Nikola Tesla (1846–1943)

Tesla was one of the most brilliant and prolific inventors of his generation, remembered for his contributions to electrical power – the basis for the second industrial revolution. Among his multiple discoveries and inventions were the rotating magnetic field, multiphase electric motors using alternating current and the three-phase system of transmission.

He was born in the Austrian Empire and died a naturalised citizen of the United States. His father was a parish priest in the village of Smiljan, now in Croatia. He went to school in the city of Karlovac and then studied at the Imperial-Royal Technical School in Graz, where he was fascinated by demonstrations of electricity. In 1881 he took a job in Budapest at the new telephone exchange, and the year afterwards he went to Paris and a job with the Continental Edison Company where he was in charge of installing incandescent lighting. When Edison’s Paris manager returned to New York in 1884, he arranged for Tesla to go with him.

Within six months, Tesla left to develop his own designs. He produced improvements to arc lighting systems and direct-current generators. Two businessmen financed Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing but they collapsed the company with the result that Tesla lost control of his patents and was left penniless. Two more investors backed him to create the Tesla Electric Company in 1887 and set up a laboratory in Manhattan. In 1888 he patented the first induction motor that ran on alternating current (AC). The design was licensed by the Westinghouse company, which was developing AC supplies for American cities in competition with Edison’s direct current (DC) system. After initial problems, Westinghouse made production models of the induction motor from 1893 and quickly dominated the new market for flexible and convenient electric motors for industrial use. This began a revolution in mechanical power, in which designs were continuously improved and developed in many countries. Tesla developed small electric motors for use in domestic appliances such as the rotary fan that Westinghouse sold from 1891.

By the late 1890s Tesla was wealthy. He established the Nikola Tesla Company to explore and exploit a range of inventions. Among diverse technologies he worked with were X-rays, lighting, radio remote-control, electrical transmission without wires and aeronautics. The Tesla coil became widely used in radio and television sets. Through his life he registered around 200 patents, though the majority never had practical outcomes. By the early 1920s most of his patents had expired and after living for many years in luxury hotels he was effectively bankrupt. Westinghouse helped to support him for the rest of his life.

Museums in Serbia and Croatia celebrate Tesla’s legacy and there are monuments to him in many countries. Since his death the Tesla unit of measurement and the Tesla motor company have been named in tribute to him.