Nikola Tesla

Albeit the enormous amount of information there is to be found about Nikola Tesla, I shall give a brief overview of the person behind the Tesla Coil. Since there are numerous other sources available, who can explain his life in greater detail than I will ever be able to, it will be restricted to the most significant highlights of his life. Because the subject of this site is in fact the Tesla coil, I think it should suffice if his life is explained primarily focused on this topic. For this reason I shall only describe his life up to the invention of the Tesla coil, and the Wardenclyffe project, although more impressive inventions were made later on in his life.

Most famous for his contribution to the design of the modern alternating current supply system, Nikola Tesla was also an inventor, an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer and a physicist. For his great contributions to our modern day society, he is credited as one of the greatest scientists of all time.

In the Croatian village of Smiljan, Tesla was born on the tenth of July 1856, as the fourth child of a total of five, consisting of three sisters and one brother. In lower school, Tesla studied German, arithmetic, and religion in 1861. One year later, the family moved to Gospić, where he finished his primary school.

He started his Higher Real Gymnasium in 1870, after moving to Karlovac. During his study he showed an excellence in math, by solving integral calculus in his head, which raised suspicion with his teachers, who tough he was cheating. Being as good as he was, he finished his four-year term in a mere three years, graduating in 1873.

Upon returning to his hometown Smiljan in 1873, he contracted cholera, keeping him in bed for 9 month with several near-death occasions. He was then promised, by his father, to be send to the best engineering school if he were to recover from his illness.

After enrolling at Austrian Polytechnic university in 1875, he earned the highest grades possible, started a Serbian culture club, passed nearly double the amount of required exams with a total of nine, and received a letter of recommendation from the dean. Shortly after having an argument with a professor, things went downhill for Tesla, with him gambling away his allowance and tuition money. Although earning it back, he was completely unprepared for his exams, and miserably failed them. He therefor never graduated from the university, nor did he receive any grades for his last semester.
He left Graz for Maribor, Slovenia, in 1878. And by severing all relations with his family, he hoped to conceal the fact that he dropped out of school. In Maribor he worked as a draftsman, and played cards on the streets to pass his spare time. It is during this period he suffered a nervous breakdown.

Tesla was returned to Gospić under police guard for not having a residence permit, on the 24th of March. The same year, he taught a large number of students at his former school, Higher Real Gymnasium.

Thanks to two of his uncles, he managed to escape Gospić and go to Prague. Because he arrived too late, he was declined to enroll in the university. Had he been in time, it would have made no difference, since he did not study the mandatory Greek language, and was illiterate in Czech, which was also mandatory.

In 1881, he moved to Budapest to work for a telegraph company. Upon arrival, he noticed the station was far from operational, and worked as a draftsman instead. With the station becoming operational after several months, he was assigned the position of Chief Electrician. Whilst being employed, Tesla made numerous improvements to the station’s equipment and built an amplifier device, which was never patented.

Tesla started working for Edison in France in 1882, where he designed and improved electrical equipment. After a troublesome journey to New York city, to which he was relocated, his work for Edison quickly progressed to solving some of the company’s most difficult problems.

One of the abovementioned problems was the complete redesigning of the direct current generator, for which Edison offered him $50,000. After several months of hard work, Tesla fulfilled his task and inquired payment. To this, Edison jokingly replied:” Tesla, you don't understand our American humor.", and offered him a $10,- raise to his weekly $18,- salary. This was immediately declined by Tesla, after which he resigned.

In 1885 Tesla was given the opportunity to start the Tesla Electric Light Company, funded by investors who wanted him to develop an improved arc lighting system. After completion, Tesla was forced out of the company, left with only worthless stock certificates. Being broke, he had to work as a ditch digger for a mere $2.- per day. This was considered by Tesla as ‘the hardest blow’ he had ever received.
Tesla met Alfred S. Brown, director of Western Union, and Charles F. Peck, a New York City attorney in 1887, who were sold on his alternating current system, after having seen a demonstration. They agreed upon a 50/50 split in the profits of the patents, in exchange for funding of the Tesla Electric Company.

Then in 1888 Tesla was given the opportunity to present a paper, “A New System of Alternate-Current Motors and Transformers”, to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE, now IEEE). He also manages to sell his A.C. Polyphase System patents to George Westinghouse for $25,000 cash, $50,000 in stocks and a royalty of $2.50 per horsepower per engine. He was also hired for one year at a rate of $2,000 per month, to work at the Westinghouse headquarters in Pittsburgh to help develop his motor.

1890 was the year in which Tesla discovered wireless transmission of energy, with which he would be obsessed for the rest of his life. During some high frequency tests Tesla was conducting, he developed some of the first Neon and fluorescent illumination. He also took the first X-ray pictures. Though these founding were impressive, they faded away against the grand discovery of lighting a vacuum tube wirelessly. This ignited the spark of curiosity which caused him to become obsessed with wireless energy transmission.

It is arguable to say that Nikola Tesla, in 1891, discovered the existence of the electron, for he wrote in "Electrical Engineer, New York" that his experiments prove the existence of charged particles (“small charged balls”). It was only five years later that Edison proved the existence through a different experiment. During this year he also invented the famous ‘Tesla Coil’, made to power his new wireless lighting system. It later became the basis for the ill-fated World-Wide Wireless System, more commonly known as the Wardenclyffe project.

In 1895 Tesla’s lab burns down, and with it hundreds of pictures, invention models, plans, notes, tools, and laboratory data, valued at $50,000. Tesla is quoted by the “New York Times” as saying “I am in too much grief to talk. What can I say?” He was then allowed to work in Thomas Edison’s lab as a temporary solution, since soon after he rented a new laboratory space. It is during the same year that the first large generator is put to work at the Niagara Falls, which functioned satisfactory. In the same year Röntgen discovered X-Rays. Tesla sent some of his ‘shadowgraphs’ (his X-Ray pictures) to Röntgen, whom replied by asking how he made them.

A radio-controlled boat, dubbed a ‘teleautomaton’, was presented to the general public in 1898 during an electrical exhibition in at Madison Square Garden. It was received with lots of disbelief, and criticism.

Tesla moved to Colorado Springs in 1899, which offer more space for his high-voltage and high-frequency experiments. He also had associates there who would not charge him for the extensive power he needed on order to conduct his experiments. During his stay here, he did research concerning the possibilities of transmitting energy wirelessly.

In 1901 Tesla’s rival, Guglielmo Marconi, succeeds in sending the first radio transmission across the Atlantic ocean. Tesla claims this was made possible by using 17 of his patents. Struggling in court battles, a decision in favour of Marconi was made in 1904. This decision has been reinstated in 1943 by a Supreme Court of the United States. 1901 was also the year in which Tesla’s most ambitious project was started, the construction of the World-Wide Wireless System, better known as the Wardenclyffe Tower.

After receiving $150,000 for the purpose from J. Pierpont Morgan, Tesla inquired more funding from him in order to build the tower. When asked what happened with the money he’d already received, Tesla explained that he also was affected by the ‘Panic of 1901’, the first stock market crash, which was partially to be accounted to Morgan. Upon the unpleasant reminder of his actions, Morgan refused a second funding, as well as a second request from Tesla.

In the following years, Tesla wrote more than 50 letter to Morgan, which remained unanswered. Tesla wrote Morgan that the Wardenclyffe Tower could not only transmit wireless communication but also wireless energy. In 1904 Morgan then finally responded through his secretary, stating, “it will be impossible for me to do anything in the matter”. Unable to pay for the construction, he had to lay of the workers. Because of a debt of almost $20,000 he had to sign over the land to the owner of the hotel, at which he was staying.

On the 4th of July 1917 the Wardenclyffe Tower was destroyed to cover the debts of his hotel costs. This was done on orders of the United States Government which was afraid of it being used by German spies as well as the fact that it might be used as a landmark for German submarines.

These events conclude the chapters of Tesla’s life concerning the Tesla coil. Although he made several other important inventions, they do not contribute to the tesla coil, and are therefore left out of this overview as they would only make it more complicated than necessary. And as I said at the start, there are an enormous amount of other sites which can tell you more about Tesla’s life, than I will ever be able to. In order to stay true to the actual topic of this website, I’d like to hereby end the summary of Tesla’s life.

Despite his many inventions and discoveries which doubtfully changed the world forever, he sadly passed away lonely and penniless in his hotel room in the New Yorker on the 7th of July 1943, at the age of 86.