Nikola Tesla: Imagining the Future

“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)

 Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla is being rediscovered in pop culture and celebrated as a man before his time and for distinctly imagining the future: 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 (Nikola Tesla in The New York Times.)

Tesla’s father Milutin Tesla

Tesla’s father Milutin Tesla

Tesla’s mother Georgina Djuka

Tesla’s mother Georgina Djuka

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.

Place of Birth of Nikola Tesla Smiljan, Croatia

Place of Birth of Nikola Tesla Smiljan, Croatia, which was then part of Austria-Hungary.

Tesla's house where he was born in 1856

Nikola Tesla’s house where he was born in 1856.

Serbian Orthodox Church where Tesla was baptized

The Serbian Orthodox Church where Tesla was baptized and his father served as a Serbian Orthodox Priest.

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.

Graz University of Technolog

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.

Charles University in Prague

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.

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

Alternating System (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.

Dynamo Electric Machine - US Patent 406,968

Dynamo Electric Machine Nikola Tesla – July 16, 1889.

US Patent 406,968

A model of Tesla's first induction motor

A model of Tesla’s first induction motor, in Tesla Museum, Belgrade

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.

Nikola Tesla & Thomas Edison

Nikola Tesla & Thomas Edison

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

Tesla Coil

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.

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.

Niagra Falls - first modern electrical power generating plant.

Niagra Falls – first modern electrical power generating plant.

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

Nikola Tesla

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.  Check out the “It’s Electric!” groovy box – building a paper circuit with LED lights, resistors, and a battery will be one way to practice the science you are learning.  You can go on to build a buzzing door alarm and design a new kind of groovy dance pad.  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