Hands on History: Who is Nikola Tesla?
By Shani Asokan Ceylon Today Features
A brilliant scientist and engineer, Nikola Tesla is often overshadowed by his long-time rival and one-time employer, Thomas Edison. Tesla has a number of inventions to his name, many of which we know and use today. Before we discuss these however, let’s take a quick look at who Tesla was and how he came to be the great scientist he was.
Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 to Serbian parents in what is modernday Croatia. He attended several schools because his family moved around a lot. However, his lessons were always taught in German, as was usual in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was in control of that part of the world at the time. During his time in school, he became interested in the study of electricity, and was fascinated by the experiments conducted by his physics teacher. As a young man, Tesla studied math, physics and philosophy at university level.
In 1882, while out on a walk, he came up with the idea for a brushless AC motor. This was perhaps one of his earliest ideas for an invention. Later that year he moved to Paris to work for the Continental Edison Company. There, his job was to repair direct current (DC) power plants. Two years later, he emigrated to the United States of America where he eventually became a citizen.
In America, Tesla worked as an engineer at Thomas Edison’s headquarters in New York. Here, Tesla and Edison had their first falling out. Edison promised Tesla a large sum of money in exchange for an improved design of a direct current machine. When Tesla presented the solution to Edison, he dismissed his earlier promise as a joke. Tesla quit working for the company soon after.
After some hardship, Tesla found investors who were willing to finance a company in his name, called the Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. In 1887 and 1888, he was granted over 30 patents for his inventions, and was invited to speak at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.
At the lecture, Tesla caught the eye of Edison’s main competitor, George Westinghouse, an inventor who had launched the first AC power system near Boston. Westinghouse hired Tesla and gave him his own lab.
However, Tesla soon left Westinghouse’s company as well, due to issues relating to rights over his innovations. In the 1890s Tesla invented electric oscillators, meters, improved lights and the high-voltage transformer known as the Tesla coil. He also went on to experiment with X-rays and radio communication before Guglielmo Marconi (the inventor of the long-distance telegraph and radio signal).
Misfortune and death
In 1895, Tesla’s New York lab burned down, destroying much of his notes and equipment. He began his work anew in 1900, after securing financing, but this was short-lived as funds soon ran out, and his investor refused to give him more money, considering his schemes way too large Tesla lived the last decades of his life in a New York Hotel, working on new inventions. However, both his physical and mental health had begun to fade.
Tesla died in his hotel room on 7 January 1943. Today, his genius still lives on, as many of our modern technology like remote controls, X-rays, wireless transmission, computers, smartphones and laser beams among other use technology pioneered by this great inventor.