Today, Nikola Tesla is known as one of the most renowned physicists and engineers the world has ever seen. During his time however, his numerous inventions and breakthroughs within his field failed to translate to financial success.
Born in Croatia in 1857, Tesla was the son of an Orthodox priest with his mother managing the family’s farm. His brother, just five years older than he at the time, was killed in a horse riding accident when Nikola was 7. Many historians cite this as the source of his lifelong mental health issues.
Tesla would go on to study math and physics at the Technical University of Graz in Austria, then philosophy at the University of Prague. Shortly after, he would begin to work on the first drafts of his brushless AC motor, which would eventually become a staple in the world of electric cars. Two years later, Tesla immigrated to the United States, arriving in New York in 1884.
His first ventures within the U.S. would begin with working as an engineer for Thomas Edison’s Manhattan headquarters. Not even a year passed before Edison began to take notice of Tesla’s remarkable talents. He would eventually design an improved version of Edison’s DC dynamos, which Edison himself offered to buy from him for $50,000. In the months following, Tesla worked to master this new design, which he presented to Edison requesting the money. Edison refused to pay him, and Tesla quit soon after.
Once Tesla was able to find support for his research into alternating current in 1887, he received over 30 patents between then and 1888 for his numerous inventions. Tesla was then invited to showcase his work at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, where he met George Westinghouse; a fellow inventor and rival of Thomas Edison. Westinghouse developed the first AC power system, sparking the “Battle of the Currents” between him and Edison.
Tesla and Westinghouse began working collaboratively shortly after, with Westinghouse licensing his patents for the AC motor, in addition to giving him his own lab. While their work together would find decent success, Tesla again sought to work by himself after realizing that his financial success was primarily due to Westinghouse’s royalties. They would, however, renegotiate their contract and continue their joint efforts.
In the 1890s, Tesla brought a number of inventions to life, such as electric oscillators, more efficient forms of lighting, and, of course, the Tesla coil. He and Westinghouse would go on to partner with General Electric, and install AC generators within Niagara Falls; the first modern power station in the world.
Tragedy soon struck Tesla in 1895 when his lab burned down in New York, destroying years’ worth of research and equipment. He would eventually relocate to Colorado Springs in an attempt to regather as much information as he could, returning to New York in 1900. After a failed financial project backed by J.P. Morgan, Tesla’s mental health deterioration would catch up with him, leading to his death in 1943.
While the success Nikola Tesla saw during his lifetime was limited, his achievements and legacy left behind have stood the test of time. The AC system he had mastered remains as the gold standard in power transmission today. Elon Musk has even paid homage by naming his remarkably successful company after the genius investor: Tesla.