Let There Be Light: An Exploration of the Life of Nikola Tesla

By Kendra A. Palmer
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

Early Life

A great deal is known about Nikola Tesla’s origins—namely, his country and people, to which and of whom he attributed so great a deal. The inventor recognized that he came from an extremely conflicted area in the Balkans, full of strife, struggling for identity— a state which remains to this day. He once said, “hardly is there a nation which has met with a sadder fate than the Serbians. Europe can never repay the great debt it owes to the Serbians for checking, by the sacrifice of its own liberty, that barbarian influx” (Seifer 1). He was exceedingly passionate about his heritage; the basis for his pride lies in Serbia’s long and moving history. Tesla knew where he came from: a constant battleground. As one author said of the Serbs, “[our history] follows us always” (Seifer 3). Serbian history and the Battle of Kosovo is as indispensable to the Serb as the Exodus to the Jew or the Crucifixion to the Christian (Seifer 4). Tesla was somewhat of an enigma since he was of Serbian heritage, but grew up in Croatia (which in many ways conflicted with his ethnicity). This history shaped Tesla’s childhood, his family’s relocation, and influenced his life tremendously.

It is said that Tesla was born during a thunderstorm in a small hamlet called Smiljan in the province of Lika, Croatia on July 10, 1856. He was descended from a well-established frontier zadruga of the original family name Draganic; by the mid-1700s, this clan migrated to Croatia and within it, the Tesla name arose. His lineage was part of the “educated aristocracy” of the Serbian community (Seifer 7).

It is curious that even though his family was Serbian, they resided in this part of mountainous Croatia since, as previously mentioned, there are and were major distinctions and even animosity between the Croats and Serbs. According to Marc Seifer, author of Wizard, in Croatia in 1843, Emperor Ferdinand of Austria issued a proclamation forbidding any discussion about Illyrianism, thereby helping keep the Serbs and Croats separate peoples (Seifer 4). Croats practiced Catholicism and used the Latin alphabet, diverging strongly from some of the cultural practices of Serbs long ago. As discussed, Croatia had a somewhat distinct history independent to that of Serbia; it was more involved in the Austro-Hungarian empire, which further influenced Tesla’s background.

“As a Serb growing up in Croatia,” Seifer writes, “Tesla inherited a rich mix of tribal rituals, egalitarian rule, a modified form of Greek Orthodox… and myriad superstitions. Women cloaked their bodies in black garb, and men packed a cross in one pocket and a weapon in the other. Serbs saw themselves as protectors of Europe from the Asian hordes. They bore that responsibility with their blood for many centuries” (4). All of this war and conflict would continue to have a palpable effect on Tesla’s life in later years.

Growing up in Smiljan, however, seemed to be a bit more peaceful; Tesla played with his sisters and brother and the animals on the farm, and demonstrated his knack for inventing early. Among these early childhood inventions were a cornstalk popgun and a propeller operated by May bugs sewn to the blades (Seifer 8). Tesla’s father, Milutin, was politically active, a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church, a fluent speaker of several languages, and a poet. He trained his son with exercises developing memory and intuitive capabilities. But it was his mother, Djouka, who truly stirred Tesla’s inclination to invent: she envisioned and worked on many household tools and appliances. The young Tesla became fascinated with the gap between need and solution as his mother was.

In 1863, a horse threw Tesla’s brother, Dane, from his back, killing him. The loss deeply affected his family, and Tesla recounted that, for a long time, “the recollection of [Dane’s] attainments made every effort of mine dull in comparison” (Seifer 10). Soon after, Milutin was promoted and the family moved to Gospić.

The Making of a Genius

In Gospić, by the age of fourteen (1869), Tesla became known as a scholar due to his obsession with school and studies. He started experimenting with water turbines and motors that used power acquired from differentials in air pressure. His objective was a perpetual-motion machine that would work by maintaining a steady-state vacuum and, like a windmill, harnessing the rush of incoming air (Seifer 13). His father hoped that Tesla would begin work in the Church, but Tesla would respond with, “It is not humans that I love, but humanity.” His parents were “greatly pleased [with their] son’s brilliant accomplishments in almost every activity in which he engaged, but recognized as a danger to Tesla’s health the great intensity with which he tackled projects” (O’Neill 38). Indeed, because of his knowledge, the trustees of the public library asked him to make a catalogue that classified all the books they had in their possession.

Later, Tesla moved to Karlovac to attend the Higher Real Gymnasium, near Zagreb. For this time, he lived with his aunt and her husband, who fed the growing boy sparingly. He studied languages and mathematics, and studied physics under Martin Sekulic, who demonstrated some of his inventions for his pupils. When he graduated, Tesla received notice from his father that he should not return to Gospić as there was an epidemic, but Tesla returned anyway. The streets “were stacked with corpses, the atmosphere thick with smoke, [and] the people mistakenly thought that cholera was being transmitted through the air” (Seifer 14). Tesla quickly fell ill. Doctors confined the boy to his bed for weeks, then months, then nearly a year. In fact, it reached a critical point where physicians thought he was going to die (O’Neill 38). Milutin was terrified of losing another son. Tesla recounted, during one of his spells that “my father rushed into the room… ‘Perhaps,’ I said, ‘I may get well if you will let me study engineering’” (Seifer 14). The Teslas decided on the Polytechnic School in Graz, Austria within a few days; Tesla slowly began to show improvement in his condition, taking nourishment and sitting up within a week, which seemed “almost miraculous” (O’Neill 42).

But there was a major war breaking out against the Turks. Tesla received an Army summons which required three years’ military service. Failure to respond would be met with jail— in addition to the three years. Milutin instructed his son to pack his gear and books and go into the hills to avoid the draft. There, he could recover more fully and maintain a low profile. During this period, out in nature, Tesla read and touched on the concept of hidden trigger mechanisms capable of unleashing great reservoirs of energy. On occasion, ravages of the war were unavoidable and the young man chanced upon them: he wrote later, “I have seen men hung, beaten to death, shot, quartered, heads chopped off… and children on a bayonette like quails” (Seifer 14). In 1875, having avoided capture, Tesla returned to Gospić and then began school in Austria the following semester. Around age 19, “Tesla entered manhood with a definite knowledge that nameless forces were shaping for him an unrevealed destiny” (O’Neill 45).

Further Education

Tesla changed his major to engineering and extended his curriculum to study other languages (he could speak nine of them). He knew the works of writers like Goethe, Spencer, and Shakespeare by heart. He undertook his work with great passion; usually, he studied about nineteen hours a day. “I had a veritable mania for finishing whatever I began,” he wrote of his college years. The young man worked on a mechanical flying machine. By his third year, Tesla had “surpassed his classmates in his studies [and] became bored and frustrated” by his quandary with alternate current (Seifer 17). He began gambling heavily and then was unprepared for exams in his final semester. He did not receive any grades for his last semester there and therefore never graduated from the Austrian Polytechnic School. Tesla’s cousins, who had been sending him money, withdrew their aid. For a time, he feared his parents would find out, so he simply disappeared. He traveled south into Slovenia and stayed with some distant family members. Finally, Milutin located him and offered a solution: his son would make a fresh start another university. Tesla returned home with him.

By the time Tesla left the Polytechnic University, he had made considerable strides in electrical engineering (Seifer 20). He was still very interested in alternating current (AC). He understood that the other system, a use of direct current (DC), was inefficient, needing continuous and direct flow of electrons on a wire from negative to positive poles. They would have to “move to the work, do the work, and then come all the way back to the generator… the problem with this is that the electrons encounter resistance [and] it’s difficult for the electrons to travel these great distances… most of the energy in this system is lost in the wire” (“Mad Electricity”). Tesla took a lucrative job and lived modestly for a year; he saved most of his earnings so that he could continue schooling at the University of Prague, from which he graduated. 


This period of Tesla’s life also marked the death of his father, Milutin. He needed to make a living, so he decided to move to Hungary, where he had friends. The American telephone exchange opened in Budapest soon after Tesla arrived, and he gained employment there. It was here that Tesla was introduced to the work of Thomas Edison, whose improvements on the telephone were changing communications. Here, Tesla was a mathematician and an inspector of equipment (Seifer 21). He studied induction, where a mass with an electric or electromagnetic charge can supply a similar charge or force in a second mass without contact. One day while walking through a park with a friend, Tesla suddenly visualized a new electric motor, and drew it out on the ground with a stick. This became patented as the induction motor, which energizes coils of wire placed around a stationary frame. The coils on a rotor inside have alternating currents, and the north-south magnetic field pole changes produce the force that makes the rotor spin. This innovative solution is used for “everything—from tools and appliances to hybrid cars to industrial plants” (“Mad Electricity”).

Soon the telephone company was sold. Tesla was recommended for a job that was highly varied but “largely that of a junior engineer” at the Continental Edison Company in Paris (O’Neill 60). It was here that he began to meticulously examine Edison’s inventions: in his curious nature, he took various machines and instruments apart, noting how they could be improved. One example would be his development of the new induction-triggered carbon disk speaker— the flat, circular, transferable device which is still found in the mouthpiece of every telephone, and the supplementary amplifier, which enhanced transmission signals. Tesla “had invented a precursor of the loudspeaker… [and] never bothered to obtain a patent on it” (Seifer 21).

Here in Paris, Tesla developed a working model of his single- and two-phase system for alternating current, and was commissioned to design regulators for various companies. These projects were extremely successful. Yet, although he presented his AC system to many, no one showed the slightest interest (O’Neill 63). Mr. Charles Batchellor, one of the administrators of the Edison Company, urged Tesla to go to the United States and work with Edison himself— there, he suggested, the young inventor would have a chance to work on improvements to Edison dynamos and motors (O’Neill 64). 

First Encounter with Edison

Nikola Tesla arrived in New York on at age 28, on June 6, 1884, filled with American dreams (Jonnes 102). It was truly a New World ripe with possibility for those who had come to the United States from Russia, from Ireland and Germany, from Italy and Scandinavia at this time— the years between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century saw strong urbanization, industrialization, and financial prosperity. It was, in Tesla’s mind, the place to be. He set forth with poise, “with all of four cents in his pocket of his one suit, the address of a friend, and the prospect of a job with Edison” (Jonnes 103). Edison, upon their meeting, saw Tesla, an “erudite,” tall and slender, “formal in dress and manner, a dreamy young man a decade his junior who expressed himself in a flowery, heavy-accented style” (Jonnes 105). But Tesla handed him a note, a recommendation from his former employer in Budapest, which read: “I know two great men, and you are one of them. This young man is the other” (“Mad Electricity”).

Edison hired him. On a few occasions, Tesla discussed with his employer the benefits of AC, but Edison wanted nothing to do with it. In his mind, those who experimented with AC were “damn fool competitors” (Seifer 37). He was proud of “having invented—although often with the help of his subordinates—[DC, the] low-voltage electrical system” (Jonnes 107). There were considerable problems with Edison’s system, however. Edison’s mathematician estimated that, using DC to light 8,640 lamps for nine city blocks, the cost would be $200,812 for the 802,250 pounds of copper required. Seifer writes, “at the same time that Edison constructed DC generators to make the earth tremble and competitors stole his ideas or fashioned other primitive electric-lighting devices, a Serbian genius in his very midst had designed a system which made this prevailing technology obsolete” (37).

As he came to appreciate Tesla’s brilliance, though, Edison asked him to re-design the company’s electric generators, which, if accomplished, would come with a $50,000 bonus. The young electrician went to work and developed a number of exceptionally beneficial patents. “During this period,” Tesla later wrote, “I designed twenty-four different types of standard machines with short cores and uniform pattern, which replaced the old ones” (Jonnes 110). In spring 1885, he approached Edison for the promised bonus. But Edison responded with a kind of incredulous quip, commenting that the young man had a lot to learn about the American sense of humor, and refused to give him the $50,000 (“Mad Electricity”). Tesla immediately resigned.

Although he felt cheated when he left, “his time spent there had enabled him to study the master at work… and enabled him to see that Edison was mortal and fallible” (Seifer 40). Tesla began tackling the idea for the utilization of AC on his own. But he acknowledged that in order to convince someone with that “far more visionary” concept, he’d have to first present something “very salable and useful if he was going to interest investors” (Jonnes 110). So he designated for himself a more mundane assignment—that of improving arc lights to ensure that they wouldn’t flicker, as well as an improved generator to run them. He began meeting with patent attorney Lemuel Serrell and a patent artist, who instructed him in preparing and submitting his arc light patents. Serrell also introduced Tesla to two businessmen from Rahway, New Jersey, who became enthusiastic backers for the new Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing Company. For the next year, the main goal of the company was to provide Rahway with municipal arc lighting; Tesla tirelessly worked producing and installing the new system. This gained some attention from the Electrical Review which featured his work on the front page in 1886. He received patents for many of his improvements on arc lighting, so he went on to propose that the company “widen their horizons” and examine the idea for an alternating current motor and electrical system. The New Jersey businessmen “elected to cheat Tesla… out of his patents and oust him from the very company he had founded” (Jonnes 111). Of course, the young engineer suffered from this blow; he recorded that he “[lost] not only all my interest but also my reputation as engineer and inventor” (Jonnes 111). The cultured young electrician and immigrant abruptly found himself as broke as he had been when he’d stepped off the boat two years earlier.

At this point, Tesla felt that his “high education in various branches of science, mechanics and literature seemed… like a mockery… there were many days I did not know where my next meal was coming from” (Jonnes 112). He found there was little need for his specialized talents. But one day, he saw where some men were digging a ditch and told the workers he wanted a job. The boss told him to spit on his hands and start digging. At the end of the day, he had $2. At this same time, Thomas Edison’s own business “had so expanded that he no longer personally knew all his men” (Jonnes 113). He began replacing some of his “insolent” workers (his description) with machines. Workers at the Edison Machine Works began to demand the right to form a union and sought better pay and conditions. Not much was done to satisfy these demands. Meanwhile, Tesla felt he was wasting away, working in a New York labor gang, hoping someone else was not working on AC systems. Soon, one of Tesla’s foremen realized that this Serb was “no ordinary laborer” and that he possessed engineering prowess, and introduced him to Charles Peck, a lawyer and investor. 

Back in the Field

Peck had indirect connections with J.P. Morgan, and provided much of the capital for Tesla at this time. The young engineer was provided with the laboratory at 89 Liberty Street, adjacent to what was the World Trade Center. In return, Tesla consented to split his patents on a fifty-fifty basis. Peck and Tesla split five patents on commutators, motors, and power transmission in 1887. This success spurred Tesla on—he commenced with a vigorous schedule. On many occasions, he worked until he collapsed (Seifer 43). He produced three complete systems of AC machinery for single-phase, two-phase, and three-phase currents, and made experiments with four- and six-phase currents. With these, he produced the dynamos for generating the currents, the motors that derived the power from them, and transformers for raising and reducing the voltages as well as various devices that automatically controlled the machinery (Seifer 43). Further, he calculated the mathematics behind these inventions.

T.C. Martin, editor of Electrical World, coaxed the young man to write his first article on the invention of the AC induction motors. Martin described him as “having … keenness of vision and phenomenal ability to see through things… a more congenial companion cannot be desired… [conversation with him] reaches out and rises to the greater questions of life, and duty, and destiny” (Seifer 43).

But Martin also noted that Tesla stood very much alone— he did not document much of his process, and he was not yet very well-known. So he suggested that the young inventor present his motor before the newly-formed AIEE (American Institute of Electrical Engineers) in 1888. Tesla and company “sold more central stations… on the alternating current system than all of the other electric companies in the country put together on the direct current system,” though few engineers actually understood the principles involved. Tesla and company, realizing the importance of the work accomplished thus far, began seeking investors through the counsel of their new patent attorneys. In 1888, among others, George Westinghouse was interested.

The Current Wars

Westinghouse, after just a year in business, had constructed some 68 AC central stations, and subsequently found himself in the midst of expensive legal and propaganda battles with Edison. But he saw an immense opportunity with Tesla, and offered him some $75,000 in initial outlays, $180,000 in royalty payments, and 200 shares of stock in the Westinghouse Company. But “it is hard to determine exactly how much Tesla received for his forty patents”; it is believed to be somewhere around $100,000 (Seifer 53). And Westinghouse was getting far more than the motor— there was also a variety of synchronous and load-dependent motors, and then armatures, turbines, regulators, and dynamos.

It is possible that Edison genuinely feared that poorly designed and installed AC systems would encumber the broad acceptance of electric power. By 1888, he felt that he was being squeezed, by Westinghouse on one side and by the rising price of copper on the other. So, Edison, along with prompting from the New York State Death Commission, endorsed electrocution (by AC) as an effective way to kill an individual, and the New York State Legislature would accordingly establish it as the method of choice for capital punishment. “Edison had just quietly planted something of a legislative landmine intended to damage his AC rivals… much to the outrage of the rest of the electrical fraternity,” claims Jill Jonnes, author of Empires of Light (150). He wrote a booklet entitled WARNING!, a diatribe against alternate current which served as a “public salvo in one of the most unusual and caustic battles in American corporate history” (Jonnes 150).

The campaign against Westinghouse, Tesla, and AC rose to a peak in late 1888 when he began to allow H.P. Brown to come to his Menlo Park lab to electrocute various animals with AC. This was in order to demonstrate AC’s unpredictability and to generate fear. Brown manufactured electric chairs for prisons and wanted to reveal “the horrors of AC” by submitting dogs, calves, horses, and even elephants, to death by alternate current. These were quite grisly affairs, to be sure, and they became associated with the public’s already ill-understood electrical “death by wire” (Jonnes 142). So, AC was a killer and DC was a gentle and friendly current. Joseph Cunningham, an Engineering Historian, explained that “whether it was electrocuting animals or electrocuting prisoners, the thrust was, ‘This is something you don’t want in your house’” (“Mad Electricity”). Those, like George Westinghouse, who dared to explore an alternate path, however promising, were now the official enemy.

Although Westinghouse tried to distance himself from this situation, mass hysteria threatened to overpower any attempts to establish Tesla’s new AC invention. The young inventor recognized the magnitude of the problem, but was still shocked that the work was completely abandoned in 1890. Westinghouse explained to him that his hands were tied and that he was financially drained; Tesla, being aware of the historical importance of his invention, panicked. He realized that this development would alter the world in many beneficial ways and had to contend for it. So, “in a quandary, [he] negotiated with Westinghouse a compromise: he would abandon the royalty clause of the contract if Westinghouse promised to commit his workers once again to the invention” (Seifer 58). Had the contract been fulfilled, Tesla would have been a millionaire and been released from monetary worries the rest of his life. And yet, with regards to this new situation, the inventor wrote, “money does not represent such a value as men have placed upon it. All my money has been invested into experiments with which I have made new discoveries enabling mankind to have a little easier life” (“Mad Electricity”). 

Let There Be Light

In 1893, despite the bad press, Tesla and Westinghouse won the bid for illuminating the Chicago World’s Fair, the first all-electric fair in history. Edison, who had made an unsuccessful bid for the same prospective job, refused to allow Tesla to use his patented lightbulbs. Tesla was now charged with creating a proficient new lightbulb and then making 250,000 of them in six months’ time (“Mad Electricity”). Hence, Tesla went to work forming a completely new lightbulb with a ground glass stopper in the bottom, one that didn’t interfere with Edison’s screw base or the associated patents, and proved easier to manufacture. Everything was ready. On May 1, President Grover Cleveland pushed a button which lit well over 200,000 of Tesla’s incandescent lamps. The fairgrounds were lit with an immense and unwavering light, and the fair was a monumental success. The event “ushered in the era of modern electric lighting”(“Mad Electricity”).

After this, The Niagara Falls Commission awarded Westinghouse and Tesla with the contract to tap Niagara Falls for the generation of alternating current (“Mad Electricity”). Here, Tesla designed an intricate set of generators and transformers to produce the AC power. In 1896, the first AC hydroelectric station built for long-distance power transmission was up and running. Buffalo became the “premier city for AC power’s potential” (“Mad Electricity”).

By 1894, Nikola Tesla had formed a new company and was working to improve his mechanical and electrical oscillators and vacuum lamps. The mechanical oscillator was forty times more efficient than the standard steam-driven dynamo, and in October of that year, the inventor used it to generate electricity for over fifty incandescent lamps and vacuum tubes (Seifer 139). Also, refining his theory on wireless communication, Tesla realized and purported that electrical energy could be transmitted in two very separate ways, one as radiation through the air, the other as conduction through the ground (today this difference is exhibited in FM and AM radio).

T.C. Martin began to write an intriguing article about the engineer, as well as document some of the “celebrities” who visited Tesla in his lab. One of these was writer Mark Twain; he and Tesla were indeed good friends. Martin’s article included “the most fantastic full-body engraving of Tesla standing… illuminated like a virtual Christmas tree”— he was capable of pumping huge amounts of electricity throughout his body and remained unharmed (Seifer 142). Tesla explained that when “the body of a person is subjected to the rapidly alternating pressure of an electrical oscillator of two and one half million volts, this presents a sign marvelous and unforgettable. One sees the experimenter standing on a big sheet of fierce, blinding flame, his whole body enveloped in a mass of phosphorescent streamers, like the tentacles of an octopus. Bundles of light stick out from his spine. As he stretches out the arms, roaring tongues of fire leap from his fingertips… he in turn, [is] being… bombarded by the surrounding air and dust” (Seifer 142). Because of displays like this, however, some people began to think of Tesla as more of a showman or magician than an illustrious inventor.

In 1898, Tesla developed and gained the patent for a remote-controlled boat. A battery inside the remote control device sent power to an oscillator which converted it to a radio-wave pulse. The radio waves were then transmitted to a small receiver which relayed the pulse to a motor capable of moving its “arm” in different directions, thus controlling the machine. This single invention “laid the foundation for devices [such as] garage door openers, fax machines, and remote controls for televisions, stereos, and toy cars (Aldrich 104). The principle is even seen in unmanned military drones used in battlefield reconnaissance and satellites operating in space (“Mad Electricity”). People were astounded by Tesla’s capability for giving birth to new technology. When prodded about his process, the inventor revealed:

“Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made the actual drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop. The inventions I have conceived in this way have always worked. In thirty years there has not been a single exception. My first electric motor, the vacuum wireless light, my turbine engine and many other devices have all been developed in exactly this way.”

Even though this was indeed an astounding ability, the fact that Tesla didn’t record many of his ideas initially may have contributed to the fact he didn’t receive credit for a myriad of them. 

Just scratching the Surface

But the inventor held a myriad of more visionary ideas, a few involving concepts such as wireless power. The inventor believed that “there was some specific frequency at which the earth could be struck, as with a hammer… and that the earth could be rung electrically just as a bell can be rung with a clapper” (Mad Electricity). In early 1899, Tesla decided to move to Colorado to work on some of his other theories and conjectures. His arrival was reported in the press there. He wrote in his Colorado Springs Notes that he came with the following goals in mind: “To develop a transmitter of great power, to perfect means for individualizing and isolating the energy transmitted, and to ascertain the laws of propagation of currents through the earth and the atmosphere” (Tesla 12). In Colorado Springs, he constructed a laboratory and tower that soared 80 feet into the air. Inside this laboratory was an enormous Tesla coil, one that had a diameter of 15 meters and was capable of producing 12,000,000 volts. The coil itself was “an air-core transformer with primary and secondary coils to resonate—a step-up transformer which converts relatively low-voltage high current to high-voltage low current at high frequencies” (Cheney 61). The Tesla coil put out electric energy without harming humans (as is clearly seen in the photo), “similar to the way transmission towers bombard… with radio waves” (“Mad Electricity”). Tesla claimed that his work in Colorado was a success, and that he had achieved the wireless transmission of power, illuminating lightbulbs over one mile away. He demonstrated this concept often for visitors by holding a bulb in his hand, which lit by itself due to extremely high frequencies that were sensitive enough to respond to the slightest movement.

He returned to the East Coast in 1901, hoping to continue in this line of work, but he needed funding to continue and build a bigger transmitter— and he needed a network of them. In order to convince industrialist J.P. Morgan to invest in a new lab, Tesla made promises that the network of towers would make millions. “The daylight hours were important for beseeching his patron… to advance funds more rapidly” (Cheney 162). He was given a new laboratory on Long Island Sound, which he called Wardenclyffe. Based on his Colorado findings, Tesla began to build his wireless power network. This site consisted of a power plant and lab adjacent to a 187-foot tower, which held a huge Tesla coil inside. The inventor was planning on building more of the towers to continue in a network, but Wardenclyffe and most of Tesla’s work were doomed, in part because of timing. On December 12, 1901, as Tesla was working on the wireless network, Guglielmo Marconi successfully transmitted a radio signal across the Atlantic. While Marconi’s attainment was indeed a first, “in reality, he used seventeen of Tesla’s patents to accomplish this feat” (“Mad Electricity”). Marconi’s transmission sealed the fate of Wardenclyffe and Tesla was overlooked as the Father of Radio. Morgan was no longer interested in supporting the work and study; he didn’t see a reason for it to continue. Thus, in 1905, the Wardenclyffe project was abandoned. Tesla later wrote, “The world was not prepared for it [Wardenclyffe and the project]. It was too far ahead of its time” (“Mad Electricity”).

Also in 1905, the Brooklyn Eagle drew attention to the fact that the “expiration” of Tesla’s extremely valuable patents was near (recalling that he had been bought out at bargain rates with the Westinghouse situation almost a decade ago). The paper reported that “a great stir had been created among electricians” and predicted “a grand scramble everywhere to make the Tesla motor now universally used without paying any more royalty to Tesla” (Cheney 169). Tesla was receiving absolutely nothing. 

Still More to Offer

1909-1916 yielded, among other things, the inventor’s patents for Fluid Propulsion and more turbines, as well as his Speed Indicator (Wikipedia). In 1917, Tesla proposed the concept of radio waves reflecting off objects in order to determine position and speed; this was 17 years before the invention of radar (“Mad Electricity”).

During his seventies, he traveled to industrial centers in the Northeast and Midwest in order to sell some of his products (Seifer 416).

“He was a true American hero, but after a while, people forgot… [he died in 1943], virtually destitute and discredited as he watched the world he helped create simply forget him” (“Mad Electricity”). This is true: my mother’s Nana told her that when he died, she actually had to go door-to-door asking people within the Serbian community in New York for money to bury him. She also claimed that, in going through his tiny room at the New Yorker hotel, many of his personal papers and research was taken. The FBI continued to update his file and likely confiscated some of his work because it dealt with some powerful concepts—ideas that may have even threatened national security such as death rays and free energy.

It is clear that, while Tesla struggled to provide the world with an easier and more efficient way of living, others were trying to cheat him out of well-deserved money and patents. He never experienced truly stable moral and monetary support, even though his work was of paramount importance. And, it is also quite apparent that many people had trouble understanding Tesla’s ideas and conceiving of them as real—like he did. As Mark Singer puts it, “despite having conceived—but, inconveniently, not necessarily having perfected patents for—dozens of revolutionary devices, Tesla… failed to receive proper credit, or royalties, for theoretical work that made [many things] possible (New Yorker). Jack in the film Coffee and Cigarettes agrees by arguing that “Tesla was a true genius… without him we wouldn’t have alternating current, radio, television, X-ray technology, induction motors, particle beams, lasers… If [people] had paid more attention to his ideas, the world would be a much better place” (“Coffee and Cigarettes”).

When Tesla reflected on his life, his work, his battles with Edison, and his contributions to the world, he wrote:

“The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention… Its ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of forces of nature to human needs. This is the difficult task of the inventor who is often misunderstood and unrewarded. But… let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to their work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have worked, is mine” (Seifer xiv).

Works Cited

Cheney, Margaret. Tesla: Man Out of Time. New York: Laurel Books, 1981.

Dommermuth-Costa, Carol. Nikola Tesla: A Spark of Genius. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1994.

Jonnes, Jill. Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World. New York: Random House, 2003.

Jost, Fred A. and John T. Ratzlaff. Dr. Nikola Tesla. Millbrae: Tesla Book Company, 1979.

“Mad Electricity.” Modern Marvels. 14 May 2008. DVD. History Channel, 2008.

NewYorker.com. “Tesla Slept Here”. Ink by Mark Singer. 14 Jan. 2008. 19 Nov. 2008 http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2008/01/14/080114ta_talk_singer

O’Neill, John J. Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla. Albuquerque: Brotherhood of Life, Inc., 1994.

Seifer, Marc J. Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla. Seacaucus: Carol Publishing Group, 1996.

Tesla, Nikola. Colorado Springs Notes (1899-1900). Belgrade: Nolit, 1978.

ThinkExist.com Quotations. “Nikola Tesla quotes”. ThinkExist.com Quotations Online. 1 Sep. 2008. 4 Oct. 2008 http://einstein/quotes/nikola_tesla/

“The White Stripes in ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’”. “Coffee and Cigarettes.” 12 March 2004. Directed by Jim Jarmusch. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhfq7DAnoh4

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As critic Sam Leith points out, many critics and scholars of Shakespeare have no problem, and really no choice, with using phrases such as, “’would have’, ‘could have’, ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, and ‘might’,”[1] when discussing the details of Shakespeare’s life.  Regardless, these possibilities and holes in the Bard’s biography help form some coherent and interesting... MORE»
Fifty years after their daring signing of the Declaration of Independence, absolving political ties with England, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, revolutionaries, presidents, and intellectuals, lay on their respective deathbeds. Having feuded in the early 19th century, the two diplomats grew to respect and correspond with one another... MORE»
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Latest in History

2022, Vol. 14 No. 02
India was ruled by the Timurid-Mughal dynasty from 1526 to 1857. This period is mainly recognised for its art and architecture. The Timurid-Mughals also promoted knowledge and scholarship. Two of the Mughal emperors, Babur and Jahangir, wrote their... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 02
The causes of the First World War remains a historiographical topic of contention more than 100 years on from the start of the conflict. With the passing of the centenary in 2014, a new wave of publications has expanded the scope and depth of historians... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 11
The Sino-Vietnamese War remains one of the most peculiar military engagements during the Cold War. Conventional wisdom would hold that it was a proxy war in the vein of the United States’ war in Vietnam or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 11
While the Cold War is popularly regarded as a war of ideological conflict, to consider it solely as such does the long-winded tension a great disservice. In actuality, the Cold War manifested itself in numerous areas of life, including the various... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 11
This article analyzes the role of musical works in the United States during World War II. It chronologically examines how the social and therapeutic functions of music evolved due to the developments of the war. This article uses the lyrics of wartime... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 10
Early medieval Irish society operated on an elaborate power structure formalized by law, practiced through social interaction, and maintained by tacit exploitation of the lower orders. This paper investigates the materialization of class hierarchies... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 05
Some scholars of American history suggest the institution of slavery was dying out on the eve of the Civil War, implying the Civil War was fought over more generic, philosophical states' rights principles rather than slavery itself. Economic evidence... Read Article »

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