tesla coil

A Tesla Coil Christmas Tree

The first thing I remember learning about Nikola Tesla that stuck with me for a long time was his invention the Tesla Coil. At the time, I didn’t exactly know what it was, but I knew that it had something to do with electricity. When I later found out that many people were not even aware of that much, let alone knowing the man’s name, I decided to do some research on the scientist to satisfy my curiosity regarding who he really was and why he wasn’t as famous as Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton. What I remember discovering about Tesla even in just my initial findings was extraordinary. He was a brilliant scientist – though perhaps rather crazy as well – but how many scientists are any different?

The reason why many don’t know of him is because he was outshined by Thomas Edison, a rival of Tesla’s but in no way his superior. Tesla was brighter and had thousands more revolutionary inventions than Edison, yet Edison is remembered for plenty while Tesla is not. Tesla was born in modern day Croatia and lived from 1856-1943, yet he thought of the concept of wireless power transmission and experimented with it long before scientists today ever even considered experimenting with the idea. Tesla was so ahead of his time with all of his crazy inventions that he has simply become a fascinating man to learn about.

Even at a young age, a mere three years old, Tesla was already philosophizing about things that were far bigger than him. Simply observing static electricity around his cat was enough to pique his interest in the phenomenon for years to come. That wasn’t the only thing on the boy’s mind either, as he was a child prodigy, a genius from the start who had seemed to have inherited his gift of creativity and the ability to come up with unique inventions from his mother, Djuka. Tesla’s mind was so active that in school he was able to perform integral calculus entirely in his head, a feat that could be categorized as amazing, and was so much so that his teachers thought he was cheating when he did not show his work.

Nikola Tesla had many passions, but mainly his mind was set on mathematics and on what he could learn by delving into the various sciences. So, he set his mind on becoming an engineer, and in that way he would be able to satisfy his interests. Unfortunately for the young Tesla, his father was a priest and was opposed to the idea, wanting his son to follow in his footsteps and for him to become a priest as well. Obviously this hardly sat well with Tesla, who aspired to become a man of science not a man of faith. Coincidentally, as fate would have it, a seventeen year old Tesla managed to contract cholera and, while his fate seemed dire, he managed to get his father to promise him that if he survived, he would be allowed to attend the renowned Austrian Polytechnic School at Graz to study engineering. As fortune would have it, Tesla made a full recovery and his father had no choice but to see his promise through.

While in attendance at the Polytechnic school, Nikola Tesla had the opportunity to study mechanical and electrical engineering. Even while he was a mere student, he was able to offer unique suggestions to his teachers about topics that were likely beyond many of the other students’ capacities to understand at their current level. It was during that time, when a physics teacher at the school demonstrated to the students a new Gramme Dynamo that used direct current in order to act as a motor and generator, that Tesla made the suggestion that it the entire device could be designed in a different way and be capable of using alternating currents rather than direct. It probably came as a shock to him when the teacher’s response to his idea was not one of someone who had very much faith in what had been suggested, unfortunately, the physics teacher did not believe that it could be done. However, that only made the young Tesla challenge himself even more with figuring out a way to make it a reality over the next few years.

But Tesla was not completely consumed by his work just yet. He was twenty four years old and working for the Central Telephone Exchange in Budapest, while the other pieces of his time were devoted toward his love, science. Then it hit him, the answer he had been looking for finally presented itself to him out of the blue one day. Nikola Tesla described the memory as follows:

One afternoon, which is ever present in my recollection, I was enjoying a walk with my friend in the city park and reciting poetry. At that age I knew entire books by heart, word for word. One of these was Goethe’s Faust. The sun was just setting and reminded me of a glorious passage:

The glow retreats, done is the day of toil;
It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring;
Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil
Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!

As I uttered these inspiring words the idea came like a flash of lightning and in an instant the truth was revealed. I drew with a stick on the sand the diagram shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

ac motor

The diagram that Tesla was speaking of as depicted in his patent for the Alternating Motor

Tesla was then hired by electric power companies in Strasbourg and Paris whose operations ran on DC power while he continued his work on AC power. Although he had the patent for an AC motor, the problem was managing a way to physically create it. He tried to get investors interested but, ultimately, he failed and instead turned toward Thomas Edison, who at the time was regarded as the greatest known electrical engineer.

This was the reason behind Nikola Tesla’s relocation to America when he was twenty eight years old; arriving in New York City, his first thoughts had to do with his concept of the way civilization appeared, that civilization in America was behind Europe by at least a hundred years. And, as an immigrant and being understandably impoverished upon arrival, he wasn’t in much of a position to do any better than those he saw struggling on the streets. But poverty wasn’t the only thing making the streets of lower Manhattan dangerous in those days. With Edison’s invention of the incandescent light bulb being in high demand, and with such a large consumption of power as a result, Edison’s DC power station in lower Manhattan had to put out a lot of electricity. This was extremely dangerous for the citizens; exposed electrical wiring was everywhere, all along the streets. Curious children used to climb up the poles that held up the sagging wires and were killed by the dangerous electrical output. Even the electric trolley tracks were dangerous because of DC power, but it became such commonplace that residents grew used to dodging the shocks that such things shot off.

Well, it happened that like any person who has the opportunity to meet his hero in person, Tesla was full of excitement when he finally came to meet Edison in the flesh. One of the first things he did was explain his concept for an AC motor to the renowned electrical engineer, hoping for an opinion, for praise, for someone to have some confidence in him that it could be done. Tesla received no such reassurance from Edison, the man did not want to help him, he saw Tesla as competition and wanted to hinder him. Edison had understanding of DC power and that was all that he wanted, he didn’t see any point in investing any time into AC power when he could simply stay on his own track, not even bothering to think about what was going through Tesla’s mind with this AC power.

Yet Edison hired the younger scientist to work for him, knowing that the man with such an understanding of electricity might be able to improve upon Edison’s already existing DC generation plants. Perhaps he had simply hired Tesla as a joke, but for whatever reason, it was done and Tesla trusted his employer, his hero. Maybe Edison had not actually believed that Tesla would be able to do it, who knows aside from Edison if his employing Tesla had been but a cruel joke as he promised $50,000 to the young man provided that he could successfully improve the DC power plants.

It only took Tesla several months to complete the task that Edison had given him. In due time, he asked for the payment in return for all the work he had done to improve the DC power plants, but it was denied him. Tesla was told that he had been mistaken, that he had interpreted Edison’s meaning incorrectly because he was not an American; he was conned out of the money that he had rightly earned because Edison refused to stand by his promise. Edison claimed he had never promised such things, it had all been a ‘harmless’ joke. The last sentence that he spoke to Tesla before the latter removed himself from his employ was, “When you become a full-fledged American you will appreciate an American joke.”

tesla comic

From then until the end of history, Tesla and Edison became something of a pair of rivals, constantly competing between one another, the one always trying to one up the other. They both experimented with electricity and other inventions, but it was clear that aside from that they were vastly different people. Whenever Tesla worked on creating things, he would visualize the concepts solely in his mind, inspired by single moments his inventions remained in full detail entirely within his brain until he had perfected the idea through mere thought. Only then would he advance toward actually, physically creating his inventions. Edison, on the other hand, was very different minded, as evinced by their sharply different methods of going about their work.

After his struggles with being mistreated by Edison, Tesla was not entirely demoralized. A group of investors who were willing to fund his research approached him one day and ended up financing Tesla’s Electric Light Company. They asked him to develop an improved method for arc lighting, a job that he took on and successfully saw it through with ease. The arc lamp that Tesla invented for them was unique, beautifully designed, efficient, and however amazing, its creation still did not bring any money in for the inventor. He was rewarded with no money as the investors received all the profit brought in by the arc lamp.

However, in a turn of tides Tesla’s dream was about to be realized when finally, someone, A.K Brown of the Western Union Company, spoke to him about how he was willing to invest in the development of Tesla’s AC motor. Now with the money required to build his invention, and with a laboratory to work in, it would come as no surprise that Tesla was able to develop in a short time the components that he required for the system of AC power generation and transmission that he’d had in mind for so long. This very system of delivering electricity is the same one that still has many uses in the world today. Unfortunately for Tesla, his work on the motor was done, but the process of incorporating that technology – and the rest of his inventions to come – into the world properly still needed to be figured out…

Alternating Motor Patent; image from: http://www.pbs.org/tesla/res/555190.html

Tesla Coil; image from: http://tesladownunder.com/Xmas.htm

All Information on Nikola Tesla’s Life; from: http://www.pbs.org/tesla/ll/index.html