Being born at precisely midnight on the night of 9 July/morning of 10 July 1856 during a fierce lightning storm proved to be a portent of what the future had in store for Nikola Tesla. In 1884, when he first arrived in the US, Tesla had little more than the clothes he was wearing and a letter of recommendation written by his previous employer addressed to Thomas Edison; the letter read in part:

“I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.”

Tesla was hired, and worked for Edison for a time before the two engaged in the “war of currents” as equals. Tesla prevailed to become the man who shaped the 20th century. He claimed to have invented a “death ray” that could “send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 250 miles from a defending nation’s border and will cause armies of millions to drop dead in their tracks”. You’ve used one of his inventions today. However, despite celebrity and wide acclaim, a bumpy road led him to die destitute and alone.

From a young age, Tesla encountered moments of elaborate inspiration⁠— able to picture a the workings of something from a mere concept. He worked for a time for the American Telephone Company before he moved on to Edison Machine Works in Paris. While there he first conceptualized the induction motor–the device that brought about the Second Industrial Revolution. Not knowing that he’d changed the world with that one invention, Tesla continued working, and in 1884 moved to the United States bearing the aforementioned letter of recommendation. Thomas Edison did give Nikola Tesla a job–a job at which the young man excelled, and was soon entrusted to work on some of the company’s most vexing problems. Among the problems that Edison’s company faced was a need to redesign his DC generators. Tesla reported that Edison promised $50,000 for redesign and improvement of the generator, which Tesla did. However, when he inquired after the promised bounty, he claimed that Edison scoffed and said: “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” He later quit Edison Machine Works when he was refused a raise.

Modern Tesla coil in action
Modern Tesla coil in action

After establishing his own company in 1886, Tesla and Edison found themselves at odds on the future of electrical power. Edison believed in using Direct Current (DC) electricity whereas Tesla was a proponent of Alternating Current. The term “War of Currents” was used because of the extreme measures taken in the dispute. Up to this time, the primary form of power used was DC–which was fine for the task of lending light to a city, but Tesla saw and understood the limitations of DC. Such limitations included that one could not convey the power very far, thus there would need to be a large number of local generators; and that most motors actually used AC, thus would need to be converted. If AC power supplanted DC, however, Edison was poised to lose fortunes in patents. Thus the battle was begun, with Edison electrocuting animals–mostly stray dogs and cats–to show the “dangerous nature” of AC. He even electrocuted an ill-tempered elephant named Topsy from Coney Island’s Luna Park, and filmed the execution for posterity.

Despite the propaganda, DC proved less effective, and Tesla’s AC became the current used throughout the world’s electrical grids today. Nevertheless, the conflict left both participants nearly bankrupt. Tesla wasn’t one to stay down for long; he wasted no time in conducting further research, and laid the groundwork for radio, wireless remote control, wireless power transmission, the spark plug, use of the ionosphere in manipulating radio, and many other concepts. Some ideas were financial failures, but for all those that made money, he ended up reinvesting it in further experiments. Eventually, “The Great War” (World War I, as it would later be known) robbed Tesla of his European investors, and many of his works had to be torn down to either use the metal for the war effort, or because people feared his inventions could be used by the enemy.

Upon Edison’s death, most of the remarks made in his epitaph were kind, save those from Tesla, who said of his former employer: “He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene.”

100 Serbian dinar banknote front
100 Serbian dinar banknote front

In 1891, Tesla became an official citizen of the United States, but later in his life, Tesla was considered to be the archetypical mad scientist. He was an outspoken proponent of human eugenics. He claimed to have devised a “Dynamic theory of gravity” which disagreed with the model of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity; but his theory was never published, and no comprehensive notes are to be found on the subject. We therefore have no real means of measuring the theory’s validity. Later, Tesla made another grand claim that he’d designed a “teleforce weapon”–the death ray capable of dropping entire armies and swarms of airplanes. He offered to sell this weapon to the state department, but no one took him up on the offer.

The last time Tesla was seen alive, he was retiring to room in The New Yorker Hotel on the evening of 5 January 1943. Sometime thereafter he died of heart failure, and was not discovered until the maid was required to open the door and found him three days later. Almost immediately, the US Office of Alien Property moved into Tesla’s home and labs to take possession of all his notes and property–it was a highly unorthodox move since Tesla was a citizen.

For those who could make it, Tesla is immortalized as a statue at Niagara, New York depicting the master of lighting; a Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia; and he is featured on the Serbian 100 dinar banknote. Despite the fact that Nikola was a bit of a nutter, it was his work that allowed the 20th century to unfold as it did. His contribution far exceeds what one could convey in a short article.