When people hear the name Tesla, they immediately think of Elon Musk’s electric car company. But what many people don’t know is that Musk’s company is named after the greatest inventor of the nineteenth century. Over a hundred years ago, Nikola Tesla began fixing things that weren’t broken.
He could memorize full books, speak eight languages, and work out full mathematical equations in his head. And while most of the world was still lit by candlelight, Tesla invented the electrical system that now powers almost every home on earth. Although the inventor is responsible for the world as we know it, his genius had a dark side.
So, what exactly made the world’s most underrated and under-credited inventors tick? And what exactly sparked a bitter “current war” feud with Thomas Edison? Let’s find out!
Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in present-day Croatia. His father was a priest for the Serbian Orthodox Church, while his mother took care of the family’s farm. Even from an early age, Tesla had a sort of obsessiveness about him. He could memorize and recite entire books and store entire logarithmic tables in his brain.
He picked up languages easily (Tesla spoke eight languages by the end of his life) and would work days and nights with very little sleep. But Tesla’s genius came with strings attached. The first sign of his lifelong mental illness occurred after his brother Daniel died in a riding accident. The loss hit Tesla hard, and he soon started experiencing visions and hallucinations.
By the time Tesla turned 19, he was living in Austria, studying electrical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, where he quickly rose to the top of his class. His professors had never seen a student like Tesla. He was able to perform high-level calculus in his head, which led them to believe that he was cheating on tests.
Like all inventors, Tesla was obsessed with fixing things that weren’t broken. So when he began learning about direct currents (DC) motors in one of his classes, he realized there were some serious design flaws. For starters, DC motors weren’t very efficient. If you wanted to use this type of current to power houses, let’s say, then you would need a power plant every square mile. Tesla needed to figure out a different design.
The thoughts began to obsess him. Tesla began working on his idea from 3 a.m. until 11 p.m., leaving no time for his schoolwork. Everyone began to worry about him, including his professors. They wrote to his father, warning him that the inventor would die from overwork if he wasn’t removed from school immediately. But Tesla didn’t listen.
Instead, he turned to gambling. By the end of his third year, Tesla lost his scholarship and gambled away all of his savings. With final exams around the corner, Tesla realized that he was unprepared because he had been so caught up with his own problems. He asked his school for an extension to study but was ultimately denied.
Tesla had no choice but to drop out of school, triggering the first of many major breakdowns. He cut off all contact with his family and friends and moved to modern-day Slovenia. He found menial work and spent his spare time playing cards with other men on the street. A few years later, he moved again, this time to Budapest and that’s when everything changed.
One day he was walking through the park reciting poetry when he had a vision. He grabbed a stick and began drawing a diagram in the dirt. He had finally cracked the electric current problem that nearly drove him to insanity in school. It was right then and there that Tesla came up with the idea to devise a motor powered with alternating currents (AC).
For those who don’t understand the importance of this discovery, don’t worry. All you need to know is that AC is what powers every single building today. We may take electricity as a given (I know I do), but someone had to think of it.
And what makes his discovery so mind-blowing is that Tesla came up with this idea in 1881, at a time when most of the world was lit by candlelight. It’s also important to note that while the idea of alternating currents had been around for a while, no one had ever succeeded in creating a working motor using alternating current. Well, that is until Tesla made one a few years later.
In 1884, Tesla left Europe and sailed for New York City. The inventor arrived with only four cents in his pocket and a letter of recommendation to Thomas Edison. The letter read, “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!” When he arrived in New York, a meeting was arranged.
Tesla began to tell Edison all about the work he was doing on AC motors. Edison liked what he heard and hired him on the spot. But before you applaud Edison, the “father of the electric age,” for hiring Tesla, there are a few things you should know about him first. He’s not the saint that history books have made him out to be.
“But I thought that Thomas Edison was the father of electricity!” Nope. It was Tesla. “Okay, so he still discovered the lightbulb. That means something, doesn’t it?” Nope, wrong again. Edison improved the ideas of 22 other inventors. He didn’t invent the lightbulb, he just knew how to sell it. Edison was more of a CEO, and what do CEOs do? They hire people to do the work for them.
So when Tesla came knocking on Edison’s door, Edison knew he could put him to good use. According to Tesla, Edison offered to pay him $50,000 (which is roughly equivalent to $1 million today) if he could improve some of his DC motors. Little did Tesla know that this was all a scam.
Even though the inventor disliked DC motors, he took the job anyway. He needed the money so he could focus on his more efficient AC motors. It only took Tesla a few months, but he succeeded in improving the American inventor’s motors. However, Edison refused to pay up. “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke,” he told Tesla.
This was the start of a bitter, rage-driven feud that lasted throughout Tesla’s career. But feud might be the wrong word to use here. It was more like a rich CEO bullying a genius inventor every time he discovered something new. I bet you didn’t learn that in history class!
Tesla was a nice guy, but Edison scamming him out of money made him really mad. So, he quit his job with Edison on the spot. After trying (and failing) to start his own Tesla Electric Light Company and digging ditches for $2 a day, Tesla finally found financial backers for his AC research. This angered Edison, who was trying to sell his DC motors.
This came at a time where electricity companies were engaged in a “war of the currents.” Basically whoever won the war was going to be the company that powered the entire country. So, whoever convinced Americans that their electrical current was better was going to become very, very rich.
In 1888, Tesla was invited to speak at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. That’s where he caught the eye of engineer George Westinghouse, who, like Tesla, was a huge believer in alternating currents. Westinghouse also disliked Edison and wanted to put an end to DC currents dominating the markets.
The engineer soon realized that Tesla’s AC motors (which were patented by now) were just what he needed, so he offered to license the inventor’s patents for $60,000 and royalties based on how much electricity he could sell. This infuriated Edison. He knew that with Tesla working for his biggest competitor, they might just succeed in knocking him off his throne. So what did he do? He began a brutal “current war” propaganda campaign.
Edison knew that his DC currents were less economical, so he needed to come up with a different selling angle: safety. He needed to publically smear Tesla’s AC system and convince Americans that it was way too dangerous to power a house. But Edison didn’t just start spreading rumors or printing ads. No. He started paying schoolboys to steal family pets so he could electrify them in public places using AC currents.
In 1890, Edison even arranged for a convicted murderer to be put to death using an electric chair powered by AC. The propaganda campaign and cut-throat competition made it very hard for Westinghouse to make money. This meant that he had neither the money nor the engineering resources needed to develop Tesla’s motor right away.
But two years after Tesla signed his contract, Westinghouse Electric was in trouble. The financial panic of 1890 caused almost all of the company’s investors to pull out, and Westinghouse Electric suddenly found itself short on cash. After refinancing its debts, the new lenders demanded that the company cut back on what they considered excessive spending. This included Tesla’s contract.
At this point, Tesla’s AC motor was still in the development stage and needed more money to continue. Fearing ruin, Westinghouse asked Tesla to give up the royalties that he previously agreed to. “Your decision determines the fate of the Westinghouse Company,” he told Tesla. The inventor had a decision to make.
Tesla was grateful to Westinghouse. Unlike Edison, the engineer never tried to swindle him out of money. So being the nice guy he was, Tesla ripped up his royalties contract and walked away from billions of dollars (Westinghouse eventually won the current war). Had Tesla not ripped up his contract, he would have been one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Instead, Tesla left Westinghouse Electric with a lump sum from the patents he had leased out. While this sum was small compared to what he would have made, it was enough to give him time and space to work on his research independently. He rented out labs all across Manhattan and worked on some pretty radical inventions.
Along with Westinghouse, Tesla built the first hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, proving to the world that water is a reliable and practical energy source. He was also the first person to record radio waves from outer space, and he discovered the resonant frequency of the earth.
Resonance isn’t something that scientists could confirm until 50 years later, when technology caught up with what Tesla’s brain had figured out in the 1890s. Tesla also built an earthquake machine that nearly destroyed an entire neighborhood in New York City when he turned it on. He is also the only person (to this day) to create ball lightning, which is lightning in the form of a sphere that hovers a few feet above the ground.
The list of Tesla’s inventions goes on and on. The sad thing, however, is that there were a few huge, life-changing inventions that he never got recognition or credit for. In 1935, a scientist by the name of Robert Watson-Watt was declared the inventor of the radar. Take a guess at who came up with the idea in 1917? Tesla.
The inventor actually pitched his idea of radar to the United States Navy at the start of World War I. But Edison was head of research and development for the US navy at the time, and he did not want Tesla to succeed. So what did Edison do? He convinced the navy that they had no practical use for radar during wartime!
When X-rays were first discovered, scientists believed that they could actually cure blindness. Tesla warned that X-rays could be very dangerous, and he refused to perform human experiments with them. But Edison, on the other hand, hit the road running with X-ray experiments on humans. His assistant, Clarence Dally, was exposed to so much radiation from the experiments that his arms were both amputated.
Sadly, the amputations didn’t work, and Dally eventually died from mediastinal cancer. Not only did Edison’s experiments basically kill his assistant, but he nearly blinded himself. Edison actually used X-rays on his own eyes until he realized that maybe Tesla was right. X-rays are dangerous. When asked about his research later on, Edison said, “Don’t talk to me about X-rays. I am afraid of them.”
But how did Tesla know that X-rays were dangerous? Well, because he was the one who invented the coils that were used to create the X-rays themselves. Dubbed “Tesla Coils,” these coils were very powerful and they led to the formation of new lights such as fluorescent and neon. The inventor also realized that Tesla Coils could be used to send and receive radio signals.
After patenting his invention in 1897, Tesla wanted to take his idea one step further. He envisioned a wireless world and wanted to create a giant transmission tower that would provide free wireless energy to the entire planet. He proposed his idea to J.P. Morgan, who immediately gave him $150,000 to start his project.
The first thing Tesla did with his money was hire Stanford White, a prominent architect at the time. White was also a big believer in Tesla’s vision. As the man behind Westinghouse’s alternating current, Tesla was the real deal. If anyone could come up with the technology behind a wireless transmission tower, it was Tesla.
White got to work on the Wardenclyffe Tower in Shoreham, New York, in 1901. But, by this point, an Italian inventor by the name of Guglielmo Marconi was also working on radio transmissions. The problem was that, yet again, someone was using Tesla’s ideas for their own inventions. “Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue,” Tesla said. “He is using seventeen of my patents.”
Then in July 1901, Tesla finally gained a little competitive streak in him. He wanted to build an even larger and more powerful transmitter than Marconi’s system. So he went to J.P. Morgan to ask for more money, but the financier refused to supply any more funds. And while Tesla had trouble finding enough funds to back his project, investors seemed to be throwing their money at Marconi.
Then in December 1901, the Italian inventor successfully transmitted the letter “S” from England to Newfoundland. Marconi was declared the inventor of the radio and became very rich. It wasn’t until a few months after Tesla’s death in 1943 that the Supreme Court ruled that he was, in fact, the inventor, and not Marconi.
Inventors soon realized that since Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower provided free energy to the entire planet, there was no way to regulate it. That meant that there was no way to make money. So, in 1906, the project was officially abandoned. The Wardenclyffe Tower became a relic of what could have been, and this defeat led to another one of Tesla’s nervous breakdowns.
“It is not a dream,” the inventor said, “it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive—blind, faint-hearted, doubting world!” By 1912, Tesla began to withdraw from the world. He also began to show clear signs of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Tesla had a fixation with the number three and began washing his hands and greeting people, all in threes.
Tesla reportedly had to have 18 napkins placed on the table while he was eating, and he would often count his steps when he walked. The inventor also said he was very sensitive to sounds and certain sights, including earrings on women. “The sight of a pearl would almost give me a fit,” Tesla later wrote.
By 1914, Tesla was bankrupt. Most of his patents had expired, and he was having trouble working out his newer inventions. Over the years, the inventor wrote J.P. Morgan repeatedly asking for funds, but his letters went unanswered. And when the financier passed away in 1913, Tesla began writing to Morgan’s son. The inventor lived out of hotel rooms, but since he didn’t have any money, he would move to a different hotel every few years, leaving his unpaid bills behind.
On November 6, 1915, a news report from London said that that the 1915 Nobel Prize Award for Physics had been awarded to Tesla and Edison. But then, on November 15, a different report from Stockholm said that the prize had been awarded to Sir William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg for their work on the crystal structure by means of X-rays.
Rumors began circulating that either Edison or Tesla had refused the prize, a claim that the Nobel Foundation denied. There has been a lot of speculation about what exactly happened. Some say that they refused to share the prize with one another, or that Edison refused to accept it in order to keep Tesla from receiving the $20,000 prize.
After the Nobel Prize debacle, Tesla graced the headlines from time to time. In 1931, in celebration of his 75th birthday, Time magazine featured Tesla’s inventions and put him on the cover of one of its issues. There was also a party held for his birthday, where he spoke to members of the press about his inventions and his views on current events.
Tesla’s party went so well that he made it an annual event. But other than providing homemade food and drinks, he also handed out some baffling claims. In 1932, he said that he was working on a motor that was powered by cosmic rays. The following year, Tesla said that he was working on a new type of energy that was “violently opposed” to Einstein’s physics.
Tesla also told reporters at his party that he was working on developing a way to record a person’s thoughts by photographing the retina. Then, in 1934, the inventor claimed that he was working on his newest invention: the “Death Beam.” According to Tesla, the beam was so powerful that it could knock 10,000 planes out of the sky.
Tesla tried writing to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and J.P. Morgan Jr. for funds, but, like before, his letters went unanswered. He did, however, receive a $25,000 check from the Soviet Union, but his project never made it off the ground. Now were his claims valid? Was he actually close to some sort of breakthrough?
We may never know for sure. But what we do know is that his mental state was at a point of deterioration. Towards the end of his life, Tesla became fixated on pigeons. It first started when he would take walks to the park every day to feed them. Then, the inventor began feeding them from his hotel room window.
He even claimed that there was a specific white pigeon that visited him daily. The pigeon’s leg and wing were injured, and Tesla spent over $2,000 to nurse the bird back to health. He even built a device that could give her support while she healed. Then, one night, Tesla claimed that the pigeon came to visit him. She had two beams of light shooting from her eyes.
“Yes, it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory,” he later wrote. Tesla believed that the female pigeon had come to tell him that she was going to die. She hopped off the ledge and into Tesla’s arms, where she died a few moments later.
The inventor said that at that moment, he knew that his life’s work was over. “I had only to wish and call her, and she would come flying to me,” he wrote. “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.”
Tesla’s growing unpaid bills, as well as several complaints about his pigeons, led to multiple evictions from hotels around New York. In 1934, Westinghouse actually began paying him $125 a month as well as paying for his rent at the Hotel New Yorker. There are several varying stories about how this exactly came about.
Some people say that Westinghouse was concerned about Tesla’s deteriorating state, while other people say that he was concerned about the bad press that Tesla’s living conditions could cause his company. Tesla was against receiving charity, so Westinghouse said that the payments were a “consulting fee.” Regardless of the reasoning behind Westinghouse’s actions, he still helped out a guy in need.
Then, one late night in 1937, 81-year-old Tesla left his room at the Hotel New Yorker to make his way to the park to feed the pigeons. But, as he was crossing the street a few blocks away from the hotel, Tesla was hit by a taxi and thrown to the ground.
The inventor not only destroyed his back, but he broke three of his ribs. While there are varying reports about the extent of his injuries, we do know that he refused to go to a doctor, and he never fully recovered from his accident. In January 1943, 86 year-old Tesla died alone in his room at the Hotel New Yorker.
While Tesla died alone and uncredited for most of his work, his legacy has lived on in several books, films, and music. Many of his visions (whether they were successful or not) have become a reoccurring theme in many science fiction books and movies. In 2019, The Current War made its debut in theaters around the world, reminding a whole new generation of Tesla’s extensive contribution to society.
But the most well-known tribute to the late inventor was delivered by Martin Eberhard from Tesla Inc., who decided to name his company after the late inventor. The electric cars use Tesla’s AC system, a nice nod to the genius inventor who had a habit of falling between the cracks.