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American Characters

Nikola Tesla

July 2024
3min read

He was a study in contrasts: an inventive genius who discovered the alternating-current system that lit up the world, hut an inept husinessman who died in poverty; an extrovert showman who dazzled audiences hy lighting without wire’s a bulb held in his hand, but a reclusive bachelor whose greatest love, he once confided, was a sickly pigeon he had nursed back to health. He was a pacifist, but dabbled with “death rays,” a writer of poems though he kept no written records of his experiments, a visionary who foresaw interstellar communication but disparaged Einstein’s theories.

His name was Nikola Tesla, and it is surprising, in view of his great contributions to mankind, that he still remains in the shadow of Thomas Edison.

The two men knew—and disliked—each other. Their enmity focused on disagreement over the merits of direct versus alternating current. In the end Tesla triumphed, but it was a victory without laurels. When he was informed that he would share with Edison the Nobel Prize for physics in 1912, he refused to accept the honor. Hc was, he said, a discoverer of new principles, while Edison was only an inventor of useful appliances. As a result, neither man received the award, but today Edison’s name is almost synonymous with electricity, while Tesla’s is perpetuated only as that of a type of a transformer coil.

Raised in a rural Croatian village of modern-day Yugoslavia where he was born in 1856, Tesla, while still a child, was fascinated one day to see a snowball roll down a mountainside, growing in size and speed until it brought on an avalanche. The incident impressed him with the tremendous forces locked up in nature, and he later fashioned toys that harnessed the power of water and even the wing beats of insects. He also showed an uncanny ability to visualize models, drawings, and experiments without writing them out.

While studying electrical engineering in Austria in 1878, Tesla first turned his attention to the problems of generating direct current (which flows in only one direction). Four years later, a solution came to him in typical fashion. He was walking in a park in Budapest, reciting a poem to a companion, when he suddenly stopped, became rigid as if in a trance, and said, “Watch me!” Picking up a twig, he drew in the dirt a complete diagram of a rotating magnetic field. It was the key to unlocking the secret of alternating current (which reverses direction in a circuit at regular intervals) and led to his invention of the rotary motor, the polyphase power system, generators, dynamos, and transformers—all in use today.

An unhappy stint with a company in Paris that used Edison’s direct-current patents prompted Tesla to leave for America, where he hoped to find more willing ears for his ideas. In 1884 he arrived in New York with four cents in his pocket, some poems and technical articles he had written, pRins for a flying machine, and a letter of introduction to Edison, who hired him to work in his plant.

Tesla tried to persuade Edison to abandon the d.c. system because it provided only weak illumination and necessitated a power station every few blocks. Edison was not only unconvinced but also attacked Tesla’s a.c. system as dangerous, if not lethal. In 1886, Tesla quit because he felt Edison had reneged on a promise to pay him $50,000 for developing dynamos.

He went to work as a day laborer, even dug ditches, until he could get backing for a company of his own. Tesla took out the first of some seven hundred patents and in 1888 delivered before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers what is now considered a classic lecture on his discoveries that brought him to the attention of George Westinghouse, an Edison rival.

With Westinghouse’s backing, Tesla accepted the task of illuminating the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The result was a spectacular success, as was Tesla’s own stage performance in which one million volts of high-frequency alternating current passed through his body without harming him—an effective refutation of Edison’s charges. Later, the Tesla-Westinghouse partnership converted the hydraulic power of Niagara Falls into electrical energy and transmitted it to Buffalo, twenty-two miles away. By 1903 all new generating stations, including Edison’s, were employing Tesla’s a.c. system, and he was a celebrity.

Tesla often talked about making millions, but he generously tore up his contract with Westinghouse to save Westinghouse from losing his company, would not sue patent infringers, and dismissed the idea of manufacturing his own equipment. “This is small-time stuff,” he said. “I cannot be bothered with it.”

He continued to attract financial backers, but two of his later experiments aroused skepticism. To prove the earth is a reservoir of energy, Tesla built a giant 4,000,000-volt oscillator in Colorado Springs, Colorado; it produced an eerie display of electrical fireworks and inadvertently knocked out the city’s power supply. Then, in 1902, he erected a huge tower on Long Island, vowing to illuminate a fair in Europe with power transmitted across the ocean without wires. Before it was completed, however, he ran out of money.

His eccentricities, too, invited ridicule. He had odd eating habits and a phobia about germs, worked with the shades drawn except during lightning storms, and boasted that he slept only two hours a night—except for once a year, when he slept for five hours to build up a reserve of body energy.

Tesla’s writings anticipated radio, remote control, radar, medical diathermy, fluorescent and neon lamps, but in such vague, almost mystical terms that fellow scientists came to ignore them. By the time of his death in 1943 at the age of eighty-six, he was virtually forgotten.

Seven years earlier, Yugoslavia had honored him by establishing an institute in his name in Belgrade. The highest tribute accorded him by his adopted country was, ironically, the Edison Medal, which the American Institute of Electrical Engineers awarded him in 1917. Tesla turned it down at first because it was named for his bitter foe, and when he did agree to the presentation he had to be coaxed to the ceremony from a park where he was feeding pigeons.

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