The Story of Nikola Tesla

By on October 1, 2004

Ever heard of Nikola Tesla? He invented the alternating current used in the wall sockets in your home. He invented the radio you listen to in your car. He invented the florescent lights in your home — in businesses, and office buildings. He invented the electric motor that you use in almost every appliance around your house. His motors are also used to generate electricity in all electrical power plants around the world. He also invented radio-controlled robotic toys that sparked the imagination for others to expand upon the idea of all kinds of radio-controlled gadgets — from garage door openers to cell phones.

But he is most famous for his “Tesla Coil” — a device that converts low-voltage electricity into a high-voltage spark. In his Colorado Springs laboratory, he built a Tesla Coil that would throw man-made lightening some 135 feet. It blew out the local power company.

But what you may not know about Nikola Tesla is that he was the son of a Christian minister. He was born in 1856 in Smiljan (today’s Yugoslavia). He was a sickly child who suffered from apparitions that took the form of flashes of light. He had a photographic memory and displayed an uncanny ability to visualize mechanical devices precisely, without drawing them. His inventions came to him fully formed — as if they were from another intelligence beyond this dimension.

After studying electrical engineering in Austria, Nikola Tesla went to work for a Hungarian telegraph company. One day, while strolling with a friend in Budapest Park, he was reciting poetry, when suddenly he fell into a trance. When he emerged, he sketched an alternating-current electrical motor in the dirt! That’s how he discovered the AC electricity used today in your home!

In 1884, Tesla moved to America and worked for Thomas Edison. He soon quit, however, claiming that Edison had cheated him out of a promised $50,000 bonus for improving Edison’s “direct current” dynamos. Edison rejected Tesla’s concept for alternating current, despite the fact that it could be generated more efficiently and transmitted over long distances.

Soon, Nikola Tesla was working for George Westinghouse, who commercialized the concept of generating alternating current all over the world. In 1893, Westinghouse illuminated the Chicago World’s Fair and, three years later, received a contract to harness Niagara Falls to produce electricity. Nikola Tesla should have become a billionaire with royalties promised from alternating current contracts, but was talked into a cash settlement of $216,000.

The wealthy Italian, Guglielmo Marconi, used Tesla’s invention of a radio transmitter to broadcast a signal across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1915, Nikola Tesla sued Marconi for infringement of his radio patent and the court ruled in Tesla’s favor. But, at every turn, pirates were stealing his inventions without compensation. You probably thought Marconi invented the radio!

Nikola Tesla became paranoid, afraid to be near women wearing pearl earrings and would not shake hands for fear of germs. At every meal, he would calculate the volume of each dish and clean his fork, knife and spoon with exactly 18 linen napkins. He always used eighteen because it was divisible by three.

At the end of his life, he was a penniless recluse. It seemed that nobody cared when he died in his sleep at the age of 87, surrounded by birds — the same year that the Supreme Court ruled once more that he, not the rich and famous Marconi, had invented the first radio transmitter.