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Tesla, Nikola (1856-1943)

Tesla, Nikola (1856-1943)

Eccentric scientific genius whose inventions in the field of electrical apparatus stemmed from inspirations received in extraordinary visions of a paranormal character. Unlike most innovators in the fields of engineering and electricity, his inventions did not require patient experiment and trial-and-error testing of models. The ideas flashed into his mind as working units, complete to the final details of component design and size. For example, as a young student of electrical engineering and physics, at a time when the concept of alternating current was considered a fallacy of the perpetual motion type, he knew that he could solve this problem. After only a few years of consideration of the problem, the complete detailed vision of an alternating current motor using a rotating magnetic field came to him while he gazed at a sunset.

He was born in July 10, 1856, in the village of Similjan in the Austro-Hungarian border area of Lika (now in Slovenia). Even as a boy, he was inventive; at the age of nine he constructed a 16-bug power motor by harnessing June bugs to a thin wooden wheel. He was educated at an elementary school, then had four years at Lower Realschule, Gospic, Lika, which was followed by three years at the Higher Realschule, Carlstadt, Croatia. He graduated in 1873. Tesla was a student for four years at the Polytechnic School, Gratz, Austria, studying mathematics, physics, and mechanics. Afterward he enrolled in philosophy studies for two years at the University of Prague, Bohemia (now the capital of the Czech Republic).

He commenced his career as an inventor in Budapest, Hungary, in 1881. There he constructed a telephone repeater and engaged in various branches of engineering and manufacture. In 1884 he immigrated to the United States, later becoming a naturalized citizen. For nearly a year he worked for inventor Thomas A. Edison, who was impressed by his skill and hard work, but the two men were diametrically opposed in temperament and method. Tesla was a visionary who solved problems in a flash of insight, whereas Edison relied on patient trial-and-error in practical experiments. Tesla insisted on the superiority of alternating current and its applications, whereas Edison believed it a dead end and championed direct current. Tesla parted company with Edison after being promised $50,000 for improving the design and efficiency of dynamos. When Tesla solved the problem and asked for the money, Edison said he was only joking. Tesla immediately resigned.

His salary at the Edison Company had been modest. For the next two years he had a difficult time, but in 1887 he was backed to form the Tesla Electric Company in New York. He was now able to construct the alternating current machines he had visualized earlier.

The Tesla system made it possible to supply electricity economically over distances of hundreds of miles, instead of the short distances of the Edison direct current powerhouses. Tesla's demonstrations made a great impression on another inventor, George Westinghouse of the Westinghouse Electric Company of Pittsburgh. Westinghouse paid Tesla $1 million for rights on his alternating current system, comprising some 40 patents, with a contract additionally stipulating a royalty of a dollar per horsepower.

In attempting to span the continent with an alternating current system, Westinghouse ran into financial difficulties; his own backers insisted that he renounce his royalty contract to Tesla, otherwise they would withdraw support. When Westinghouse explained his difficulty to Tesla, Tesla recalled how Westinghouse had believed in him. In a magnanimous gesture Tesla tore up his contract, thereby sacrificing some $12 million in unpaid royalties.

Tesla went on to invent new apparatus involving original principles. He was responsible for many important innovations: the system of electricity conversion and distribution by oscillatory dischargers, generators of high frequency current; the Tesla coil or transformer, a system of wireless transmission of intelligence; mechanical oscillators and generators of electrical oscillation; research and discoveries in radiation, material streams, and emanations; and high-potential magnifying transmitting. One of his most spectacular achievements was harnessing the water power of Niagara Falls. In 1895 the Westinghouse Electric Company installed a gigantic hydroelectric project, using the Tesla polyphase system of alternating current.

Tesla opened up many important avenues of scientific development and has rarely been properly acknowledged by later historians. His experiments with electromagnetic waves formed the basis of the development of radio. He stated that cosmic rays were responsible for the radioactivity of radium, thorium, and uranium and predicted that other substances would be made radioactive by bombardment. He thus anticipated the basic principles of X-ray apparatus and the electron microscope. In his work with wireless controlled automata he anticipated radio-controlled rocket missiles.

Not surprisingly, he had one or two blind spots. He did not accept for many years that atomic fission would produce energy. He misunderstood the mechanism of vision; he believed that visual images perceived by the brain were returned to the retina of the eye, and might be amplified or projected. However, there was no mistaking his own extraordinary visionary faculty and the discoveries associated with it. In an article titled "Making Your Imagination Work For You," he wrote:

"During my boyhood I had suffered from a peculiar affliction due to the appearance of images, which were often accompanied by strong flashes of light. Then I began to take mental excursions beyond the small world of my actual knowledge. Day and night, in imagination, I went on journeyssaw new places, cities, countries, and all the time I tried hard to make these imaginary things very sharp and clear in my mind.

"This I did constantly until I was 17, when my thoughts turned seriously to invention. Then, to my delight, I found I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings, or experiments. I could picture them all in my head.

"Here, in brief, is my own method: After experiencing a desire to invent a particular thing, I may go on for months or years with the idea in the back of my head. Whenever I feel like it, I roam around in my imagination and think about the problem without any deliberate concentration. This is a period of incubation.

"There follows a period of direct effort. I choose carefully the possible solutions of the problem I am considering, and gradually center my mind on a narrowed field of investigation. Now, when I am deliberately thinking of the problem in its specific features, I may begin to feel that I am going to get the solution. And the wonderful thing is, that if I do feel this way, then I know I have really solved the problem and shall get what I am after.

"The feeling is as convincing to me as though I already had solved it. I have come to the conclusion that at this stage the actual solution is in my mind subconsciously, though it may be a long time before I am aware of it consciously.

"Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made the actual drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop.

"The inventions I have conceived in this way have always worked. In 30 years there has not been a single exception. My first electric motor, the vacuum tube wireless light, my turbine engine and many other devices have all been developed in exactly this way."

Tesla's friend and biographer John J. O'Neill stated that Tesla "was unquestionably an abnormal individual, and of a type that does have what are known as 'psychic experiences.' He was emphatic in his denial that he ever had experiences of that sort; yet he has related incidents that clearly belong in the psychic category." According to O'Neill, Tesla was fearful that admitting to having psychic experiences might cause him to be misunderstood as supporting Spiritualism or theories that something operates in life other than matter and energy.

In his later years, Tesla suffered financial difficulties and was unable to construct some of his most ambitious inventions. He claimed he had discovered an inexhaustible source of energy that could be transmitted anywhere in the world without wires or loss of power. He correctly foresaw that at some future time "it will be possible for nations to fight without armies, ships, or guns by weapons far more terrible, to the destructive action and range of which there is virtually no limit." Tesla is credited with having discovered a protective radiation principle of the kind popularly termed "death ray."

In 1912 he refused the Nobel Prize because it was to be awarded jointly to himself and Thomas A. Edison; instead the award went to the Swedish scientist Gustav Dalen.

In an unpublished article entitled "Man's Greatest Achievement" (cited in O'Neill's biographical Prodigal Genius, 1968), Telsa writes:

"Long ago he [the human being] recognized that all perceptible matter comes from a primary substance, or tenuity beyond conception, filling all space, the Akasa or luminiferous ether, which is acted upon by the life-giving Prana or creative force, calling into existence, in never ending cycles, all things and phenomena"

This is the language of Theosophy or Hindu metaphysics. Tesla's states of higher consciousness, achieved by intense concentration and a celibate life, resemble Hindu concepts of cosmic energy in the universe, aroused in the human body under the name of kundalini through yoga disciplines and meditation, resulting in expanded consciousness and access to an infinity of cosmic intelligence.

Tesla died in poverty in New York on January 7, 1943. Soon afterward, FBI operatives opened the safe in his room and took away papers reputedly containing details of a secret invention of possible value in warfare.


O'Neill, John J. Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla. London: Neville Spearman, 1968. Reprint, London: Granada, 1980.

Peat, David. In Search of Nikola Tesla. Bath, England: Ash-grove Press, 1983.

Tesla, Nikola. "Making Your Imagination Work For You." American Magazine (April 1921).

Wilson, Colin, ed. Men of Mystery. London: W. H. Allen, 1977.

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Tesla, Nikola


(b. Smiljan, Croatia [now Yugoslavia], 10 July 1856; d. New York, N.Y., 7 January 1943)

physics, electrical engineering.

Tesla was born of Serbian parents in a mountain village that was then part of Austria-Hungary. His father, Milutin Tesla, was a clergyman of the Serbian Orthodox church, while his mother, Djuka Mandić, although illiterate, was a skillful inventor of home and farm implements. Tesla himself was intended for the clergy, but early developed a taste for mathematics and science. When he was seven, the family moved to Gospić, where he finished grammar school and graduated from the Real-Gymnasium. He then attended the Higher Real-Gymnasium in Karlovac and, upon graduation, persuaded his father to let him enter the Joanneum, the polytechnical college of Graz, Austria.

It was while he was a student in Graz that Tesla’s attention was first drawn to problems of the induction motor. His observation that a Gramme dynamo that was being run as a motor in a classroom demonstration sparked badly between its commutator and brushes led him to suggest that a motor without a commutator might be devised–an idea that his professor ridiculed. Nothing daunted, Tesla continued to develop the idea. In 1879 he left Graz to enroll at the University of Prague, but left without taking a degree when his father died. He then held a number of jobs; in 1881 he went to Budapest to work for the new telephone company there. During his year there he thought of the principle of the rotating magnetic field, upon which all polyphase induction motors are based. The discovery, by his own account, was instantaneous, complete, and intuitive. Walking in a park with a friend, Antony Szigety, Tesla was moved to recite a passage from Goethe’s Faust (of which he had the whole by heart) when “. . . the idea came like a lightning flash. In an instant I saw it all, and drew with a stick on the sand the diagrams which were illustrated in my fundamental patents of May, 1888, and which Szigety understood perfectly.” It was, however, some time before he was able to exploit his invention commercially.

In 1882 Tesla went to Paris as an engineer with the Continental Edison Company. The following year he was sent to Strasbourg to repair an electric plant, and while there built a crude prototype of his motor. He thus experienced “the supreme satisfaction of seeing for the first time rotation effected by alternating currents without commutator.” In 1884 he went to the United States to promote his new alternating-current motor. He arrived in New York with a working knowledge of a dozen languages, a book of poetry, four cents, and an introduction to Thomas Edison. Although Edison was totally committed to direct current, he gave Tesla a job, and for a year Tesla supported himself redesigning direct-current dynamos for the Edison Machine Works. By 1885 he had left Edison and had gone into business developing and promoting an industrial arc lamp. He was forced out of the company when production began, however, and for a time lived precariously, doing odd jobs and day labor. Within two years he was back on his feet, and had formed his own laboratory for the development of his alternating-current motor.

By 1888 Tesla had obtained patents on a whole polyphase system of alternating-current dynamos, transformers, and motors; the rights to these were bought in that year by George Westinghouse, and the “battle of the currents” was begun. Although Edison continued to espouse direct current, Tesla’s system triumphed to make possible the first large-scale harnessing of Niagara Falls and to provide the basis for the whole modern electric-power industry. In 1889 Tesla became an American citizen.

During the next few years Tesla worked in his New York laboratories on a wide variety of projects. He was very successful, particularly in his invention of the Tesla coil, an air-core transformer, and in his further research on high-frequency currents. In 1891 he lectured on his high-frequency devices to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and this lecture, coupled with a spectacular demonstration of these apparatuses, made him famous. He repeated his performance in Europe, to great acclaim, and enjoyed international celebrity.

In 1893 the Chicago World Columbian Exposition was lighted by means of Tesla’s system and work was begun on the installation of power machinery at Niagara Falls. In a lecture-demonstration given in St. Louis in the same year–two years before Marconi’s first experiments–Tesla also predicted wireless communication; the apparatus that he employed contained all the elements of spark and continuous wave that were incorporated into radio transmitters before the advent of the vacuum tube. Engrossed as he was with the transmission of substantial amounts of power, however, he almost perversely rejected the notion of transmission by Hertzian waves, which he considered to be wasteful of energy. He thus proposed wierless communication by actual conduction of electricity through natural media, and, working in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1899–1900, proved the earth to be a conductor. In a further series of experiments. Tesla produced artificial lightning in flashes of millions of volts that were up to 135 feet long–a feat that has never been equaled. It was at his Colorado laboratory, too, that Tesla, who had become increasingly withdrawn and eccentric ever since the death of his mother in 1892, announced that he had received signals from foreign planets, a statement that was greeted with some skepticism.

Tesla’s vision always embraced the widest applications of his discoveries. Of his wireless system, he wrote in 1900: “I have no doubt that it will prove very efficient in enlightening the masses, particularly in still uncivilized countries and less accessible regions, and that it will add materially to general safety, comfort and convenience, and maintenance of peaceful relations.” With the financial backing of J. P. Morgan, he began work on a worldwide communications system, and a 200–foot transmission tower was constructed at Shoreham, on Long Island. By 1905, however, Morgan had withdrawn his support, and the project came to an end. The tower was destroyed by dynamite, under mysterious circumstances, in 1914.

Although he continued to enjoy a measure of fame, Tesla made little money from his inventions, and became increasingly poor during the last decades of his life. His name continued to flourish before the public, however, since he was a reliable source for scientific prophecy, and exploited as such in the popular press. While he gave demonstrations of some of his earlier marvels–his exhibition of a radio–guided teleautomatic boat filled Madison Square Garden in 1898–he became oracular in his later years and, for example, offered no proof of the potent “death–ray” that he announced in 1934, on his seventy–eighth birthday. Nonetheless, Tesla continued to invent devices of commercial and scientific worth, from which, since he seldom bothered to seek a patent, he received little profit.

Tesla was a complete recluse in his last years, living in a series of New York hotel rooms with only pigeons for company. At his death his papers and notes were seized by the Alien Property office; they are now housed in the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, a country in which he is revered as a national hero.


I. Original Works. The greatest part of Tesla’s notes and correspondence is in the Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade, Yugoslavia. That institution has published a selection of source materials, in English, as Leland I. Anderson, ed., Nikola Tesla, 1856–1943: Lectures, Patents, Articles (Belgrade, 1956), which includes an autobiographical sketch; another autobiographical segment is “Some Personal Recollections,” in Scientific American (June, 1915).

II. Secondary Literature. A commemorative volume of speeches made on the occasion of the centenary of Tesla’s birth is A Tribute to Nikola Tesla: Presented in Articles, Letters, Documents (Belgrade, 1961). Full biographies are Inez Hunt and Wanetta W. Draper, Lightning in His Hand: The Life Story of Nikola Tesla (Denver, 1964); and John J. O’Neill, Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla (New York, 1944). Shorter treatments include Haraden Pratt, “Nikola Tesla, 1856–1943,” in Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers,44 (1956), 1106–1108; and Kenneth M. Swezey, “Nikola Tesla, Pathfinder of the Electrical Age,” in Electrical Engineering,75 (1956), 786–790; and “Nikola Tesla,” in Science,127 (1958), 1147–1159.

Kenneth M. Swezey

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Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla

The Croatian-American inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) invented the induction motor and the transformer known as the Tesla coil and discovered the rotating magnetic field principle.

Nikola Tesla was born in Smiljan, Croatia on July 9, 1856. He attended the Polytechnic School at Graz for 4 years and spent a year at the University of Prague (1879-1880). His first employment was in a government telegraph engineering office in Budapest, where he made his first invention, a telephone repeater, and conceived the idea of a rotating magnetic field. He subsequently worked in Paris and Strasbourg.

In 1884 Tesla went to the United States. He was associated briefly with Thomas Edison in New Jersey, where he designed new dynamos, but the two had a salary misunderstanding and Tesla withdrew. After a difficult period, during which Tesla invented but lost his rights to an arc-lighting system, he established his own laboratory in New York City in 1887.

A controversy between alternating-current and direct-current advocates raged in the 1880s and 1890s, featuring Tesla and Edison as leaders in the rival camps. The advantages of the polyphase alternating-current system, as developed by Tesla, soon became apparent, however, particularly for long-distance power transmission. Assisted by George Westinghouse, an early convert to alternating current and Tesla's employer for a year, the system was adopted in the early 1890s for both a major power project (Niagara Falls) and a major lighting project (the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition).

Brilliant and eccentric, Tesla was then at the peak of his inventive powers. He produced in rapid succession the induction motor (utilizing his rotating magnetic field principle) and other electrical motors, new forms of generators and transformers, and a system for alternating-current power transmission; later he invented the Tesla coil and made basic discoveries concerning wireless communication. Tesla also invented fluorescent lights and a new type of steam turbine, and he became increasingly intrigued with the wireless transmission of power.

Tesla, a strikingly handsome, tall, slender man and a captivating public lecturer, was an unorthodox, almost mystical person; he exhibited unusual powers of perception and forecasting, but his life was increasingly that of a shy, lonely recluse. He refused to accept the 1912 Nobel Prize offered jointly to him and Edison and reluctantly accepted the Edison Medal of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1917. He died in New York City on Jan. 7, 1943, the holder of more than 700 patents.

Further Reading

The outstanding biography of Tesla is John J. O'Neill, Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla (1944). O'Neill's portrait is sensitive and sympathetic, if somewhat metaphysical, but it describes Tesla's electrical contributions thoroughly. Two popular accounts are Arthur J. Beckhard, Electrical Genius: Nikola Tesla (1959), and Inez Hunt and Wanetta W. Draper, Lightning in His Hand (1964).

Additional Sources

Cheney, Margaret, Tesla, man out of time, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981.

Nikola Tesla: life and work of a genius, Belgrade: Yugoslav Society for the Promotion of Scientific Knowledge Nikola Tesla, 1976.

Seifer, Marc, Wizard: the life and times of Nikola Tesla, Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Pub., 1996.

Tesla, Nikola, The fantastic inventions of Nikola Tesla, Stelle, Ill.: Adventures Unlimiteds, 1993.

Tesla, Nikola, My inventions: the autobiography of Nikola Tesla, Williston, Vt.: Hart Bros., 1982. □

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Tesla, Nikola

Nikola Tesla (tĕs´lə), 1856–1943, American electrician and inventor, b. Croatia (then an Austrian province). He immigrated to the United States in 1884, worked for a short period for Edison, and became a naturalized American citizen (1891). A pioneer in the field of high-voltage electricity, he made many discoveries and inventions of great value to the development of radio transmission and to the field of electricity. These include a system of arc lighting, the Tesla induction motor and system of alternating-current transmission, the Tesla coil, generators of high-frequency currents, a transformer to increase oscillating currents to high potentials, a system of wireless communication, and a system of transmitting electric power without wires. He produced the first power system at Niagara Falls, N.Y. There is a museum dedicated to his work in Belgrade, Serbia.

See biographies by H. B. Walters (1961), J. J. O'Neill (1968, repr. 1986), I. Hunt and W. W. Draper (1986); J. J. O'Neil (1986), and B. H. Johnston (1989).

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Tesla, Nikola

Tesla, Nikola (1856–1943) US electrical engineer and inventor, b. Croatia, who pioneered the applications of high-voltage electricity. He developed arc lighting, the first generator of alternating current (AC), and the high-frequency Tesla coil.

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