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Nicola Tesla (1856 – 1943)

Inventor, physicist, mechanical engineer

Nikola Tesla was born on the 9th/10th of July 1856 in a village that belongs to modern day Croatia. His father was a priest, and his mother even though she never went to school was a very intelligent at memorizing poetry and was a talented craftswoman.

He was the fourth in a family of one boy and three girls. His (eldest) brother died in a horse riding accident when Tesla was 5 years old.

Tesla was talented in calculus, and was even able to calculate sums in his head, which made his teachers, think he was cheating.

It was clear from a young age that Tesla was strong with numbers and engineering and studied it at the Technical University in Austria, and the University of Prague.

It was at the time that the idea of using alternating current (or current that can be reversed) crossed his mind.

When he was later in Hungary the principle of rotating magnetic fields allowed him to build an induction motor, which was his first step towards making his dream of using alternate currents, come true.

Finally, at 27, he built his first induction motor while staying after hours at his job. A year later, Tesla arrived in New York with a few cents, and the calculations for a flying machine in his pocket.

His first job in America was working with Thomas Edison. However, they did not agree on many things and eventually fell apart.

The main reason that Tesla and Edison fell apart was over the best way to conduct electricity. Edison thought that direct current (DC) was better, while Tesla thought that alternate current (AC) was better.

Once he left Edison’s company, he worked for a short while cutting ditches and soon formed his own company in 1886 called the Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing.

The next year the Westinghouse Electric Company bought the licensing rights of Tesla’s alternating current dynamos, transformers and motors.

Edison and Tesla became even angrier at each other over this, but Tesla won in the end.

About 5 years after this incident in an exhibition showing how alternating current worked, Edison’s investor JPMorgan decided to back Tesla’s project instead of Edison’s.

Because of their newfound financial backing, the Westinghouse and Tesla designed their first hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls that transmitted electricity over 20 miles.

This was but the first of Tesla’s many scientific inventions. He envisioned a wireless world, and built the first remote controlled boat, managed to light up 200 street lamps without the use of wires from 25 miles away, and built the Tesla coil, which was a transformer antenna that could shoot artificial lighting into the sky.

Tesla’s ultimate vision was to device a way that wireless electricity and signal stations for telephones and telegraphs and other modes of communication could be provided free to the public.

Tesla was a man of peace. He did not like war and because of this, all of his inventions were made with the idea that people will use it for peaceful purposes. He even thought that his inventions could stop wars.

While Tesla seemed to have been a brilliant inventor and scientist, he was a lousy businessman.

During his lifetime, many people easily took advantage of him. Because of this, he never profited from any of his inventions.

There are many gadgets and inventions that Nikola Tesla legally holds the licence to today. They are the Rotating Magnetic Field, the Tesla Coil, the Electro-Magnetic Motors, Alternating Current, energy conversion, Remote Control and the Radio.

Even though Marconi was first thought to have invented the radio, after Tesla’s death, the Supreme Court reversed the decision to give the licence to Tesla.

In honour of Tesla’s 75th birthday, Time Magazine featured him on its cover. He received a lot of recognition for his contribution to electrical power generation, including a congratulatory letter from Albert Einstein.

Although he never received a Nobel Prize, there seems to have been some confusion whether Edison or Tesla would get it. Through the confusion, neither received the prize.

Besides science and inventions, Tesla could speak Czech, French, Hungarian, Italian, English, German, and Latin. He had a photographic memory too – he could memorize complete books.

He was an expert at billiards, chess and gambling in general, and once said that he went for 84 hours (3 1/5 days) without sleep, working in his laboratory!

Some believe that Tesla may have suffered from a mental disorder called obsessive-compulsive disorder, because he had unnatural obsessions, preoccupations and disgust towards round objects, hair, the number three, dirt, and tidiness.

Nikola Tesla never married and often said that he was able to become such a great scientist because he was not distracted by family life.

Tesla lived until the end of his life at the New Yorker Hotel in room 3327. Sadly on the 7th of January 1943 he passed away alone in his room from a heart disease. His corpse was found by a house cleaner 2 days after he had died.

Right after his death, the US government ceased most of his technical papers and books.

Nikola Tesla was honoured with a state funeral, which was attended by over 2000 people. His casket had both the American and the Yugoslav flags draped over it.

His body was cremated and his ashes lie in a beautiful sphere shaped urn at the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade.