The Man who Illuminated Mankind

Driven by his brilliant intellect but unrecognized in his time, Nikola Tesla’s quest to “illuminate the whole Earth” took him from the village of Smiljane to New York City, granting humankind countless inventions that continue to shape our world.

Published Categorized as Biography
Famous photograph of Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla in his laboratory in Colorado Springs around 1899, supposedly sitting reading next to his giant "magnifying transmitter" high voltage generator while the machine produced huge bolts of electricity. The photo was a promotional stunt by photographer Dickenson V. Alley; a double exposure.
Nikola Tesla, with his equipment for producing high-frequency alternating currents.

Nikola Tesla (1846-1943) – Scientist, Engineer, Inventor

When the editor of the famous American magazine “The Electrical Experimenter” asked him to briefly tell his biography, he was a bit at a loss for words. This modest mind always identified his life with his inventions. For him, any other kind of existence simply did not exist. This genius lived a quite withdrawn life, happily surrounded by his work. But, finally, he agreed to tell his life story—and that tale was a roller-coaster of a tale. 

It was a summer night in 1856 and the village of Smiljane sank into the silence before a formidable summer storm. In the house near the small Serbian Orthodox church lived the family of Milutin Tesla, the priest. His wife, Djuka, was about to have their fourth child. He was named after both his grandfathers. One was a priest, the other a sergeant in Napoleon’s army.    

Milutin was an intellectual, a good man, and a gifted speaker. He loved reading. Djuka was a diligent woman whose household inventions were famous in the area. She could not write or read, but that did not limit her gifted brain. Nikola spoke fondly about his mother in his memoirs—he said that she was the one that inspired his passion for inventing. His older brother Dane was everybody’s favorite, although he tragically lost his life at the age of fourteen in a riding accident. This misfortune left an indelible mark on Tesla’s family, even on little Nikola. He grew up with low self-esteem, although he was considered a bright child. He was very loved by his sisters. The youngest, Milica, was especially attached to him. Later, when he was in America, Milica’s letters were the thing that gave him the strength to achieve his groundbreaking scientific work. 

He spent his early childhood simply, among meadows and farm animals, especially pigeons, which remained his lifelong obsession. Even at a young age, he was very curious and mischievous. His curiosity was somewhat dangerous. A few times he came close to drowning while trying to impress friends, and he once jumped off the roof with his grandfather’s umbrella. 

In 1863 Milutin moved his family to a nearby town called Gospić. The relocation was hard on Nikola. He learned to write and read even before starting school. He became increasingly interested in the natural sciences, though his father had different plans for him. Milutin wanted Nikola to become a priest. This also weighed on him, as he dreamed of becoming an engineer. In the autumn of 1870. Tesla left for Karlovac in Croatia for further schooling. There he was trained in languages and mathematics. His loneliness became worse. He lived with his aunt, a very strict old lady. He was often hungry. After his education ended, he got ill from cholera. His medical condition was so poor that doctors gave up on him. Tesla’s parents were sad and worried, not wanting to lose yet another son. On one occasion, Nikola said to his father that he might recover if he allowed him to study electrical engineering. Milutin promised him he would send him to the best technical institution if he recovered. After his life had hung in the balance for so long, Nikola slowly began to gain his health back. This and similar near-fatal experiences are why Tesla became a germaphobe. He developed a rigid hygiene routine and wore white gloves to every dinner. Perhaps this adds up to the stereotype of the mad scientist, along with his obsession with the number 3, an abhorrence of round objects, pearls, or touching hair.

Milutin kept his word and in 1875 Nikola enrolled in the Polytechnic School at Graz, Austria. Tesla threw himself into his studies, and the following summer he returned home with straight As. He believed his parents would welcome him in triumph, but Milutin tried to persuade him to stay in Gospić. It was only later, after his father’s death, that he learned that the professors had written to Milutin about Tesla’s monastic study habits. They feared that he would harm his health by exhausting himself. 

A young Nikola Tesla portrait
Nikola Tesla – Serbian-American inventor 1879, age 23

Very soon after, Tesla became bored. He greatly surpassed his colleagues. He was frustrated he had not found the solution to the AC problem. Tesla plunged into gambling. One semester he lost all his tuition funds. Milutin was quite angry, but Djuka came to him with money and said, “Go and enjoy yourself. The sooner you lose all we possess the better it will be. I know that you will get over it.” Eventually, he won back his losses and returned the money to his family. “I conquered my passion then and there,” he wrote, and “tore it from my heart so as not to leave a trace of desire. Ever since that time I have been as indifferent to any form of gambling as to picking teeth,” Tesla said, recalling this period of temptation. Tesla was otherwise famous for overcoming his vices. When he realized the extent to which his health was being damaged by them, he gave up cigarettes and coffee. His will was undeniably strong. 

Tesla never graduated from the Austrian Polytechnic School. He took jobs in Maribor and around Zagreb, hiding from his parents. When his father finally found him and when he learned about his academic problems, Milutin suggested that Nikola join another university. So, in 1880, Nikola went to Prague. Staying at this university was quite fruitful because it was here that Tesla “made a decided advance, which consisted in detaching the commutator from the machine and studying the phenomena in this new aspect.”

Soon after, his father died. Since he had to support himself, he moved to Hungary at the urging of his uncle Paja. Namely, upon the invention of the telephone by Alexander Bell, a telephone switchboard was set up in Budapest in 1881. His uncle’s friend Ferenc Puskas, who ran the new “American” telephone exchange, was to be Nikola’s new employer. Puskas quickly realized Tesla’s genius and he appointed him to the managerial position. Tesla invented a precursor of the loudspeaker and never tried to obtain a patent on it. 

In 1882, our young inventor created a “rotating magnetic field”, thus finding the solution to the problem that had been bothering him since he was 21. To better understand the meaning of this discovery, here is an excerpt from Marc Seifer’s book “Wizard: The Life and Time Of Nikola Tesla”: The discovery of how to effectively harness the rotating magnetic field was really only a fraction of Tesla’s creation. Before his invention, electricity could be pumped approximately one mile, and then only for illuminating dwellings. After Tesla, electrical power could be transmitted hundreds of miles, and then not only for lighting but for running household appliances and industrial machines in factories. Tesla’s creation was a leap ahead in a rapidly advancing technological revolution.

One might think that Tesla, then at the age of only 25, would feel triumphant after such an innovation. But, his path took him farther and farther to France, and finally, America. He spent 1882 and 1883 working in Paris and Strasburg for Edison’s company. Charles Batchelor, Edison’s personal friend, suggested to Tesla that he should go to America. He gave Nikola a letter of recommendation for Edison that read: “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.”

Nikola Tesla, with Rudjer Boscovich's book "Theoria Philosophiae Naturalis", in front of the spiral coil of his high-voltage Tesla coil transformer at his East Houston St., New York, laboratory. "Tesla's Important Advances" in Electrical Review, May 20, 1896
Tesla sitting in front of a spiral coil used in his wireless power experiments at his East Houston St. laboratory

The ship S.S. Saturnia brought Nikola Tesla to New York in 1884 with almost no money in his pocket. The encounter between the two greatest minds of that era left an impression on young Nikola. In his autobiography, he wrote that he was impressed with the wonderful Tomas Alva Edison. 

Unfortunately, their paths quickly diverged. Edison asked Tesla to improve his designs for DC dynamos. He even offered him $50,000 for that task. When Tesla came up with the solution a couple of months later and asked for payment, Edison declined with the words: “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” 

After leaving Edison, Tesla founded his own company. The company did well at first, but a great economic crisis soon ensued, taking a large number of establishments to their doom. Tesla was coerced into digging ditches for $2 per day.

In agreement with A.K. Brown in 1887, he founded “Tesla Electric Light Company”. Nikola set up his laboratory close to Edison’s. In 1887 and 1888, he was granted more than 30 patents for his inventions. During his lecture at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, he caught the attention of George Westinghouse, the inventor who launched the first AC system in Boston. Westinghouse hired Tesla and immediately began mass production of his engines. By putting Tesla’s knowledge into practice, Westinghouse got rich while the great scientist stayed poor.

During the 1890s, Tesla invented electric oscillators, meters, improved lights, and the high-voltage transformer known as the Tesla coil and experimented with X-rays. He also gave demonstrations of radio communications two years before Marconi.

The little boy from Smiljane always dreamed of taming the mighty Niagara Falls. That dream became a reality when Tesla’s generators were installed at Niagara and immediately started producing a huge amount of electricity. In 1893 Tesla and Westinghouse partnered with General Electric to install AC generators at Niagara Falls—thus creating the first modern power station. The construction of the hydropower station took five years and was completed in 1896. This year stands as the most significant in the history of technology since Faraday, and this power station stands majestically as a monument to the greatest mind of the time. 

Tesla's 187 foot transmitting tower appears to rise from the building
Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe wireless station, located in Shoreham, New York, seen in 1904.

A 185-foot tower, called the Wardenclyffe Tower, was built by Tesla to conduct many of his wireless power transmission experiments in the early 1900s. Believing that Germans were using the tower for radio transmitting, authorities destroyed it. Nowadays, the remains of the building are being converted into a museum. 

Tesla’s inventions changed life as we know it. Without them, numerous aspects of modern technology and everyday life would not exist, such as fluorescent lighting, x-ray, radio, television, and cell phone. Many of his documents and inventions are still kept behind lock and key by the FBI, and various conspiracy theories surrounding them have gained momentum since then. 

He never married, though he was considered an attractive man. His last days on Earth he spent living in Manhattan hotels, feeding (and talking to) his beloved pigeons in New York parks. He died on January 7, 1943, in The New Yorker Hotel, room 3327. He always believed that he would live well over 100 years. He believed that he had so much yet to give to the world. The boy born during a lightning storm in Smiljane brought so much to us. He was never after money but lived through his work and inventions, dreaming for others even when they were not able to. There is one of Tesla’s dreams that remains yet to be realized. He wanted to “illuminate the whole Earth artificially”. In some way, he did illuminate the world, and his legacy continues to do so, day after day.

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