Spotlight: Nikola Tesla

“The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked -

is mine.” - Nikola Tesla

This month’s spotlight is on Nikola Tesla, the famous Serbian-American engineering mind who made huge breakthroughs in the field of electrical power. Nikola Tesla is known not only for his brilliance but also, tragically, for not being able to recreate his eventual fame and success in his lifetime.

Nikola Tesla was born in Smiljan, Croatia in 1856. His father was an Orthodox priest and his mother helped manage the family farm. Tesla’s early life was full of tragedy as he witnessed the death of his older brother in a riding accident, an incident Tesla always suffered trauma from, even into adulthood.

Tesla went on to study mathematics and physics at the Technical University of Graz, a pursuit that alienated the small-town professions and ideals that his parents held. Tesla also attended the University of Prague where he studied philosophy.

Tesla came up for an idea with a brushless AC motor while out walking one day. Although he drew up plans, he did not at that time have the finances to recreate his vision into a physical invention.

Tesla got a job repairing direct current power plants with the Continental Edison Company. In 1884, Tesla arrived in New York City and impressed Thomas Edison with his ideas and dedication. Edison told Tesla that if he presented Edison with an improved AC motor design, Edison would pay $50,000. When Tesla finally presented those designs, Edison told Tesla that he ‘didn’t understand American humour’. Tesla quit Edison’s company soon after this humiliation.

Tesla’s attempt to start an electric company failed and he turning to digging ditches for $2 an hour. However, the ingenuity of Tesla’s lectures were not lost on the great minds of the 1880s. George Westinghouse, who had invented the first AC power system and was one of Edison’s major competitors, offered Tesla a job working for him.

Whilst working for Westinghouse, Tesla worked on a number of inventions besides his AC motor. He invented electric oscillators known as Tesla coils, experimented with X-Rays and demonstrated radio communication.

Despite his many great works during his time, many more obstacles lay in store for Tesla. His lab in New York City burned down and when he tried to return to the city with the funding of JP Morgan, his ideas were laughed at as ‘too grandiose’.

Unfortunately, Nikola Tesla was eventually consumed by both mental illness and poverty and finally died in his bed in a New York hotel.

Tesla was belatedly acknowledged for his work with the radio, and his research was used as a foundation for other inventors. And as for the AC motor idea - that he came up with one day walking, the same one that Edison insulted - is now the global standard for power transmission.

Although Nikola Tesla had a hard life, he deserves to be remembered as one of the first great innovators of engineering; his studies are still being used and talked about today.

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