The Untold Story of Nikola Tesla: Genius or a Great Scientist?

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Nikola Tesla
Никола Тесла

Nikola Tesla, born on July 10, 1856 (June 28 Old Style), and passing away on January 7, 1943, was a visionary figure renowned for his innovative contributions. Hailing from a Serbian-American background, Tesla distinguished himself as an inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, and futurist. His enduring legacy lies notably in his pivotal role in shaping the development of the contemporary alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. Tesla’s profound impact on technology and his forward-thinking approach continue to resonate in the annals of scientific history.

Born and raised in the Austrian Empire, Nikola Tesla embarked on his journey into engineering and physics during the 1870s, despite not obtaining a formal degree. His early career unfolded in the 1880s with practical experiences in telephony and at Continental Edison, delving into the burgeoning electric power industry. In 1884, Tesla made a pivotal decision to immigrate to the United States, where he later became a naturalized citizen. Initially employed at the Edison Machine Works in New York City, Tesla soon ventured into independent pursuits.

Supported by partners who financed and promoted his visionary ideas, Tesla established laboratories and companies in New York. His focus spanned across a spectrum of electrical and mechanical innovations. Notably, Tesla’s breakthrough with the AC induction motor and its associated polyphase AC patents, licensed by Westinghouse Electric in 1888, not only brought him substantial financial gain but also laid the foundation for the polyphase system widely adopted by the company.

Tesla’s inventive spirit led him through a diverse array of experiments, encompassing mechanical oscillators/generators, electrical discharge tubes, and pioneering work in early X-ray technology. Among his celebrated creations was a wirelessly controlled boat, a testament to his ingenuity and technical prowess. Tesla’s reputation as an inventor grew, highlighted by captivating demonstrations to affluent patrons at his laboratory and captivating public lectures that showcased his remarkable showmanship.

Throughout the 1890s, Tesla relentlessly pursued his ambitious concepts for wireless lighting and global wireless electric power distribution. His experiments in high-voltage, high-frequency power in New York and Colorado Springs marked a quest for innovation that extended to envisioning wireless communication possibilities by 1893. Tesla ambitiously aimed to realize these concepts through his ambitious Wardenclyffe Tower project, designed as an intercontinental wireless communication and power transmitter. However, financial constraints ultimately thwarted his efforts to complete the ambitious endeavor.

Nikola Tesla’s legacy endures as a testament to his indomitable spirit of innovation and his relentless pursuit of technological advancement, leaving an indelible mark on the realms of science and engineering.

Following the closure of Wardenclyffe, Nikola Tesla embarked on a series of inventive pursuits throughout the 1910s and 1920s, each yielding varied levels of success. Despite his earlier financial triumphs, Tesla gradually depleted his resources and subsequently resided in a succession of New York hotels, where he accrued unpaid bills. His final days unfolded in New York City, where he passed away in January 1943.

In the aftermath of Tesla’s death, his remarkable contributions faded from the public spotlight until 1960, when the General Conference on Weights and Measures honored him by naming the unit of magnetic flux density in the International System of Units (SI) after him—the Tesla. This recognition marked a symbolic resurgence of awareness surrounding Tesla’s pioneering work and innovative spirit.

Since the 1990s, there has been a notable revival of popular interest in Tesla’s life and accomplishments. His visionary ideas, ranging from wireless communication to renewable energy concepts, have captivated modern imaginations and continue to inspire new generations of scientists, engineers, and enthusiasts alike. Tesla’s enduring legacy stands as a testament to his unparalleled ingenuity and his enduring impact on the landscape of technology and innovation.

Early years

Tesla’s rebuilt birth house (parish hall) and the church where his father served in Smiljan, Croatia. The site was made into a museum about him.

Nikola Tesla, an ethnic Serb, was born on July 10, 1856 (June 28 Old Style), in the village of Smiljan, situated in the Military Frontier of the Austrian Empire, which is now part of present-day Croatia. His father, Milutin Tesla (1819–1879), served as a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Milutin’s brother Josif was an educator at a military academy and authored several mathematics textbooks.

Tesla’s mother, Đuka Mandić (1822–1892), also hailed from a family of Eastern Orthodox Church clergy. She possessed a talent for crafting tools and mechanical devices at home and had an exceptional ability to memorize Serbian epic poems, despite lacking formal education. Tesla attributed his remarkable eidetic memory and creative faculties to his mother’s genetic influence.

As the fourth of five children, Tesla had three sisters—Milka, Angelina, and Marica—and an older brother named Dane, who tragically died in a horse-riding accident when Tesla was around six or seven years old. In 1861, Tesla began attending primary school in Smiljan, where his studies encompassed German, arithmetic, and religious subjects. The family later relocated to Gospić in 1862, where Milutin assumed duties as a parish priest. Tesla completed his primary education and subsequently attended middle school. In 1870, he moved to Karlovac to enroll in the Higher Real Gymnasium for his high school education, where instruction was conducted in German, typical for schools in the Austro-Hungarian Military Frontier.

In his later patent filings, before becoming a naturalized American citizen, Tesla consistently identified himself as being “of Smiljan, Lika, border country of Austria-Hungary.” These formative years in the diverse cultural and educational environments of the Austrian Empire laid the groundwork for Tesla’s future pursuits as a pioneering inventor and engineer of international renown.

Tesla’s father, Milutin, was an Orthodox priest in the village of Smiljan.

Tesla later recounted his initial fascination with electricity, sparked during demonstrations by his physics professor. He described these displays of the “mysterious phenomena” as captivating, igniting a deep desire within him to delve further into understanding this extraordinary force. Known for his exceptional mental prowess, Tesla could perform complex integral calculus operations mentally, a skill that initially led his teachers to suspect him of cheating. Undeterred, he completed his studies ahead of schedule, graduating in 1873 after a condensed four-year term finished in just three years.

Following graduation, Tesla returned to Smiljan but soon fell critically ill with cholera. Bedridden for nine months and teetering on the brink of death multiple times, Tesla faced a profound crisis. In a moment of despair, his father, who had initially envisioned him joining the priesthood, made a solemn vow: if Nikola recovered from his illness, he would support his aspirations to attend the finest engineering school available. This pivotal promise marked a turning point in Tesla’s life, setting the stage for his remarkable journey into the realms of science and invention.

The following year, Tesla managed to avoid conscription into the Austro-Hungarian Army in Smiljan by fleeing southeast to Tomingaj, near Gračac. There, he immersed himself in the rugged terrain, often dressed in hunter’s attire. Tesla credited this period spent in close contact with nature for bolstering his physical and mental resilience. During his time in Tomingaj, he avidly read numerous books, later attributing Mark Twain’s literature as instrumental in his remarkable recovery from previous illnesses.

In 1875, Tesla enrolled at the Imperial-Royal Technical College in Graz, benefiting from a scholarship intended for students from the Military Frontier. Displaying extraordinary academic prowess, Tesla not only passed nine exams—nearly twice the required number—but also garnered high praise. The dean of the technical faculty commended Tesla in a letter to his father, declaring him “a star of first rank.”

Tesla found particular inspiration in the lectures on electricity delivered by Professor Jakob Pöschl at Graz. He actively engaged with the subject, even proposing improvements to an electric motor demonstrated by Professor Pöschl. However, Tesla’s academic trajectory took a downturn in his third year, culminating in his departure from Graz in December 1878 without completing his degree. Some biographers suggest Tesla’s academic decline was due to a lack of diligence, speculating that his involvement in gambling and romantic pursuits may have contributed to his departure.

Tesla aged 23, c. 1879

Despite these setbacks, Tesla’s formative years in Graz laid the groundwork for his future achievements, showcasing his early intellectual curiosity and innovative spirit that would later revolutionize the fields of electrical engineering and technology.

After leaving school, Tesla’s family lost contact with him. Rumors were circulating among his classmates that he had drowned in the nearby river Mur. However, in January, one of his classmates encountered Tesla in the town of Maribor and relayed the news to Tesla’s family. It turned out that Tesla had been employed there as a draftsman, earning 60 florins per month.

In March 1879, Milutin, Tesla’s father, finally located his son and attempted to persuade him to return home and resume his education in Prague. Tesla did return to Gospić later that month, but he was deported shortly thereafter due to lacking a residence permit. Tragically, Tesla’s father passed away the following month, in April 1879, at the age of 60, after an undisclosed illness. During the remainder of the year, Tesla took on the role of teaching a sizable class of students at his former school in Gospić.

In January 1880, two of Tesla’s uncles managed to gather enough funds to assist him in leaving Gospić for Prague, where he intended to pursue further studies. However, upon arrival, Tesla discovered that he had missed the enrollment deadline at Charles-Ferdinand University. Moreover, he had never studied Greek, a mandatory subject, and was also unfamiliar with Czech, another requirement. Despite these setbacks, Tesla audited philosophy lectures at the university, although he did not receive formal grades for the courses.

These early experiences marked a period of resilience and adaptation for Tesla, as he navigated personal and academic challenges while steadfastly pursuing his intellectual interests and aspirations for higher learning.

Working at Budapest Telephone Exchange

In 1881, Nikola Tesla made a pivotal move to Budapest, Hungary, where he secured a position under Tivadar Puskás at a telegraph company known as the Budapest Telephone Exchange. Upon his arrival, Tesla discovered that the company, still under construction, was not operational. As a result, he initially took on the role of a draftsman at the Central Telegraph Office.

Within a few months, the Budapest Telephone Exchange became operational, and Tesla’s skills and expertise did not go unnoticed. He was soon appointed to the position of chief electrician. During his tenure at the exchange, Tesla dedicated himself to improving the equipment at the Central Station. His innovations and enhancements significantly boosted the efficiency and functionality of the telecommunications infrastructure in Budapest.

Notably, Tesla claimed to have developed a telephone repeater or amplifier during this time, a device aimed at improving signal transmission over long distances. However, Tesla never patented nor publicly disclosed the specifics of this invention. Nevertheless, his contributions at the Budapest Telephone Exchange underscored his growing reputation as a skilled engineer and inventor, laying the groundwork for his future breakthroughs in the field of electrical engineering and beyond.

Working at Edison

In 1882, Nikola Tesla’s career took a significant turn when Tivadar Puskás facilitated his employment at the Continental Edison Company in Paris. This opportunity immersed Tesla in the burgeoning industry of indoor incandescent lighting, which was at the forefront of large-scale electric power utilities.

Initially stationed at the Société Electrique Edison division in Ivry-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, Tesla played a pivotal role in the installation of the citywide lighting system. His hands-on involvement provided invaluable practical experience in electrical engineering, as he navigated the complexities of implementing cutting-edge technology.

Tesla’s exceptional aptitude in engineering and physics quickly caught the attention of management at Continental Edison. Recognizing his potential, they entrusted him with designing and constructing enhanced versions of generating dynamos and motors. Tesla’s innovative solutions and problem-solving abilities were further demonstrated when he was dispatched to troubleshoot engineering challenges at various Edison utilities under construction across France and Germany.

His tenure at Continental Edison not only solidified Tesla’s reputation as a skilled engineer but also deepened his understanding of electrical systems and their applications in industrial settings. The experience gained during this formative period laid a solid foundation for Tesla’s future innovations that would revolutionize the field of electrical engineering worldwide.

Moving to the United States

Edison Machine Works on Goerck Street, New York. Tesla found the change from cosmopolitan Europe to working at this shop, located amongst the tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a “painful surprise”.

In 1884, Nikola Tesla’s career trajectory took a transatlantic leap when Charles Batchelor, a manager overseeing the Paris operations for Thomas Edison, returned to the United States to helm the Edison Machine Works in New York City. Batchelor, impressed by Tesla’s talents, advocated for his relocation to America. Subsequently, in June 1884, Tesla immigrated to the United States and swiftly commenced work at the Edison Machine Works, located on Manhattan’s bustling Lower East Side.

The Edison Machine Works was a bustling hub, teeming with hundreds of machinists, laborers, managing staff, and 20 “field engineers” grappling with the formidable task of constructing New York City’s expansive electric utility infrastructure. Similar to his role in Paris, Tesla initially focused on troubleshooting installations and enhancing generator performance.

Historian W. Bernard Carlson speculates that Tesla’s interactions with Thomas Edison, the company’s founder, were limited to just a few occasions. One memorable encounter recounted in Tesla’s autobiography, occurred after Tesla had spent a sleepless night repairing damaged dynamos aboard the SS Oregon. Running into Batchelor and Edison the next morning, Edison humorously remarked about their “Parisian” engineer being out all night. Upon learning of Tesla’s tireless efforts, Edison reportedly praised him, remarking to Batchelor that Tesla was “a damned good man.”

Among the projects assigned to Tesla was the development of an arc lamp-based street lighting system. At the time, arc lighting was popular for street illumination but posed challenges due to its high voltage requirements, incompatible with Edison’s low-voltage incandescent system. Despite Tesla’s innovative designs, aimed at integrating arc lighting with Edison’s infrastructure, they were never implemented on a large scale. This could be attributed to advancements in incandescent street lighting technology or strategic business decisions, such as partnerships Edison made with established arc lighting companies.

Tesla’s early years at the Edison Machine Works showcased his engineering prowess and dedication, setting the stage for his later groundbreaking inventions and contributions to electrical engineering that would reverberate far beyond the confines of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

After six months at the Edison Machine Works, Nikola Tesla abruptly resigned, though the exact catalyst for his departure remains ambiguous. One speculated reason could have been dissatisfaction over a promised bonus that he never received, possibly tied to his work on redesigning generators or developing the shelved arc lighting system. Throughout his tenure, Tesla had clashed with the Edison company over unpaid bonuses he believed he had earned, reflecting a pattern of contention.

In his autobiography, Tesla recounted an incident where the manager of the Edison Machine Works allegedly offered him a substantial $50,000 bonus for designing “twenty-four different types of standard machines,” only for it to turn out as a jest. Later versions of the story even attribute this prank to Thomas Edison himself, who purportedly withdrew the offer, humorously remarking, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” The extravagant sum of the bonus—equivalent to approximately $1,695,556 in today’s currency—was noted as particularly unusual given the frugal nature of Machine Works manager Charles Batchelor and the financial constraints of the company.

Tesla’s diary offers scant insight into the specifics of his departure, containing just one cryptic entry across the pages spanning December 7, 1884, to January 4, 1885, stating “Good Bye to the Edison Machine Works.” This brief notation encapsulates the end of Tesla’s tenure at the company and marks a pivotal moment in his career trajectory, as he prepared to embark on a path that would lead him toward becoming one of the most celebrated inventors and visionaries of the modern age.

Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing

Following his departure from the Edison company, Nikola Tesla swiftly turned his focus to patenting an arc lighting system, possibly an iteration of his earlier work at Edison. By March 1885, Tesla sought the expertise of patent attorney Lemuel W. Serrell, who had previously worked with Thomas Edison. Serrell facilitated introductions to Robert Lane and Benjamin Vail, businessmen willing to finance Tesla’s venture: the Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing Company. This initiative aimed to manufacture arc lighting systems and establish utility services under Tesla’s leadership.

Throughout the remainder of the year, Tesla diligently pursued patents, including an improved DC generator—the first of many patents he would secure in the United States. Concurrently, he oversaw the construction and installation of his lighting system in Rahway, New Jersey. Tesla’s innovative approach garnered attention in technical publications, which praised the system’s advanced capabilities.

However, Tesla’s aspirations for developing new types of alternating current motors and electrical transmission equipment met with a lukewarm reception from its investors. Once the utility commenced operations in 1886, Lane and Vail shifted focus, deeming the manufacturing sector too competitive. Consequently, they restructured, forming a new utility company and abandoning Tesla’s enterprise, leaving him financially destitute. Compounding his woes, Tesla had relinquished control of his patents to the company in exchange for stock, further exacerbating his predicament.

Forced to take on menial jobs—ranging from electrical repairs to manual labor as a ditch digger for a meager $2 per day—Tesla endured profound hardship during this period. Reflecting on the setbacks of 1886 later in life, Tesla lamented, “My high education in various branches of science, mechanics, and literature seemed to me like a mockery.”

Despite these challenges, Tesla’s resilience and unwavering dedication to innovation would ultimately propel him toward future successes that would reshape the course of electrical engineering and technology worldwide.

AC and the induction motor

Drawing from U.S. patent 381,968, illustrating the principle of Tesla’s alternating current induction motor

In late 1886, Nikola Tesla’s fortunes took a turn when he crossed paths with Alfred S. Brown, a superintendent at Western Union, and Charles Fletcher Peck, a prominent New York attorney. Both men possessed expertise in establishing companies and leveraging inventions and patents for financial gain. Impressed by Tesla’s visionary ideas for electrical equipment, which included concepts like a thermo-magnetic motor, Brown, and Peck agreed to provide financial backing and handle Tesla’s patents.

Together, in April 1887, they founded the Tesla Electric Company, entering into an agreement where profits from patented inventions would be divided equally: one-third for Tesla, and one-third each for Peck and Brown to fund further development. They established a laboratory for Tesla at 89 Liberty Street in Manhattan, providing him with the resources to innovate and refine various electric motors, generators, and other devices.

During this period, Tesla achieved a significant breakthrough in 1887 with the development of an induction motor powered by alternating current (AC). AC power systems were gaining traction in both Europe and the United States due to their efficiency in long-distance, high-voltage transmission. Tesla’s induction motor utilized polyphase current, generating a rotating magnetic field to drive the motor—a concept Tesla claimed to have conceived as early as 1882. Patented in May 1888, this innovative motor design was distinguished by its simplicity, self-starting capability, and elimination of the commutator, thereby avoiding issues like sparking and the frequent maintenance associated with mechanical brushes.

Tesla’s induction motor represented a landmark advancement in electrical engineering, laying the groundwork for the widespread adoption of AC power systems that would eventually revolutionize industrial and residential electrification worldwide. His collaboration with Brown and Peck at the Tesla Electric Company marked a pivotal phase in Tesla’s career, setting the stage for his future innovations that would leave an indelible mark on modern technology.

Upon successfully patenting his motor, Charles Fletcher Peck and Alfred S. Brown undertook efforts to publicize Nikola Tesla’s invention. They initiated independent testing to verify its functional superiority and orchestrated press releases to technical publications, timed to coincide with the issuance of the patent. Physicist William Arnold Anthony conducted the pivotal testing, while Thomas Commerford Martin, editor of Electrical World magazine, facilitated Tesla’s demonstration of the AC motor on May 16, 1888, at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

Engineers from the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, upon witnessing Tesla’s demonstration, confirmed the viability of his AC motor and related power system—a crucial component that George Westinghouse sought for the alternating current system already in his company’s portfolio. Initially, Westinghouse considered obtaining a patent for a similar commutator-less induction motor, as presented by Italian physicist Galileo Ferraris in March 1888. However, recognizing Tesla’s innovation as potentially dominant in the market, Westinghouse opted to negotiate with Brown and Peck.

Tesla’s AC dynamo-electric machine (AC electric generator) in an 1888 U.S. patent 390,721

In July 1888, Brown and Peck secured a licensing agreement with Westinghouse, which included Tesla’s polyphase induction motor and transformer designs. The deal amounted to $60,000 in cash and stock, along with a royalty of $2.50 per AC horsepower generated by each motor. Additionally, Westinghouse hired Tesla as a consultant for one year at an impressive fee of $2,000 per month—a substantial sum equivalent to $67,800 in today’s currency—to work at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company’s labs in Pittsburgh.

This collaboration marked a significant milestone in Tesla’s career, propelling him into a pivotal role within the burgeoning field of electrical engineering and solidifying his reputation as a pioneering inventor in the development of alternating current technologies.

Throughout his tenure in Pittsburgh, Nikola Tesla played a pivotal role in developing an alternating current (AC) system aimed at powering the city’s streetcars. However, Tesla’s experience during this period was marked by frustration, primarily due to conflicts with fellow engineers at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company regarding the optimal implementation of AC power.

One of the key challenges stemmed from the choice of electrical frequency for the AC system. Tesla advocated for a 60-cycle AC system, aligning it with the working frequency of his induction motor—a crucial component in the AC power setup. The rationale behind this frequency was to ensure compatibility and efficiency with Tesla’s motor design.

However, practical tests soon revealed a significant drawback: Tesla’s induction motor could only operate at a constant speed, which posed limitations for powering streetcars that required variable speeds. Despite efforts to adapt the 60-cycle AC system, engineers encountered insurmountable hurdles, leading them to conclude that it was unsuitable for streetcar applications.

Consequently, the project pivoted towards utilizing a DC (direct current) traction motor instead. This decision was driven by the inherent characteristics of DC motors, which could efficiently manage varying speeds required for streetcar operation—a capability that Tesla’s AC induction motor at the time could not accommodate.

Tesla’s time in Pittsburgh underscored not only his innovative contributions to AC technology but also the practical challenges and compromises inherent in implementing new electrical systems for industrial applications. Despite setbacks, Tesla’s pioneering work laid crucial groundwork for the future development and widespread adoption of alternating current technologies in diverse fields beyond streetcar propulsion.

Market turmoil

In 1888, Nikola Tesla’s successful demonstration of his induction motor and its subsequent licensing by Westinghouse occurred amidst a fiercely competitive landscape among electric companies. This period was marked by intense rivalry and strategic maneuvers as firms like Westinghouse, Edison Electric, and Thomson-Houston Electric Company vied for dominance in the burgeoning and capital-intensive electric power industry.

The competition unfolded against the backdrop of what became known as the “war of currents,” a propaganda campaign launched by Thomas Edison’s Edison Electric. Edison promoted his direct current (DC) system as superior and safer compared to the alternating current (AC) system championed by Westinghouse. Thomson-Houston Electric Company, at times, aligned with Edison’s viewpoints, further complicating the competitive dynamics in the market.

For Westinghouse, engaging in this competitive fray meant allocating significant financial resources and engineering efforts to sustain operations and expand market share. This strategic focus on market competitiveness meant that Westinghouse initially faced constraints in immediately directing ample funds and technical expertise toward the development and deployment of Tesla’s induction motor and the broader polyphase AC system.

Despite these challenges, Westinghouse recognized the long-term potential of Tesla’s innovations and strategically positioned itself to leverage the advantages of AC power transmission, which promised greater efficiency over long distances compared to DC. This pivotal period not only underscored the technological advancements spearheaded by Tesla but also highlighted the intricate interplay of competition, propaganda, and strategic decision-making that shaped the early days of the electric power industry in the late 19th century.

Two years after Westinghouse Electric signed the contract with Nikola Tesla, the company faced significant financial turmoil. The trigger was the near-collapse of Barings Bank in London in 1890, which sparked widespread financial panic. Investors began calling in their loans to Westinghouse Electric, leading to a sudden cash shortage that forced the company to seek refinancing of its debts.

The new lenders imposed stringent conditions, demanding that Westinghouse curb what they perceived as excessive spending on acquisitions, research, and patents. This included renegotiating terms related to the per motor royalty stipulated in Tesla’s contract. By this point, Tesla’s induction motor, though innovative, had encountered difficulties in development and practical implementation. Operating examples of the motor were rare, and the polyphase power systems necessary to utilize it effectively were still uncommon.

In early 1891, George Westinghouse candidly conveyed the company’s financial predicament to Tesla, emphasizing that failure to comply with the lenders’ demands could result in losing control of Westinghouse Electric. This scenario would potentially force Tesla to negotiate future royalty payments directly with the bankers. Recognizing the strategic importance of Westinghouse’s continued support and promotion of his motor, Tesla agreed to release the company from the royalty payment clause in the contract.

Six years later, in a significant turn of events, Westinghouse Electric purchased Tesla’s patent outright for a lump sum of $216,000. This transaction was part of a broader patent-sharing agreement forged with General Electric, a conglomerate formed from the 1892 merger of Edison Electric and Thomson-Houston Electric Company.

The agreement marked a pivotal moment in the history of electric power technology, solidifying Tesla’s legacy and his contributions to the advancement of electrical engineering. Despite the initial challenges and financial pressures faced by both Tesla and Westinghouse, their collaboration ultimately paved the way for the widespread adoption of AC power systems that revolutionized industries and everyday life across the globe.

New York laboratories

Mark Twain in Tesla’s South Fifth Avenue laboratory, 1894

The substantial income Tesla earned from licensing his AC patents catapulted him into financial independence, providing him with both the resources and the freedom to pursue his scientific interests. By 1889, Tesla had relocated from the Liberty Street premises, previously rented by Peck and Brown, to embark on a series of workshop and laboratory spaces in Manhattan. Over the next twelve years, these locations served as the hubs for Tesla’s groundbreaking experiments and inventions.

Initially, Tesla set up his laboratory at 175 Grand Street, where he conducted intensive research and development from 1889 to 1892. This period marked a prolific phase in Tesla’s career, during which he explored and refined his ideas in electrical engineering.

Subsequently, from 1892 to 1895, Tesla moved its operations to the fourth floor of 33–35 South Fifth Avenue. Here, amidst bustling Manhattan, he continued to innovate, delving deeper into theoretical and practical aspects of electricity and magnetism.

In 1895, Tesla further expanded his workspace to the sixth and seventh floors of 46 & 48 East Houston Street, where he remained until 1902. These larger premises provided Tesla with the room and resources to accommodate a growing team of assistants and engineers. It was during this period that Tesla conducted some of his most significant experiments and demonstrations, solidifying his reputation as a pioneering figure in electrical engineering.

Throughout these years, Tesla’s workshops not only served as spaces for experimentation but also as centers of innovation where he developed and refined technologies that would shape the future of electrical power transmission and generation. His ability to self-fund these endeavors through his earlier patent successes underscored Tesla’s entrepreneurial spirit and unwavering commitment to advancing scientific knowledge and technological progress.

Tesla coil

Main article: Tesla coil

In the summer of 1889, Nikola Tesla journeyed to the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where he encountered Heinrich Hertz’s groundbreaking experiments on electromagnetic radiation, particularly radio waves, conducted between 1886 and 1888. Tesla was intrigued by Hertz’s findings, which verified the existence of these invisible waves, describing the discovery as “refreshing” and inspiring him to delve deeper into this new realm of scientific inquiry.

Motivated by Hertz’s work, Tesla embarked on a series of experiments to explore and expand upon the principles of electromagnetic waves. He initially attempted to power a Ruhmkorff coil using a high-speed alternator that he had been developing for an improved arc lighting system. However, Tesla encountered significant technical challenges: the high-frequency current generated by the alternator caused overheating of the iron core and led to the melting of the insulation between the primary and secondary windings in the coil.

To address these issues, Tesla devised a novel solution in the form of an “oscillating transformer.” Unlike conventional transformers of the time, Tesla’s design incorporated an air gap instead of traditional insulating materials between the primary and secondary windings. Additionally, he introduced an adjustable iron core that could be moved within or out of the coil, allowing for precise control over the magnetic field and electrical characteristics.

This innovative device, later coined the “Tesla coil,” revolutionized the field of electrical engineering. It enabled the production of high-voltage, low-current, high-frequency alternating current electricity, marking a significant advancement in power transmission and wireless technology. The resonant transformer circuit of the Tesla coil became foundational in Tesla’s subsequent experiments and developments in wireless power transmission, demonstrating his foresight and pioneering spirit in harnessing electromagnetic principles for practical applications.


On 30 July 1891, aged 35, Tesla became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In the same year, he patented his Tesla coil.

Wireless lighting

Tesla demonstrating wireless lighting by “electrostatic induction” during an 1891 lecture at Columbia College via two long Geissler tubes (similar to neon tubes) in his hands

After 1890, Nikola Tesla embarked on ambitious experiments aimed at transmitting power through inductive and capacitive coupling using high-voltage alternating current generated by his revolutionary Tesla coil. His goal was to develop a wireless lighting system based on near-field electromagnetic effects, leveraging his understanding of electrical resonance and electromagnetic waves.

Tesla conducted numerous public demonstrations throughout the decade to showcase his innovations. Using his Tesla coil, he demonstrated the ability to light Geissler tubes and even incandescent light bulbs wirelessly across stages. These exhibitions captured the imagination of audiences and underscored Tesla’s visionary approach to electrical engineering.

Despite his efforts and collaborations with various investors, Tesla struggled to translate these experimental successes into viable commercial products. His ventures into wireless lighting systems faced technical challenges and failed to achieve widespread commercialization.

In 1893, Tesla presented his ideas on wireless transmission at prominent venues such as the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, the National Electric Light Association, and the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. He expressed confidence that his system could eventually transmit “intelligible signals or perhaps even power to any distance without the use of wires,” envisioning a future where wireless communication and power distribution could revolutionize global connectivity.

During this period, Tesla also played a significant role in professional organizations. He served as vice-president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers from 1892 to 1894, a precursor to today’s Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE), now part of the IEEE.

Tesla’s relentless pursuit of wireless power transmission and his contributions to electrical engineering laid the groundwork for future innovations in telecommunications and energy technology, highlighting his enduring legacy as a pioneer and visionary in the field.

Polyphase system and the Columbian Exposition

A Westinghouse display of the “Tesla Polyphase System” at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition

By early 1893, engineers at Westinghouse Electric, namely Charles F. Scott followed by Benjamin G. Lamme, had achieved significant advancements in refining Nikola Tesla’s induction motor. Lamme, in particular, devised a crucial innovation: he developed a rotary converter that enabled the polyphase system required by Tesla’s motor to be compatible with existing single-phase AC and DC systems. This breakthrough meant that Westinghouse Electric now could supply electricity to a broader range of customers.

With these developments in place, Westinghouse Electric began promoting its polyphase AC system under the banner of the “Tesla Polyphase System.” They were confident that Tesla’s patents granted them precedence in the realm of polyphase AC systems, giving them a competitive edge over other electric utilities and manufacturers.

The implementation of the Tesla Polyphase System marked a pivotal moment in the expansion of electric power distribution. It allowed for more efficient transmission of electricity over long distances and facilitated the widespread adoption of AC power for industrial and residential applications. Tesla’s pioneering work in electrical engineering, coupled with the practical innovations by Scott and Lamme at Westinghouse, laid the groundwork for the modern electrical grid and significantly influenced the development of power systems worldwide.

In 1893, Westinghouse Electric invited Nikola Tesla to showcase his groundbreaking alternating current (AC) technology at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. The company secured a prominent space in the “Electricity Building,” dedicated to showcasing the latest advancements in electrical engineering.

Westinghouse Electric’s participation in the Exposition was particularly significant because they had successfully bid to illuminate the entire event using their alternating current system. This marked a pivotal moment in the history of AC power, as it provided a platform to demonstrate to the American public the safety, reliability, and efficiency of polyphase alternating current technology.

The Exposition served as a showcase for Westinghouse Electric’s AC system, highlighting its ability not only to power the exhibition itself but also to supply electricity to various AC and DC exhibits throughout the fairgrounds. This demonstration not only validated the superiority of AC over DC for long-distance power transmission but also solidified Westinghouse Electric’s reputation as a leader in the burgeoning electric power industry.

Nikola Tesla’s contributions to the development of the polyphase AC system were instrumental in Westinghouse Electric’s success at the Exposition. His innovative ideas and patents laid the foundation for the widespread adoption of AC power, revolutionizing how electricity was generated, transmitted, and utilized in the modern era.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago thus stands as a landmark event in the advancement of electrical engineering, showcasing Tesla’s vision and Westinghouse Electric’s pioneering efforts in promoting the benefits of alternating current technology to the world.

A special exhibit space was meticulously arranged to showcase a variety of forms and models of Nikola Tesla’s induction motor at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Central to these displays was the demonstration of the rotating magnetic field, a fundamental principle driving Tesla’s innovative motors. Among the captivating exhibits was the “Egg of Columbus,” a device that utilized a two-phase coil from an induction motor to spin a copper egg and make it stand on end, illustrating the application of Tesla’s revolutionary technology.

During the six-month duration of the exposition, Tesla made a notable visit for a week. His presence was highlighted by his participation in the International Electrical Congress and a series of demonstrations held at the Westinghouse Electric exhibit. A specially designed darkened room served as the venue for Tesla’s groundbreaking wireless lighting system demonstrations. This system utilized high-voltage, high-frequency alternating current to illuminate wireless gas-discharge lamps, a feat that Tesla had previously showcased across America and Europe.

Tesla’s demonstrations at the exposition not only captivated the audience but also underscored the practical applications and potential of his inventions in transforming the landscape of electrical engineering. His presence and exhibits at the World’s Columbian Exposition solidified his reputation as a visionary inventor and contributed significantly to the advancement and acceptance of alternating current technology on a global scale.

An observer at the demonstration noted the following:

  • Inside the room, two hard rubber plates covered with tin foil were suspended approximately fifteen feet apart. These plates acted as terminals connected to wires leading from the transformers. When the current was activated, the lamps and tubes, which were placed on a table between the suspended plates or held in hand anywhere in the room, began to emit light. Remarkably, these lamps and tubes had no physical wires attached to them.
  • These experiments replicated the ones previously showcased by Nikola Tesla in London about two years earlier. At that time, they had generated considerable wonder and astonishment among the audience. Tesla’s demonstration at the recent event reiterated the astonishing capability of transmitting electrical energy wirelessly, illuminating lamps and tubes without the need for conventional wired connections. This display underscored Tesla’s pioneering work in wireless power transmission and highlighted the potentially revolutionary impact of his technological advancements on future electrical systems.

Steam-powered oscillating generator

Main article: Tesla’s oscillator

During his presentation at the International Electrical Congress held at the Columbian Exposition in Agriculture Hall, Nikola Tesla unveiled his steam-powered reciprocating electricity generator, which he had patented earlier that year. Tesla believed this innovation represented a superior method for generating alternating current.

The generator operated by utilizing steam, which was directed into the oscillator and then expelled through a series of ports. This process propelled a piston up and down, connected to an armature. The rapid oscillation of the magnetic armature created an alternating magnetic field. Adjacent wire coils were thereby induced to produce alternating electric current.

Tesla’s design aimed to simplify the complexities typically associated with traditional steam engine-driven generators. However, despite its novel approach, the steam-powered reciprocating generator failed to gain traction as a viable engineering solution for electricity generation.

At the exposition, Tesla’s demonstration underscored his ongoing quest to innovate within the realm of electrical engineering, pushing boundaries with new ideas and technologies that sought to advance the field of power generation and distribution.

Consulting on Niagara

In 1893, Edward Dean Adams, who led the Niagara Falls Cataract Construction Company, turned to Nikola Tesla for guidance on the optimal system to transmit power generated at Niagara Falls. Over the preceding years, various proposals and competitions had debated the most effective method. Competing systems included two-phase and three-phase AC, high-voltage DC, and even compressed air.

Adams sought Tesla’s expertise to assess the current status of these competing technologies. Tesla recommended a two-phase AC system as the most reliable option. He highlighted Westinghouse Electric’s successful demonstration of lighting incandescent bulbs using two-phase alternating current at the recent Columbian Exposition.

Based on Tesla’s advice and Westinghouse’s demonstration, the Niagara Falls Cataract Construction Company awarded a contract to Westinghouse Electric to establish a two-phase AC generating system at Niagara Falls. Simultaneously, another contract was granted to General Electric to construct the AC distribution system.

Tesla’s recommendation played a crucial role in shaping the future of electrical power transmission at Niagara Falls, marking a significant milestone in the advancement and adoption of alternating current technology in the United States.

The Nikola Tesla Company

In 1895, after Edward Dean Adams visited Nikola Tesla’s laboratory and witnessed his groundbreaking experiments, he was sufficiently impressed to collaborate with Tesla in founding the Nikola Tesla Company. The primary aim of this venture was to support the development, funding, and commercialization of Tesla’s existing patents and inventions, as well as innovations.

Alfred Brown, who had been involved with Tesla’s earlier projects under Peck and Brown, also joined the endeavor. The board of the Nikola Tesla Company was completed with the addition of William Birch Rankine and Charles F. Coaney. Despite the promising array of patents and inventions, securing investors proved challenging due to the difficult financial climate of the mid-1890s.

The company’s portfolio included Tesla’s pioneering wireless lighting technologies and oscillators, which had garnered significant interest but had not yet materialized into viable commercial products. Despite these setbacks, the Nikola Tesla Company continued to manage Tesla’s patents and innovations for many decades to come, playing a pivotal role in preserving and advancing his technological legacy.

Lab fire

In the early hours of March 13, 1895, tragedy struck Nikola Tesla’s laboratory on South Fifth Avenue when a devastating fire broke out. Originating in the basement, the fire quickly engulfed the building, ultimately consuming Tesla’s fourth-floor lab and causing it to collapse into the second floor. The blaze not only dealt a severe blow to Tesla’s ongoing projects but also obliterated a significant collection of early notes, research materials, models, and demonstration pieces, many of which had been showcased at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

In the aftermath of the fire, Tesla, grappling with the loss, expressed his grief succinctly to The New York Times, stating, “I am in too much grief to talk. What can I say?” The destruction of years of meticulous work and irreplaceable inventions was a profound setback for Tesla, who had dedicated himself tirelessly to advancing electrical and engineering innovations.

Undeterred by the devastating loss, Tesla resolved to rebuild and continue his work. He relocated to 46 & 48 East Houston Street, where he reconstructed his laboratory on the sixth and seventh floors. This new space would become the hub for Tesla’s subsequent experiments and inventions, marking a testament to his resilience and unwavering dedication to scientific pursuit amidst adversity.

X-ray experimentation

Starting in 1894, Nikola Tesla embarked on a series of investigations into what he termed as “radiant energy of invisible kinds,” spurred by intriguing observations in his laboratory. Tesla’s initial forays into this realm involved experiments with Crookes tubes, which are cold cathode electrical discharge tubes known for emitting light when an electric current passes through them in a partial vacuum.

During these experiments, Tesla noticed peculiar effects, including damage to photographic film, which later became recognized as early indications of X-rays. In a notable incident, Tesla attempted to capture an image of Mark Twain illuminated by a Geissler tube, a precursor to gas discharge tubes. It was during this attempt that Tesla may have inadvertently produced an X-ray image, possibly predating Wilhelm Röntgen’s official discovery of X-rays in December 1895. The resultant image, however, only showed the metal locking screw on the camera lens, highlighting Tesla’s pioneering but accidental role in early X-ray imaging.

Following Röntgen’s groundbreaking announcement, Tesla swiftly delved deeper into X-ray research and development. By March 1896, Tesla was conducting experiments aimed at refining X-ray imaging techniques. He designed a high-energy single-terminal vacuum tube that operated without a traditional target electrode, instead leveraging the output of his famed Tesla coil. The modern term for the radiation produced by this device is bremsstrahlung or braking radiation, a phenomenon in which high-energy electrons decelerate when passing through matter, emitting X-rays in the process.

Tesla’s innovative approaches led him to devise several experimental setups to enhance the production of X-rays, confident that his circuits could generate Roentgen rays of significantly greater power than conventional apparatuses of the time. His relentless pursuit of understanding and harnessing radiant energy exemplified Tesla’s visionary approach to scientific inquiry, pushing the boundaries of electrical and medical sciences in the late 19th century.

Tesla noted the hazards of working with his circuit and single-node X-ray-producing devices. In his extensive notes on the early investigation of this phenomenon, he attributed skin damage to various causes. Early on, he believed that the damage was not caused by Roentgen rays but by the ozone generated in contact with the skin and, to a lesser extent, by nitrous acid. Tesla incorrectly theorized that X-rays were longitudinal waves, similar to those produced in waves in plasmas, which can occur in force-free magnetic fields.

On July 11, 1934, the New York Herald Tribune published an article on Tesla in which he recalled an occasional event that occurred while experimenting with his single-electrode vacuum tubes. A minute particle would break off the cathode, pass out of the tube, and physically strike him:

Tesla described feeling a sharp stinging pain where the particle entered his body and again at the place where it exited. He compared these particles to the bits of metal projected by his “electric gun,” stating, “The particles in the beam of force… will travel much faster than such particles… and they will travel in concentrations.” This comparison highlighted Tesla’s continuous exploration of high-energy phenomena and his pioneering work in both theoretical and applied physics.

{to be continued in the next part of the blog}

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