Nikola Tesla

by Katie Cowen

Nikola Tesla was a man born ahead of his time. He was one of the weirdest and smartest men of his time, but because of that nobody accepted him. He is responsible for many modern inventions that we use now. Even though he didn't get credit in his time, he is now being rediscovered as the genius he was.

Nikola Tesla was born at the stroke of midnight on July 9, 1856. Nikola Tesla was born just as an electrical storm hit which could have helped him with his electrical inventions. Nikola's first invention was at age four. It was the first water wheel without paddles, which he made from a crude disk and an axle made from a twig. He was very excited when the wooden axle turned the disk in the water.

Tesla's mother, although she didn't go to school, and couldn't even read or write, was very inventive and very smart. When she was young she memorized thousands of poems and legends about her country. A lot of the devices around the house were invented by her to make her home run smoother.

From the time he was a child, Tesla was always considered eccentric. These are some of his eccentricities:

Nikola was a night person. He would always get to work at noon and always had the shades drawn so it would be dark. However, during lightning storms he would open the curtains, lay on the couch and talk to himself. Although he talked to himself a lot, during lightning storms he talked even more. And sometimes during the storms he would explain entire inventions while picturing them in his mind.

He also had very acute senses. As Tesla said, "In the dark I had the sense of a bat and could detect the presence of an object at a distance of 12 feet by a peculiar creepy sensation on the forehead." He also claimed that a fly landing on a table would produce a slight thud, and a carriage a mile away seemed to shake his body.

Nikola had visions all of his life. He would create, as a youngster, whole worlds which he would visit. He would talk to the people, etc. who were as real to him as real life. When he got older and became an inventor he would envision, build and test complete machines in his mind. So accurate were his visions he could even sense if his machines were out of balance.

Because of these visions he didn't build actual models, which are called prototypes, for testing his machines because he did it all in his head. He claimed that his visions were so accurate that after twenty years of testing, in his mind, he never had to change a prototype. They always worked as he envisioned.

When Nikola was a little boy he loved playing in the woods and fields where he watched the birds. One day he even brought home an eagle, convinced that from it he could learn to fly.

In 1884 Tesla was invited to come to America and work for the Edison Company and redesign Edison's machines. He took a ship to America to start his work there.

Before he got to the steam ship he had been robbed of all his luggage, ticket and money. The captain let him sail anyway and he arrived in America with four cents in his pocket, a book of his own poems, a scientific article and a package of calculations for his plans for a flying machine.

Edison made him work from 10:30 am to 5:00 the next morning, seven days a week. Even though Tesla did not believe in Edison's direct current motors he worked hard to improve them. Edison told him if he could do that he would give him a bonus of $50,000. Tesla worked day and night because the $50,000 would let him set up his own lab and work on his inventions. He came up with twenty-four new designs to replace the old ones of Edison's. Edison was delighted with the results but did not pay Tesla the $50,000 he had promised. When Tesla finally asked him about it, it is said that Edison told him, "Tesla, you don't understand our American humor." That is when Tesla left the Edison Co. and they became rivals.

A group of inventors approached him and offered him a chance to form a company of his own - the Tesla Electric Light Company. Tesla developed a light that was simpler, more reliable, safe, and economical than what was being used. He patented the lights and they were installed throughout the town.

This was a great success, however, all of a sudden the investors took over the company from Tesla. Now, once again, he had no job, no money, and he didn't even own the patents on the things he had developed.

He couldn't get an engineering job, so, for a year Tesla worked as a laborer on street gangs, digging ditches and building streets. He said that it was the most depressing time of his life.

He worked on his inventions during this time and received several more patents. A lot of his inventions didn't really have any use at the time, but became useful years later. For example, he developed a way to transform heat directly into mechanical or electrical energy. This process was "rediscovered" in the 1970's and Tesla was never given credit for it.

While working in the street gang, the foreman of the crew took Tesla to meet the manager of Western Union Telegraph Company, A.K. Brown. Mr. Brown was not only familiar with Tesla's concept of alternating current but agreed that it was a better system than Edison's. They formed the Tesla Electric Company specifically to develop an alternating current motor.

Now everyone knew and respected him. In 1887 George Westinghouse, who owned most of the electric companies and was a competitor of Edison, went to see Tesla and his alternating current motor. Westinghouse was kind of like Edison in that he was ruthless, but Tesla liked him.

Tesla sold his patents to Westinghouse for $60,000 (only $5,000 in cash and 150 shares of stock), and went to work for Westinghouse. He was also supposed to get $2.50 for every horsepower of electricity sold. If that had happened he would have been a billionaire!

In 1893 Tesla & Westinghouse got the contract to install all the electrical and lighting systems for the Chicago World's Fair. This was the first World's Fair with electricity and would prove that alternating current was the electrical system of the future.

After the World's Fair everybody believed in Tesla's alternating current and soon the whole country had switched to Tesla's system. This was the end of Edison and his direct current.

Two years later a man named Marconi came out with a wireless radio in London. His equipment was exactly what Tesla had demonstrated in St. Louis two years earlier, and had been published around the world. Marconi said he had never read about Tesla's design, so Marconi was credited with inventing the radio. However, twenty years later they went to court and Tesla won. He is now recognized as the real inventor of the radio.

Tesla invented so many things that we use and take for granted today: air conditioning; air flight and motor powered boats (this was the time of the steamship and railroads); to the coolest thing - a hypersensitive vacuum tube to detect ghosts.

Much of his work was so ahead of his time that it was not practical and had no use at the time. Today, a lot of the research and experiments he did almost 100 years ago are being used for modern day uses.

In his day Tesla was not given the credit he deserved and was not treated the way he should have been. However, recently, Tesla is being recognized as the great genius that he was.

Page created on 8/25/2009 12:00:00 AM

Last edited 8/25/2009 12:00:00 AM

Related Links

Extra Info

  • Lightning in His Hand: The Life Story of Nikola Tesla by Inez Hunt and Wanetta W. Draper
  • In Search of Nikola Tesla by David Peat
  • Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney
  • My Inventions by Nikola Tesla
Credits for photos:
The Fantastic Inventions of Nikola Tesla
by Nikola Tesla and David H. Childress
Adventures Unlimited
Steele, Illinois
(815) 253-6390

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Partially plagiarized - moved to inactive 8/25/09 rm