Nikola Tesla: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Jessica M Lathrop

Jessica has a master's degree in history with a focus on ancient and classical civilizations.

Nikola Tesla was a genius inventor and pioneer of modern electricity who made an irreplaceable mark on the world. This lesson explores Tesla's life and personal goals, giving us a look at the man behind the inventions.

Nikola Tesla's Early Years

Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856, in a town called Smiljan in modern-day Croatia. Nikola was one of five children, and his father was a Serbian Orthodox priest. His mother, Djuka Mandic, was an inventor of small household appliances. Nikola often described his mother as a genius, crediting her with his love for inventiveness. Extremely smart even in his youth, Nikola was able to do integral calculus in his head. Nikola excelled during high school and his first year of college, but never finished his degree.

In 1881, Nikola moved to Budapest for an internship at a telegraph company. He started as a common electrical draftsman and was quickly assigned to the position of chief engineer. It was during this time that Nikola came up with the idea for the induction motor, which uses spinning magnets to create an alternating electrical current to power a machine. Tesla's work was so exceptional that he was offered a position at the Continental Edison Company in 1882 in Paris, France.

Tesla Meets Edison

Tesla earned the attention of supervisors at the Edison company, and in 1884 he arrived in the United States with a letter of recommendation for Thomas Edison from his manager Charles Batchelor, stating 'I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.' Nikola introduced Edison to his ideas on alternating current (AC), a form of power established by electrical currents moving first in one direction on a wire, then the other, creating a stronger and more stable electrical source. Edison disagreed with Nikola, and maintained his preference for direct current (DC) electricity, which flows continuously in one direction but requires a power station at two mile intervals to support the traveling energy.

Alternating Current Generator by Nikola Tesla
AC Current Generator

Nikola completely re-designed the company's direct current generators for Edison. According to Tesla's autobiography, Edison had promised him $50,000 to do the work, the equivalent of $1 million in today's money. It took him almost a year, during which he secured several valuable patents for Edison. After Nikola completed the work and inquired about the money, Edison told him it had been a misunderstood 'American joke,' and when he refused to give Nikola a raise to $25 per week in early 1885, Nikola became frustrated and left the company.

Nikola the Inventor

After leaving Edison, Tesla had to resort to basic labor jobs to support himself. Tesla considered this to be one of the most difficult periods of his life, but he soon met an attorney who helped him file a patent, a license issued by the government giving the license holder the sole right to make, use or sell an invention, for the alternating current induction motor Nikola had created several years before.

While giving a demonstration in 1888 to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), Nikola met George Westinghouse, an American inventor. Westinghouse was very interested in Tesla's ideas and paid Nikola $1 million for all his AC current patents, plus a royalty fee of $1 per horsepower produced. This allowed Nikola to pursue many of his ideas, and create stronger electrical systems. This was the beginning of the AC vs. DC electrical war between Tesla and Edison.

Tesla demonstrating safety of his electricity by holding light bulb
Tesla Lightbulb

Tesla also used this new funding to develop his ideas for the Tesla Coil, as well as fostering many other inventive ideas and making significant advancements in the technological field. At the 1893 World's Fair, a building was provided for electrical exhibits for the first time in World Fair history. Tesla and Westinghouse displayed an astonishing presentation of AC power by lighting up the entire exhibit. Edison had been an initial competitor in getting the approval for the lighting contract during the fair, and Tesla's display of AC power secured the contract for Westinghouse and himself, adding further tension between Edison and Tesla.

In 1896, Tesla established a power plant at Niagara Falls, which harnessed the energy of moving water to create the first large-scale AC power plant. Both Westinghouse and Edison were quickly going broke due to the 'War of Currents,' however, and Nikola ended up releasing Westinghouse from his royalties contract to help Westinghouse recover financially.

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