THE LIFE AND TIMES OF NIKOLA TESLA
By Don Sherman
The Tesla Roadster's pioneering role should, by now, be indelibly etched in every car enthusiast's information bank. Tesla Motors has survived infancy and has a credible business plan. But the memories of the man, whose name is attached to the first viable electric car and the company that builds it, have become obscure. To rectify that, we offer this concise biography of Nikola Tesla, the man who energized the 20th Century.
1856 Tesla was born on July 10 during an electrical storm at the stroke of midnight in the rural reaches of Croatia. His father was a Serbian Orthodox priest and his mother, though illiterate, was an adept tool maker. Nikola had one brother and three sisters.
1877 Following eleven years of public schooling, Tesla studied electrical engineering at the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz but did not graduate. He later attended the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Tesla was fluent in Serbo-Croatian and several foreign languages.
1881-2 Tesla was the chief electrician and chief engineer for Hungary's first telephone system before relocating to Paris to work for the Continental Edison Company. During this period he conceived the AC induction motor and other devices using a rotating magnetic field.
1884 Tesla immigrated to New York City with only pennies in his pocket. A letter of recommendation from his previous employer to Thomas Edison said, "I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man." Edison was so impressed he put Tesla immediately to work redesigning the DC generators at the Edison Machine Works. Generous compensation bonuses offered as a reward for his long hours and intense effort were later denied; when Tesla was refused a pay raise from $18 to $25 per week, he resigned. Tesla and Edison were arch rivals for the rest of their lives.
1885 Tesla earned his first US patent for an electric-arc lamp. During his lifetime, at least 272 patents were awarded to this genius by 25 countries.
1887 After a stint digging ditches out of necessity, Tesla formed his first commercial enterprise, the Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing company. Without realizing what it would later be called, Tesla invented the X-ray-generating vacuum tube.
1888 Tesla demonstrated his brushless AC electric motor to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and began collaborating with George Westinghouse on polyphase power systems. AC power prevailed over DC because the ease with which its voltage could be increased and decreased, thereby facilitating efficient long-distant power transmission. The practicality of AC power was the industrial revolution's major enabler.
1891 This year's bold ventures were becoming a naturalized US citizen and demonstrating the possibility of transmitting electrical energy without wires.
1893 Tesla demonstrated a radio transmitter well before Marconi achieved success (and a patent, later invalidated), with similar technology. At the World's Fair in Chicago, the public at large experienced AC electric lighting -- both incandescent and fluorescent -- for the first time thanks to Tesla and Westinghouse.
1897 Tesla was issued a patent for the breaker-point-and-coil ignition system used by millions of automobiles in the twentieth century.
1898 Tesla's Madison Square Garden demonstration of a radio-controlled boat marked one of the first uses of radio waves.
1899 During tests conducted at his lab in Colorado Springs, Tesla measured a resonance frequency of 8 Hertz for the earth's ionosphere, an assessment confirmed by scientists half a century later. His dramatic Tesla coils were capable of producing millions of volts of electricity and wirelessly illuminating fluorescent lights located 50 feet away. A year later, this lab was liquidated to pay debts.
1906 On his 50th birthday, Tesla demonstrated a 200-hp bladeless turbine. Subsequent examples of this technology -- essentially a series of round discs driven by the working fluid's (steam or water) boundary layer -- produced 5000 horsepower.
World War I years -- An obsessive-compulsive disorder victim, Tesla became fixated with the number three. He often walked around the block three times before entering a building. He insisted on three folded napkins beside his dinner plate and staying in hotel rooms identified by a number divisible by three.
1916 Tesla was issued a patent for the type of speedometer universally adopted for automobile use.
1917 Tesla received the Edison Medal named after his bitter rival. (Shortly before he died, Edison acknowledged that Tesla's AC power concepts were vastly superior to his own DC approach.) Tesla also conducted the first successful research that lead to the development of radar. During the build up to World War II, Tesla offered his death ray weapon to Great Britain as a cost efficient defensive strategy.
1926 During a Colliers magazine interview, Tesla accurately forecast the cell phone, drone aircraft, electric locomotives, solar energy applications, and the rise of women in the work force.
1927 Tesla's last patent was for vertical take off and landing aircraft.
1931 In celebration of Tesla's 75th birthday, Time magazine featured the eccentric genius on its cover; seventy science and engineering luminaries provided congratulatory salutations. One of his closest friends was Mark Twain.
End Game -- Tesla's creativity took an odd turn from the eminently practical to the purely hypothetical. He imagined aircraft that needed no wings or on-board propulsion. His 'thought photography' machine was for transmitting ideas directly from the brain to recording and video devices. He also espoused teleportation, time travel, and anti-gravity airships. During the last ten years of his life, he believed that one white pigeon paid him daily visits. Tesla hated pearl ear rings and germs of any form. He refused to touch hair other than his own. He was celibate his entire life.
1943 Now destitute and reclusive, Tesla died of heart failure in his New Yorker Hotel suite. He was subsequently recognized as the true inventor of the radio. Attempts by various government agencies to seize his records and documents failed and most of them became missing. His ashes and a few of his papers reside at the Nicola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.
1960 The SI (International System of Weights and Measures) unit for magnetic flux density became the Tesla. A major moon crater and a minor planet are also named after Tesla.
1986 The rock band Tesla's debut album was aptly titled Mechanical Resonance.
1997 A special issue of Life magazine recognized Nicola Tesla as one of the 100 most famous people of the last millennium.
In addition to the various electrical breakthroughs already addressed, Tesla received US patents for:
The electric meter
An electric railway system
A reciprocating engine
A steam engine
An ozone generating device
The electric transformer
Various means of transmitting electrical energy through natural media
Radiant energy devices