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Nikola Tesla, a Serbian American Inventor, largely absent from history, despite the high regards his brilliance has been awarded in the modern day. Born to the Tesla family in modern-day Croatia in the village of Smiljian on July 10th, 1856, Nikola as the fourth child of five with three sisters, Milka, Angelina, and Marica, and an older brother, Dane. However, when he was 12 Dane died in a horse-riding accident where he was thrown from a horse and broke his skull when Nikola was five.
Supposedly, Tesla was born during an electrical storm, the midwife taking it as a bad omen and claiming that Nikola would be “a child of darkness”, to which his mother replied, “no, he will be a child of light”, perhaps foreseeing what little Nikola would bring to the world. His mother was Duka Tesla, a home inventor, and his father, Milutin Tesla, was an Eastern Orthodox Priest. Even when he was young, Tesla loved tinkering and began displaying his impeccable memory, which Tesla always attributed to his mother’s side along with his remarkable intelligence. As a young boy, Tesla attended a primary school in Smiljian where he learned arithmetic, religion, and German among other subjects. Due to his memory, Tesla learned new languages easily and could remember and recite entire books and mathematical tables, something that constantly befuddled his teachers, many of whom assumed he was cheating owing to his ability to mentally perform integral calculus. When he was seven, his family moved to Gospic, completing primary and middle school there. He subsequently moved to Karlovac, receiving his secondary education from the Higher Real Gymnasium which prepared him for college and advanced study and where he graduated in 1873. Unfortunately, after graduating in 1873, he contracted Cholera and was bedridden for nine months before recovering. It was during this time that Tesla finally elicited permission from his father to allow him to become an engineer, Milutin having before denied Tesla’s wish in favor of pushing him towards priesthood.
Due to the fact that his family was convinced that Tesla would most likely die, his father promised Nikola that he would not stand in the way of him enrolling in university to become an engineer if he survived. Luckily for Tesla, he was able to live through his illness, and although for a period of time in 1874 he stole away to the woods to avoid conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army, in 1875, he enrolled to Austrian Polytechnic on a scholarship, passing nine exams in his first year before he lost his scholarship at the end of his second year, came to be addicted to gambling where he lost his allowance and tuition. Although after a while he won back what he lost, he did not graduate from university, receiving no grades for his third year and dropping out. It was while he was in college however, that he became fascinated by electricity after being introduced to it by his physics professor and had his first quarrels with direct current motors due to the flaws he saw in them. Subsequent to losing his scholarship, he moved to Slovenia and cut ties with his family in order to avoid telling them of his failures. He continued to gamble and worked as a draftsman for a period of time. However, his father soon came to him, imploring him to come home, to which Tesla refused. The next year witnessed the death of Tesla’s father due to an undefined illness, which some say was a stroke. Tesla returned to his high school where he taught for a year.
In 1880, Tesla’s uncles succeeded in pulling together the money for Tesla to study in Budapest, Hungary. While he was on a walk in Budapest, the idea for Tesla’s alternating current motor famously came to him as a kind of ‘vision’ which he drew out in the sand as the friend he was out with looked on puzzledly. Still in Budapest, Tesla drew up plans for a rotating magnetic field which would act as the foundations for future electronics. In 1882, he then moved to France and continued developing his ideas in electrical equipment, though he failed to attract any attention. He left for America in 1884 with the goal of going to work for Thomas Edison whom was regarded as the world’s expert in electricity. After Tesla arrived in New York, Edison recognized the potential in Tesla, offering him 50,000 dollars to fix some issues that Edison’s company was having with his direct current motors. When Tesla completed what was asked of him and went to Edison for the money he promised him, Edison dismissed it as a joke, telling Tesla, “My friend, you do not understand our American humor.” Rather, he offered him a raise of $10 added to his salary of $18 a week. Upset, Tesla resigned from the company and ventured out on his own. A group of investors funded Tesla for a short period of time in which he created an immensely profitable arc light, built a dynamo machine to reduce sparking. Tesla attempted to share his other ideas for motors and electrical transmission equipment, though his investors expressed no interest, Tesla eventually losing control of his patents and being dumped by his investors. Ironically, Tesla ended up digging ditches for Edison for $2 a day in order to survive. He was eventually funded by A.K Brown in 1887, Westinghouse later coming to who partner with Tesla to build the Tesla Electric Company where Tesla was able to develop his Alternating Current Motor which he patented in 1888. Westinghouse bought a portion of Tesla’s patents and signed a contract with him, offering him $2.50 in royalties per horsepower sold. With the rising success of Tesla’s more efficient Alternating Current Motor, Edison and his backer J.P. Morgan sought to discredit him, instigating the War of Currents. Edison carried out several inhumane demonstrations, such as the development of the electric chair, to paint the AC motor as a dangerous appliance that should not be used for homes. However, after securing the exclusive right to power the first all-electric Chicago World’s fair with an Alternating Current Motor, Westinghouse and Tesla dazzled crowds with their lights, securing AC Current as the victor of the War of Currents.
With the money Westinghouse supplied him with, Tesla was able to construct a laboratory where he conducted many experiments with electricity and other things. Unfortunately, soon Westinghouse was driven into a financial corner, his backers forcing him to ask Tesla to forgo the royalties Westinghouse owed him. Tesla, grateful for the aid of Westinghouse, ripped up the contract, walking away from a fortune in order for Westinghouse to save his company. After this, Tesla continued experimenting, and he patented his Tesla coil, which became a fundamental part of wireless technologies, Tesla avidly testing with wireless engineering. It was furthermore around this time, when Tesla became a U.S. citizen in 1891. In 1893, Edward Dean Adams, the head of the Niagara Falls Cataract Construction Company asked Tesla to help him find a way to capture the power of the falls; something that had been Tesla’s dream since he was a small child. Tesla settled on using a two-phase AC system, Westinghouse Electric awarded a contract to assemble the two-phase system. However, simultaneously General Electric was given a contract to construct the AC distribution system, General Electric at this point having attempted to take over Westinghouse Electric, fierce patent battles sparking between both firms. Despite their rivalries, the two companies reached an agreement to share a patent, and they were able to light up Buffalo, New York utilizing the power provided by the dynamism of the falls. Though after this, Westinghouse fell on hard times, Westinghouse in 1897 asking Tesla to release the licensing agreement and allowing the company to purchase his patents for $216,000. Tesla agreed, and with this he was free to experiment in his laboratory in Manhattan where he created many inventions including his electrical resonant transformer circuit, neon lights, x-ray technologies, radio technologies, and a terminal vacuum tube that worked with the Tesla coil which he used in the development of x-rays. Tesla also foresaw that in the future, everyone would be able to hold a device in their hand that would allow them to communicate with anyone across the world, Tesla predicting the emergence of smartphones decades before they became a reality.
Additionally, Tesla researched remote-control technologies, demonstrating with a small boat at an exhibition in Madison Square, attempting to sell the idea to the military such as with remote-controlled torpedoes, though they declined. Tragically, a fire destroyed his lab in Manhattan, Tesla then choosing to relocate to Colorado Springs, friends there supplying him the necessary power for his experiments. While in Colorado Springs, Tesla conducted many important experiments with wireless technologies as well as terrestrial stationary waves, Tesla dreaming of wireless signals extending from Pike’s Peak all the way to Paris. He also discovered the existence of resonant frequencies and created artificial lightning within his laboratory. In 1899 a businessman, John Jacob Astor IV offered $100,000 to Nikola Tesla in order for him to design a new lighting system, Tesla using the money to conduct further experiments, though Astor would later die in the tragedy of the Titanic in 1912. In the January of 1900 Tesla made his last lab entry in his journal before he tore down his lab four years later, selling everything inside to pay off his debts. Despite this nevertheless, Tesla developed some of his most important discoveries, such as terrestrial stationary waves, Tesla equating the Earth to a “giant tuning fork” which could be used as a conductor. Additionally, in one experiment he lit 200 lamps wirelessly from 25 miles away.
In 1900, Tesla partnered with J.P. Morgan in order to build the Wardenclyffe Laboratory, a tower on Long Island which would provide everyone in the world with wireless technology taken from the Earth itself. However, Morgan abandoned the project when he learned that there would be no way to profit from it, and Wardenclyffe would be sold in 1902 for $20,000 and torn down in 1917 for real estate. To add to the insult, Italian Inventor Marconi was awarded the patent for the first radio technologies in 1901 even though Tesla had previously applied for two patents in radio technology in 1897, yet the courts ruled toward Marconi due to his powerful backers. Tesla would lose out on his royalties and Marconi would be considered the father of radio technologies before the courts would recognize Tesla’s claims after his death in 1943. He attempted to become a consultant, though his eccentricities proved to be too much. He continued inventing, designing a 200-horsepower engine in 1906, and introducing the idea of using electricity in sonar in order to find enemy submarines in 1917, though this proposal was dismissed and wouldn’t come up again until 1930. He next worked as a chief engineer for an Allis-Chalmers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for five years. Then in 1934 Westinghouse picked him back up as their consultant. As his physical and mental health began to deteriorate, Tesla lived out the remainder of his life in a hotel in New York.
In 1935, he was requested to create a motor to power a car, Tesla producing a small black box that he claimed worded by “a mysterious radiation that came out of the aether”, which people took as a sign that the once brilliant inventor’s mind had fallen to the gutter. It was around this time where Tesla claimed to have come up with the idea for his infamous death ray which would ‘bring the end to all war.’ He also asserted that he could split the Earth in half “like an apple.”
Around this time he indulged in a hobby of feeding, and communicating as he claimed, with the city’s pigeons. He would take home and nurse ill pigeons back to health, and have someone go out for him when he was incapable. Shortly before his death, he claimed to have fallen in love with a pigeon, stating “Yes, I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me.” and when this pigeon died, he wrote, “When that pigeon died, something went out of my life. Up to that time I knew a certainty that I would complete my work, no matter how ambitious my program, but when that something went out of my life, I knew my life’s work was finished.” Most likely suffering from extreme Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, some of the oddities that Tesla began displaying as he grew older were a refusal to touch hair, an obsession with excessive cleanliness and the number 3, a special aversion towards pearls, so much that he refused to speak to a woman who was wearing them, and a need to have exactly 18 napkins on the table at mealtimes among other things. Finally, Tesla passed away in his hotel room at The New Yorker, A Wyndham Hotel, in New York on January 7, 1943, at the age of 86. By the time of his death Tesla held around 300 patents for his various inventions, the most famous of which includes his Alternating Current motor. In his life and after, Tesla has received the Order of the Yugoslav Crown, the John Scott Legacy Medal and Premium, the IEEE Edison Medal, the IEEE Nikola Tesla Award, the Elliott Cresson Medal and the Order of the White Lion, as well as many others. Presumably, Tesla and Edison were supposed to receive the Nobel Prize together, though neither wanted to share it or accept the award if the other were to be given it first. Additionally, Tesla has been inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame and has also been awarded several honorary doctorates from many various universities.
Throughout his life, Tesla never married, despite being popular with ladies, Tesla often described as rather attractive with a newspaper writing that, “Nikola Tesla was almost the tallest, almost the thinnest and certainly the most serious man who goes to Delmonico’s regularly … He has eyes set very far back in his head. They are rather light … He is very thin, is more than six feet tall and weighs less than a hundred and forty pounds. He has very big hands… his thumbs are remarkably big, even for such big hands.. Nikola Tesla has a head that spreads out at the top like a fan. His head is shaped like a wedge, his chin is as pointed as an icepick. His mouth is too small. His chin, though not weak, is not strong enough … He has that amount of self-love and self-confidence which usually goes with success. And he differs from most men who are written and talked about in that he has something to tell.” Tesla claimed that it would distract him from his work, and stated that his abilities were linked to his chastity. However, Tesla did maintain many friendly relations, some of his acquaintances including the likes of Mark Twain, Robert Underwood, and Francis Marion Crawford. Tesla had an exceptionally positive relationship with his parents, attributing his success to their support. Tesla had many viewpoints on society and religion. He believed in Eugenics, stating that only desirable parents should reproduce, and those who were unsuitable should be prevented from becoming parents. He also stated that one of the reasons he never married was because he felt that he would never be worthy of a woman, viewing them as superior to men in every way, though later in his life he found some distaste for women’s attempts to compete with men, yet he still believed that the future would be ruled by a kind of “Queen Bee.” Tesla himself did not personally have faith in superior powers, though he did enjoy reading about Christianity and Buddhism.
Despite the fact that he never gained considerable wealth or status during his life, his legacy continues to live on as Tesla became one of the most celebrated people of the 20th century. A pioneer, his mind living centuries ahead of the rest of his time, it was Tesla’s visions that made many of what we know today possible, from smartphones to electric lights to radios and more. Notwithstanding, today the story of Tesla inspires so many to venture out and achieve great feats.
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