Nikola Tesla : Greatest genius who invented the Electrical Age

Nikola Tesla is a greatest genius who invented the electrical age of twentieth century. His inventions, patents, and theoretical work formed the basis of modern Alternating Current (AC) electricity, and contributed to the development of radio, television and many electrical inventions. I feel his story is important for anyone interested in history of invention and hence this blog post.


If we think about genius behind the light bulb or father of electrical age, most of us would appreciate Thomas Alva Edison. But visionary named Nikola Tesla was the major contributor to the electrical revolution that transformed daily life at the turn of the twentieth century. Tesla invented the complete system of generating and distributing electricity using Alternating Current which is used to power the world today. He built the first hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls.

Most of us still believe Guglielmo Marconi as the inventor of Radio, but everything he did was based on Tesla’s inventions. Few months after Tesla died in 1943, the Supreme Court overturned Marconi’s patent and declared Tesla as inventor of Radio.

Tesla obtained around 300 patents worldwide for his inventions. Tesla’s work laid the ground for everything from lasers to radios, remote controls to wireless. Tesla’s contributions were not incremental; they were revolutionary.

So with this incredible mind and all these inventions behind him, Tesla should have been rich and famous, right? Unfortunately, no. Tesla lived in a time when the world demanded results that were practical and profitable. Tesla wanted to provide free wireless electricity to entire planet, while other scientists commercialized their inventions and become rich. So he died penniless and alone at New Yorker Hotel.

Although his name marks an epic in advance of electrical science, he is virtually unknown to general public like Edison or Marconi. He is one of the uncredited and forgotten genius in the world. Tesla’s story is really fascinating.

Early life of Tesla

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Tesla studied math and physics at the Technical University of Graz and philosophy at the University of Prague.

In 1882, while on a walk, he saw the complete workings of a motor that used a rotating magnetic field to produce an electric current that alternated its direction many times per second. He grabbed a stick and diagrammed the motor in the sand while his friend watched. In fact, seven years earlier, his professor at a college in Austria ridiculed him for suggesting that direct current generators could be modified to produce an efficient alternating current. Tesla dropped out of college a year later, but his imagination never quit.

Tesla took the first step to make it a reality: he relocated to Paris to work for the Continental Edison Company installing lighting systems in commercial properties. A year later, he built the first prototype of his visionary alternating current motor, which worked exactly as he had conceived it in his mind. He tried to find investor for this radical device, but no one could understand the device and didn’t see the commercial value in it and rejected him.

Tesla was undaunted. He concluded that the only way he could realize his motor was to meet the world’s greatest electrical engineer, Thomas Edison, directly and he immigrated to the United States in 1984.

War Of Currents

War of currents is battle between Edison’s Direct current and Tesla’s Alternating current system and whole world was uncertain which one will be the future of electricity until Alternative current won the victory.

Edison’s Direct Current System

In 1882, Edison had patented a system for electricity distribution using direct current generators. He already established a profitable electric power distribution using Direct current in New York. Edison’s breakthrough was a modern miracle despite having serious limitations. Direct current system could not be transported more than two miles due to its inability to step up to high voltage levels necessary for long-distance transmission. So generation plants could only serve customers within a two-mile radius. Thus, it was unlikely that this form of electricity would ever be available.

Tesla working for Edison

Direct current was barely a decade old when Tesla shook hands with Edison. So, when Tesla explained that alternating current would be the future of electricity, Edison dismissed it as fanciful and unnecessary. Direct current was getting the job done, people liked it, and it was making Edison and his financier, J.P. Morgan, exorbitant sums of money. But, Edison liked Tesla and hired him to work for his company. Within several months, Tesla was one of Edison’s most valuable engineers, and was solving some of the company’s most difficult problems. Edison referred to him as a “damn good man.”

In 1885, Tesla informed Edison that he could greatly improve his direct current generators by redesigning key elements. Edison thought it impossible and promised Tesla $50,000 if he could deliver on his claims. Tesla worked tirelessly to improve the generators, installing parts of his own design. Once completed, his generators were a vast improvement over Edison’s. Edison was thoroughly impressed, but when Tesla asked to be paid, Edison laughed and claimed he was only joking about the reward. “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor,” he said. Instead, Edison offered Tesla a raise of $10 more per week. Tesla was disgusted and immediately resigned. This was the beginning of a lifelong feud between these two great inventors.

Starting Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing Company

After leaving Edison’s company Tesla partnered with two businessmen in 1886, Robert Lane and Benjamin Vale, who agreed to finance an electric lighting company in Tesla’s name, Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. The company installed electrical arc light based illumination systems designed by Tesla.

Once the company became profitable, Tesla realized that he had been swindled. The vast majority of the earnings were going to the investors, and when he tried to interest them in financing his alternating current motor, they not only rejected his ideas but also ejected him from the company. Tesla was again dejected, unemployed, and broke. Ironically, he took a job as a ditch digger for an Edison company, and was paid $2 per day. He described this time as one of “terrible headaches and bitter tears ,” But his luck was about to change.

Tesla’s partnership with Westinghouse

Despite his heartbreak, he continued to expand on his designs for an alternating current system and found that alternative current can be stepped up to very high voltage levels minimizing power loss across great distances. In November 1887, Tesla filed for seven US patents for his inventions, which were so original that they were issued without challenge. These patents comprised a complete system of generators, transformers, transmission lines, motors, and lighting. They would become the most valuable patents since the telephone.

George Westinghouse, the inventor of railroad air brakes had a dream of providing electricity throughout the entire United States, and he believed that alternating current was the future of electrical generation and long-distance transmission. Westinghouse made an offer for Tesla’s patents: $25,000 in cash, $50,000 in stock in his company, and a royalty of $2.50 per horsepower of alternating current motors sold which Tesla happily accepted. If his motors were going to be as successful as he and Westinghouse envisioned, the royalties alone would make him one of the richest men in the world. But it wasn’t easy.

Edison’s campaign against Alternating Current

Edison knew that direct current would have to stamp out alternating current to survive. More personally , he was heavily invested both financially and emotionally in his direct current network of generators and distribution lines. Edison carried out a campaign to discourage the use of alternating current, including spreading disinformation on fatal AC accidents, publicly killing animals. Edison directed his technicians to preside over several AC-driven killings of animals, primarily stray cats and dogs but also unwanted cattle and horses. Acting on these directives, they were to demonstrate to the press that alternating current was more dangerous than Edison’s system of direct current.

Morgan and Edison weren’t satisfied with trying to ruin Tesla through capitalistic competition— they were resorting to outright depravity and dishonesty. Imagine the pressure Tesla faced: both the world’s most powerful financier— one of the last enemies you’d want— and the world’s greatest inventor were trying to draw a bead on him and pull the trigger. Most men would’ve quietly resigned, or begged for scraps, but not Tesla. Finally, he won an opportunity to once and for all prove alternating current system’s value.

Proving Alternating Current is the Future of Electricity

Disgusted by Edison’s shameless cruelty and dishonesty, Tesla began performing regular exhibitions of his technology in his laboratory in which he lighted lamps by allowing alternating current electricity to flow through his body. Public opinion swung to and fro, unsure of whom to believe.

In 1893, George Westinghouse won the bid to electrify the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago with alternating current. Because of the efficiency of Tesla’s inventions, Westinghouse’s proposal was half of what Edison’s newly formed General Electric (GE) company required for the job.

On the evening of May 1, 1893, over 27 million people anxiously awaited to see the future of electricity. When President Grover Cleveland pushed a button, over 100,000 lamps, wired to 12 new thousand-horsepower alternating current generators, turned night to day. Attendees looked on in awe, dubbing the wonder the “City of Light.”

During the fair, Tesla amazed the millions of fair goers by allowing electricity to flow through his body to illuminate light bulbs. He even demonstrated wireless energy by lighting lamps that had no wires. It was a key event in the history of AC power, as Tesla demonstrated the safety, reliability, and efficiency of alternating current to the American public.

Within a week, the entire nation was raving about alternating current as the future of electricity. This yielded opportunity to fulfill Tesla’s childhood dream.

Niagara hydroelectric power plant

Westinghouse was contacted late in 1893 by the Niagara Falls Commission, which had been charged with developing a power plant that would harness the force of the falls. It was a dream project for Tesla, and Westinghouse was awarded the contract. Construction began immediately, and Tesla would oversee it. After six years, the venture approached completion and ready for operation.

When the switch was thrown, The first power reached Buffalo at midnight November 16, 1896, nearly 22 miles away

Plans were immediately set in motion to power all of New York City with the station. Tesla was praised worldwide as a hero, and was referred to as the “Wizard of the West.”

Selflessness Tesla gave up his royalties to rescue Westinghouse

Morgan spread rumors to Wall Street that Westinghouse’s company was financially unstable, which dissuaded investors from giving Westinghouse the capital that he needed to expand the production and installation of his alternating current generators. Morgan then began an attack through stock manipulation, and moved to gain control of The Westinghouse Corporation, and thus Tesla’s patents.

By the end of 1897, Westinghouse was nearly bankrupt. Westinghouse owed Tesla over $1 million in royalties, an amount that grew daily. When Westinghouse described to Tesla the desperate situation, Tesla replied with the following:

Mr. Westinghouse, you have been my friend, you believed in me when others had no faith; you were brave enough to go ahead when others lacked courage; you supported me when even your own engineers lacked vision. … Here is your contract, and here is my contract . I will tear them both to pieces, and you will no longer have any troubles from my royalties.

In time, these royalties would’ve made Tesla the world’s first billionaire. Instead, they enabled Westinghouse to save his company. Tesla’s selflessness was a testament not only to his generosity and goodwill, but his belief in his ability to continue to create his future. He was certain that his best work still lay ahead of him, and that he would soon invent machines that would dwarf everything that he had accomplished thus far.

Invention of Radio

In 1898, Tesla announced his latest invention: a way to remotely control machines with radio technology. The heart of radio transmission is based on four tune circuits for transmitting and receiving. The four circuits used in two pairs are still a fundamental part of all radio and television equipment. Tesla demonstrated a radio-controlled boat—which he dubbed “tele-automaton”—to the public during an electrical exhibition at Madison Square Garden. Tesla tried to sell his idea to the US military as a type of radio-controlled torpedo, but they showed little interest.

In 1904, the US Patent Office awarded radio patents to the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi. Marconi had used radio technology pioneered by Tesla 11 years earlier to transmit the letter “s” in morse code over 2,000 miles, which gave him no claim to the patents, of course. What did give him claim, though? He had the financial backing of Morgan, Edison, and steel baron Andrew Carnegie, all of whom held sway in every level of government.

Marconi was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1911 for his “achievements” in radio, and was hailed as the “father of radio.” Tesla was infuriated and, in 1915, sued Marconi for infringement on his patents. He didn’t have the money to take on the flush Marconi, however, and the suit was dismissed. It was also announced that Tesla and Edison were potential laureates to share the Nobel Prize of 1915. Both men refused to accept the award together, or separately if the other were to receive it first.

In 1943, nearly three decades after Tesla began the fight for Radio patent, the US Supreme Court confirmed that Marconi’s radio patents indeed infringed on Tesla’s and therefore declared Tesla as the true “father of radio.” to recognize tesla’s significant contributions to radio technology.

Invention of Wireless Electricity

Tesla found that the earth was “literally alive with electrical vibrations,” and that the entire planet can be “thrown into vibration like a tuning fork.” Tesla was absolutely certain that this phenomenon could be used to transmit unlimited electrical power and telecommunication signals anywhere in the world with virtually no signal loss or degradation. Tesla conducted a wide variety of experiments at Colorado Springs. He wirelessly lit over 200 lamps from a distance of over 25 miles, proving that electricity could be transmitted great distances through the air.

Tesla met with Morgan and explained that he could build a “world system” of wireless communications to relay telephone signals, news, private messages, secure military communications, and even pictures to any point in the world. Morgan offered to fund the construction of the power plant and transmission tower necessary to pursue Tesla’s fantastical claims.

One would think that Tesla would balk at any offerings of Morgan’s as he clearly couldn’t be trusted—he was one of the driving forces behind the propaganda used against Tesla in the War of the Currents. And just three years earlier, Morgan maneuvered to steal Westinghouse’s company, costing Tesla his lucrative royalty agreement. Nevertheless, Tesla chose to partner with Morgan as he needed money for the construction, a decision that would prove to be the biggest mistake of his life.

Tesla calculated that he would need about $1 million to construct the power station and transmission equipment. Morgan offered $150,000 instead and, in exchange, wanted 51% ownership in all of Tesla’s existing and future patents and inventions relating to both electric lighting and wireless telegraphy or telephony. Tesla accepted Morgan’s hard-fisted terms and went to work immediately.

Tesla acquired 200 acres on the cliffs of Long Island Sound and, in December 1901, began construction on the project. The most prominent feature of the installation would be a 187-foot tower capped by 68 foot copper dome which house the magnifying transmitter. It was planned to be the first broadcast system transmitting both signals and power without wires to any point on the globe. The magnifying transmitter discharging high frequency electricity using tesla coil would turn the earth into a gigantic dynamo which will project its electricity in unlimited amounts anywhere in the world.

Last-minute design changes were required, however, necessitating more money. Tesla had already obtained a second loan from Morgan, and when those funds ran out, he again approached the financier for additional capital. In an attempt to convince the powerful Morgan to invest another large sum, Tesla explained that the tower could be used for more than transmitting radio signals— it could be used to saturate the entire globe with electricity harmless to living things so that everyone could obtain usable power by simply sticking wires in the soil.

Morgan considered Tesla’s words carefully and coldly replied, “If anyone can draw on the power, where do we put the meter?” He refused Tesla’s pleadings for more money, forcing Tesla to use his own funds, which he knew to be insufficient to complete the project. Undaunted, Tesla approached other potential investors, but nobody was interested in picking up a project abandoned. Despite his continued efforts, Tesla watched in horror as his Wardenclyffe dream began to fade.

Other Notable Inventions

Electric motor

Tesla discovered the principle of rotating magnetic field and invented electric motor which fundamentally changed the landscape of what we now take for granted: industrial fans, household appliances, water pumps, machine tools, power tools, disk drives, and compressors. Tesla’s induction motor is widely accepted as one of the ten most important discoveries of all time.


Of course he didn’t invent light itself, But Tesla developed and used fluorescent bulbs in his lab some 40 years before industry “invented” them. At the World’s Fair, Tesla took glass tubes and bent them into famous scientists’ names, in effect creating the first neon signs.

Tesla coil

To investigate the electrical realm of high-frequency and high-voltage, Tesla invented Tesla coil an electrical resonant transformer. Most of early decades of radios utilized Tesla coils in their transmission antennas. Tesla himself used larger or smaller versions of his invention to investigate fluorescence, x-rays, radio, wireless power, electromagnetic nature of the earth and its atmosphere. Today their main use is for entertainment and educational displays, although small coils are still used today as leak detectors for high vacuum systems.


After the outbreak of World War I, in 1917, the US government was looking for a way to detect German U-boats and put Edison in charge of finding a workable method. It was Tesla, however, that proposed the use of radio waves to detect the ships— the first description of Radar. Edison rejected the idea as ludicrous, and the world had to wait nearly two decades before Emile Girardeau would develop an obstacle-locating radio device “conceived according to the principles stated by Tesla,”

Final Years

As Tesla approached his final years, most of his close friends and benefactors were dead. The man who had electrified the planet was almost forgotten by the world. On January 5, 1943, Tesla placed a small “do not disturb” sign on his door in the New Yorker Hotel. Two days later, the sign remained. The maid entered to find him dead in his bed. He was 86 years old. Despite receiving over 300 patents in his lifetime, and quite literally inventing the twentieth century, he died penniless and alone. Tesla was never married, and he had no direct heirs. He left no will, so all his papers were seized by the FBI and they were classified as top secret.

Larry Page’s inspiration of Tesla

Larry Page CEO of Google said Nikola Tesla was his childhood hero. When he was twelve, Page read a biography of Tesla and found the story troubling. “He was one of the greatest inventors, but it’s a sad, sad story, He couldn’t commercialize anything, he could barely fund his own research” he said.

Tesla’s story caused the adolescent Page to dream of making important technological advances. Page deduced that Tesla died penniless because he lost control of his inventions, and it dawned on him that if he wanted to retain control of his own products and inventions, he would someday need to start his own company. He made a point of majoring in business as well as computer science, partly because he knew cautionary tale of Tesla.

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