(b. July 9/10, 1856, Smiljan, Croatia--d. Jan. 7, 1943, New
York City), Serbian-American inventor and researcher who discovered
rotating magnetic field, the basis of most alternating-current
machinery. He emigrated to the United States in 1884 and sold
the patent rights
to his system of alternating-current dynamos, transformers, and
motors to George Westinghouse the following year. In 1891 he
Tesla coil, an induction coil widely used in radio technology.
Tesla was from a family of Serbian origin. His father was
an Orthodox priest; his mother was unschooled but highly intelligent.
with a poetic touch, as he matured Tesla added to these earlier
qualities those of self-discipline and a desire for precision.
Training for an engineering career, he attended the Technical
University at Graz, Austria, and the University of Prague. At
Graz he first saw
the Gramme dynamo, which operated as a generator and, when reversed,
became an electric motor, and he conceived a way to use
alternating current to advantage. Later, at Budapest, he visualized
the principle of the rotating magnetic field and developed plans
induction motor that would become his first step toward the successful
utilization of alternating current. In 1882 Tesla went to work
for the Continental Edison Company, and, while on assignment
to Strassburg in 1883, he constructed, in after-work hours, his
induction motor. Tesla sailed for America in 1884, arriving in
New York, with four cents in his pocket, a few of his own poems,
calculations for a flying machine. He first found employment
with Thomas Edison, but the two inventors were far apart in background
methods, and their separation was inevitable.
In May 1885, George Westinghouse, head of the Westinghouse
Electric Company in Pittsburgh, bought the patent rights to Tesla's
polyphase system of alternating-current dynamos, transformers,
and motors. The transaction precipitated a titanic power struggle
Edison's direct-current systems and the Tesla-Westinghouse alternating-current
approach, which eventually won out.
Tesla soon established his own laboratory, where his inventive
mind could be given free rein. He experimented with shadowgraphs
to those that later were to be used by Wilhelm Röntgen when
he discovered X-rays in 1895. Tesla's countless experiments included
a carbon button lamp, on the power of electrical resonance, and
on various types of lighting.
Tesla gave exhibitions in his laboratory in which he lighted
lamps without wires by allowing electricity to flow through his
body, to allay
fears of alternating current. He was often invited to lecture
at home and abroad. The Tesla coil, which he invented in 1891,
is widely used
today in radio and television sets and other electronic equipment.
That year also marked the date of Tesla's United States citizenship.
Westinghouse used Tesla's system to light the World's Columbian
Exposition at Chicago in 1893. His success was a factor in winning
the contract to install the first power machinery at Niagara
Falls, which bore Tesla's name and patent numbers. The project
carried power to
Buffalo by 1896.
In 1898 Tesla announced his invention of a teleautomatic boat
guided by remote control. When skepticism was voiced, Tesla proved
claims for it before a crowd in Madison Square Garden.
In Colorado Springs, Colo., where he stayed from May 1899
until early 1900, Tesla made what he regarded as his most important
discovery-- terrestrial stationary waves. By this discovery he
proved that the Earth could be used as a conductor and would
be as responsive
as a tuning fork to electrical vibrations of a certain frequency.
He also lighted 200 lamps without wires from a distance of 25
kilometres) and created man-made lightning, producing flashes
measuring 135 feet (41 metres). At one time he was certain he
signals from another planet in his Colorado laboratory, a claim
that was met with derision in some scientific journals.
Returning to New York in 1900, Tesla began construction on
Long Island of a wireless world broadcasting tower, with $150,000
from the American financier J. Pierpont Morgan. Tesla claimed
he secured the loan by assigning 51 percent of his patent rights
and telegraphy to Morgan. He expected to provide worldwide communication
and to furnish facilities for sending pictures, messages,
weather warnings, and stock reports. The project was abandoned
because of a financial panic, labour troubles, and Morgan's withdrawal
support. It was Tesla's greatest defeat.
Tesla's work then shifted to turbines and other projects.
Because of a lack of funds, his ideas remained in his notebooks,
which are still
examined by engineers for unexploited clues. In 1915 he was severely
disappointed when a report that he and Edison were to share the
Nobel Prize proved erroneous. Tesla was the recipient of the
Edison Medal in 1917, the highest honour that the American Institute
Electrical Engineers could bestow.
Tesla allowed himself only a few close friends. Among them
were the writers Robert Underwood Johnson, Mark Twain, and Francis
Marion Crawford. He was quite impractical in financial matters
and an eccentric, driven by compulsions and a progressive germ
he had a way of intuitively sensing hidden scientific secrets
and employing his inventive talent to prove his hypotheses. Tesla
was a godsend
to reporters who sought sensational copy but a problem to editors
who were uncertain how seriously his futuristic prophecies should
regarded. Caustic criticism greeted his speculations concerning
communication with other planets, his assertions that he could
split the Earth
like an apple, and his claim of having invented a death ray capable
of destroying 10,000 airplanes at a distance of 250 miles (400
After Tesla's death the custodian of alien property impounded
his trunks, which held his papers, his diplomas and other honours,
and his laboratory notes. These were eventually inherited by
Tesla's nephew, Sava Kosanovich, and later housed in the Nikola
Museum in Belgrade. Hundreds filed into New York City's Cathedral
of St. John the Divine for his funeral services, and a flood
messages acknowledged the loss of a great genius. Three Nobel
Prize recipients addressed their tribute to "one of the
of the world who paved the way for many of the technological
developments of modern times." (I.W.H.)
Inez Hunt and Wanetta W. Draper, Lightning in His Hand: The
Life Story of Nikola Tesla (1964), is a complete, authoritative,
biography. Nikola Tesla Museum, Nikola Tesla 1856-1943: Lectures,
Patents, Articles (1956), contains authentic reprints, diagrams,
lectures, and considerable detailed information. Nikola Tesla,
Experiments with Alternate Currents of High Potential and High
(1904), furnishes Tesla's own story of his Colorado experiments.
Reproduced with permission from Britannica Online.
Copyright (c) 1996 by Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
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