He was reportedly born at exactly midnight during an electrical storm, an intriguing beginning for a man who would one day help light up all of America with the alternating current (AC) electric power systems he invented. In addition to his AC systems, which allowed more efficient and safer power transmission over long distances than the direct current (DC) systems preferred by Thomas Edison, Tesla pioneered radio technology, experimented with X-rays, invented the first boat controlled remotely and was a great proponent of wireless communication. Despite his many achievements, Tesla faced numerous difficulties, often finding himself at odds with other inventors, such as Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi, and struggling to stay out of debt when business ventures fell through.
Tesla, the son of a Serbian Orthodox priest and his wife (herself the daughter of a priest), spent his early life in Croatia. He had four siblings. Tesla attended the Austrian Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria, where he developed an interest in motors and the possible uses of alternating current. Subsequently he spent a term at the Charles-Ferdinand branch of the University of Prague, where his classes focused on physics and advanced mathematics. In 1881, Tesla moved again, this time to Budapest, Hungary. There he worked first as an electrician and then as an electrical engineer. The following year he began working as an engineer in yet another city, Paris, France. There, while experimenting in his free time from his job at the Continental Edison Company, Tesla developed his earliest devices that used rotating magnetic fields, including the induction motor.
Tesla immigrated to the United States in 1894, bringing with him a letter of recommendation addressed to Thomas Edison, a few cents and little else. The letter served its purpose well, gaining Tesla a position at Edison Machine Works. Nevertheless, despite his skills in electrical design, Tesla was not suited to work with Edison, whose methods and ideas opposed his own. When Edison failed to follow through on a promised bonus, Tesla left the company.
By selling his rights to the polyphase alternating current power system to George Westinghouse, Tesla did little to endear himself with Edison. The Westinghouse Electric Company quickly began promoting the AC system, competing against Edison’s older DC system. To gain acceptance for AC power, Westinghouse and Tesla carried out numerous demonstrations, including using it to power a special electrical exhibition at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The rivalry was fierce, but the Tesla-Westinghouse approach gradually became the dominant means of providing power throughout the country.
Money he earned from his involvement with Westinghouse allowed Tesla to set up his own laboratory, where he carried out studies in many areas and invented a variety of novel devices. In 1891, he developed the Tesla coil, a high-frequency transformer that produces an extremely powerful electrical field. The Tesla coil later was used widely in radio and electronics. In 1898, Tesla invented a remote-controlled boat. He thought the technology would be useful to the military, but for decades it remained little more than a novelty. Tesla relocated briefly to Colorado Springs, Colorado, seeking more space and better atmospheric conditions for his high-voltage experiments. There he discovered terrestrial stationary waves within the Earth and measured the resonance frequency of the planet. Some of his activities in the remote laboratory became fodder for reporters, who questioned Tesla’s claims that he received extraterrestrial radio signals, and damaged his reputation as a serious scientist. Increasingly, Tesla became known as an eccentric, but he never let what other people said about him keep him from his scientific pursuits.
Even as his Colorado lab was being dismantled to pay off debts, Tesla was planning his next major endeavor. With the financial backing of J.P. Morgan, Tesla began planning a wireless global broadcasting tower to be located in Long Island. Construction of the Wardenclyffe Tower began in the early 1900s, but Morgan pulled out of the deal and the project was scrapped. Without funding Tesla was unable to achieve his dream of wide-scale wireless telecommunication and power transmission, a tremendous setback for him and the world. Few of his contemporaries understood the great potential of Tesla’s plan and considered the failed tower an example of his folly.
Tesla died in a hotel in New York in January 1943. He was in debt at the time, as he was much of his life. Money problems prevented him from fully pursing many of his inventions; ideas languished in his notebooks, never materializing. The year of his death, Tesla posthumously won his ongoing battle with Marconi regarding the patent rights to the radio, which had escalated all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
In honor of Tesla, the SI unit of magnetic flux density, which was defined in 1960, bears his name. The tesla is equivalent to one weber per square meter.