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Nikola Tesla

Born: July 10, 1856
Died: January 7, 1943 (age: 86)
Nationality: Serbian-American
Education: Graz University of Technology
Occupation: Futurist, Inventor
Best known as: “The Father” of the modern alternating current

Nikola Tesla appeared to have the ideal job, working with the one and only Thomas Edison on telephony, electrical inventions, and projects. But he quickly resigned when Edison said he was only joking about the money he promised to pay for Tesla to solve a problem. Nikola set out on his own, with others investing in his work. Indeed, in 1901, Tesla had already brainstormed a wireless way to gather info, code it in the lab, change its frequency, and send it to a handheld device. This is exactly how our smartphones work today! But, like lots of Tesla’s unique ideas, no one developed this technology. Yet Tesla invented tons of stuff that worked which we see everywhere today: cell phones, fluorescent lights, the radio, TV, and X-rays. Later, when he won the actual “Edison Award,” a presenter said by eliminating Tesla’s work, “our electric cars and trains would stop, (and) our towns would be dark.”

Nikola’s Teachers Thought He Was Cheating

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in the Austrian Empire (now known as Croatia). His father, Milutin, was a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church and a poet and writer. His mom was a homemaker who was also quite handy and invented a mechanical eggbeater. When Nikola was a kid, he could perform such complex math problems in his head that his teachers swore he was cheating! Imagine--at that time; he didn’t have a calculator to rely on--only his head. At 17, Nikola contracted the deadly disease called cholera. His father promised him at his bedside that if he survived, he’d be allowed to study engineering (rather than become a priest like his dad initially wanted).

Did Tesla Ever Graduate from University?

Tesla fought past cholera and soon found himself immersed in the famous Austrian Polytechnic School at Graz. But Nikola never graduated from university, even though he never missed a lecture, and took twice the number of exams he needed. In 1884, Tesla left Europe for the U.S. where he became a naturalized citizen. He started to work with Edison, but things didn't go well.

He set up labs and companies in New York, but early investors walked out, leaving him with nothing. At one point, he dug ditches on the street for $2 a day. Finally, however, his alternating current (A.C.) induction motor attracted Westinghouse's attention, a rich industrialist and company owner. A.C. used electric currents that alternated and was completely different and new compared to direct current (D.C.), which only flowed in one direction.
The Westinghouse Electric Company licensed Tesla's motor, making him a lot of money. He didn't immediately forget the ditches he dug, but he moved on.

Suddenly, Tesla found himself in the middle of the "War of the Currents." Edison liked D.C. on one side, and Westinghouse wanted to win with A.C., which could transmit power over very long distances. But the two were undercutting each other's prices. Suddenly, Westinghouse had little money and asked Tesla to sell his patents for a single sum. Tesla did it and left a lot of money on the table, as people say.

You Can’t keep A Great Inventor Down

Tesla bounced back with many more patents: for generators and oscillators, radio communication, wireless lighting, and power distribution, and X-ray imaging. Nikola helped power the World’s Fair with more light bulbs than could be found in the great city of Chicago. Through it all, Tesla endured and overcame obstacle after obstacle. Fire destroyed one of his labs in Manhattan. He used so much power once in Colorado that he caused a regional blackout. J. P. Morgan, one of America’s wealthiest bankers, took his money out of Tesla’s Long Island tower.

At the end of his life, Tesla lived in a string of New York hotels. He had many famous friends, like Robert Underwood Johnson and Mark Twain. Tesla told his fans that he had a photographic memory, and it was a fact that he could speak eight languages. Indeed, without Nikola Tesla, we would live in a darker world.

4 Mega-Fun Facts about Nikola Tesla:

  1. He was born at midnight in a fierce lightning storm in Serbia. The midwife thought it was a bad omen, but Tesla’s mother said, “He will be a child of light.”
  2. Nikola claimed he was an insomniac and only needed two hours of sleep (though he took frequent afternoon naps).
  3. As a teen, Tesla almost died from cholera. He became obsessed with germs. As a result, he wiped his dining room with 18 napkins a night, and wore white gloves to dinner.
  4. Tesla built a high-frequency oscillator, also called an earthquake machine, in Manhattan. He invited Mark Twain to stand on the machine platform. Minutes later, Twain ran for the bathroom to resolve a constipation problem he apparently had.
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