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The Life and Locations of Nikola Tesla

Posted on February 24, 2012 by peter bell

Nikola Tesla, inventor

Nikola Tesla was a genius who spoke eight languages, had over 300 patents, and whose work fundamentally changed the nature of technological society.  He also died alone and penniless in a New York hotel room.  While this blog post can’t possibly explain how his story ended up this way, we can take a brief look at some of the more formative events of this extraordinary man’s life.

Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856 in Smiljin, a tiny village in what was then the Croatian Military Frontier of the Austrian Empire (present-day Croatia).  His father was a Serbian Orthodox priest, and his mother an illiterate (although educated) homemaker.  The fourth of five children, the Teslas moved to nearby Gospić in 1862.  Nikola attended the Gymnasium Karlovac from 1870 to 1873, becoming enamored with mechanical and electrical engineering and graduating a year early.

Tesla attended both the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz (1875) and the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague (1880), but left both institutions without a degree.  In 1880, he moved to Budapest to work for the National Telephone Company.  While there, he made a number of improvements in the telephone’s mechanical systems including repeaters, amplifiers, and possibly the world’s first loudspeaker.

In 1882, Tesla moved to Paris to work for the Continental Edison Company, the European branch of Thomas Edison’s electrical power monopoly.  It was during this period that Tesla began to experiment with the induction motor, a new type of motor that used rotating magnetic fields to create alternating current (AC power).  He received patents on this work in 1888.

The first induction (AC) motor, created by Nikola Tesla

On June 6, 1884, Nikola Tesla arrived in New York City with four cents in his pocket, a sketch of a flying machine, some computations, and a letter of recommendation from his former employer in Paris (Charles Batchelor) addressed to Thomas Edison.  The letter informed Edison that, “I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!”

Tesla outlined his plans for alternating current to Thomas Edison, who had built his entire enterprise on direct current.  Alternating current was safer, more efficient, and could travel longer distances.  The direct current power that was being supplied at the time was extremely dangerous.  Sagging power lines often led to electrocutions, and residents of Brooklyn were so adept at jumping away from the electric arcs from passing trains, they named their baseball team after it- the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Edison was threatened, but savvy.  He dismissed the concept of AC power outright, then hired Tesla to make improvements on his DC power plants.  Edison was so incredulous of Tesla’s abilities that he offered Tesla $50,000 if the young immigrant could make the proposed improvements.  Tesla accepted the position, and went to work on the monetary challenge in his off hours.  In a matter of months, Tesla provided the solution to Edison.  In a legendary exchange, Edison claimed it was a joke and refused to pay Tesla.  Edison stated, “”When you become a full-fledged American you will appreciate an American joke.”  Tesla immediately quit, and the War of the Currents was on.

The professional competition between the two inventors escalated to ridiculous levels.  Edison was instrumental in designing (and having implemented) the first electric chair execution as a publicity stunt to show the “dangers” of AC power (with an AC motor he surreptitiously acquired from Tesla’s business partner).

But Tesla’s system was the one that was awarded the honor of lighting the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  The fair was dubbed the Columbian Exposition (to honor the 400th anniversary of mass murderer, Christopher Columbus), and it was the first fair to have electricity.  President Grover Cleveland turned on the switch to “The City of Lights” for the amazed crowds.  An estimated 27 million people visited the fair, and AC’s future became blindingly evident.  Tesla completed much of the work for the fair, as well as numerous electric exhibits, at his lab on Houston Street in Manhattan.

Niagara Falls, Ontario

Due in part to his successful showcase at the World’s Fair, Tesla and his business partner (George Westinghouse) were given the contract for the first large-scale alternating current electric generating plant at Niagara Falls.  The project was a mammoth undertaking and an engineering marvel.  For five years, the robber baron project investors (J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor, Lord Rothschild, and W. K. Vanderbilt among them) chewed on their nails as Tesla confidently implemented untested machinery and system arrangements.  At midnight on November 16, 1896, the switch was thrown, and Buffalo had power.  Customers lined up, and in a few years Broadway in New York City was awash in the artificial glow of Niagara Falls-generated electricity.  In response, all of Edison’s old power plants made the transition from direct to alternating power.  Today, there is only one building that remains of the original Niagara Falls construction, but there are two statues dedicated to Tesla there (one on the U.S side, and one on the Canadian side).

While the project was an enormous success, the Westinghouse Company was in dire straits from the War of the Currents and stock manipulation pressure (from J.P. Morgan).  It was at this point that Tesla did something unprecedented.  When his friend and business partner George Westinghouse asked Tesla to allow him to escape from the original contract that gave Tesla generous royalties (some estimates are as high as $10 million [in 1896]), Tesla ripped up the contract.  Tesla allowed the company to survive, and then he went back to experimentation.

In the intervening years, Tesla made a number of achievements. He developed the Tesla oscillator, which was instrumental in creating radio communication.  He continued experimenting with higher frequencies, making some of the first X-ray images.  He developed some of the first neon and fluorescent lights.

In 1898, he demonstrated the first radio-controlled vessel at Madison Square Garden, calling the R.C. boat a “teleautomaton.”  His descriptions and ideas for remotely controlled machines were some of the earliest applicable examples of robotics, but he is rarely given credit for this.

Multiple exposure of Tesla’s CO Springs lab

Tesla became increasingly focused on the concept of transmitting wireless energy.  His early successes in illuminating vacuum tubes without wires at his lab led him to consider ramping up his efforts.  In 1899, Tesla moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado to begin large-scale experiments with wireless energy.  He devised a number of theories on how to transmit electricity, using the earth and atmosphere (in different combinations) as conductors.  The extent and true nature of Tesla’s work in Colorado Springs is unknown. At one point, he constructed a 142-foot metal tower that shot man-made lightening bolts a hundred feet in the air, and this in turn fried the generators at the El Paso Electric Company and the entire town lost power.  Whatever Tesla deduced in Colorado Springs, it gave him enough confidence to try his theories out on an even grander scale at the Wardenclyffe Laboratory in Shoreham, NY.

Originally designed in 1899 and constructed in 1901, Wardenclyffe was to be Tesla’s magnum opus.  He had convinced J.P. Morgan that the construction would provide a system of worldwide wireless communication that could relay telephone messages, stock quotes, private messages, and even pictures.  Morgan gave Tesla $150,000 to begin construction without finding out Tesla’s true intention: to create a functioning, large-scale demonstration of his theories on wireless energy transmission.  The focal point of the laboratory was a 187-foot metal tower that loomed over the Long Island Sound, its base conductors drilled 120 feet below ground.

Wardenclyffe Laboratory (unfinished), circa 1902

Then on Dec. 12, 1901, everything changed.  On that date, Marconi sent the first radio message across the Atlantic (using 17 Tesla patents).  While Tesla was undisturbed, Morgan saw it as signal of a cheaper way to proceed.  When Tesla revealed the true scope of the project to Morgan- that Wardenclyffe could provide limitless wireless energy to everybody- Morgan asked the idealist where he could install a meter to charge them.  When Tesla couldn’t provide a satisfactory answer, Morgan pulled the plug.  Wardenclyffe limped on until 1915, but was then foreclosed on to pay outstanding debts.  The enormous tower was dynamited in 1917 to prevent German U-Boats from using it as a location marker.

While Tesla may not have had impeccable business acumen, he continued to make achievements, developing some of the first work on radar and VTOL aircraft.  His behavior began to exhibit symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, where he became obsessed with the number three.  His eccentricities were only compounded by his work on something called “a death ray.”

On May 18, 1917, Tesla was awarded the Edison Medal by the Engineer’s Club in New York City.  I can only imagine the amount of teeth-grinding that went into accepting that medal.

For the last ten years of his life (from 1933 to 1943), Nikola Tesla lived alone in the New Yorker Hotel.  He tended to pigeons that visited his windows, and if you believe the overly dramatic film The Secret Life of Nikola Tesla (1980), spoke to dead people.

Tesla’s golden sphere urn, Belgrade

On January 7, 1943, Tesla died from heart thrombus at the age of 86.  The subsequent events surrounding Tesla’s remaining work are fraught with conspiracy.  It has been said that the safe that contained Tesla’s “death-ray” papers was emptied when authorities arrived at his hotel room (insert spooky Theremin music).  What is factually known is that the FBI accumulated the material- over 150 trunks and two truckloads of Tesla’s work and various apparatuses- for several years before it was released to his heir.  Eventually, the work and Tesla’s cremated remains were made open to the public at the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.

On February 26, 1994, the corner of W 40th St and 6th Ave in Manhattan was renamed Nikola Tesla Corner.  For sixty years the city had a selfless inventor who worked for the betterment of mankind, but you don’t have to be in New York to appreciate the guy.  Just turn on a light switch.

Croatia

Smiljin

Karlovac

Serbia

Belgrade

U.S.A.

New York City, NY

Shoreham, NY

Niagara Falls, NY

Colorado Springs, CO

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