Nikola Tesla was a famed inventor best known for his work in developing the alternating-current (AC) electrical system and Tesla Coil. He was a brilliant but modest man who spoke eight languages and had a photographic memory. His inventions changed the lives for future generations; we can power our homes with just the flick of the switch, listen to our favourite songs delivered on radio waves and buy electric cars branded in his name. Yet despite these incredible achievements, Tesla has often been underappreciated for his work and spent most of his life in poverty.
Nikola Tesla was born in Smiljan, Croatia (formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) in 1956. Even before immigrating to the United States to start his career as an inventor, Tesla always aspired to become an engineer. His dreams were met with resistance from his father, a priest of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who insisted he follow in his footsteps. His mother, however, spurred on his interest in electrical devices and the world of invention; She herself invented small household appliances during her spare time. Nikola followed his calling and went on to study mechanical and electrical engineering at the Polytechnic school in Graz, Austria.
Tesla was constantly inventing. Even while working as a telephone line repairman, he would tinker around with the equipment and through this invented a precursor to the loudspeaker – although he never filed a patent for it. It was, unfortunately this lack of business acumen that affected his financial success throughout his life. In 1884, Nikola moved to America and started working with the famous American inventor, Thomas Edison.
Their working relationship was, however short-lived; Edison was a businessman who had strong ideas for developing his direct current (DC) and also took advantage of Tesla’s own designs and work. After helping Edison to overcome a series of engineering problems, Tesla was offered very little in the way of remuneration and was also refused a pay rise. Because of their personal and scientific differences, they parted ways after just a year of working together.
Soon after his departure, Tesla went on to develop his polyphase system of AC dynamos, transformers and motors at Westinghouse Electric Co. Edison believed that DC was the future for electricity distribution – which at the time, was the standard form of electricity supply in the USA. Tesla however, believed that due to the difficulty DC had travelling long distances and its voltage inflexibility, AC would provide the answer by overcoming these issues. With the help of promotional events, including the illumination of the Chicago World Fair in 1893, Tesla finally convinced the nation to adopt AC electricity.
On top of his other inventions, Tesla imagined a method of transmitting electricity around the world without the need for wires or cables. It was here that he unveiled one of his most important inventions – the Tesla Coil – a high-frequency transformer capable of creating a very high voltage at a low current. Early radio antennas were able to harness the ability of the coil, which could transmit and receive radio signals that were tuned to resonate at the same frequency. The coil was so effective that it is still used today in modern day radio technology.
Throughout his lifetime, Tesla had filed over 700 patents, although many of ideas weren’t brought to fruition. He made a profound impact in the scientific world and with his invention of AC electricity, helped Thomas Edison bring the electric light bulb to the masses.