Profiles in Greatness: Inventor with a Global Vision

Though rarely given the spotlight in classroom history books, Nikola Tesla had as much influence on modern electricity and global communications as Thomas Edison. Father of the alternating current (AC) as well as the radio, Tesla was way ahead of his time in envisioning a world connected by wireless communications.

We had the chance to meet up with Tesla’s creative and inventive spirit at the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.

Q: Your father was an Orthodox priest, yet you pursued a career in science. Did you ever feel conflicted between religion and science?

A: “There is no conflict between the ideal of religion and the ideal of science, but science is opposed to theological dogmas because science is founded on fact. To me, the universe is simply a great machine which never came into being and never will end.”

Born on the Balkan Peninsula when the region was under the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1856, Nicola Tesla grew up under the tutelage of a highly intellectual father who wished his son to follow in his footsteps as a priest. And while Tesla was an avid reader, he credited his innate imagination to his mother, who often invented appliances, including a mechanical eggbeater, to help her with home and farm work.

Passionate about mathematics and science (he was able to perform integral calculus in his head), Tesla persuaded his father to allow him to attend the Austrian Polytechnic School to study engineering. After working for the National Telegraph Co. in Budapest, he moved to Paris and began work as an engineer for the Continental Edison Co., an overseas extension of Thomas Edison’s work.

Q: As a young man, you made an incredible leap of faith in coming to the United States in hopes of meeting Edison. What was your experience like working with the great inventor?

A: “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, 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 doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of his labor.”

By the 1860s, direct current (DC) electricity was sent over wires and was the common form of electric transmission. But Tesla was passionate about developing the AC motor, which would allow electricity to be transmitted via wires at varying currents through transformers, an advantage over the voltage limitations of DC power. But he couldn’t interest anyone in Europe in investing in his research.

He became determined to meet the man considered the greatest electrical engineer in the world—Thomas Edison—hoping to find a partner and supporter in the respected inventor. He managed to obtain a letter of introduction from one of Edison’s business partners in Europe, and at age 28, Tesla set off for New York City, with only 4 cents to his name.

He found New York City an ugly and dangerous place, crisscrossed with wires carrying the DC current that had begun to power the city in the 1870s. Tesla felt there was a better and safer way to generate electricity, but when he walked into Edison’s office, the older engineer considered Tesla’s ideas about AC power a source of competition rather than inspiration. He did, however, take Tesla up on his offer to improve Edison’s DC generation plants. Tesla said Edison offered him $50,000 if he could do it.

Like Edison, Tesla required very little sleep—only two or three hours a night, even into old age. When Tesla completed the DC plant improvements, Edison claimed the $50,000 offer had been a joke. Disgruntled, Tesla promptly resigned and set out on his own.

Q: What made you willing to risk so much, including your reputation and the support of the scientific community, to develop AC power? Was it the promise of fortune you saw on the horizon?

A: “Money does not represent such a value as men have placed upon it. All my money has been invested into experiments with which I have made new discoveries enabling mankind to have a little easier life…. The desire that guides me in all I do is the desire to harness the forces of nature to the service of mankind.”

Once on his own, Tesla began to draw the attention of investors, including Western Union Co., which backed the young inventor’s development of the AC motor. He had tremendous faith that by taking advantage of scientific knowledge and thinking problems through carefully, he could come up with workable solutions for advancing progress. And in a short time, Tesla had created all the components for the power generation system that is used throughout the world today.

In 1887, he filed for seven U.S. patents and drew the attention of George Westinghouse, inventor of railroad air brakes. He offered Tesla $60,000 and 150 shares of Westinghouse Corp. stock in exchange for the patents if Tesla would help develop long-distance power transmission.

The result was the start of a raging war between AC and DC power with Edison fighting for his life against his former employee. The tables turned when Westinghouse won the bid for illuminating the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. They showed AC power to be more efficient and cost-effective than DC. After the World’s Fair, more than 80 percent of all electrical devices manufactured in the U.S. operated on AC power.

Q: How do you account for your ongoing success as an inventor? Wasn’t there ever a time when you wanted to give up?

A: “If I were ever assailed by doubt of ultimate success I would dismiss it by remembering the words of that great philosopher, Lord Kelvin, who after witnessing some of my experiments said to me with tears in his eyes: ‘I am sure you will do it.’”

Since childhood Tesla had dreamed of harnessing the power of Niagara Falls, and in 1893, he finally earned the opportunity. The Niagara Falls Commission awarded Westinghouse the contract to turn the power of the falls into electricity, a scheme that even the largest investors, such as J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor and W.K. Vanderbilt, were uncertain about. Tesla, who was known for visualizing his inventions entirely in his mind, without drawings, used what some called his “three-dimensional imagination” and dreamed up a concept for a generator.

At midnight on Nov. 16, 1896, the first electrical power harnessed from the falls reached Buffalo, and, within only a few years, the falls were helping to electrify all of New York City.

Tesla continued to experiment, developing what became known as the Tesla coil. The coil took the usual 60-cycle-per-second household current and bumped it up to ever higher frequencies and voltages, allowing for the creation of the first neon and fluorescent illumination as well as the world’s first X-ray photographs.

Q: Many thought you were mad, envisioning wireless communication. What was your vision of the future?

A: “As soon as it is completed, it will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere…. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing or print can be transferred from one to another place.”

As the 20th century dawned, Tesla’s career began to take a turn for the worse, as a number of his patents were reversed. His patent for the invention of the radio was handed over to Guglielmo Marconi, whose wireless telegraph company was thriving in the stock market. Marconi won the Nobel Prize in 1911, and a few years later, Tesla sued the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. for copyright infringement. But it was not until 1943, shortly after Tesla’s death, that his patent for the invention of the radio was restored.

Despite the setbacks in his later career and many expensive failed attempts to demonstrate wireless energy transmission, Tesla never lost hope. Many of his ideas, even though he couldn’t put them into practice in his lifetime, survived him, including his ideas for radar, helicopters, airplanes and, most important, his notion that the world would one day be connected by a powerful global wireless communications system.

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