Today marks the 160th year of Nikola Tesla’s birth. Here is a short biography of his life from our Elevator Museum website.
Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856, in Smiljan, in the military border zone of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in the Repulic of Croatia. He passed away on January 7, 1943, in New York City. He was an inventor and researcher who discovered the rotating magnetic field, the basis of most alternating-current machinery. He emigrated to the United States in 1884, and sold the patent rights to his system of alternating-current dynamos, transformers, and motors to George Westinghouse the following year. In 1891, he invented the Tesla coil, an induction coil widely used in radio technology.
Training for an engineering career, he attended the Technical University at Graz, Austria, and the University of Prague. At Graz he first saw the Gramme dynamo, which operated as a generator and, when reversed, became an electric motor, and he conceived a way to use alternating current to advantage. Later, at Budapest, he visualized the principle of the rotating magnetic field and developed plans for an induction motor that would become his first step toward the successful utilization of alternating current. In 1882 Tesla went to work in Paris for the Continental Edison Company, and, while on assignment to Strassburg in 1883, he constructed, in after-work hours, his first induction motor. Tesla sailed for America in 1884, arriving in New York, with four cents in his pocket and calculations for a flying machine. He first found employment with Thomas Edison, but the two inventors were far apart in background and methods, and their separation was inevitable.
In May 1885, George Westinghouse, head of the Westinghouse Electric Company in Pittsburgh, bought the patent rights to Tesla’s polyphase system of alternating-current dynamos, transformers, and motors. The transaction precipitated a titanic power struggle between Edison’s direct-current systems and the Tesla-Westinghouse alternating-current approach, which eventually won out.
Tesla soon established his own laboratory where he experimented with shadowgraphs similar to those later used by Wilhelm Röntgen when he discovered X-rays in 1895. Tesla’s countless experiments included work on a carbon button lamp, on the power of electrical resonance, and on various types of lighting.
Tesla gave exhibitions in his laboratory in which he lighted lamps without wires by allowing electricity to flow through his body, to allay fears of alternating current. The Tesla coil, which he invented in 1891, is widely used today in radio and television sets and other electronic equipment. That year also marked the date of Tesla’s United States citizenship.
Westinghouse used Tesla’s system to light the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. His success was a factor in winning him the contract to install the first power machinery at Niagara Falls, which bore Tesla’s name and patent numbers. The project carried power to Buffalo by 1896.
In Colorado Springs, Colo., where he stayed from May 1899 until early 1900, Tesla made what he regarded as his most important discovery– terrestrial stationary waves. By this discovery he proved that the Earth could be used as a conductor and would be as responsive as a tuning fork to electrical vibrations of a certain frequency. He also lighted 200 lamps without wires from a distance of 25 miles (40 kilometres) and created man-made lightning, producing flashes measuring 135 feet (41 metres).
Returning to New York in 1900, Tesla began construction on Long Island of a wireless world broadcasting tower, with $150,000 capital from the American financier J. Pierpont Morgan. Tesla claimed he secured the loan by assigning 51 percent of his patent rights of telephony and telegraphy to Morgan. He expected to provide worldwide communication and to furnish facilities for sending pictures, messages, weather warnings, and stock reports. The project was abandoned because of a financial panic, labour troubles, and Morgan’s withdrawal of support. It was Tesla’s greatest defeat.
Tesla’s work then shifted to turbines and other projects. Lacking funds, his ideas remained in notebooks, which are still examined by engineers for unexploited clues. Tesla was the recipient of the Edison Medal in 1917, the highest honour that the American Institute of Electrical Engineers could bestow.
After Tesla’s death his papers, diplomas and other honours, letters, and laboratory notes were eventually inherited by Tesla’s nephew, Sava Kosanovich, and housed in the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade. Hundreds filed into New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine for his funeral services, and a flood of messages acknowledged the loss of a great genius. Three Nobel Prize recipients addressed their tribute to “one of the outstanding intellects of the world who paved the way for many of the technological developments of modern times.”