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Nikola Tesla


1856 - 1943

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Sep. 11, 2019

Best known for:

His work with electricity and the alternating current electrical system.

Also -his rivalry with Thomas Edison.



Catrina Hull

The History Lover





It is said that there was a heavy lightning storm the night that Nikola Tesla was born. One biographer writes: "Precisely at midnight...a lightning bolt crackled from the sky and lit up the house just as Nikola entered this world. Startled, the midwife turned to the young mother and said 'Your new son is a child of the storm.' 'No [responded his mother] he is a child of the light.' And so it seems that, from the beginning, Nikola Tesla was destined to electrify the world."*


Tesla was born in an area in Austria - Hungary which would be considered Croatia today. His father was an Orthodox priest who knew several languages fluently. As a result, Nikola was able to learn how to read and write and learned eight languages. His mother on the other hand, like many in that area, was illiterate. Although he became literate because of his father, he gained his inspiration for hard work and inventiveness from his mother. In his own autobiography, he wrote: "my mother was an inventor of the first order and had she not had the misfortune of living in a region so remote from modern life would have achieved great things."*


Years went by and young Nikola was a mischevious and curious type - always trying new things and making little "inventions" to help with his playing. But one fateful day he had his first encounter with electricity. He was petting the family cat when he saw/heard sparks all over the cat's back. His father explained that it must be electricity, like a lightning bolt. The experience convinced him, he wanted to devote his life to being an electrician. Unfortunately, he was expected to become a priest like his father. Nikola was not interested in that at all.


Lucky for him, he got cholera. Which was a deadly disease in the 1800's - so that sounds like a bad thing to have happen. He was sick for about nine months and had little to no energy. Doctors did not expect him to survive. But his father, in an effort to try to give him the motivation to fight to live told him that if he recovered he could study to become an engineer. Surprisingly, within days, he recovered. He started engineering school a few months later.


His first year at university, Nikola worked hard. A little TOO hard actually. His manic schedule which included at most four hours of sleep a night deeply concerned his professors so much that they feared it would kill him if no one stopped him. As time went on, he took fewer classes and eventually dropped out - never earning a degree. His obsession with proving a professor wrong about a certain machine and the use of alternating current took over his thoughts. During this time, he also started gambling. A habit to which he quickly became addicted. But with time, he claimed to have cut it off completely.


After suffering from a nervous breakdown, and working for years - Tesla was finally able to figure out how to make a machine that proved his professor wrong.



Wanting to present his designs for alternating current to Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla decided to go to America.  His trip across the Atlantic was eventful - there was a small mutiny on board and his money was stolen. He arrived in New York City in 1884, completely unimpressed with the 



Nikola Tesla was a world-changing genius who was way ahead of his time, but he definitely had some quirks.  Like requiring waiters to bring him 18 napkins at meals. Or visiting nearby parks allowing hundreds of pigeons to rest on and surround him while he fed them yet avoiding human contact and throwing away expensive custom-tailored clothes after just one week of use for fear of germs. He also felt the need to count repeatable actions like walking. And all repeated actions had to be divisible by three. If he lost count, he would simply start over. In his autobiography, Tesla states that he experienced a "veritable mania for finishing whatever [he] began", even if it was something he really didn't enjoy - like reading the complete 100 large volumes of the philosopher, Voltaire's work.*


Perhaps one of his most iconic quirks was his lack of commercializing his inventions. He really didn't concern himself with the salesmanship/business aspect of inventing. Often times after spending hours upon hours and months of effort inventing things, he did not get patents or properly paid/credit for them. This and his enjoyment of luxury living with custom-tailored expensive clothes, and fine dining ultimately led him to die in poverty, relatively undervalued for his life's contributions and aspirations. It wasn't until decades later that the full scope of his work was appreciated for the world-changing thing that it was. But honestly, it kind of seems like he was perfectly content with that.


While he designed the alternating current system which is the basis for today's electrical grid he also invented several other things we still use today. Just to name a few: a device that amplified sound (an early version of a loudspeaker), the first working radio, the fluorescent light bulb, the Tesla coil, and remote controls. He truly was a scientific genius. He lived in the late 1800's - early 1900's and yet he envisioned what we now call smartphones. In his experiments with communication and light, he went wireless before the world was wired. He was so beyond his time. In fact, to this day his "world wireless system" that would use the Earth as a conductor, essentially allowing the world's population to literally plug in anywhere and have  "free energy" with no wires still has not been developed or put in place. Neither has his electrical wave "death beam" - which we can probably agree, having no "death beam" is a good thing.



Let's be real: If anyone could be considered a "mad scientist" it would be this guy. Nikola Tesla imagined a world of possibilities. His passion to experiment and pursue those possibilities changed the world. 


If you want to learn about him - this is a good book to start with:

Tesla: Wizard of Electricity  by David Kent

This book is not your normal book. It's like a biography meets comic book meets vintage newspaper clippings meets vintage blueprints. In other words, this book (like Tesla himself) is a bit eccentric. You won't get bored easily, and the reading is easy to follow. It tells his story - painting a picture of him as a person rather than just a chronological timeline of his life or just an explanation of his scientific work.


As mentioned earlier in this article, Tesla actually wrote his own autobiography as well. This is the best way to learn about how a person wants to be seen and remembered. If you are intrigued by this man, it is definitely worth checking out:

My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla



Finally, if you'd like to delve into all things Tesla (documents, patents, detailed timelines, books, images, letters etc.) you will definitely want to check out which is the culmination of over 30 years of in-depth research. Their partners include institutions like the Smithsonian Institute, National Geographic, Discovery Channel and more.

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* Tesla:  The Wizard of Electricity

   My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla


Nikola Tesla

Is he describing a future smartphone?

Read it for yourself >>

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When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

Engineer. Physicist. Inventor.


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