In modern times, no one man has been more revered as the greatest technological scientist and visionary as Nikola Tesla. This consummate inventor of dreamlike machines, whose reach sometimes exceeded his grasp, has been so highly regarded by society as the scion of invention that whole streets, songs, companies (like Elon Musk’s futuristic electric car company), awards, measures, holidays, places, schools, and more have been named after him.
He was even famously portrayed by punk rock legend David Bowie in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige. Of course, in that fictionalized version of Tesla, we find him inventing a trans-dimensional duplicator used by Hugh Jackman’s character for the purpose of inexplicable magic showmanship.
However, in real life, Tesla was so far beyond his contemporaries such as Thomas Edison or George Westinghouse that both of them had employed Tesla in their companies at one point. In fact, it is said that Westinghouse even paid Tesla a life-long stipend of a $1000 a month long after he left the company due to his patents making Westinghouse a fortune.
Nikola Tesla’s life began in Croatia (the Austrian Empire at the time) on July 10, 1856. His father was an Easter Orthodox priest and his mother was so talented in the making of craft tools and mechanical devices—along with a photographic memory—that Telsa credited her for all of his genius and gifts.
Tesla had some troubled years in his youth dealing with a gambling addiction and never completing his engineering studies at Austrian Polytechnic.
However, that did not stop him from making his way through Europe, devising patentable inventions, and making a name for himself in engineering circles.
Eventually, he would find his way to New York City in 1884 where his advancements in Alternating Current (AC) technology, and an induction motor that was powered by it, caught the eyes of Edison and Westinghouse.
But that was only the beginning. His Tesla Coil was one of his most famous inventions. Essentially, it is a radio frequency oscillator that drives an air-core double-tuned resonant transformer to produce high voltages at low currents. Over the years, Tesla produced many variants of this device for a number of different applications, such as science and experimentation, photography, vacuum systems, and more.
Though Nikola Tesla’s canon of inventions are too numerous to list here, the two that really stand out are: wireless electricity and wireless communication. In fact, it is to the latter that some controversy exists as to who actually invented the radio (or radio transmission). Though the generally accepted honor goes to Guglielmo Marconi, patent filings in 1897 also seem to suggest that Tesla beat Marconi to the invention of the radio.
Nowadays, we take for granted wireless radio, from satellite radio to cellphone Internet access but back in Tesla’s days this was like magic to a post-Industrial Revolution world—Industry 2.0 perhaps.
As to wireless electricity (or wireless lightning), that was pure magic. Tesla would demonstrate to captive crowds of people his ability to light Geissler tubes (like modern-day neon lights) with no wires. As amazing as it was, it never caught on as a household technology like our incandescent lights of today. However, Tesla’s dream of wireless electricity is now actually seeing a renaissance with wireless charging bases for modern-day mobile devices!
Tesla eventually moved to Colorado Springs in 1899 to further study conductivity of wireless electricity in low air pressure altitudes. He was able to generate millions of volts of discharges up to 135 feet in the air.
Ultimately, Nikola Tesla had to shutter his Colorado lab and return to NYC where he struggled for decades to get funding for some of his most grand projects, such as a wireless communication tower that could transmit across the Atlantic.
Near the end of his life, Tesla also pondered some of the greatest questions of the universe, and even challenged Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
He eventually died on January 7, 1943 at the age of 86. He was rather penniless and largely disregarded at that time.
However, posthumously, his genius and his popularity would rise through the writings of biographers, the production of media centering around him from radio to TV to films and even video games. And through the many, many honors he earned throughout his lifetime, including: Cross of the Order of the Yugoslav Crown (Yugoslavia, 1931), John Scott Medal (Franklin Institute & Philadelphia City Council, USA, 1934), Grand Cross of the Order of the White Lion (Czechoslovakia, 1937), and the Medal of the University of Paris (Paris, France, 1937).
Statuary and plaques in his honor are all over the world, including in Niagara Falls in Ontario, Croatia, and Azerbaijan to name a few. Despite a long, yet tumultuous career, Nikola Tesla could most certainly be considered The Godfather of all Progressive Pioneers.