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Nikolas Tesla

The wizard of electricity

Created date

July 14th, 2014
Nikolas Tesla in his laboratory
Nikolas Tesla in his laboratory

In the summer of 1894, Arthur Brisbane, a reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, went to Delmonico’s on Madison Square in Manhattan to meet the man about whom the whole country was talking.

Inside the restaurant, Brisbane caught his first glimpse of Nikola Tesla. He was tall (6’ 2”), slender, and fastidiously dressed. His features were sharp as though hewn from stone, his eyes ablaze with a piercing intensity. 

But for all his physical attributes, it was Tesla’s mind that most interested Brisbane. Americans were calling him their “foremost electrician” and “greater than Edison.”

“His face cannot be studied and judged like the faces of other men, for he is not a worker in practical fields,” Brisbane noted with fascination. “He lives his life up in the top of his head, where ideas are born, and up there he has plenty of room.”

Yet, since his death, the man dubbed “greater than Edison” has remained trapped in the shadow of the electrical innovations at Menlo Park. Who was this largely forgotten genius inventor?

Early sparks

Tesla was born in 1856 in Smiljan, a small village in the Austrian Empire (modern-day Croatia). From a young age, he showed signs of unique intellectual prowess: he spoke eight languages, possessed a photographic memory that enabled him to memorize entire books, and could do integral calculus in his head. 

After graduating from the four-year Higher Real Gymnasium (the equivalent of high school) a year early, Tesla enrolled at the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, where he proved himself an assiduous student, sometimes working 20-hour days studying engineering. 

It was here that he first came in contact with the subject of electricity when, during a lecture, he watched a professor demonstrate how to use one generator to power a second generator in reverse. Tesla raised his hand and suggested certain improvements to the motor, but his instructor merely laughed, dismissing him as a fool.

“I think this was a defining moment for Tesla,” says W. Bernard Carlson, author of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (Princeton, 2013). “He knew that he could build a motor that would run efficiently and practically on electricity, and he left class that day with a mind to do it.”

According to Carlson, who spent 15 years traveling the world researching Tesla’s life and work, this was the genesis of an invention that changed the way we use electricity.

Advent of alternating current

Following a stint as an electrician for Thomas Edison in France and New York, Tesla set out on his own and managed to build a motor that used “alternating current” (AC), the more powerful and efficient alternative to “direct current” (DC) electricity. 

His design essentially utilized two out-of-phase alternating currents, the opposing forces of which would create a rotating magnetic field that turned the motor.

Indeed, AC was an increasingly attractive form of power because it enabled companies to supply electricity to a greater number of customers and at much longer distances than direct current. Using AC, a single provider could distribute electricity to an entire city, state, or segment of the country.

“Until Tesla’s breakthrough in 1887, people predominantly used electricity at night for lighting,” says Carlson. “With his development of a functional AC motor, the opportunity was at hand to use electricity to power machines and appliances in the daytime hours and through the much larger delivery system possible with AC. 

“In other words, before Tesla came along there were electric light companies; afterward, we had power companies.”

Over a century later, his invention is ubiquitous in our daily lives. In an electrically dependent society that runs entirely on alternating current, variations of his motor are in our vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, hair dryers, ceiling fans—pretty much every household appliance imaginable.

So why has Tesla, himself, faded from the popular consciousness?

Eclipsed by Edison

“Part of the reason,” Carlson explains, “is that his achievement has been eclipsed by Thomas Edison’s numerous incredibly well-known inventions (the light bulb, the movie camera, the phonograph). Edison always focused on the practical, commercial application of an idea, so he was always front and center in the public eye.

“As Arthur Brisbane observed at Delmonico’s, Tesla lived in his head; his mind was anchored in concept and theory, which made him less visible to the man on the street.”

Still, he is no less important. As an inventor, Nikola Tesla saw the beauty in what ideas promised for the future.

“The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result,” he once remarked. “His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.”