Nikola Tesla is a scientist and inventor who is largely unknown by the general public, but has a cult following. In 1960 the General Conference on Weights and Measures honored him by using his name, tesla, for the SI unit of measurement for magnetic field strength. A tesla is one weber per square meter.

Nikola Tesla

Tesla was born in Croatia of Serbian parents on July 10, 1856. His father was an Orthodox priest and a poet. His mother was a housewife who invented appliances to help with household chores. Nikola inherited traits from both parents.Nikola Tesla(120772)Credit: Public domain courtesy Napoleon Sarona

Tesla had a knack for mathematics and the sciences at school. His father wanted Nikola to follow in his footsteps and become a priest, but the boy wanted to be an engineer. When Tesla was 17 he got cholera. His father told Nikola he could be an engineer if he recovered. He recovered, and Tesla studied mechanical and electrical engineering at the Austrian Polytechnic School at Graz, Austria. His need for only about three hours sleep a night gave him the ability to work long hours. His interest in mathematics and physics turned to electricity. At the University of Prague he did exceptional work the early years of schooling, but started gambling and dropped out before graduation.

In 1882 Tesla started to work for the Continental Edison Company in France where he designed and made improvements electrical machinery.

Edison and Tesla

Tesla arrived in America in 1884 with four cents in his pocket. Someone stole his money and belongings on the trip across. He also had some poems, personal items and a letter of introduction to Thomas Edison from Charles Batchelor of the Continental Edison Company in France.

When Tesla was 28 Thomas A. Edison hired him to work for the Edison Machine Works. Tesla solved some electrical problems and made improvements. In 1885 he told Edison he could improve the company’s inefficient direct current generators to run better and provide more service. Edison said he would pay him 50,000 dollars to do it. After several months he showed Edison he completed the task, and asked for the money. Edison told Tesla he was joking. He said Tesla would have to understand American humor. Edison offered to raise his pay from 8 dollars a week to 18 dollars a week. Tesla resigned. This created a lifelong animosity between the two men.   

Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing

In 1885, after Tesla quit working for Edison, he formed his own company. The company installed lighting systems Tesla designed. Some of these inventions were the first patents issued to him in the U. S. In 1887 he formed the Tesla Electric Company. Tesla and his backers set up the company to develop equipment using alternating current.

Tesla tried to convince Edison that alternating current (AC) was better than direct current (DC). AC allowed electricity to be transmitted further distances. Tesla reexamined ideas he’d formulated in college for motors and discovered alternating magnetic current applications in 1882. This was the basis for the concept of the polyphase alternating current system. He received 7 patents using the AC principle to invent motors, transformers and generators, transmission lines and lighting in 1887. He sold the patents to George Westinghouse, and eventually DC became the electrical energy that powers the world.

Tesla Coil

Nikola Tesla got American citizenship and invented the coil with his name in 1891. It is a high voltage resonant transformer without an iron core. It steps up high voltages to high

voltages at high frequencies. It is aTesla CoilCredit: Public Domain resonant system that uses low kilohertz and a double tuned circuit so energy can be transferred between two systems. It made radio possible to transmit over distances. Radio and television still used the Tesla coil.

Tesla and Marconi

Guglielmo Marconi invented the radio. That’s the accepted knowledge. The radio’s invention became the center of patent lawsuits, disappointment and the ugly side of science and invention.

Tesla received basic American patents for a radio in 1900. The patent office refused Macaroni’s patent applications later that year. Tesla wasn’t concerned because he remarked “Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents.”

The problem with Marconi’s radio was that it could only broadcast a short distance. Tesla used his coil which allowed it to reach a range of 50 miles. In 1895 a fire destroyed his lab just before he was going to do the tests.

In 1904 the U. S. Patent office rescinded its decisions and gave a patent to Marconi for the radio. When Marconi received the Nobel Prize in 1911 for inventing the radio Tesla sued for patent infringement. He couldn’t afford to continue the case. A few months after Tesla died in 1943 the U. S. Supreme Court validated his patent for the radio.

Colorado Springs

Tesla went to Colorado in 1899 intending to purchase land for a laboratory. He received financing from John Jacob Astor he built the complex near Pike’s Peak. He had concluded electrical power transmission without wires was possible in thin, more conductive, air.

Tesla’s plan was to create the effects of lightning. He built an eighty foot tall wooden tower. On top of the tower was a 142 foot metal mast and a large copper ball on top of the mast. He designed a large Tesla coil built to send electrical impulses into the earth.

After testing and full power applied, the system produced 100 foot long bolts of lightning. It is the largest display of manmade lightning. The test burned out the El Paso Electrical Company dynamo, and shut down power for the town of Colorado Springs. He experimented in the area for nine months.

Tesla kept notes on the experiments, but his notes for the results were vague. He possibly received radio waves from space and thought they were messages from Mars. He transmitted power strong enough to illuminate light bulbs stuck in the ground several miles away. He transmitted low-frequency waves from the earth’s surface into the ionosphere. He calculated the frequency to be 8 hertz. This was confirmed in the 1950s.

The results of the Colorado test aren’t certain. Tesla went back to New York convinced he could transmit wireless power.

The Wardenclyffe Project

When he returned to New York, he wrote an article for Century Magazine. In this article he suggested several things. Among them, humans would be able to control weather with an electrical system, weapons that would make war impossible, a worldwide communication system.

J. P. Morgan read the article. Morgan approached Tesla and offered $150,000 to build the power plant system to transmit electrical power. The amount was too small, and Tesla planned to demonstrate a wireless electrical transmission system to show the possibilities.

The Wardenclyffe project required a 187 foot tower with a 55 ton steel sphere on top. Underneath the tower, a shaft went 120 feet into the earth. Sixteen iron pipes went 300 feet deeper.

Nikola Tesla(113723)Credit: Public Domain Time Magazine

Marconi sent a transmission across the ocean. And it was cheaper. The stock market crashed. Morgan refused Tesla more money. In 1905 the Wardenclyffe system made some incredible displays, but Tesla had to shut down the project in 1917 for lack of money. A problem was that no one wanted to invest in a power distribution system that they couldn’t put a meter on to charge consumers for the electricity.

The Eccentric

Some of Tesla’s current popularity comes with pseudo-science attached to him. This may because he made wild claims and predictions in his later years. One was his assertion that he received radio signals from Mars at his laboratory in Colorado Springs. Some think the most reasonable explanation is he may have picked up the background microwave radiation from space. This was later discovered by scientists at Bell Labs. Another was his claim to be able to split the earth in half. He claimed a death ray was possible. These claims bordered absurd in the early twentieth century, and he became known as a crackpot.

Nikola Tesla was 6’-2” tall and weighed 142 pounds during his adult life. He was an eccentric visionary. When he made something, it was as if he saw it first. When he saw these things, he neglected to write them down, or do calculations on paper for verification. He spoke 8 languages, and could memorize books. He held approximately 300 patents, invented the florescent light, remote control, x-rays and other common appliances. He was undeniably a genius and visionary, but not a good businessman. He died on January 7, 1943, broke. Two thousand people attended the state funeral. The FBI confiscated his papers and notebooks because he wasn’t a natural born citizen.