Nikola Tesla

By Aileen Marshall

Nikola Tesla in his Colorado lab, 1899

Nikola Tesla in his Colorado lab, 1899

Who was Nikola Tesla? Does this name ring a bell somewhere in your brain but you can’t quite place him? Wasn’t he some sort of scientist? The showing of the movie “Tower to the People: Tesla’s Dream at Wardenclyffe” by the Rockefeller Science Communications and Media Group inspired me to find out. It turns out Tesla was quiet a visionary scientist who worked on many aspects of electricity and physics.

Tesla was born on July 10, 1856 to Serbian parents in what is now Croatia. When he was 19 he started at Austrian Polytechnic and did remarkably well there at first. During his third year he developed a gambling problem and did not take his final exams. He did not receive grades for his final semester and never graduated. He worked as a draftsman until 1880 when his family sent him to Charles Ferdinand University in Prague. He arrived too late to enroll but audited courses there for a year.

The next year he moved to Budapest and worked to improve equipment for the Budapest Telephone Exchange. He moved to New York City in 1882 and was hired by Thomas Edison. He worked on redesigning the Edison Company’s direct current generators. When he came up with a more efficient design, he was offered a mere $10 raise over his $18 a week salary. Tesla felt that was an insult and quit.

In 1886 he found investors to finance a company to make lighting systems and electric motors. However they didn’t agree with his idea to develop a new electric system infrastructure and forced him out and he lost his patents. Then he found other backers who built a lab for him at 89 Liberty Street. It is here that Tesla developed his alternating current motor. Alternating current (AC) is now used to send electricity over long distances over power lines. Direct current (DC) is what we have in our households. Tesla gave a demonstration of his AC system at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (now The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) in 1888. He later served as the organization’s vice president. His presentation was reported to George Westinghouse. His AC motor was licensed to Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company and he was hired to work in their labs in Pittsburgh, developing AC system to power the city’s streetcars. This was the beginning of the “War of Currents” between Edison’s DC system and Westinghouse’s AC system. By 1892 Edison’s company was purchased by General Electric.

In 1891 Tesla founded a lab on South Fifth Avenue (now LaGuardia Place) and then 46 East Houston Street where he invented his Tesla coil. A Tesla coil is a high-voltage, high-frequency transformer producing AC wireless electricity. Tesla was always an advocate of wireless energy. He held a demonstration of wireless energy at Columbia University. He had two zinc sheets suspended on each end of the room, and when he passed between the two sheets, a light bulb in his hand was turned on. He would often give demonstrations to friends, one of whom was Mark Twain.

Besides electricity and motors, Tesla worked over the years on x-rays, radio waves and developed a remote-controlled boat that was eventually sold to the US Army. In March of 1895, a fire destroyed his Fifth Avenue lab and all his notebooks were lost. Tesla was devastated.

After a few years, Tesla got interested in investigating the resonant frequency of the earth’s crust as a means to transmit power. But that was impossible to do in Manhattan with its infrastructure. So in May of 1899, he moved to Colorado Springs. He had contacts there who would give him electricity for free. He observed natural lightening and produced his own. The thunder from his lightening could be heard 15 miles away. The electricity in the air would cause butterflies to fly in circles and glow with St. Elmo’s fire, a phenomenon where an aura around an object appears due to ions in the air during a lightening storm. Over the front door of the lab Tesla had the quote from Dante’s Inferno “abandon all hope all ye who enter here.” It was in Colorado that he observed signals from his receiver in the pattern of “1, 2, 3….” He was convinced it must be from intelligent life of another planet. While he was greatly mocked in the press, it was later reported that Marconi observed the same phenomenon. It is now known that these are signals from stars.

Having established the possibility of wireless energy, he returned to New York. He met with financer J.P. Morgan for funding to build a wireless transmitter. He wanted to send radio signals from New York to Greenwich, England. He even proposed a handheld device that would receive stock prices in real time, so that brokers would not have to stay on the Stock Exchange floor all day. Morgan promised him $150,000 and Tesla bought land in Shoreham, Long Island from a man named Warden. He called his facility Wardenclyffe in his honor. His friend, the famous architect Stanford White designed the plant and tower. Besides a lab and plant building on the property, he also built many small houses for workers he called “Radio City” and a 186 foot tower to send radio signals to England. The tower had a 300-foot shaft into the ground and tunnels connecting it to the buildings.

Tesla’s dream of providing free wireless energy to the world ended in 1901 when Marconi successfully transmitted a radio signal to Newfoundland, Canada. After that Morgan lost interest. Tesla proposed to build an even bigger tower to transmit electricity and started construction. While Morgan still owed him the balance of the original $150,000, he never answered any of Tesla’s letters. Tesla sent Morgan 50 letters over the next five years and got further into debt. Morgan finally answered in 1904, saying it would be impossible for him to do anything more. After World War I, Tesla lost the money from his European patents. He finally sold the land in 1917 and it fell into disrepair. It was eventually bought by a company making chemicals for film developing, but they later abandoned it.

After Tesla moved back to New York, he published an article on a proposed system to detect submarine locations using an “electric ray” with the signals viewed on a fluorescent screen. He later developed plans for a vertical-lift airplane. He and Edison were nominated for the Nobel Prize several times over the next twenty years, but in their animosity, each belittled the achievements of the other. Neither one ever won the prize.

On January 5 in 1943, he left his room to feed the pigeons in Bryant Park as was his habit. He was hit by a cab, and was taken back to his room but refused to see a doctor. He died a few days later of his injuries.

The movie “Tower to the People: Tesla’s Dream at Wardenclyffe” details the history of the Wardenclyffe facility and the efforts of a community group to buy the property and restore it as a historical monument. The producer, Joseph Sikorski, also made the movie “Fragments from Olympus” about Nikola Tesla. Information about both movies can be found at ◉


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