Nikola Tesla was an engineering pioneer. Sure, the articles that feature him may well focus on some of other aspects of his life. As an example, Tesla was, rather appropriately, born in the middle of a violent electrical storm; he also had a famous rivalry with Thomas Edison, the other great electrical pioneer of the age.
Even so, for all his human qualities, not all of them good, Tesla deserves to be remembered mostly for his work with electricity.
It’s probably fair to say that Tesla, a naturalised American who had been born in Serbia in 1856, was generally more of a visionary than a straightforwardly mechanical guy.
Over a century ago he told J. P. Morgan, who was funding his research at the time, that in the future people would have been able to have messages and stock quotes delivered to their hand via airborne messaging, wherever they were in the world.
Does that remind you of anything? Tesla was pretty much anticipating the rise of handheld, wireless communication.
Tesla wasn’t all about wild and crazy schemes, though. He was the man who brought alternating current technology, something which the world now relies on for almost all its domestic power, to the point at which it became a practical reality.
He worked for Edison for many years, but was consistently snubbed because Edison was pushing his own direct current method of generating power. On one occasion, Edison is said to have offered Tesla $50,000 for devising energy saving ideas relating to Edison’s DC system, then refused to pay up when his assistant did just that.
Even so, it was Tesla who had the last laugh: his AC system won the day.
Despite all his brilliance, Tesla was never a Nobel Prize laureate. However, Nikola’s crowning glory came at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. This was the first event of its size ever to be completely illuminated by electricity and the generators the fair used ran on Tesla’s AC system. Not that he rested on his laurels after this.
Instead, he turned his incredible brain to the new disciplines of X-ray science and radio. He wasn’t too successful with the former, but in 1898, his public demonstration of a radio-controlled model boat amazed a large crowd at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
In the 20th century, Tesla concentrated increasingly on performing large-scale experiments on high-frequency, high-voltage power generation. He moved to Colorado Springs to give himself the space he needed and, after a few years, had succeeded in generating enormous sparks of artificial lightning, many of them over 100 feet in length and with voltages running into the millions.
Although he lived into his eighties, Tesla’s later years were relatively less productive, although he did file a patent for a vertical take-off plane in 1928. He was badly injured in a road accident in 1937 and died in 1943, having been reduced to poverty. While it might have been a sad end for one of the most remarkable electrical engineers ever to have lived, his legacy lives on through most of our electricity-centred lives.