Born in the mid-19th century and living into the 20th century, Nikola Tesla was undoubtedly one of the most prolific inventors of his time. Many consider him a true genius, although there was no shortage of critics who, throughout his life and even after, continued to question the authorship of many of his works.
Tesla is thus a very controversial figure who already had several critics during his lifetime: but why? Well, over the course of his long scientific career, Nikola Tesla filed a total of 280 patents. This is a significant number and not to be overlooked, but from the start, there were many controversies about the authorship of some of these inventions. Despite this, however, after his death, his figure has undergone a clear reconsideration and today Tesla attracts a lot of sympathy in popular culture, especially because of the luster and rewards that were denied to him in life.
On the anniversary of his birth, which occurred on July 10, 1856, we decided to pay tribute to this giant of science by not only recounting his life and career, but also by taking a look at the rivalries and feuds that involved him in his lifetime and that are still immediately associated with his name today. But let’s proceed in an orderly manner.
Nikola Tesla: Origins and History
Tesla was born on July 10, 1856, as we’ve already mentioned, in Smiljan, in the Lika-Senj region, part of the then Kingdom of Croatia and Slavonia, on the Croatian side. His father, Milutin Tesla, was a minister of the Serbian Orthodox Church and could recite passages from the Bible and Serbian epic poems by heart. While his mother, Georgina-Đuka Mandić, despite being illiterate, had a particular talent for inventing household items, an art from which Nikola Tesla learned a great deal.
His parents decided to have him educated and sent him to school in Karlovac, where he studied electrical engineering at the Technical University of Graz, in Austria, considered one of the best institutes in the world at the time. During his stay there, he became particularly interested in the applications of alternating current. However, he did not stay at the university for long, attending only until the first semester of the third year, thus not achieving a degree.
Later, for a summer, he attended courses at the University of Prague, studying advanced physics and mathematics. At the same time, he dedicated himself to reading many works of famous scientists and inventors, memorizing entire books thanks to his prodigious memory, and reading the entire works of Voltaire, composed of about 100 volumes.
He moved again in 1881 to go to Budapest to work for a telegraph company, where he quickly became the electrical manager and later worked as an engineer for the first Hungarian telephone system. In those years, he also created a device that, according to some, was a telephone repeater or amplifier, or according to others, could have been the first speaker. But a few months later he moved again, landing in Maribor, Slovenia, where he worked as an assistant engineer.
A year later, in 1882, he arrived in Paris to work as an engineer at the Continental Edison Company, where he was employed to design improvements to electrical equipment. That year was fundamental for Nikola Tesla, as, according to his own statement in his 1915 autobiography, he conceived the idea of the induction motor, beginning to develop various devices capable of using the rotating magnetic field, for which he obtained patents a few years later, in 1888.
His employment in Paris did not last long, and after his mother’s death, he decided to go to the United States in 1884. Upon his arrival in the New World, Tesla had in his hands only a credential letter from Charles Batchelor, his superior in his previous work. In this letter, which proved to be of fundamental importance for Tesla’s career, addressed to Thomas Alva Edison himself, Batchelor wrote “I know two great men: one is you, the other is this young man“. So, without thinking twice, Edison hired Tesla in his overseas company, Edison Machine Works. Tesla’s tasks within the company were initially simple, but he soon also dealt with more complex problems; he was then asked to redesign the existing direct current generator.
Feuds and Controversies with Other Inventors
And it is while working for Edison that the rivalry between the two begins. Certainly, one of the episodes that triggered the feud between the inventors dates back to 1886, when Tesla wrote that Edison had offered him an exorbitant prize of fifty thousand dollars, which with inflation today would be equivalent to about 1 million current dollars, to redesign the existing direct current generator. Tesla said he worked for almost a year to redesign the engine and generator. But this was not in vain, as his work brought Edison’s company several extremely profitable patents.
However, when Nikola Tesla then asked for the collection of the promised prize, according to Tesla himself, Edison was not inclined to keep the promise made earlier but rather replied: “Tesla, you don’t grasp the sense of American humor“. Tesla, therefore, decided to resign from the company, especially when instead of the $50,000, he was offered a salary increase of only $8 a week.
From then on, the two fought a battle of inventions and patents that would later become known as the war of the currents, a commercial competition for control of the then-growing global market for electric power. This particular competition, which took place at the turn of the last two decades of the nineteenth century, saw the opposition between the public lighting system with arc lamps, alternating current, and high voltage (3000-6000 volts), and domestic lighting with low-voltage incandescent lamp. Tesla was a strong supporter of the first method, while Thomas Edison, with his company, marketed the second.
And so, with the rapid spread of alternating current, invented by Nikola Tesla, in 1888 the Edison Electric Light Company began to contest that the high voltage network was dangerous and that it violated some of his patents. This was followed by a very popular press campaign led by Edison aimed at discrediting Tesla, which was also fueled by some accidents caused by the high-voltage lines. Here’s where self-taught electrical engineer Harold Pitney Brown stood out, performing public demonstrations with the assistance of Edison Electric to show that alternating currents put the population at risk, even for the sloppy way of implementing the lines.
Therefore, it can be said that Edison’s great merit was being a skillful businessman and crowd-stirrer even before being an inventor. Furthermore, thanks to his company and his numerous collaborators, he was able to register thousands of patents, holding the rights to them and thus increasing his company’s revenue. On the other hand, Tesla is considered the purer inventor, as he was less concerned about profits and completely immersed in his calculations and research. In conclusion, we can certainly affirm that Edison’s fame was largely linked to the extension of his wealth. And we can also confirm that his counterpart, Tesla, was a significant piece in the creation of much of what still surrounds us today, from everyday objects to more elaborate ones.
However, Teslas’ alternating current (AC) system, with its ability to efficiently transmit electricity over long distances, laid the foundation for the modern power grid and enabled the widespread adoption of electric power. In contrast, Edison’s direct current (DC) was limited in its range and required numerous power stations. Tesla’s AC system ultimately proved to be more practical and cost-effective, transforming the world by bringing electricity to homes, businesses, and industries on a large scale.
The Inventions and Patents of Nikola Tesla Still in Use Today
But what were these great inventions? The most important is undoubtedly the first alternating induction motor, which is still considered his best invention. This extraordinary discovery indeed laid the groundwork for the subsequent industrial revolution and the creation of modern power plants. Equally important is the system for transmitting alternating electric current over long distances and other methods and tools for power transmission, still used today in all homes.
Besides this, however, there are many others: systems for wireless communications, filed before the invention of radio, of which Tesla was deemed the true inventor by the Supreme Court of the United States at the expense of Marconi, and with it also the radio frequency oscillators.
He invented the vertical take-off aircraft, a system still in use on several aircraft. And again, the Tesla coil, a high-voltage resonant transformer that Tesla used to conduct innovative experiments on electric light, fluorescence, X-rays, phenomena of high-frequency alternating current, electrotherapy, and even for the transmission of electrical signals and electrical energy without wires.
He even invented the ancestor of our modern remote control, with the only difference being that today these devices work by exploiting electromagnetic waves in the infrared band, while those he designed used radio waves. And finally, the last invention we mention here among the numerous others we could list, luminescent lamps, those that were effectively the progenitors of today’s neon lamps.