Who was Nikola Tesla?

While the name Tesla has been in the news of late with regards to the launch of the Tesla Motor company’s Tesla Roadster, the name of the company is linked to a Serbian American inventor who was an expert in electrical engineering. Many believe that Nikola Tesla laid the foundations for the electric vehicle market of today, so perhaps it is no surprise that the surname of Nikola Tesla lives on. Today is Tesla's birthday, so let us have a look at the life and times of Nikola Tesla

Why does Nikola Tesla’s name live on today?

While many people may not have heard of the man himself there is no doubt that he literally changed the world and was an integral part of the coming of the Second Industrial Revolution. His groundbreaking contributions in the world of electricity and magnetism came to the fore in the 19th and 20th centuries with Tesla's patents effectively forming the basis of the modern day AC electric power system which we now take for granted in the modern day world.

The early life of Nikola Tesla

Born on 10 July 1856 in the village of Smiljan, in an area we now know as Croatia, his father was a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church and he was the fourth of five children (two boys and three girls). In a sign of things to come, records show that Tesla finished his first four-year school term in just three years, showing intelligence well above the average at his school.

While there were early signs that Tesla had the potential to be something special his later years of education are somewhat shrouded in mystery. It is known that he moved to the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz in 1875 to study electrical engineering although there is some debate as to whether he received a degree or in fact he finished the course early and did not attend beyond the third year. Some unknown reason he cut all ties with his family in December 1878 and indeed many of his friends and close acquaintances believed he had drowned in Mura.

After suffering a nervous breakdown during the immediate aftermath of cutting ties with his family he was persuaded by his father to attend the Charles Ferdinand University in Prague although yet again, after the death of his father, he cut short his time at university.

Early employment for Nikola Tesla

There is evidence to show that Tesla had something of a photographic memory having been able to memorise complete books in a very short space of time. It is also rumoured that he had a rather peculiar medical condition during which he would experience flushing lights before his eyes and hallucinations brought on when hearing simple words which were linked to possible ideas he was having. Nowadays this is known as picture thinking and Nikola Tesla was gifted with this particular skill, able to visualise in lifelike detail how a system and an idea would work in reality.

In 1880 he moved to Budapest and joined the National Telephone Company where he encountered a fellow Serbian inventor by the name of Nebojša Petrović. Such was his rapid rise up the ranks of the company, in 1881 he became the chief electrician and was credited with developing the first telephone repeater/amplifier which has also been described as the world's first loudspeaker.

Life overseas

In 1882 Nikola Tesla moved to France to work for the Continental Edison company in Paris where his main job was to improve the design of electronic equipment under development. This is the year that Tesla created the induction motor which used rotating magnetic fields to transfer power - this particular idea was patented in 1888. After the death of his mother Tesla was forced to take 2 to 3 years out recuperating during which time he suffered yet more bouts of illness. However, in June 1884 he arrived in New York City on the recommendation of Charles Batchelor, with whom he had worked with in the past, and a specific recommendation to Thomas Edison which read along lines of "I know two great men and you're one of them, the other is this young man", who we now know to have been Nikola Tesla.

Having been taken on by Thomas Edison there is some confusion as to exactly what occurred over the next few years with Tesla claiming he was offered $50,000 (worth over $1 million today) if he was able to redesign and improve the efficiency of the Edison motors and generators available at the time. Having worked night and day to complete his project, in 1885 he delivered a much improved system although when enquiring about payment for the substantial work he had put into the project, Edison is said to have replied "Tesla, you don't understand the American humour" at which point he was refused the rumoured $50,000 payment.

Tesla goes solo

After turning down a weekly wage rise from $18 a week to $25 a week at Edison's company, 1886 saw Tesla form his own operation known as the Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing Company. However, when Tesla tried to push through his plans for an alternating current motor he was overruled by the initial financial investors in his operation which led to him leaving the company.

Taking what can only be described as an unorthodox route to his ultimate success, 1886 to 1887 saw Nikola Tesla take employment as a common labourer to feed himself and build up capital for his next venture. After saving enough money to fund a new project, 1887 saw Tesla create the world's first brushless alternating current induction motor and the year after saw the release of the Tesla coil. The release of these two groundbreaking devices saw George Westinghouse of Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company take a significant interest in the young inventor.

Tesla then went on to become involved in the creation of x-ray devices, the basis of which remains even to this very day. He was one of the only inventors to look into the safety aspects of x-rays and while he had some controversial opinions as to how certain skin damage began to appear, with Tesla believing it was down to ozone generated by the device rather than radiation, he was certainly able to "think outside the box".

In 1891 the so-called Tesla effect (named after the man himself) was created when Nikola Tesla demonstrated the "transmission of electrical energy without wires" which is effectively the movement of energy through space and matter. At the ripe old age of 35 Nikola Tesla became a US citizen and set up his own development laboratory on South Fifth Avenue. By the age of 36 he had yet another patent successfully registered with regards to polyphase power systems although this was just the start of his domination of the electric power sector.

Between 1893 and 1895 he managed to create a system, using the Tesla coil, which produced over 1,000,000 volts of AC power. He then went on to invent a machine to assist with sleep, cordless gas lamps, successfully introduce wireless transmission of electromagnetic energy and is credited with building the first radio transmitter.

The later years of Nikola Tesla

While Tesla continued his amazing discoveries until his later years, his life was not without controversy, illness and everything seemed to be a battle for him. Indeed even when Tesla, together with Thomas Edison, was put forward for the 1915 Nobel Prize it is rumoured that the two were at loggerheads and determined to ruin each other. As a consequence neither party ever receive the award perhaps because ultimately neither party would share with the other.

In what can only be described as ironic tragedy, Nikola Tesla died alone in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel on 7 January 1943 after suffering heart failure. In his later years he had been forced to sell his AC electricity patents although he died with significant debts and is known to have had a very difficult time towards the end. Ironically after originally being awarded the patent for the invention of the radio some years before, which was then taken repealed and awarded to a third party, after his death the US Supreme Court upheld Tesla's original patent and to this day he is credited with inventing the radio.

Tesla's legacy

While Tesla had often controversial views on the likes of Einstein, gravity and space, there is no doubt that the power supply market today would be very much different without him. His name lives on with the SI unit Tesla which is used to measure magnetic flux density, the TPP Nikola Tesla power plant in Serbia (the largest in the country), the Belgrade Nikola Tesla airport, Tesla Motors not to mention the Tesla heavy metal band and a number of songs penned as a tribute to him.


While we have only but scratched the surface of the controversial and groundbreaking life of Nikola Tesla it is perhaps poignant that we leave the final thoughts with Tesla Motors and the comment released at the launch of the Tesla Roadster Electric vehicle.

"The namesake of our Tesla Roadster is the genius of Nikola Tesla and we are confident that if he were alive today, Nikola Tesla would look over our car and nod his head with both understanding and approval"