Nikola Tesla: The Forgotten Genius

“Albert Einstein was once asked, ‘How does it feel to be the smartest man alive?’, to which he responded, ‘I don’t know, you’ll have to ask Nikola Tesla.’ ”

July 10th, 1856. The sky was dark with ominous black clouds, the wind was howling and baying like a wolf into the night. Rain hammered the ground like impenetrable salvo of bullets. Lighting roared its presence in the Austrian empire now known as Croatia, striking mercilessly on to the pitiful scene below.

A mother was in labour during the massive lightning storm, giving birth to a genius. Nikola Tesla. The lightning that flashed during Tesla’s birth was considered an ill omen by the midwife, but Tesla’s mother didn’t agree. Instead, she proclaimed that: “He will be a child of light.” His mother was not wrong — as we know today, Tesla is the reason we have alternating current electricity.

Tesla’s father was an orthodox priest, who wanted his son to enter the same profession, but Nikola was only interested in science. His mother, on the other hand, was a brilliant woman with an incredible memory. Like Tesla, she too was an inventor. Creating mechanical appliances to use around the house. Her creative and tinkering thinking undoubtedly influenced her son. She could memorize entire epic poems. This was later credited by Tesla to his own photographic memory. Not only could Tesla memorize books, he even visualized his projects and ideas, making changes without even touching a pen and paper. A trait that still bewilders many.

In Tesla’s early years of school, he studied German, mathematics and religion. Later, science would be his major focus. During the 1870s, Tesla studied maths and physics at the Technical University of Graz and philosophy at the University of Prague.

His photographic memory would often raise suspicions that he was cheating. Memory which allowed him to perform integral calculus using his mind only. Tesla was able to finish the necessary work to graduate in three years instead of the customary four. This went to show how Tesla was a diligent worker, many even claim that he only slept for two hours, a trait that he was to keep throughout his life. In fact-he may have worked too hard.

Years after he left school, Tesla discovered a pile of letters that the school sent to his father, warning him that Tesla was overworking himself, which could lead to fatality. By the end of his first year, he had passed twice as many exams as he needed to, whilst still receiving the highest grade possible. However, a human brain has a capacity, which in Tesla’s cases had been peaked. Tesla could not sustain such pressure and tight schedule.

His second year in school was a complete reversal from his first. After losing his scholarship at the end of the second year, Tesla became addicted to gambling, losing his entire allowance. Poor financial management was another trait that would hound him in later years. Losing all his tuition money to gambling, Tesla was not prepared for his final year exams, so he did not take them, thus leading to him not graduating.

After a few years, Telsa got himself back on his feet and started work at the Budapest telephone exchange as chief electrician, where he would invent and perfect a telephone amplifier.

Later on, he went to work for the Continental Edison Company In Paris. There he was working on an innovation. Electric Lighting. His skills got him noticed and he found himself going to New York, where he will meet his archrival Edison.

Arriving in New York in 1884, Nikola was hired by the well-known inventor Thomas Alva Edison. He worked in the Edison’s Manhattan Headquarters for roughly a year. In that period of time, Tesla would work tirelessly alongside Edison, improving his inventions. Constantly impressing Thomas with his diligence and ingenuity.

At one point Edison was so satisfied with Tesla’s work that he told Tesla that he would pay him $50,000 for an improved design for his DC dynamos. After various sleepless nights and months of experimentation, Tesla presented a solution and asked for the money. Edison demurred, saying, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humour.” Tesla quit soon after.

After leaving Edison, Tesla founded his own company (Tesla Electric Light And Manufacturing) where he would establish numerous patents. Even though it had the Tesla name, the reality was that the company was financed by two businessmen. When they decided to abandon manufacture and set up a new company, it left Tesla penniless.

To earn money to live on, Tesla had to dig ditches earning him only two dollars a day.

“My high education in various branches of science, mechanics and literature seemed to me like a mockery.”

Tesla Working In The Ditches

However, Tesla soon got himself back on his feet with the invention of a new motor that ran on Alternating Current or AC, which was eventually bought by Westinghouse. Later, Westinghouse hired Tesla for $2000 per month and a hefty bonus.

Alternating Current VS Direct Current

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, a fierce commercial battle was going on between Edison and Westinghouse. Renowned as “The Battle Of The Currents”. During this period many unsavoury acts were made by Edison trying to prove that AC was unsafe. The most famous of all being the electrocution of Topsy the elephant. 6600 volts were shot through the body of Topsy, which could be seen in the film produced by the Edison Film company titled ‘Electrocuting An Elephant’

Electrocution of Topsy The Elephant

Ultimately Tesla and Westinghouse won “The Battle Of The Currents” but at a steep cost in litigation and competition for both Westinghouse and Edison’s General Electric Company.

Fearing ruin, Westinghouse begged Tesla for relief from the royalties Westinghouse agreed to. “Your decision determines the fate of the Westinghouse Company,” he said. Tesla, grateful to the man who had never tried to swindle him, tore up the royalty contract, walking away from millions in royalties that he was already owed and billions that would have accrued in the future. He would have been one of the wealthiest men in the world — a titan of the Gilded Age.

Post ‘The War Of The Currents’ Tesla became very wealthy. He had enough money to fund his own research, hiring staff and opening workshops. This was the golden age of Tesla’s inventiveness.

The year was 1891, Tesla had just become a US citizen at the age of 35. That same year he patented the Tesla coil. He experimented with a system of wireless lighting, giving several public demonstrations, however, he never received commercial backing for the project. At one demonstration he told onlookers that systems like this could transmit “intelligible signals or powers to any distance without the use of wires”. The thought that wireless power could encompass the globe was an idea Tesla devoted much time and research to. He started research on wireless telegraphy and in his laboratory observed strange signals, which he thought came from another planet. He wrote to the press in 1899 and 1900. And in 1901 an article was published entitled “Talking With Planets”. More recent speculators think that he may have unintentionally picked up signals from Marconi’s experiment that were happening around the same time. Tesla spent all his money into the wireless telegraphy research and borrowed heavily from JP Morgon. However, Marconi’s radio-based system, which Tesla thought was in part copied from his designs was the first to transmit a message across the Atlantic. After that, investors preferred Marconi’s system which left Tesla once again fundless.

It is speculated that Tesla had a nervous breakdown in 1906. From 1900 Tesla had lived in the Waldorf Astoria hotel. In 1922 he moved to St Regis hotel, leaving his Waldorf hotel bill unpaid. After that, he moved from hotel to hotel leaving his bills unpaid. During this time, he met the love of his life. Pigeons.

He would often feed them from the windows of his hotel room. Despite financial issues, he spent over $2000 building a device to heal the bones of a sick pigeon. He quoted: “There was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.” Tesla never married explaining that it would get in the ways of it of his scientific abilities.

When Tesla was 75, he was friends with a young science fiction writer called Kenneth Swezey who organized birthday parties for Tesla. The press would be invited. At one party, Tesla announced he invented a motor that ran on cosmic rays that would run for 500 years and a machine to photograph thoughts. He also announced that he had a “peace ray” which he called teleforce. The teleforce could bring down 10,000 aeroplanes at 200 miles distance. When later questioned on his experiments he replied: “But it is not an experiment… I have built, demonstrated and used it. Only a little will pass before I can give it to the world.”

Nikola Tesla died alone in his hotel room in 1943 at the age of 86 and his ashes are displayed in a gold-plated sphere in the Nikola Tesla Museum.

Tesla’s ashes in the Nikola Tesla Museum

Two days after Tesla’s death, the FBI appropriated his belongings. An MIT professor, John Trump (uncle of the president) analysed the items. He reported after 3 days deliberation that there was “nothing that would constitute a hazard in unfriendly hands.”

Tesla has been a real inspiration to me, and it is sad to see that a brilliant innventor like him was never taught about in school. He worked day and night to make our world a better place, not caring about his finacial gains like some people he worked with. In my eyes, Tesla is the father of the mordern world.

Currently studying at high school, loves to talk about STEM. Enjoys a game of chess and talking about science. Articles Co-written and discussed with Prem.C