Throwback Thursday: Father of the electric age Nikola Tesla

Did you know that the famous American company Tesla Motors, designer and manufacturer of premium electric vehicles, is named after electrical engineer and physicist Nikola Tesla? 

nikola-tesla.jpgNikola Tesla, born in July of 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, made a number of breakthroughs in the production, transmission, and application of electric power. His father was a priest in the Serbian Orthodox church and his mother managed the family’s farm. His brother Daniel was killed in a riding accident in 1863, leaving a seven-year-old Tesla in shock. The loss unsettled him. He reported seeing visions—the first signs of his lifelong battle with mental illnesses.

At the Technical University of Graz, Tesla studied mathematics and physics. He also studied philosophy at the University of Prague. While on a walk in 1882, the idea for a brushless alternating current (AC) motor first struck him and he illustrated the rotating electromagnets right in the walking path’s sand. In 1884, he immigrated to the United States and started working in Thomas Edison’s Continental Edison Company in New York, repairing direct current (DC) power plants.

Tesla went on to invent the first AC motor and developed AC generation and transmission technology, eventually amassing more than 700 patents. Despite his fame, he never did ensure long-term financial success for himself, unlike his early employer and competition, Thomas Edison.

He never married and in his later years he became a vegetarian, living on a bare-bones diet including little more than milk, bread, and honey.

Tesla was a voracious reader, capable of memorizing complete books, and supposedly possessed a photographic memory. He spoke eight languages: Serbo-Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin.

During the 1890s, the American writer Mark Twain struck up a friendship with Tesla, often visiting him in the lab. It was there Tesla photographed him, creating one of the first pictures ever lit by phosphorescent light. 

In the last years of the 19th century, Tesla suffered great loss and encountered setbacks while in New York, beginning with the destruction of his lab notes, equipment, and research, by fire. Following a move back to New York after two years away, Tesla had a promising financial arrangement with financier J.P. Morgan to build a global communications network centered in Long Island, but his backer’s trust–and funding–eventually ran out.

In older age, Tesla’s mental health deteriorated and he died alone in his New York hotel room at the age of 86, on January 7, 1943. That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court voided some of the key patents held by Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi, directly restoring patents of Tesla’s related to radio transmission technology.

Despite his many important contributions to the field of engineering, it is Tesla’s AC system, now the global standard for power transmission, that will be known as one of his brightest legacies. In his book, My Inventions, Tesla wrote “Invention is the most important product of man’s creative brain. The ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of human nature to human needs.” 

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