Nikola Tesla, A Trailblazer in Science
Many believe that Tesla was born a century too early. Perhaps Tesla himself understood this. He wrote, “The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter – for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.”
It’s impossible to list all of Tesla’s contributions to the study of electricity and magnetism, or to describe all of the devices and principles he developed. I can name a few: the induction motor, rotary transformers and high frequency alternators, the Tesla coil, the Tesla oscillator, and various devices that use rotating magnetic fields. Then there are Tesla pumps, voltage multiplication circuitry, devices for lightning protection, the Tesla turbines (for water, steam, and gas), the Tesla compressor, systems for wireless communication, and radio frequency oscillators. And of course, we should not forget Tesla insulation, vertical take-off and landing aircraft, polyphase systems, concepts of electric vehicles, devices for high voltage discharges and ionized gases.
The list could go on and on…
Tesla’s accomplishments and talent were legendary, even during his lifetime. As in all legends, every storyteller added their own interpretation of Tesla’s genius, giving him almost superhuman qualities. Even his biographers couldn’t resist talking about him in superlatives. And who can blame them?
Tesla spoke eight languages (Serbo-Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin). He had a photographic memory (memorizing entire books at a time). He could do advanced calculus and physics equations in his head (for this, he was accused of cheating as a young man by his teachers). He also had an incredible talent for visualization – the ability to see a solid object in great detail in his mind as if it were real.
In his 1921 interview for the *American Magazine*, Tesla explained: “During my boyhood I had suffered from a peculiar affliction due to the appearance of images, which were often accompanied by strong flashes of light. When a word was spoken, the image of the object would present itself so vividly to my vision, that I could not tell whether what I saw was real or not… Even though I reached out and passed my hand through it, the image would remain fixed in space.”
Tesla probably was not aware of the fact that he was a synesthete. Synesthesia is a condition in which stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experience in a second sensory pathway (in Tesla’s case it was auditory to visual). He is in good company – Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Liszt, Duke Ellington, Richard Feynman, Wassily Kandinsky, and Olivier Messiaen, were all synesthetes.
Tesla could also visualize the most complex machinery of his invention in his mind, with extreme precision. Before putting a sketch on paper, he could work out the whole idea mentally – make improvements, change the construction, and even operate the device. “It is immaterial to me – he would say – whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop.” Unfortunately, because of Tesla’s uncanny ability to visualize and memorize everything he worked on, there is a lack of written records and technical details of his experiments.
Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856 to a Serbian family in the village of Smiljan, in the Austro-Hungarian border province of Lika, now in Croatia. According to legend, he was born precisely at midnight during an electrical storm. His father – Milutin Tesla – was a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church. His mother – Duka Mandic – a brilliant woman with a most remarkable memory, was illiterate. But she could recite thousands of verses of epic Serbian poetry and long passages from the Bible without any errors. She invented many household labor-saving devices and loved to embroider. She passed her creativity on to her five children. Her eldest son, Dane Tesla, born seven years before Nikola, was the family favorite and possessed many talents. He was killed in a horse-riding accident when Nikola was five years old. Tesla had three younger sisters, whom he adored and kept in touch with throughout his life.
In 1862 Tesla’s family moved to Gospic, where Nikola attended the Real Gymnasium. It was in Gospic, when young Tesla told his father the following: “Someday I am going to America to harness Niagara Falls to produce power.” Thirty years later he did exactly that.
At the age of fifteen, Tesla continued his studies at the Higher Real Gymnasium in Karlovac, Croatia. There he contracted malaria and was ill for quite sometime. Despite this, he completed the four-year course in three years. He also fell sick with cholera. According to Tesla, it was during this illness that he read one of Mark Twain’s humorous books and felt the life force return to him almost immediately. Years later, when he became close friends with Mark Twain, he told him about this “miracle” and moved Twain to tears.
After regaining his health, Tesla started working on a “cosmic engineering” plan, just for his own amusement. He conceived a project of building a ring around the earth at the Equator. The ring was going to be a solid structure constructed on a gigantic scaffolding. It would be suspended in space after the scaffolding was removed and would rotate at the same speed as the earth. But “if someone could find a means of providing reactionary forces,” Tesla said, “that could make the ring stand still with respect to the earth, while the latter whirled underneath it at a speed of 1,000 miles per hour. This would provide a high-speed moving platform system of transportation which would make it possible for a person to travel around the earth in a single day. What a fantastic idea (and rather expensive)!
In 1881 Tesla moved to Budapest, Hungary, to work for the American Telephone Company. Soon he became the chief electrician and an engineer for their telephone system. He developed a device for sound amplification, called the “telephone repeater.” This invention was never patented.
He Walks on Shaky Ground:
The same year, Tesla suffered a nervous breakdown. Doctors could not understand all the strange manifestations of his illness. Tesla suffered from acute sensitivity of all of the sense organs. His biographer and friend, John J. O’Neill, writes – “To him, the ticking of a watch three rooms away sounded like the beat of hammers on an anvil. Ordinary speech sounded like thunderous pandemonium. The slightest touch had the mental effect of a tremendous blow. A beam of sunlight shining on him produced the effect of an internal explosion.”
Tesla was experiencing sensory processing difficulties, similar to what autistic people often experience. Later, this problem manifested itself as his “strangeness” and he developed Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) behaviors. For example:
- Tesla hated jewelry, human hair, and round objects.
- He had a phobia of germs and avoided shaking hands at any cost. If someone caught him off guard and shook his hand, he would excuse himself, go to the bathroom and scrub his hands thoroughly.
- He was called a “sun dodger” for working at night and having the curtains in his room drawn during the day.
- He did things in threes (like walking around a building three times before entering it) and loved numbers divisible by three. This list could also go on…
In 1882 Tesla moved to Paris to work for the Continental Edison Company. Before his move, he had mentally worked out the design of a new alternating-current (AC) system. He was twenty-five years old. At twenty seven, he built a working model of his polyphase system machine from memory, without the aid of drawings. The executives of the Continental Edison Company showed no interest in his alternating-current theories. Disillusioned Tesla soon resigned his position.
The Now-Infamous Rivalry Begins:
In 1884 Tesla arrived in the U.S. In his hand, he had a letter of recommendation to Thomas Edison from Edison’s friend, Charles Batchelor, which read: “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.”
Much has been written about the relationship between these two giants of 20th century science. Tesla’s admirers demonize Edison and call him a thief. Edison’s fans say that unlike Tesla, Edison knew how to work with people cooperatively, share his knowledge, and inspire young scientists to develop and improve on his inventions.
Edison and Tesla were entirely different in their approach to work. Edison used trial-and-error methods while working on his inventions. Tesla did his work mentally, calculating every single detail in his head and solving the problems before building his machines. Edison was a believer in the direct-current system, and Tesla was an alternating-current enthusiast.
Tesla worked for Edison for almost a year, tirelessly, every day, including Sundays. He solved the company’s most challenging problems and designed twenty-four types of dynamos. Edison had promised him the sum of $50.000 if he completed the motor and generator improvements. When Tesla successfully accomplished this goal and inquired about the $50.000, Edison reportedly replied: “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” Tesla resigned his position immediately.
Unemployed, penniless and without contacts, Tesla was forced to work as a day laborer for over a year. “I lived through a year of terrible heartaches and bitter tears,” he later recalled. He did some electrical repair work and some ditch digging. Fortunately for him, a foreman, who was supervising a group of ditch diggers, was impressed by his ideas and introduced him to A.K.Brown of the Western Union Telegraph Company. Mr. Brown and his friends organized and financed the Tesla Electric Company and established Tesla’s laboratories in two different locations in New York. This was a lucky break for Tesla.
As soon as his laboratory opened in 1887, Tesla started the construction of different types of electrical machinery. The following year he developed the principles of his Tesla coil. Tesla applied for a patent covering his entire polyphase system that included the motors, dynamos, transformers, and distribution systems. The Patent Office would not issue a single patent for so many different inventions. Instead, six months later, Tesla received seven separate patents. Tesla was not interested in commercializing his inventions. He was satisfied as long as the financing of his work continued and he remained focused on his inventions.
In 1888, George Westinghouse, head of the Westinghouse Electrical Company in Pittsburgh, made an offer to Tesla which he could not refuse. Westinghouse would purchase Tesla’s polyphase induction motor and transformer designs for $60.000 in cash and a royalty of $2.50 per AC horsepower provided by each motor. Tesla agreed. He worked as a consultant in Pittsburgh for Westinghouse Electric Company for almost a year.
After returning to his New York laboratories, Tesla worked on perfecting his polyphase power system and developing the rotating magnetic field principle. He investigated high frequency alternating currents and generated AC of one million volts using a conical Tesla coil. He also designed cordless gas discharge lamps and transmitted electromagnetic energy without wires (his laboratories were illuminated by wireless lamps).
Tesla discovered that gases were better conductors of high frequency current than wire. This discovery led to the announcement he made in 1914, which suggested a system of lighting on a terrestrial scale – the whole earth, with its surrounding atmosphere, would be a single lamp. He wrote: “The flow of a sufficient amount of the electricity in the right form in the upper regions of the atmosphere (where the gasses are in the same condition as the air in the partially evacuated tubes) would cause the air to become luminous” (the Auroras are a natural example of this).
On July 30, 1891, Tesla became a naturalized citizen of the United States. For the following few years he investigated *invisible* energy that damaged a film in his lab during his experiments. Tesla was experimenting with what later became known as X-rays. All of Tesla’s research papers related to X-rays, his tools, photographs, notes, and laboratory data, were lost in the 5th Avenue laboratory fire in 1895.
In 1898, Tesla demonstrated a radio-controlled boat, which he called a “teleautomaton,” and devised an “electric igniter,” or spark plug, for combustion gasoline engines. At the same time, Tesla was thinking about the worldwide distribution of electric power by wireless methods.
One of the most important things for Tesla was the future of the human race. He wanted to give humanity free energy and a race of robots which would liberate mankind from mundane, brain numbing labor. He knew that harvesting energy in space was the future of our civilization and it was just a matter of time before “our machinery will be driven by a power obtainable at any point of the universe.” (In 1964, the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev developed the scale for measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement, based on its ability to harvest the available energy from its home planet, its star, and its galaxy. According to the Kardashev scale, humans have not attained the lowest Type I status yet).
Tesla’s plans were always grandiose, but his finances were diminishing. This was partly the result of Tesla’s incredible gesture when he tore up a contract for twelve million dollars in unpaid royalties. He did this to save George Westinghouse’s company from bankruptcy. He reportedly said to Westinghouse: “The benefits that will come to civilization from my polyphase system mean more to me than the money involved.”
When John Jacob Astor, owner of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and one of Tesla’s long time admirers, heard that Tesla couldn’t continue his research due to lack of funds, he immediately made $30.000 available to him. This allowed Tesla to move to Colorado Springs, Arizona, where he set up his new laboratory with enough space to continue with his high-voltage, high-frequency experiments.
In his Arizona laboratory Tesla made new discoveries – the earth was a conductor and its resonance frequency was approximately 8 hertz (Hz). This was later confirmed by scientists (in the 1950s) and today we call it the “Schumann resonance.”
Tesla transmitted extremely low frequencies through the ground, as he experimented with ways to transmit energy wirelessly over long distances. He investigated atmospheric electricity and was able to produce artificial lighting with discharges of millions of volts up to 135 feet long.
With the encouragement and financial support from J.P.Morgan, in 1900, Tesla started on his next project – building a tower for the trans-Atlantic wireless telecommunications facility near Shoreham, Long Island, known as Wardenclyffe. However, the laboratory and the tower were only partially built. Tesla soon ran out of money and couldn’t pay the builders and engineers working on his broadcasting station for their labor.
What happened next was amazing and so characteristic of Tesla. A well-known financier T.F. Ryan, gave Tesla a sum of $10.000 to continue with his work. But instead of using the money on himself, Tesla paid off the debts of his World Wireless System. He paid off every penny due to every creditor.
The Final Days:
Tesla continued his work without much financial support but remained perpetually optimistic, hoping his financial situation would improve somehow. He never tolerated a business manager, and even his bookkeeper who tried to give him some practical advice regarding his patents, couldn’t get his attention. “This is all small stuff “ was his usual reply, “ I cannot be bothered with it.”
Tesla was frequently asked to leave hotels where he stayed because he couldn’t pay the bills. He held almost 700 patents for his inventions and yet, the last ten years of his life, he lived in a two-room suite on the 33rd floor of the Hotel New Yorker. On January 7, 1943, Tesla died in his hotel room at the age of 86. He died penniless and in debt.
Soon after Tesla’s death, his room was searched and the FBI ordered the Alien Property Custodian office to seize all of Tesla’s papers and belongings, disregarding the fact that Tesla was an American citizen. Due to the nature of Tesla’s research and inventions, his case was declared “most secret” by J.Edgar Hoover.
There are some interesting facts to be mentioned in respect to Tesla’s complex and fascinating character. He was a genius of many contradictions and some aspects of his life are still puzzling. Tesla was a recluse and lived all of his adult life alone. He was shy and soft-spoken, but at the same time he was well known for his showmanship. He dazzled his audiences with spectacular demonstrations of his inventions, blasting electricity from his Tesla coils across rooms (the Steve Jobs of his era).
The fear of germs motivated Tesla to construct a bath designed to cleanse the human body using nothing but electricity. When he dined at a restaurant (which he did every day, alone), he demanded a pile of napkins by his side to polish his silverware, plates, and glasses until they sparkled. And yet he would open the windows in his hotel room to let the pigeons in so that he could feed them.
Tesla never married, remaining celibate his whole life. He was never seen dining with a woman or even romantically glancing at one. At the same time, Tesla idealized women, especially his mother. He always spoke in support of the women’s struggle for equality. He believed that when women received equal education, their intellect would awaken and they would “startle civilization with their progress,” and would eventually become the leaders of the world.
Tesla was against all wars, but claimed to have worked on a energy-directed weapon, or a “teleforce beam,” which the press called a “death ray.”.Allegedly, this weapon could shoot a ball lightning at 60 million volts, which is enough to vaporize steel. Luckily, this weapon was never built because the only schematics of the weapon’s design were in Tesla’s head and died with him. In Tesla’s view, this was a “superweapon that would put an end to all war.”
There is one more enchanting detail from Tesla’s life…
Tesla loved animals – pigeons in particular. There was one pigeon, pure white with light gray tips on its wings, who was very precious to him. One day, this pigeon fell ill and no matter how Tesla tried to revive her, died in his hands. “Before she died,” Tesla told his friend John O’Neill, “there came a light from her eyes – powerful beams of light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.”
The story sounds like fantasy but it contains a powerful symbol – the symbol of the Dove. According to Homer, it was the dove which brought the Heavenly Zeus the ambrosia that kept him immortal. Perhaps Tesla’s white pigeon had the same mission for her patron, who, like Zeus, could summon lightning and thunder into existence.