UNLIMITED MINDS will bring to life Nikola Tesla’s scientific and personal legacy


The early years
Tesla was born at midnight on July 10th 1856 in the small village of Smiljan, which is in the Lika province of what is now Croatia. His father was a reverend minister and his mother was known for her inventiveness. The family moved to the nearby city of Gospic in 1862, where Nikola attended school, and then continued his education at Karlstadt in Croatia. In his childhood he had a very inquisitive nature and a practical mechanical sense which earned him respect.

In 1875 he enrolled to study Electrical Engineering at the Austrian Polytechnic School in Graz, where he first saw the Gramme DC motor in action, and questioned the arcing of its inefficient commutator. After financial struggles prevented him from completing the course, he moved to Budapest, Hungary, in 1881 and worked as a draftsman in the Central Telegraph Office. His skills in electrical matters were soon recognised, and he was placed in charge of the new telephone exchange.

About this time, he experienced a visualisation of the invention which would soon make him known all over the world, the Polyphase Alternating Current motor, which used a rotating magnetic field and had no commutator. In 1882 he moved to Paris to take a job with the Continental Edison Company as a junior engineer. In his spare time, he constructed AC motors and dynamos and developed the idea.

The Edison encounter
In the summer of 1884 he decided to migrate to the United States of America, with the offer of a job to work for Thomas Edison in New York. Tesla worked hard and impressed Edison, but resigned after less than a year over the non-payment of a bonus which Tesla expected. Edison also was a strong proponent of the Direct Current system, which Tesla did not agree with.

Tesla managed to gain financial backing to form a company to develop arc lights, and opened his first laboratory in New York. The lights were a commercial success, securing him 7 patents. In 1885, he was forced out by a market slump and depression and was unable to find another engineering position. Tesla was reduced to working as a labourer, digging trenches for a year, until he again obtained financial backing of $500,000 to start a new company.

In his new laboratory in 1887 he had the opportunity to completely develop his Alternating Current Polyphase system, which eventually revolutionised industrial and domestic electric generation, distribution and consumption. Useful motors had already been developed to use Direct Current, but they were less efficient, and the distribution of DC electricity on an industrial scale was impractical, despite the strong (and sometimes underhand) effort which Edison was making.

Tesla was granted 40 patents for his AC system, which were purchased along with generous royalties by George Westinghouse, the industrial giant, and a supporter of the AC system. He worked for Westinghouse for a short time and became a US citizen in 1891. The first crowning glory for Tesla was the 1895 completion of the 50,000 horse-power hydro generating plant at Niagara Falls by Westinghouse.

Tesla completed a greatly acclaimed lecture tour which included a trip to Europe, and on his return in 1893 he exhibited at the Chicago Worlds Fair, which was lit using his AC system.

In his own laboratory in New York, he became interested in higher frequencies, constructing special dynamos, and developing the high frequency oscillator which bears his name, the "Tesla Coil". The currents produced by this device could be used to transmit energy using only one wire, or without wires at all. A public lecture by Tesla in 1893 was the first ever demonstration of wireless communication, over a distance of 10 metres. This was over two years before Marconi even began his wireless communication work, and seven years before Marconi's original wireless patent.

Tesla demonstrated how high frequencies could also be used for illumination and therapeutic applications by developing and patenting his own devices. In 1895 disaster stuck when the building which also contained his laboratory was totally destroyed by fire, and he lost everything. Starting afresh, he experimenting with X-Rays (discovered by Roentgen in 1895), and mechanical oscillators, and also extended wireless communication up to 40 kilometres.

High voltage and high frequency work continued. By 1898 he had developed "teleautomatonics", or remote-control, to such an extent that his radio operated boat caused a sensation wherever it was demonstrated.

Colorado Springs
Obtaining finance for his research was always a problem, but in 1899 he received an offer of free land and services in Colorado Springs, Colorado. With $40,000 cash in hand, he moved there and built a large wooden laboratory to continue his high frequency high voltage experiments with his trusted assistants in the ideal rural conditions at Colorado Springs.

In a stay of just over 7 months Tesla developed sensitive wireless receivers and built a large transmitter which generated 12,000,000 volts and an antenna base current of 1,200 amperes, a remarkable achievement for the time. The prime objective was to develop his system of the wireless transmission of power. His dream was to implement this on a global scale, to provide "free" energy which could be tapped by any appropriate receiver. He believed this used a non-Hertzian electromagnetic wave which could propagate through the earth at faster than the speed of light.

On returning to New York in 1900, he wrote and published the land-mark treatise "The Problem of Increasing Human Energy" in Century magazine. It contained remarkable photographs of his high voltage work in Colorado Springs, and a long discourse on the use of alternative energy sources such as solar, wind power, and of course his wireless power transmission system.

The World System
Tesla convinced the industrialist J. P. Morgan to provide $150,000 for further research. In 1901, at Wardenclyffe, on Long Island, New York, Tesla constructed a large workshop and a 57-metre-high wooden tower which was to be the first "magnifying transmitter" in his "world system". Unfortunately, the money ran out after a couple of years and Morgan refused to continue support when he realised that unaccounted "free" power would compromise his other interests. Tesla conducted some experiments, but the transmitter was never completed. The site was sold in 1915 to cover debts and the tower was finally salvaged in 1917.

In the years following 1904, Tesla turned to other research, pioneering and patenting a very efficient form of turbine. The materials of the day could not stand the stresses, and it was never fully exploited.

Tesla was awarded the Edison Medal by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1917, which he reluctantly accepted on the insistence of his contemporaries. He also received numerous doctoral degrees.

The rest of his life was spent in New York, living in relative obscurity. He continued to do a small amount of research and wrote magazine articles containing various revelations and predictions, such as a "death ray" which would prevent all wars, his own dynamic theory of gravity, and interplanetary communication systems. In January 1943, at age 86, he died with no will and few possessions. Five months later the US Supreme Court invalidating Marconi's wireless patent of 1900 as containing nothing which was not already in earlier patents, including a Tesla patent applied for in 1897.

It is an enigma that such a pioneer in many fields, with well over 100 patents to his name, is not better known today. In most electrical engineering or radio text books he is not even mentioned, despite the fact he was a definite innovator in these areas. Nikola Tesla was an inventor and engineer, always practical, and not a mathematical theoretician. Some of his ideas have not been generally accepted by academics, and so he has not been given the recognition he truly deserves.

·Margaret Cheney, 1981, Tesla, Man out of Time, Prentice Hall, New Jersey USA, 320 pages, 26 B&W photos
·John J O'Neill, 1944, Prodigal Genius, The Life of Nikola Tesla, David McKay Co, New York USA, 326 pages, 1 B&W photo
·Nikola Tesla, 1977, Moji Pronalasci (My Inventions), Skolska Knijga, Zagreb Yugoslavia, 109 pages, 17 B&W photos, in English and Croatian, Originally published in Electrical Experimenter May 1919 to October 1919

Published with kind permission from the Nikola Tesla Society of Australia website.