Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla was born in July of 1856, in what is now Croatia. He came to the United States in 1884, and briefly worked with Thomas Edison before the two parted ways. He sold several patent rights, including those to his alternating-current machinery, to George Westinghouse. His 1891 invention, the “Tesla coil,” is still used in radio technology today. Tesla died in New York City on January 7, 1943.
Famous Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856, in what is now Smiljan, Croatia. Tesla’s interest in electrical invention was likely spurred by his mother, Djuka Mandic, who invented small household appliances in her spare time while her son was growing up. Tesla’s father, Milutin Tesla, was a priest. After studying in the 1870s at the Realschule, Karlstadt (later renamed the Johann-Rudolph-Glauber Realschule Karlstadt); the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria; and the University of Prague, Tesla began preparing for a trip to America.
On 30 July 1891, at the age of 35, Tesla became a naturalized citizen of the United States, and established his South Fifth Avenue laboratory, and later another at 46 E. Houston Street, in New York. He lit electric lamps wirelessly at both locations, demonstrating the potential of wireless power transmission. In the same year, he patented the Tesla coil.
Tesla served as vice president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the forerunner (along with the Institute of Radio Engineers) of the modern-day IEEE, from 1892 to 1894.
Tesla came to the United States in 1884, and soon began working with famed inventor and business mogul Thomas Edison. The two worked together for a brief period before parting ways due to a conflicting business-scientific relationship, attributed by historians to their incredibly different personalities: While Edison was a power figure who focused on marketing and financial success, Tesla was a commercially out-of-tune and somewhat vulnerable, yet extremely pivotal inventor, who pioneered some of history’s the most important inventions. His inventions include the “Tesla coil,” developed in 1891, and an alternating-current electrical system of generators, motors and transformers—both of which are still used widely today.
On the AC electrical system alone, Tesla held 40 basic U.S. patents, which he later sold to George Westinghouse, an American engineer and business man who was determined to supply the nation with the Tesla’s AC system. He would succeed in doing just that, not long after purchasing Tesla’s patents. Around this time, conflict arose between Tesla and Edison, as Edison was determined to sell his direct-current system to the nation. According to the Tesla Memorial Society of New York, Tesla-Westinghouse ultimately won out because Tesla’s system was “a superior technology,” presenting greater “progress of both America and the world” than Edison’s DC system. Outside of his AC system patents, Tesla sold several other patent rights to Westinghouse.
At the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago, Tesla conducted demonstrations of his AC system, which soon became the standard power system of the 20th century, and has remained the worldwide standard ever since. Two years later, in 1895, Tesla designed the first hydroelectric powerplant at Niagara Falls, a feat that was highly publicized throughout the world.
Around 1900—nearly a decade later after inventing the “Tesla coil”—Tesla began working on his boldest project yet: Building a global communication system—through a large, electrical tower—for sharing information and providing free electricity throughout the world. The system, however, never came to fruition; it failed due to financial constraints, and Tesla had no choice but to abandon the Long Island, New York laboratory that housed his work on the tower project, Wardenclyffe. In 1917, the Wardenclyffe site was sold, and Tesla’s tower was destroyed.
“It’s a sad, sad story,” Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, said of Tesla in a 2008 interview with Forbes magazine. “[Tesla] couldn’t commercialize anything. He could barely fund his own research.”
In addition to his AC system, coil and tower project, throughout his career, Tesla discovered, designed and developed ideas for a number of important inventions—most of which were officially patented by other inventors—including dynamos (electrical generators similar to batteries) and the induction motor. He was also a pioneer in the discovery of radar technology, X-ray technology and the rotating magnetic field—the basis of most AC machinery. Tesla was not without his major faults, however, as he supported the use of population control via eugenics and forced sterilizations.
Poor and reclusive, Nikola Tesla died on January 7, 1943, at the age of 86, in New York City—where he had lived for nearly 60 years. His legacy, however, has been thriving for more than a century, and will undoubtedly live on for decades to come.
Several books and films have highlighted Tesla’s life and famous works, including Nikola Tesla, The Genius Who Lit the World, a film created by the Tesla Memorial Society and the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia; and The Secret of Nikola Tesla, which stars Orson Welles as John Pierpont Morgan (J.P. Morgan). In recent years, a street sign entitled “Nikola Tesla Corner” was installed in honor of the famous inventor, near the 40th Street-6th Avenue intersection in New York City.
Over the past several years, several nonprofit organizations, high-profile individuals, municipalities and Tesla enthusiasts have been involved in a different kind of effort to uphold Tesla’s legacy: A project to preserve Tesla’s still-standing, still-abandoned New York laboratory, Wardenclyffe, and turn it into a museum of the famous inventor’s work. For more than a decade, New York’s Nikola Tesla Science Center has been working to gain momentum and, subsequently, funding for preserving Wardenclyffe. Since then, the lab’s ownership has been passed through several hands, and public interest for the project has slowly but steadly been growing.
Interest escalated in February 2009, when the Wardenclyffe site was posted for sale, for nearly $1.6 million. For several years, the Tesla Science Center worked diligently to raise funds for the lab’s preservation. The TSC was able to purchase the property in 2013 and plans to turn the site into a science museum.
Nikola obtained around 300 patents worldwide for his inventions. Some of Tesla’s patents are not accounted for, and various sources have discovered some that have lain hidden in patent archives. There are a minimum of 278 patents issued to Tesla in 26 countries that have been accounted for. Many of Tesla’s patents were in the United States, Britain, and Canada, but many other patents were approved in countries around the globe. Many inventions developed by Tesla were not put into patent protection.