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Nikola Tesla (1856-1943)




Nikola Tesla

So, who was Nikola Tesla?

Nikola Tesla was born on 9th July, 1856 at Smiljan, Croatia into a Serbian family. His father was an Orthodox priest and his mother, who did not receive a formal education was highly intelligent.

As a boy, Nikola was determined that he would do well in life to please his parents, who had looked forward to the success of his elder brother, Dane, who had died in an accident. He decided that he would become some sort of inventor.

After a number of adventures and various inventions including pop-guns, Nikola proved his prowess in mathematics at school and entered the Technical University at Graz in order to study electrical engineering. Whilst at Graz, Tesla was introduced to the Gramme dynamo, which was used as a generator, and when reversed became an electric motor. This involved the use of a commutator which produced sparks. Tesla felt this was wasting energy and reduced the machine's power. He believed it would be possible to use the alternating current to advantage instead of having to convert it to direct current.

From Graz, Nikola went to the University of Prague to continue his education. Later, in Budapest he developed his ideas for using alternating current in an induction motor. He did not have enough money to see this project through and it was only after he had gone to work for the Continental Edison Company, based in Paris, in 1882 that he was able to do this. He made his first induction motor in Strassburg in 1883, as an individual project, in his own time. This company was not interested in his alternating current machines.


What did Tesla do next?

Somewhat frustrated, Tesla set sail for America and arrived in New York, with four cents, a few of his own poems and calculations for a flying machine, in 1884.

He entered the employment of Thomas Edison, who recognised Tesla's genius. Edison was involved in building power stations that would produce direct current to power electric lighting in New York. He said that the direct current motors and dynamos would never be replaced by the alternating current machines of Tesla's, but he must have had a feeling that Tesla was well in front of his own inventions, as he was quite willing to employ him.

Eventually Nikola Tesla left the Edison Electric Company, which owed him a bonus payment of fifty thousand dollars for his successful completion of some important work. When the time came to pay him, Edison stated that he had only been joking when he had offered the bonus. The difference in backgrounds and methods was also a contributory factor in Nikola's decision to resign.

What happened now?

In May 1888 Tesla gave a speech that was to change his fortune, when he appeared before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. He talked about his proposals for an alternating current system which he saw as generating millions of volts and transmitting electrical current over distances of several hundred kilometres from the power station. This was vastly different from Edison and the direct current system, which could only transmit current over a distance of less than two kilometres. Tesla also convinced his audience that motors and electrical lights were quite compatible with his system and would function perfectly.

George Westinghouse of Westinghouse Electrical Company bought the American rights to Tesla's system of alternating current dynamos, transformers and motors and entered into direct competition with the Edison Company. Sensing that his business could be in trouble, Edison tried to prove that alternating would kill people. In order to put fears at rest, Tesla demonstrated in his laboratory that he could light lamps without wires by allowing electricity to flow through his body. At the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893, Tesla went on to demonstrate how safe direct current and high voltages could be if used sensibly by passing very high voltage currents through his body.

Westinghouse used Tesla's system for lighting at the fair, and as a result was awarded a contract to install a power station at Niagara Falls. This was supplying alternating current to Buffalo by 1896.

What are some of the other things Tesla did?

In 1890 he produced high frequency generators and in 1891 invented the Tesla coil, which was a transformer that would be used in radio and television communications.

He had many ideas but did not patent them and because of this he did not receive the money he deserved. Perhaps, as a consequence, he died alone and poor in the Hotel New Yorker, New York City on 7th January 1943. His nephew, Sava Kosanovich collected his belongings, including his laboratory notebooks which are now housed in th Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade.