A Master of Lightning

07 Mar 2019
2016 marked the 160th anniversary of the birth of Nikola Tesla. Born July 10th 1856 in the small village of Smiljan, near Gospić, in Lika County. His affinity for mathematics as well as an eidetic memory led him to flourish in school. Although he failed to graduate from university, Tesla eventually moved to New York City in 1884 and was hired by Thomas Edison.
Working as an electrical engineer for the Edison Company, Tesla was given the task of redesigning their direct current (DC) generators. The two men soon had a falling out however, after Edison reneged on allegedly having promised fifty thousand dollars to Tesla if he could complete the job; which, after months of work, Tesla did. When told by Edison that, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humour,” Tesla immediately resigned.
A few years later, in 1887, Tesla developed a functional induction motor that ran on alternating current (AC), a system with many advantages over DC because of its long-distance, high voltage transmission. This caught the attention of George Westinghouse, an American entrepreneur and engineer, who hired Tesla to work for him in Pittsburgh and help create an AC system for the cities streetcars. Tesla was soon sucked into the “War of Currents,” waged between Edison and Westinghouse, a rivalry over which system was the best for distributing electricity. Edison, with his patents, was on the side of DC, while Westinghouse, having now acquired the patent to Tesla’s induction motor, advocated the use of AC. This competition between the two men led to a multitude of developments in both technologies, and eventually even led to Edison pursuing AC development also.
In summer of 1891, Nikola Tesla became a naturalised citizen of the United States at the age of 35. He established his laboratory in New York City on 5th Avenue.
In 1893, at the Chicago World’s Fair, Westinghouse was finally able to demonstrate to the world the advantages AC power had to offer. Under the name of the “Tesla Polyphase System,” Tesla personally dazzled the crowed with a series of electrical displays powered by AC. With the technology he was able to use high-frequency alternating current to wirelessly light a gas-discharge lamp, leaving observers in the room in astonishment.
Tesla went on to further experiment with (what were later identified as) X-rays. Unfortunately, a fire at his laboratory caused much of his work to be lost. Still, the scientist continued his research. He made developments in the realm of radio transmission, and event radio-controlled devices. Tesla was even acknowledged by the United States Supreme Court in 1943 as the actual inventor of radio – something often disputed to this day. In fact, many of the details of Tesla’s life are in dispute; often one source will conflict with another, particularly over the early years of his life.
As Tesla’s life went on, he continuously struggled to find the proper funding for his experiments. His genius, and what were at the time revolutionary ideas, helped to create a ‘mad scientist’ persona. There was, and still perhaps is, much speculation as to which of his ideas would have been able to come to fruition had the technology available to him been more advanced. Tesla was certainly a visionary and we can thank him for a plethora of advancements in technology that have helped propel the world forward. Towards the end of his life, he had fallen out of the public spotlight. He lived in the New Yorker Hotel until his death in 1943, at the age of 86.
Today, particularly in recent decades, there has been a resurgence of Tesla in popular culture. Perhaps most the most famous use of his name is in the popular Tesla Motors, an American electric car manufacturer that has pioneered electric vehicles using an AC induction motor designed by Nikola Tesla over 130 years ago.
A unit of measurement, the tesla (T), for measuring the strength of a magnetic field, was named in his honour in 1960. A picture of the units’ formula is shown on the 100 Serbian dinar banknote, alongside a picture of Nikola Tesla himself.
The 2006 science fiction thriller drama The Prestige, directed by Christopher Nolan depicts a reclusive Nikola Tesla played by David Bowie, who creates a fantastic electrical machine capable of transporting and duplicating anything placed inside of it.
This summer, on the 160th anniversary of his birth, the first ever Tesla Film Festival will be celebrating the life and contributions of Nikola Tesla. The festival will feature film and other works inspired by the inventor and will be presented in cities around the globe. The Tesla Science Foundation will be present as well, awarding the best in show films or other works made about Tesla. The Festival will travel throughout the United States and Europe .
Zagreb’s Technical Museum carries Tesla’s name, and it is here that you can see many of his devices, as well as various reconstructions of his experiments. Opened free to the public once per year, on the last Friday of January, this is literally the first place to be fully booked for the day. With a name now immortalised by his contribution to the world, Nikola Tesla will certainly be remembered as one of the greatest scientists the human race has ever seen.
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