Nikola Tesla and his Inventional Journey.

By Abdul Rahman Mohammed

When you think about the greatest inventors of all time, there are a few names that come to mind are Nikola Tesla, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison.


When you plug your phone in, turn on the lights, or use the refrigerator, you have Nikola Tesla to thank. A forgotten genius with a story that begins at the end, when a hotel maid found an 86-year-old man body in a hotel room which had been called home for the past decade.

 The greatest inventor of all time faded into obscurity and died penniless.

Tesla died alone and broke. Tesla was born in “Smiljan” in present-day “Croatia” on July 10, 1856, and grew in a supportive entourage. His mom Đuka Mandić had an eidetic memory – the ability to recall an image from memory with high precision and she passed this on to her son. Tesla’s father was a priest and wanted him to become one too but when Tesla survived from cholera, his father promised to send him to engineering school; miraculously, he did. As a child, he began seeing visions accompanied by flashes of light; this never went away. Still, they spurred his ability to conceive inventions with a high accuracy.

Student Life of Nikola Tesla.

As a student, Tesla went to study in Austria at the Technical College of Graz. He was a hardworking student; with a beautiful mind that could perform calculus and spoke eight languages. He was a good student at the start but would not finish school due to gambling addiction.

Tesla moved around Europe and eventually ended up in Budapest working as an electrician at a telephone company. While walking around a park in the city one day, he had an epiphany about developing a new way of generating electricity using alternating current. It would be his greatest invention that would change the world.

First Collaboration with Thomas Edison

In 1882, he settled in Paris to work for the French branch of Thomas Edison’s electric company. Later on, his remarkable talent allows him to manage projects at other Edison branches throughout Europe.

Two years later, in 1884, Tesla’s manager offered him a job at Edison Machine Works in New York City. He agreed and arrived in America with only four cents in his pocket because his money was stolen on the boat ride over. Tesla initially had a good impression of Edison. Edison was also impressed by Nikola Tesla, later saying: “I have had many hard-working assistants but you take the cake.” This mutual admiration didn’t last. They would become bitter rivals. The two men disagreed over how electricity should be contained and delivered. Edison preferred direct current which is a system where the electric charge only flows in one direction.  

AC(Alternating Current) vs DC(Direct Current).

Tesla was a fan of alternating current in which the electric charge changes direction periodically. Changing directions is crucial to maintaining a steady supply of electricity because it does not overpower outlets. This means it can provide more power and transmit power over longer distances. It’s the reason AC powers our homes and other large appliances whereas DC powers smaller items like flashlights. But Edison didn’t care about AC because it could have hurt the sales of direct current since he owned all the patents for DC. According to Nikola Tesla, a manager at Edison’s company offered him a $50,000 bonus if he could improve some machines that ran on DC. 

When he did, the manager refused to pay up. Another account of the story has Edison telling Tesla:  “You don’t understand our American humor.” Regardless of how it played out, Tesla quit and set off to form his own electric company the following year in 1885. But his investors showed little interest and decided to take the company and all of Tesla’s patents which they could do because Tesla had assigned the patents to the company in exchange for stock which was now worthless.

After losing his company, Tesla had to take a job digging ditches for two dollars a day just to survive. But his fortunes would change. In 1887, Tesla invented an induction motor that ran on alternating current.  The motor was the most efficient way to convert electricity to mechanical power. Aversion of it powers Tesla’s vehicles which took its name from the inventor. He patented the motor and showed it off the following year at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers that caught the attention of George Westinghouse, a major player in the electric market who realized Tesla’s AC motor might just be what he needed to complete his alternating current system and compete against Edison’s DC system.

The war of the Current Begins

Edison secretly financed the electric chair that used AC to prove its dangerousness. Also, in 1903, he publicly tortured animals to prove his point and produced a film concerning that called “Electrocuting an Elephant”.

Despite Edison’s schemes, good things were happening for Westinghouse and Tesla. They underbid Edison and his newly formed company General Electric to illuminate the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The exposition showed the 27 million people who attended that AC would power the future.

Their success continued when they beat out Edison’s General Electric again to build the world’s first alternating current power plant in Niagara Falls. The hydroelectric power station was a massive success and helped light up Buffalo, New York. The building of the plant also meant Tesla became a pioneer in renewable energy.

 Westinghouse and Tesla won the war of the currents but Westinghouse’s company went into debt. In 1897, Westinghouse asked Tesla if his royalties could be reduced in a desperate attempt to save the company. Tesla was so compelled by compassion for his friend, at the same time grateful to Westinghouse for believing in him when no one else would.

Tesla willingly walked away from $12 million in royalties; over $300 million today’s terms. Had he held on to those royalties over time, he would have likely become the wealthiest person on the planet and the first person with a billion-dollar net worth.

 Teslas’ act saved Westinghouse. In return, Westinghouse paid Tesla $216,000, about $60 million today for the rights to use as AC patents forever. With that money, Tesla became financially independent and set up a series of laboratories in New York for new projects where he was visited by the rich and famous, including his close friend Mark Twain.

Inventions that were far ahead of their time.

During his lifetime, Tesla held over 300 patents in his lifetime. He created an early version of neon lighting, the Tesla turbine, and pioneered x-ray technology.

 Another stand-out invention was one of the first remote controls. In 1898, Tesla controlled a miniature boat at Madison Square Garden in New York; the crowd thought he was using magic to make it move. That would be the ancestor to today’s remote-controlled drones. 

One of his most well-known inventions is the Tesla coil, a device that can produce large amounts of high voltage electricity and receive powerful radio signals when they resonated at the same frequency.

Tesla was getting ready to broadcast his first radio signal, but a fire destroyed his lab in 1895. He lost years of research and equipment.

Big dreams turned into Ash.

The fire would be the turning point in his life that led to a downhill spiral. While Tesla was working on radio, an Italian entrepreneur, Guglielmo Marconi, was doing the same in England. Later, Marconi tried to acquire patent rights in the US but failed because it was too similar to Tesla’s. However, things changed when Marconi sent the world’s first transatlantic radio message in 1901 using 17 of Tesla’s patents. Edison then threw his financial support behind Marconi.

Tesla had no problem with Marconi’s achievements; until the US Patent Office suddenly changed its mind and awarded Marconi a patent for inventing the radio. Marconi won the Nobel Prize in Physics, which was only possible due to Tesla’s work. Hence, Tesla sued Marconi, but the case settled in Tesla’s favour only after his death. In short, that radio incident negatively impacted the rest of Tesla’s career.

The Inventor faded into obscurity.

Tesla was obsessed with bringing wireless communication to the world and built a huge wireless transmission station in Long Island, New York called Wardenclyffe Tower. He imagined a world where we could send and receive messages wirelessly. Unfortunately, financial backers did not have enough faith in his project. He had no choice but to abandon his dream project and eventually lost Wardenclyffe Tower to foreclosure. Tesla’s mental health deteriorated.

In his last decade, Westinghouse Corporation hired him as a consultant and paid for his hotel room. He lived rent-free but died in debt.

So why did one of the greatest inventors of all time fade into obscurity and die penniless? You could say Nikola Tesla was unlucky when the fire burned down his New York lab. But the main reason is ‘Tesla was not a capitalist’; he made decisions that one with more business acumen would not do. It shows how his biggest concern, to the pursuit of science for the betterment of humanity, turned his decisions.

Tesla wanted to change the world and he did. Thanks in part to Elon Musk’s company, people are starting to learn more about the man who inspired the company, a man whose inventions would power our entire planet. It’s because of Tesla that modern society functions the way it does.  

Tesla’s mother called him a child of light and she was quite right.

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