Nikola Tesla: Imagining the Future

Nikola Tesla imagined the future and is being rediscovered in pop culture and celebrated as a man before his time.  He thought of devices and technologies we use today such as mobile phones, wireless internet and renewable energy.

“It will soon be possible to transmit wireless messages around the world so simply that any individual can carry and operate his own apparatus.” – Nikola Tesla  From “WIRELESS OF THE FUTURE” Popular Mechanics October 1909

Early Years

STEMist, Nikola Tesla, was born in Smiljan Croatia, which was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. Ironically, the time of his birth was at the stroke of midnight between July 9th and 10th while a fierce electrical storm raged that very night in 1856. The fourth of five children, Nikola’s family lived on a farm and his father, Milutin Tesla, was a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church. Sadly, his older brother, Danilo, was killed in a riding accident when Nikola was only 7 years old.

After this tragedy, Tesla began to see visions and developed other quirks. For example, he was obsessed with the number 3, doing odd things such as circling a building 3 times before going in and insisting on 3 napkins next to his plate at every meal.

Photograph of Nikola Tesla's mother Georgina Djuka.
Tesla’s mother Georgina Djuka
Photograph of Nikola Tesla’s father Milutin Tesla
Tesla’s father Milutin Tesla
Map showing the birthplace of Nikola Tesla.  The map has a pin dropped on  Smiljan, Croatia.
Place of Birth of Nikola Tesla: Smiljan, Croatia, which was then part of Austria-Hungary.
Photograph showing the house where Nikola Tesla was born in 1856.  The house is white with a pitched roof.
Nikola Tesla’s house where he was born in 1856.
Photograph showing the Serbian Orthodox Church where Tesla was baptized and his father served as a Serbian Orthodox Priest.  The church is painted white with a nave in the back and a bellower in the front.
The Serbian Orthodox Church where Tesla was baptized and his father served as a Serbian Orthodox Priest.

“I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success… such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.” – Nikola Tesla Quoted by Cleveland , ‘A Talk With Tesla’, Atlanta Constitution (7 Jun 1896)

Tesla at University

Photograph showing Graz University of Technolog.  The building is large and ornate with arched doorways and rows of windows.
Graz University of Technolog

In 1877 Tesla studied mathematics and physics at the Graz University of Technology in Austria. He also studied natural philosophy at the Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.

Photograph of Charles University in Prague.  The large building has 4 levels and a porch lined with archways.
Charles University in Prague

Today people might find it odd for one person to study both science and philosophy, but in the past university students often learned many different things rather than just one specialty. Philosophy is the study of knowledge and thinking – skills we certainly use when we solve problems in math and science! The Greek Aristotle was a philosopher who also made many scientific observations. Tesla’s education probably made him better at thinking up groovy new ideas.

Inspiration for the AC Motor

In 1882 Tesla was walking and admiring a sunset.  Suddenly, he saw a vision of a motor that used a rotating magnetic field to produce what we now know as alternating current (AC).

Alternating electrical current changes directions 50 to 60 times per second.  Tesla drew this motor in the ground while a friend watched and wondered at the strange diagram.  According to the experts of the time, the motor Tesla had seen in his vision was impossible and would not work.  Fortunately, Tesla did not forget his motor.

An advertisement from an old newspaper.  The illustration shows a motor that uses The Alternating System.
Patent document that shows an illustration of the Dynamo Electric Machine invented by Nikola Tesla and dated July 16, 1889.
Dynamo Electric Machine Nikola Tesla – July 16, 1889. US Patent 406,968
 
A photograph of a model of Tesla's first induction motor, in Tesla Museum, Belgrade.  The motor is circular with coils inside.
A model of Tesla’s first induction motor, in Tesla Museum, Belgrade

Tesla and Edison

On June 6th, 1884, at the age of 28, Nikola arrived in New York City (later becoming a naturalized American citizen) in search of people who would believe in his unusual ideas about electricity. He became an engineer working on improving dynamos for Thomas Edison.  Edison and Tesla did not get along well, though.  One thing they disagreed about was the use of DC or AC power.  Edison wanted the nation powered by DC, while Tesla recognized that AC could provide more power, better power, and cheaper power.  AC eventually won, but Edison put up a fight.

Side by side photos of Nikola Tesla & Thomas Edison.  The photo on the left is of Nikola Tesla, a white man standing next to some electronic machinery holding two components in his hand.  On the left is Thomas Edison, an older white man, sitting at a desk looking at the camera.
Nikola Tesla & Thomas Edison

The Tesla Coil

Later Tesla worked for Westinghouse.  His greatest accomplishment at Westinghouse was the invention of the high-voltage transformer we now call the Tesla coil.

A photograph showing a Tesla Coil.  The coil is in a large room and shows a large metal ball with electric bolts shooting out of it and touching other cylindrical components.  This Tesla coil shut down the power in Colorado Springs when this photo was taken. Photo by Dickenson V. Alley, photographer at the Century Magazines via Wikimedia Commons.
This Tesla coil shut down the power in Colorado Springs when this photo was taken. Photo by Dickenson V. Alley, photographer at the Century Magazines via Wikimedia Commons.

Tesla and the first modern electrical power plant

In 1891 Tesla worked with General Electric to install AC generators at Niagara Falls in New York – creating the first modern electrical power generating plant. The Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Power and Manufacturing Company (NFHP) was located on the lower river north of Niagara Falls.

A black and white photograph that shows the hydroelectric damn of Niagra Falls - first modern electrical power generating plant. The damn shows buildings atop a wall with water coming down from several holes in the wall.  There is a building at the base of the dam and the waterfalls run down into the river.
Niagra Falls – first modern electrical power generating plant.

Later Life

Unfortunately, Nikola Tesla had some hard times in his life.  In 1895 his New York laboratory burned along with most of his lab notes and equipment.  The famous banker, J.P. Morgan, helped him rebuild.  After a time, however, Morgan grew tired of Tesla’s grand and imaginative ideas and stopped providing his support.  Thomas Edison and other rivals sometimes used Tesla’s work without giving him credit.

“I don’t care that they stole my idea . . I care that they don’t have any of their own” – Nikola Tesla

A color photograph of Nikola Tesla. A white man sitting in profile in a chair with a large book open on his lap.  The background shows concentric brown circles with a pattern of perpendicular lines radiating out from it.
Nikola Tesla

Tesla died alone in his apartment with no riches or fame.  He did befriend the pigeons in a nearby park, even bringing injured birds home so he could care for them.  He was not recognized enough in his lifetime for his amazing ideas and inventions.  The world we live in today, however, would be very different if Nikola Tesla had not lived.

“Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine” ― Nikola Tesla

You can honor Nikola Tesla and other STEMists who have given you the modern world by creating your own electrical projects.  

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Tesla was often called a man ahead of his time because he saw how useful electricity could be.  You are living in the world he imagined!

“The world, I think, will wait a long time for Nikola Tesla’s equal in achievement and imagination.” Edwin Armstrong

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