Nikola Tesla (July 10, 1856 – January 7, 1943) was born in Smiljan in the Austrian Empire (now Smiljan in Croatia). He left quite young to study in Prague and Graz, in 1880 he started working for a telegraph society in Budapest, two years later he was living in Paris and from 1884 in the USA. He stayed to live and work in the USA; however, in one of his last interviews Tesla said that he is proud of his Serbian roots and Croatian homeland.
Tesla experienced both, highs and lows in his life. He even became the most famous scientist for several years, admired by lay, as well as expert public, and patented many of his discoveries. On the other hand, he also encountered unwillingness to finance his big plans. Tesla himself was not a convincing businessman and he was not able to secure other financial sources besides banks. But bankers later refused, too, because Tesla was generating too much debt and his overall financial situation was not good.
Humanity was an important part of Tesla’s life. Creating several foundations by his company was not the only reason why he called himself a philanthropist. His humanity is said to have been long-term and showing every day. Still just a young boy, he was supposedly giving not used school supplies to schoolmates who needed them. Once, his investors told him that if he cashes their check it would most likely ruin them. Tesla tore the check and said: “Money is just money. I do not want so many good people to lose their jobs because of me.”
It is also said that his colleagues and friends remembered Tesla as a good person and mentioned his kind heart often.
Although Tesla himself was obviously not very interested in money, bankers are criticized to this day for refusing to finance his big projects, especially wireless electricity distribution through long distances. But it is fair to say, that those were only plans without real technical basis. Even today, electric energy transfer is not possible in any other way than by electromagnetic induction for short distances, despite the effort of many technology giants.
Tesla was 85 when he died in 1943 in circumstances that are not very clear and offer space for various conspiracy theories. We know for sure only that he died on his own in the New Yorker hotel. Different sources claim that at this age Tesla was almost forgotten and poor. Tesla’s fate is a practical example of a good old “no good deed goes unpunished”.
Quarrels with Edison
Tesla started working for Edison Co., founded and led by the very great Thomas Alva Edison, the same year when he came to the USA. Edison was then already aging and probably a big inspiration for Tesla. He talked about creating new discoveries with him. As it is often the case when two personalities meet, conflicts arise. Tesla and Edison had a couple of arguments when Tesla worked for Edison Co., and later as well.
The biggest dispute between Tesla and Edison and their companies became to be known as “the war of currents”. The issue was which current will be standardized, direct or alternating. Edison believed in direct current and to support his idea he manufactured the first electric chair ever and showed it in practice to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current. At the end, Tesla’s alternating current was accepted as standard world-wide. He discovered it while working in Budapest.
Edison was a businessman and an entrepreneur. He started a lot of companies that registered thousands of patents for him, while he himself registered 1692. Despite the fact that Edison was definitely one of the most productive and important inventors in history, he probably was personally interested in destroying Tesla’s work. He was stealing his discoveries and patenting them himself, before Tesla could do it.
Radio is another example of how Tesla was not able to keep his own patent. According to the National Electric Light Association Tesla demonstrated the principle of a radio already in 1893 and patented it 4 years later. His patent was revoked in 1904 and granted to Guglielmo Marconi. Supreme Court in 1943, however, returned the pattern to Tesla, but Tesla died in the same year and did not profit financially.
Tesla’s name abuse
Wardenclyffe Tower conspiracy theories are very popular all over internet, but they are not the worst ones. Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island was a real project, dealing with wireless distribution of electric energy through longer distances. Tesla was an innovator and probably a genius and we cannot be sure that his plans could not have been put to work with sufficient financial backing. But the fact that this technology is not available even today cast a shadow of improbability over the project.
There are more speculations about Tesla working on teleportation (let’s call it that) under the name of Philadelphia Project and that he was responsible for the popularly known Tunguska catastrophe in 1908. Its reasons are still unknown, but scientists are leaning towards a crash of a comet or its part.
Production of luxury automobiles for the upper 1% is another example of improper use of Tesla’s name. Tesla worked on innovations that were supposed to be accessible for free. But Tesla brand today represents luxury electric cars for the most rich, where the price does not go below 90.000€. ‘Affordable’ Model 3 has not proven to be a step towards the overall accessibility of electric cars either, because other brands have been selling them for these prices for a long time. We can acknowledge though, that electric cars are still at the beginning of their journey and it might be Tesla who will once sell a car under 7.000€.
The most important discoveries
Improved electric lightbulbs
Röntgen (or X-ray) radiation (1837, named after doctor Röntgen 8 years later)
Radio signal transmission (1893, patent in 1897)
Remote control through radio (1898)