‘Tis Tesla’s Day! May the (Alternating) Current Be With You!

‘Tis Tesla’s Day! May the (Alternating) Current Be With You! July 10, 2016


Nikola Tesla, engineer both electrical and mechanical, physicist, futurist, and inventor was born on this day in 1856 in the village of Smijian, in what is today Croatia, although at the time a province of the Austrian Emprie. His father was a Serbian Orthodox priest as was his mother’s father. After a number of adventures, most of which probably happened, he entered the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz. There his brilliance became apparent. However he quickly found himself in several conflicts and became addicted to gambling. He ended up leaving without a degree. Later he audited classes at the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague.

From there Tesla worked as a draftsman and electrician. He is said to have developed a telephone amplifier, but he didn’t pursue a patent. This would not be the first time he developed or said he developed an invention but did not patent it. This would in fact become a theme of the legend that grew around him.

In 1882 he moved to France where he went to work for the Continental Edison Company. After two years he immigrated to the United States where Thomas Edison personally hired him for his machine works in New York. There Tesla quickly moved from simple assignments to be given complex problems to solve. Tesla would later claim that Edison, a notorious skin flint told him if he solved several problems with Edison’s direct current project he would give him a bonus of fifty thousand dollars. Tesla’s story is that he did it, Edison reneged, and Tesla walked. Whatever actually happened their personal enmity for each other would grow over the years to epic proportions.

He found backers to form the Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing firm. Here he, or rather his company received patents for several electrical arc light illumination systems and electric machine commutators. Soon, however, Tesla found himself forced out by his partners. He spent a hard year doing odd jobs and even digging ditches to put food on the table.

Eventually he found new backers and started the Tesla Electric Company which developed generators and electric motors. It was at this company that he developed an induction motor that ran an on alternating current, which would prove to be a revolutionary development.

Westinghouse purchased the licenses to the motor and engaged Tesla to work for them. And with this Tesla found himself a principal player in what would come to be called the War of Currents.

Now free to do what he wanted the way he wanted, Tesla opened his own lab. Here, among other things, he developed and patented his Tesla Coil. For the next years he worked on numerous projects and involved himself in several disastrous business dealings that brought him to economic ruin.

But he continued to work. He experimented with X rays and radios. In 1900 he thought he detected radio messages from outer space. And there was a rush of publicity. Here the hint that while he was brilliant, he might also be unstable began to be whispered. The contours of a mad scientist began to take shape.

In 1915 Reuters reported that Tesla and Edison were the joint winners of the Nobel Prize for physics. But it was soon corrected that the prize went to two other scientists. Stories have spun out of that event ever since, mostly of the conspiracy sort.

In 1928 Tesla received his last patent for a biplane that could take off vertically.

Tesla never married and maintained a limited social life. He lived at the New Yorker Hotel for the balance of his days. Eating almost always by himself at Delmonico’s and later at the Waldorf-Astoria. He was obsessed with pigeons and was diligent in taking a daily walk into the park where he would feed them.

In later years he claimed to have developed a death ray. He wrote and gave talks on the subject. And he claimed to have actually built one, but no one ever saw the device.

On January 7th, 1943, Tesla died alone in his room at the hotel.

He was said to have collected three hundred patents in his life-time. Eventually the stories about him began to grow to epic proportions. His rivalry with Edison became the stuff of legend. Stories of his inventions real and imagined catapulted him into the public imagination as the brilliant if mad scientist who touched the very face of God.

Some like to celebrate his birthday, which I remind you is today as Tesla Day.

I’m one of them…

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