Famous Engineers Series: Nikola Tesla

Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla developed the alternating-current electrical system that's widely used today, and discovered the rotating magnetic field (the basis of most AC machinery).

Nikola Tesla
Inventor, Engineer
c. July 10, 1856
January 7, 1943
University of Prague, Realschule, Karlstadt ,
The Polytechnic Institute (Graz, Austria)
Smiljan, Croatia
New York, New York
Nikola Tesla


Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla was born in July of 1856, in what is now Croatia. He came to the United States in 1884, and briefly worked with Thomas Edison before the two parted ways. He sold several patent rights, including those to his alternating-current machinery, to George Westinghouse. His 1891 invention, the "Tesla coil," is still used in radio technology today. Tesla died in New York City on January 7, 1943.

Early Life

Famous Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856, in what is now Smiljan, Croatia. Tesla's interest in electrical invention was likely spurred by his mother, Djuka Mandic, who invented small household appliances in her spare time while her son was growing up. Tesla's father, Milutin Tesla, was a priest. After studying in the 1870s at the Realschule, Karlstadt (later renamed the Johann-Rudolph-Glauber Realschule Karlstadt); the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria; and the University of Prague, Tesla began preparing for a trip to America.

Famed Inventor

Tesla came to the United States in 1884, and soon began working with famed inventor and business mogul Thomas Edison. The two worked together for a brief period before parting ways due to a conflicting business-scientific relationship, attributed by historians to their incredibly different personalities: While Edison was a power figure who focused on marketing and financial success, Tesla was a commercially out-of-tune and somewhat vulnerable, yet extremely pivotal inventor, who pioneered some of history's the most important inventions. His inventions include the "Tesla coil," developed in 1891, and an alternating-current electrical system of generators, motors and transformers - both of which are still used widely today.
On the AC electrical system alone, Tesla held 40 basic U.S. patents, which he later sold to George Westinghouse, an American engineer and business man who was determined to supply the nation with the Tesla's AC system. He would succeed in doing just that, not long after purchasing Tesla's patents. Around this time, conflict arose between Tesla and Edison, as Edison was determined to sell his direct-current system to the nation. According to the Tesla Memorial Society of New York, Tesla-Westinghouse ultimately won out because Tesla's system was "a superior technology," presenting greater "progress of both America and the world" than Edison's DC system. Outside of his AC system patents, Tesla sold several other patent rights to Westinghouse.
At the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago, Tesla conducted demonstrations of his AC system, which soon became the standard power system of the 20th century, and has remained the worldwide standard ever since. Two years later, in 1895, Tesla designed the first hydroelectric powerplant at Niagara Falls, a feat that was highly publicized throughout the world.
Around 1900, nearly a decade later after inventing the "Tesla coil" Tesla began working on his boldest project yet: Building a global communication system: through a large, electrical tower for sharing information and providing free electricity throughout the world. The system, however, never came to fruition; it failed due to financial constraints, and Tesla had no choice but to abandon the Long Island, New York laboratory that housed his work on the tower project, Wardenclyffe. In 1917, the Wardenclyffe site was sold, and Tesla's tower was destroyed.
"It's a sad, sad story," Larry Page, Google's co-founder, said of Tesla in a 2008 interview with Forbes magazine. "[Tesla] couldn't commercialize anything. He could barely fund his own research."
In addition to his AC system, coil and tower project, throughout his career, Tesla discovered, designed and developed ideas for a number of important inventions; most of which were officially patented by other inventors including dynamos (electrical generators similar to batteries) and the induction motor. He was also a pioneer in the discovery of radar technology, X-ray technology and the rotating magnetic field the basis of most AC machinery. Tesla was not without his major faults, however, as he supported the use of population control via eugenics and forced sterilizations.

Death and Legacy

Poor and reclusive, Nikola Tesla died on January 7, 1943, at the age of 86, in New York City, where he had lived for nearly 60 years. His legacy, however, has been thriving for more than a century, and will undoubtedly live on for decades to come.
Several books and films have highlighted Tesla's life and famous works, including Nikola Tesla, The Genius Who Lit the World, a film created by the Tesla Memorial Society and the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia; and The Secret of Nikola Tesla, which stars Orson Welles as John Pierpont Morgan (J.P. Morgan). In recent years, a street sign entitled "Nikola Tesla Corner" was installed in honor of the famous inventor, near the 40th Street-6th Avenue intersection in New York City.
Nikola Tesla. [Internet]. 2015. The Biography.com website. Available from:http://www.biography.com/people/nikola-tesla-9504443

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