Every bit the eccentric character you could want in a historic genius, Nikola Tesla did things his way.
Despite helping America march into the age of electricity through his invention of alternating current, Tesla died in poverty and relative obscurity. Instead it was his one-time partner and longtime rival, Thomas Edison, who received most of the accolades.
Coming to America
Born in 1856 in what is now Croatia, Nikola Tesla was 27 when he immigrated to the United States, already a veteran scientist. He came with very little in his possession besides a letter of recommendation from a European associate of Edison’s.
The letter to Edison read, “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man,” according to James O’Neill, author of “Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla” (Ives Washburn, 1944).
Hired to tinker with generator designs at Edison’s electrical engineering company in New York City, the eager Tesla also set to work on developing an alternating current motor, wrote O'Neill, who was a friend of Tesla’s.
Electricity had been introduced to New York almost a decade before, and all of the lines were running on direct current, an invention of Edison’s. It did the job of ferrying power but was inefficient over long distances. Tesla’s AC electricity, through the use of transformers, could send power much farther.
Tesla met resistance from Edison and members of his board, however. They were familiar with DC and reluctant to delve into the workings of a new, more complicated system, O'Neill wrote.
History has vindicated Tesla: All modern power grids run AC electricity.
Tesla on his own
Tesla split from Edison over Edison's loyalty to DC. He left Edison Machine Works after only a year and set up shop as the Tesla Arc & Light Co.
Tesla submitted his first patents for AC generators and motors in 1887. His patents were picked up by the company Westinghouse, whose funding helped him put his theories into practice.
By the 1930s he had also submitted patents for spark oscillators, circuit breakers, wireless telegraphy (which became the radio), turbines and pumps. In his autobiography, Tesla declared his best invention to be the high-voltage transmitter, according to the website of the Tesla Museum in Serbia.
Historians generally agree Tesla never received proper due for his work. After he died in 1943, his possessions were shipped to the Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia, and were sealed into obscurity by the Iron Curtain and conflict in the region.
Only in recent decades, because of better relations with former Soviet bloc nations and increased access to records, has the quirky scientist been recognized for his all-important contribution, wrote another Tesla biographer, Margaret Cheney ("Tesla: Man Out of Time," Dorset Press, 1989).
“Every time we turn on a light, or a radio, or operate a remote control we continue his legacy. His name should be respected everywhere electricity flows,” said Cheney.
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