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The Life and Contributions to Science of Nikola Tesla

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Tesla, Nikola (July 10, 1856 – January 7, 1943), inventor and electrical engineer, was born in Smiljan, Croatia and died in New York City, New York, the son of Milutin and Ðuka Tesla, both of which were Orthodox priests. His mother Ðuka invented small household appliances, which triggered Tesla’s interest in invention; however his father was adamant about Tesla entering the priesthood. In 1873, when Tesla was 17 years old, he contracted Cholera and his father promised him that if he survived he would be able to attend an engineering school. Two years later Tesla recovered and enrolled in the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria to study mechanical and electrical engineering. It was here where Tesla was introduced to the Gramme dynamo, an electrical generator that produces direct current, by one of his professors. Tesla thought that it might be possible to do away with the sparking connections (commutators) completely, to this his professor laughed. However Tesla was not discouraged and he became obsessed with finding this solution.

Tesla’s process of invention was not a very healthy one. On an average day he would work from 10:30 a.m. till 5 a.m. the next day. Even into old age Tesla said he only slept two or three hours a night. He would form his ideas through moments of inspiration and planning out the invention to the last detail in his head before attempting to construct it. This was the case for his alternating current motor.

After dropping out of school in 1878, Tesla moved to Budapest in 1881 to work as the chief electrician for the Budapest Telephone Exchange. It was here where Tesla had a sudden flash of brilliance and came up with the idea of how to use alternating currents to get rid of the inefficient commutators. This invention would soon be known as the induction motor. Following this discovery he moved to France to begin working for the Continental Edison Company, where he made improvements to electrical equipment. It wasn’t long until in 1884 Tesla moved to New York City to work for Thomas Edison in hopes of bringing his alternating current motor to life.

Having gotten a recommendation from Charles Batchelor, one of Edison’s businesses associates in Europe, Tesla was promptly hired. Unfortunately however, Edison took little interest in Tesla’s groundbreaking idea of alternating currents and would have rather Tesla working on improving the efficiency of his direct current motors and generators that were powering New York City. Supposedly Edison promised Tesla $50,000, money that Edison didn’t have, if he could succeed. The idea of so much money appealed greatly to the struggling immigrant. Sure enough within a couple months of being employed Tesla accomplished this task and when asked for the pay Edison remarked, “When you become a full-fledged American you will appreciate an American joke.” Tesla was not amused, and continued to resign immediately.

After leaving Edison, Tesla’s talent did not go unnoticed. A group of investors approached him in hopes of improving arc lighting, which he achieved. They provided the funding for the Tesla Electric Light Company, which was really just a stepping-stone towards his dream of making the alternating current motor, a reality. Luckily, Mr. A.K. Brown of the Western Union Company, agreed to invest in Tesla’s idea. In a small laboratory Tesla made quick work in developing the parts for the system of alternating current power generation and transmission. Now Tesla’s invention is being used universally throughout the world today. “The motors I build there,” said Tesla, “were exactly as I imagined them. I made no attempt to improve the design, but merely reproduced the pictures as they appeared to my vision and the operation was always as I expected.” Tesla had finally managed to bring his idea to life; the only challenge ahead of him was to introduce it to the commercial market. He then filed for seven U.S. patents in 1887 in the field of polyphase AC motors and power transmission, which included a complete system of generators, transformers, transmission lines, motors and lighting. These would turn out to be the most valuable patents since the telephone. George Westinghouse soon there after purchased the patents for $60,000 who bought them in the hopes of supplying the nation with long-distance power. Tesla then used this money to buy himself a new laboratory.

Tesla’s patents were so revolutionary that they caused a full-scale industrial war between Westinghouse’s alternating current or Edison’s direct current. They were fighting for who would have the chosen technology and ultimately be the basis for future industrial development in America. Edison would launch a propaganda movement that told the people how dangerous alternating currents were. Westinghouse recalls Edison saying, “Direct current was like a river flowing peacefully to the sea, while alternating current was like a torrent rushing violently over a precipice.” However despite what Edison had to say, The Westinghouse Corporation won the bid for supplying The Chicago World’s Fair with light. Westinghouse’s winning bid proposed a more efficient and less pricey alternating current system than what Edison and General Electric had. After people saw the power of this system more than 80 percent of all the electrical devices ordered in the United States were for alternating current.

With the success of inventing the alternating current under his back, Tesla went on to inventing a handful of other technologies. Including one of the first AC hydroelectric power plants in the United States, at Niagara Falls. That harnessed the power of water into electricity. Other inventions included dynamos, the induction motor, radar technology, X-ray technology, the remote control and the rotating magnetic field. He also became obsessed with the idea of wireless transmission.

In 1900 Tesla set out to work on buiding a global, wireless communication system that would be transmitted through a large electrical tower. It could be used for sharing information and providing free electricity throughout the world. He soon gained funding from a group of investors, one of them being J. P. Morgan. He built a new lab with power plant and a massive transmission tower on a site on Long Island, New York, which would be called Wardenclyffe. However, doubts arose among his investors and his rival, Gugliemo Marconi, continued to make great advances with his own radio technologies. Tesla had to abandon the project and Wardenclyffe was shut down falling into foreclosure by 1915.

Discouraged from the failure of Wardenclyffe, Tesla had a nervous breakdown. Eventually, he returned to work, primarily as an engineering consultant. Then pursuing a side project of developing a “death beam” which sparked interest in the Soviet Union during World War II. Nikola Tesla then died on January 7, 1943, at the age of 86, in New York City. The legacy of the work he left behind him lives on to this day.

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