Distinguished Scientist and Inventor of the Modern Eraby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
"The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine."
All at once, the magnificent Arabian horse neighed shrilly and reared. Another moment and . . . Suddenly it was all over. Young Tesla lay motionless, the victim of a tragic accident involving the family's pet horse. And so, the world lost a great potential when at the age of twelve, Daniel Tesla died. His little brother would later remark, "The recollection of his attainments made every effort of mine seem dull in comparison." 1 But as soon became evident, Nikola Tesla's own efforts would leave no small mark in history.
Đuka Mandić, the wife of the Reverend Milutin Tesla gave birth to her second son on the stroke of midnight between July 9 and July 10, 1856, in Smiljan, a little village in Lika which was in the Military Border zone of Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in the Republic of Croatia. As Nikola Tesla grew, his parents took a very active role in educating and training him and his siblings. Milutin, an orthodox priest, "was a very erudite man, a veritable natural philosopher, poet[,] and writer[,] and his sermons were said to be [very eloquent] . . ." 2 Nikola's father trained him and his brother with "all sorts of exercises - as, guessing one another's thoughts, discovering the defects of some form of expression, repeating long sentences[,] or performing mental calculations." 3 However, Tesla's mother also trained and inspired her son. According to Tesla, although Đuka was illiterate, working hard to manage her household, she "was an inventor of the first order . . . [inventing] and [constructing] all kinds of tools and devices." 4 Thus, although his father did a great deal to develop Tesla's mind, his mother gave him the first taste of invention.
As a young child, Nikola experienced a strange phenomenon that persisted throughout his life. It consisted of "the appearance of images, often accompanied by strong flashes of light . . . and sometimes I [Tesla] was unable to distinguish [whether] what I saw was tangible or not." 5 He eventually could control these images and as a young inventor saved time and expense by perfecting inventions in his mind before ever building them. He said, "It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even notice if it is out of balance [in thought]." 6 Tesla also had very strong self-control. At different points throughout his life, he stopped gamboling, smoking, and drinking coffee for various reasons.
In school, Nikola excelled at most subjects and particularly mathematics, but he loathed freehand drawing, an obligatory course, and almost flunked school because of it. Milutin had intended for Tesla to become a priest, although Tesla wanted to become an engineer. However, before going to a university, Nikola caught cholera and nearly died. At the height of his illness, his father agreed to let him study engineering in the hopes he would then get well. He improved and enrolled in the Austrian Polytechnic School in Gratz, Austria in 1875. Always a hard worker, Nikola studied from 3 am to 11 pm every day. Seeing the demonstration of the Gramoe Dyname (running on direct current), Tesla first began to try to invent an alternate current motor. Kicked out of the university for his gambling after his second year, however, Tesla had to continue his studies on his own.
Tesla's father died in 1879, and Tesla went home before returning to Prague where he had moved to study further. Then in January of 1881, the Central Telegraph Office in Budapest hired him. While there, he finally cracked the problem of the AC motor after a long illness. Thus he discovered the rotating magnetic field. He built his first AC motor in 1882 while working for the Continental Edison Company. Immigrating to America in 1884, Tesla carried a letter of introduction to Thomas Edison who immediately put him to work.
Spending much time and effort on redesigning Edison's DC dynamos and other equipment, Tesla earned the grudging praise of Edison—"I [Edison] have had many hard working assistants, but you take the cake." 7 And Tesla deserved it; he worked from 10:30 am to 5 am the next morning, seven days a week without exception. However, Edison and Tesla disagreed over AC and DC. Edison had invested much into DC and was loath to admit that AC, which Tesla championed, might be electricity's future. After Tesla resigned, their rivalry between the men developed into an animosity that would last their entire lives.
Then Tesla formed the Tesla Electric Light Company with a group of investors but soon found himself edged out of the business with only a bright stock certificate. From the spring of 1886 until the following year, Tesla had to work on a labor gang in New York City. But his prospects brightened when he opened the Tesla Electric Co. in April, 1887, to develop AC. During one of the happiest periods of his life, Tesla researched and worked day and night. He built entire systems for the single-phase, two-phase, and three-phase AC motors, inventing dynamos, motors, transformers, and automatic controls. "In all, through 1891, [Tesla] applied for and was granted a total of forty patents." 8
Also a brilliant lecturer, Tesla addressed his first audience, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, on May 16, 1888. In lectures, he not only displayed his inventions, but also presented hypotheses on many topics. Tesla studied and experimented with the nature of electricity in addition to inventing. He had many ideas and only had trouble retaining them long enough to write them down. Among other things, he invented the forerunners of fluorescent lights, the electron microscope, and the atom smasher. He hypothesized about cosmic rays such as X rays and experimented with telautomatics and perhaps even plasma physics. Dreaming of supplying the whole world with energy and information, Tesla experimented with the wireless transmission of energy. He invented the radio and even came up with radar among many other accomplishments. Nevertheless, one of his most important discoveries other than the rotary magnetic field was the Tesla coil and transformer, a basic part of every radio and television.
As Maj. Edwin H. Armstrong pointed out, "Not only did [Tesla] teach by accomplishment, but he taught by the inspiration of a marvelous imagination that refused to accept the permanence of what appeared to others to be insuperable difficulties: an imagination the goals of which, in a number of instances, are still in the realms of speculation." 9 This imagination strained to gain dominion over electricity.
Despite pressure from society, Tesla never married, but collected numerous admirers. He was handsome and dressed well in addition to having a personality of "distinguished sweetness, sincerity, modesty, refinement, generosity, and force . . . ." 10 As a very private person, not too much is known of his religious views, although he was very possibly a Christian. "The gift of mental power comes from God, Divine Being, and if we concentrate our minds on that truth, we become in tune with this great power. My [m]other had taught me to seek all truth in the Bible; therefore I devoted the next few months to the study of this work." 11 However, it appears that Tesla agreed with Buddhism though it remains unclear exactly what he believed. Tesla invented for society rather than personal gain. He wished for peace and thought "[p]eace can only come as a natural consequence of universal enlightenment and merging of races . . . ." 12 Tesla remained, however, a proud American (officially naturalized July 30, 1891) and Serbian. Nikola Tesla died on January 7, 1943 at the age of eighty-six. His life had left its mark on history by creating the modern era. In a quote that appropriately summed up his life, Tesla once said, "The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of a planter for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation of those who are to come and point the way." 13
back 1 Nikola Tesla, The Strange Life of Nikola Tesla (John R.H. Penner, 1995) < http://www.neuronet.pitt.edu/~bogdan/tesla/tesla.pdf> (15 December 2003), 2.
back 2 Tesla, Life, 3. Tesla also said his father could quote at length from numerous works in several different languages. Tesla himself knew English, French, German, Italian, and the Slavic dialects and could do the same.
back 8 Margaret Cheney, Tesla: man out of time (Touchstone, 2001), 62. Many of his inventions Tesla didn't ever even patent. This usually resulted from the simple fact that he was often to busy to pursue such inventions to develop their full potential.
Museum in Serbia and Montenegro: offical site of Nikola Tesla