MNA Feature Desk: By the end of the 19th century, the Serbian-American engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla had conceived some of the underlying technology behind alternating current, the induction motor, remote control, X-ray imaging and a host of other crucial Industrial Age technologies, including nearly 300 patents. He’s partly responsible for the fact that most of us have instant access to light, heat, TV, radio and the internet.
“He’s an unsung hero,” says University of Oregon professor Brad Garner. “We wouldn’t have cell phones and power in our homes without his work.”
Tesla’s vision was even more towering than his many achievements. If he’d had his way, everyone in the world would have access to clean, abundant, nearly free energy, transmitted wirelessly across vast distances, and wireless communication.
Some of his ambitious ideas eventually became part of everyday American life, some are within sight now, others were sheer crackpottery, still more were undermined by various combinations of bad luck and timing, dirty dealing, capitalist chicanery, economic turmoil and his own social ineptitude.
Once a wealthy, famous figure, the one-time employee then rival of Thomas Edison and partner of George Westinghouse lost the fortune he’d made from his inventions. When he died penniless in the last of many New York hotels he called home in 1943, his closest friends were the pigeons he’d adopted.
However, as a student, Tesla displayed such remarkable abilities to calculate mathematical problems that teachers accused him of cheating. During his teen years, he fell seriously ill, recovering once his father abandoned his demand that Nikola become a priest and agreed he could attend engineering school instead.
In 1887, Tesla met two investors who agreed to back the formation of the Tesla Electric Company. He set up a laboratory in Manhattan, where he developed the alternating current induction motor, which solved a number of technical problems that had bedeviled other designs. When Tesla demonstrated his device at an engineering meeting, the Westinghouse Company made arrangements to license the technology, providing an upfront payment and royalties on each horsepower generated.
With the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 looming in Chicago, Westinghouse asked Tesla to help supply power; they’d have a huge platform for demonstrating the merits of AC. Tesla helped the fair illuminate more light bulbs than could be found in the entire city of Chicago, and wowed audiences with a variety of wonders, including an electric light that required no wires. Later Tesla also helped Westinghouse win a contract to generate electrical power at Niagara Falls, helping to build the first large-scale AC power plant in the world.