Nicola Tesla was born in 1856. After growing up in the small town of Gospic, he went on to study electrical engineering at the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz. However, records at the university show that he stopped attending lessons in his third year and never graduated. At this point, he severed ties with his family, leading them to believe that he had drowned in the Mura River and moved to Maribor (today's Slovenia). Here while working as an assistant engineer, he suffered from a nervous breakdown and his father, after finding out about his whereabouts, persuaded him to attend the Charles Ferdinand University in Prague. He left the university shortly after his father's death which meant that he only completed one term.
Tesla had a vivid imagination, which enabled him to visualise inventions in his head with extreme precision. He was noted as saying, ‘‘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 these parts are compiled, they will all fit. The inventions I have conceived in this way have always worked''.
What made Nicola Tesla great, aside from the fact that he had an incredible memory and could speak seven languages, was his amazing understanding of electricity. When he moved to the United States, in 1884, he chanced upon Thomas Edison and began to work for him to iron out problem with the direct current (or DC) system of electricity. Tesla was promised $50,000 for this project but upon completion, after saving Edison over $100,000, Edison laughed away his side of the deal saying, ‘'Tesla, you don't understand the American sense of humour''. Tesla immediately resigned and Edison spent the rest of his life attempting to quash Tesla's genius. This may be part of the reason that he is so little known today.
Having learned much while working for Edison, Tesla devised a better electrical system called the alternating current (AC) system. This is the very system that is used in our homes today. The advantages of the AC over the DC systems were that they could be transmitted over large distances through thin wires. DC could not, as they required large, thick cables and power plants positioned at each square mile. Tesla also devised the motors that he would run with AC and these too are still used today in household appliances.
The unorthodox methods of Nicola Tesla reached the ears of George Westinghouse who said that he would pay $2,50 for each kilowatt of AC electricity sold. Throughout this agreement, Thomas Edison was still to be heard slandering Tesla's AC as highly dangerous. This was until 1893 when Tesla demonstrated exactly how safe AC electricity was by passing high amounts of electricity through his own body to power light bulbs. He then showed how he could shoot enormous lightening bolts from his Tesla coils to the audience without harm.
When royalties owed from Westinghouse to Tesla exceeded $1 million, Tesla ripped up his contract. His reason for this was his undying dream to have cheap AC electricity available to everyone. He knew that if his contract remained in effect, Westinghouse would go out of business and he had no desire to deal with creditors. He was paid just $216,600 for all of his patents.
His vision of providing easily obtainable energy to the world resulted in his being backed by financier J. P. Morgan. He started constructing his so called ‘Wireless Broadcasting system' with which he intended to link the worlds' telephone services as well as transmitting pictures, weather information and stock reports worldwide. The idea fell through, however, when J. P. Morgan cut funding on finding out that this would mean free energy for the world.
By this time, Nicola Tesla was thought of as a crazy scientist whose theories ran into the fantastical. These rumours were helped along by the constant public remarks of Edison who still had much money riding on the DC system. It was not easy for the public to imagine the transition of voice and picture and electricity, as it was still unheard of at this time. The fact was that Tesla had already described the workings of the radio ten years before Italian inventor, Marconi's invention of the radiotelegraph system when it was finally proven to work. Although the Supreme Court ruled that Marconi's patents were invalid due to the earlier descriptions of Tesla the year after Tesla died, Marconi still went on to gather fame for it.
In his Manhattan lab, Tesla (to prove his theory that the world could be split in two) sent waves of energy through the ground beneath him to vibrate at the same frequency as the Earth. The result was an earthquake which affected all of the city blocks in the vicinity causing buildings to tremble, windows to shatter and plaster to fall from walls. Having accurately determined the resonant frequencies of the Earth almost sixty years before science could confirm his results, Tesla, in his Colorado lab in 1899 tried once again to prove his theory. He sent the waves once more through the ground causing them to bounce back to the source. This provided the theory for today's earthquake seismic stations. When this worked, Tesla cranked up the electricity to the steam driven oscillators, which he was using to create the vibrations. The result of this was the largest ever recorded man-made lightening bolt of 130 feet. This has never been broken.
Shortly before he died, Thomas Edison said that his biggest ever mistake was to continue to develop the direct current system rather than Tesla's alternating current system that had been within his grasp.
Despite having proven himself time and time again to have one of the world's most brilliant minds, Nicola Tesla died of heart failure, alone in the hotel room that he lived in at the age of 86. Hundreds of admirers, however, attended his funeral to show respect to the man who had invented new types of generators and transformers, the fluorescent light bulb, the world's first remote control boat and hundreds of other creations. He held over 700 patents at the time of his death although he died impoverished and in vast debt.