’ imaginations. He also believed that energy could be transmitted wirelessly, and with little loss – which has begun but is still in its infancy.
His contribution to the field of electromagnetic therapy has been immense. Tesla developed an apparatus for producing high-voltage, high-frequency “Tesla currents.” He first reasoned, then demonstrated on himself that very high voltages could be taken safely into the human body provided the frequencies were high enough — thus making a discovery in physiology. Soon after, adapted by Jacques-Arsène d'Arsonval and others, the Tesla
apparatus became the basic tool of diathermy and numerous other forms of high-frequency electro-therapeutics.
Today the name Tesla is still very much in circulation. The airport in Belgrade bears his name, as does the world’s best-known electric car, and the magnetic field strength of MRI scanners is measured in Tesla. Tesla understood the vast resources of the earth and how best to use them. He tirelessly did what he did for the betterment of humanity, to help people have a superior quality of life.
Few inventors contributed more to advances in science and engineering in the early 20th century than Nikola Tesla. As one of the Fathers of Electricity, Tesla did groundbreaking work on alternating current power system, electromagnetism, hydroelectric power, radio - wireless communication, and radar, to name a few. Many of his inventions (Tesla obtained some 300 patents in his lifetime) became the technology we take for granted today. When we flip a switch to turn on the light, we owe a lot of that electrical phenomena to Tesla.
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In their book, Tesla: Master of Lightning, authors Margaret Cheney and Robert Uth tell the story of the enigmatic genius from his birth in a little village in what is Croatia today, to his lonely death in a New York hotel room. The book, years in the making, combines archival documents and hundreds of photographs, compiled from the Tesla Museum in Belgrade (previously inaccessible to Western writers during much of the Cold War era), excerpts from Tesla's writings, as well as interviews with people who knew the man personally, to paint detailed snapshots of Tesla's life and to provide clear explanations of his (often very technical) work.