By the end of his brilliant and tortured life, the Serbian American physicist, engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla was penniless and living in a small New York City hotel room. He spent his days in a park surrounded by the creatures that mattered most to him—pigeons—and his sleepless nights ruminating on mathematical equations and scientific problems. He designed and perfected his inventions in his head, a habit that would confound scientists and scholars for many years after his death.

Tesla believed his mind to be without equal, and he wasn’t above chiding his contemporaries, such as Thomas Edison, who once hired him. If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, Tesla once said, “he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once, with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search.”

But what his contemporaries may have been lacking in scientific talent (by Tesla’s estimation), they made up for in other ambitions. Inventors like Edison and George Westinghouse possessed one trait that Tesla did not: a mind for business. In the last days of America’s Gilded Age, Tesla made a dramatic attempt to change the future of communications and power transmission around the world. He managed to convince J.P. Morgan that he was on the verge of a breakthrough, and the financier gave Tesla more than $150,000 to fund what would become a gigantic, futuristic and startling tower in the middle of Long Island in New York. In 1898, as Tesla’s plans to create a worldwide wireless transmission system became known, Wardenclyffe Tower would be Tesla’s last chance to claim the recognition and wealth that had always escaped him.

A portrait of Tesla circa 1890
A portrait of Tesla circa 1890 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The eccentric engineer

Nikola Tesla was born in modern-day Croatia in 1856. His mother, Đuka Tesla, was a hard-working caretaker of their home and farm; she developed small appliances to ease her labor, including a mechanical eggbeater, and Tesla later credited her for his inventiveness. His father, Milutin Tesla, was a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church. From an early age, Nikola Tesla demonstrated an obsessiveness that left those around him puzzled and amused. He could memorize entire books and store logarithmic tables in his brain. He picked up languages easily, and he could work through days and nights on only a few hours of sleep.

By age 19, he was studying electrical engineering at the Imperial and Royal Technical College in Graz, Austria, where he quickly established himself as a star student. He found himself in an ongoing debate with a professor over perceived design flaws in the direct-current (DC) motors that were being demonstrated in class.

He would spend the next six years of his life thinking about electromagnetic fields and a hypothetical motor powered by alternating current (AC). The ideas obsessed him, and he was unable to focus on his schoolwork. Professors at the university warned Tesla’s father that the young scholar’s working and sleeping habits were killing him. Rather than finishing his studies, Tesla dropped out of school during his third year in 1878. He became addicted to gambling, lost all his tuition money and suffered a nervous breakdown. It would not be his last.

After recovering, Tesla moved to Budapest to work as a draftsman in 1881. “I hated drawing,” he wrote, “It was for me the very worst of annoyances.” But one day, he was walking through a park with his new friend Antal Szigety, reciting verses from Goethe’s Faust, when an “idea came like a lightning flash.” And there in the park, with a stick, Tesla drew a crude diagram in the dirt: a motor using the principle of rotating magnetic fields created by two or more alternating currents. While AC electrification had been employed before, there would never be a practical, working motor run on alternating current until he invented his induction motor several years later.

Tesla’s rise to the top

In June 1884, Tesla sailed for New York City, arriving with four cents in his pocket and a letter of recommendation from Charles Batchelor—a former employer—to Edison, which was purported to say, “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!”

Thomas Edison and his early phonograph
Thomas Edison and his early phonograph Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
George Westinghouse
George Westinghouse between 1900 and 1914 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A meeting was arranged, and once Tesla described the engineering work he was doing, Edison, though skeptical, hired him. According to Tesla, Edison offered him $50,000 if he could improve upon the DC generation plants Edison favored. Within a few months, Tesla informed the American inventor that he had indeed improved upon Edison’s motors. Edison, Tesla noted, refused to pay up. “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke,” Edison told him.

Tesla promptly quit and took a job digging ditches. But it wasn’t long before word got out that Tesla’s AC motor was worth investing in, and the Western Union Company put Tesla to work in a lab not far from Edison’s office, where he designed AC power systems that are still used around the world. “The motors I built there,” Tesla said, “were exactly as I imagined them. I made no attempt to improve the design, but merely reproduced the pictures as they appeared to my vision, and the operation was always as I expected.”

Thomas Edison Did Everything He Could To Stop Nikola Tesla Succeeding | Tesla's Death Ray

Tesla patented his AC motors and power systems, which were said to be the most valuable inventions since the telephone. Soon, Westinghouse, recognizing that Tesla’s designs might be just what he needed in his efforts to unseat Edison’s DC current, bought his patents for $60,000 in stocks, cash and royalties based on how much electricity Westinghouse could sell. Ultimately, he won the “War of the Currents,” but at a steep cost in litigation and competition for both Westinghouse and Edison’s General Electric Company.

Fearing ruin, Westinghouse begged Tesla for relief from the royalties he had agreed to. “Your decision determines the fate of the Westinghouse Company,” he said. Tesla, grateful to the man who had never tried to swindle him, tore up the royalty contract, walking away from millions of dollars in royalties that he was already owed and billions that would have accrued in the future. He would have been one of the wealthiest men in the world—a titan of the Gilded Age.

A ‘faint-hearted, doubting world’

Tesla’s work with electricity reflected just one facet of his fertile mind. Before the turn of the 20th century, Tesla had invented a powerful coil capable of generating high voltages and frequencies, leading to new forms of light, such as neon and fluorescent, as well as X-rays. Tesla also discovered that these coils, soon to be called “Tesla coils,” made it possible to send and receive radio signals. He quickly filed for American patents in 1897, beating the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi to the punch.

Tesla continued to work on his ideas for wireless transmissions, which he pitched to J.P. Morgan. After Morgan put up the $150,000 to build the giant transmission tower, Tesla promptly hired the noted architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead and White in New York. White, too, was smitten with Tesla’s idea. After all, this was the highly acclaimed man behind Westinghouse’s success with alternating current, and when Tesla talked, he was persuasive. As the inventor said at the time:

As soon as completed, it will be possible for a businessman in New York to dictate instructions and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere. He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing or print can be transferred from one to another place. Millions of such instruments can be operated from but one plant of this kind.

Tesla's tower
Tesla's 187-foot-tall Wardenclyffe Tower in 1904 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

White got to work designing Wardenclyffe Tower in 1901, but soon after construction began it became apparent that Tesla was going to run out of money too quickly. An appeal to Morgan for more funding proved fruitless, and in the meantime, investors were rushing to throw their money behind Marconi. In December 1901, the Italian inventor successfully sent a signal from England to Newfoundland, the first trans-Atlantic radio transmission. Tesla grumbled that Marconi was using 17 of his patents, but litigation eventually favored Marconi, and the commercial damage was done. (The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld Tesla’s claims, clarifying his role in the invention of the radio—but not until 1943, shortly after he died.) Thus, Marconi was credited as the inventor of radio and became rich. Wardenclyffe Tower became a 186-foot-tall relic (it would be razed in 1917) known as Tesla’s “million dollar folly.” The defeat—his worst yet—led to another breakdown. “It is not a dream,” Tesla said, “it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive—blind, faint-hearted, doubting world!”

By 1912, Tesla began to withdraw from that doubting world. He was showing signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He became consumed with cleanliness and fixated on the number three: excessively washing his hands, counting his steps, staying only in hotel rooms with numbers divisible by three and setting 18 napkins on his table during meals. He claimed to have an abnormal sensitivity to sounds, as well as an acute sense of sight, and he later wrote that he had “a violent aversion against the earrings of women,” and “the sight of a pearl would almost give me a fit.”

Near the end of his life, Tesla became fixated on pigeons, especially a specific white female, which he claimed to love almost as one would love a human being. Tesla said the white pigeon visited him through an open window at his hotel one night, and he believed the bird had come to tell him she was dying. He saw “two powerful beams of light” in the bird’s eyes, he recalled. “Yes, it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.” The pigeon died in his arms, and the inventor claimed that in that moment, he knew that he had finished his life’s work.

Tesla on the cover of Time magazine in 1931
Tesla on the cover of Time magazine in 1931 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the following years, Tesla would make news from time to time, while living on the 33rd floor of the New Yorker Hotel. In 1931, he made the cover of Time magazine, which featured his inventions on his 75th birthday. And in 1934, the New York Times reported that Tesla was working on a “Death Beam” capable of knocking 10,000 enemy airplanes out of the sky. “When put in operation, Dr. Tesla said, this latest invention of his would make war impossible,” surrounding countries like an impenetrable, invisible wall, the Times reported. He hoped to fund the prototypical defensive weapon in the interest of world peace, but Tesla’s appeals to J.P. Morgan Jr. and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went nowhere. The Soviet Union did fund his investigations of beam weapons in 1939, to the tune of $25,000, but the project languished.

Though the inventor’s genius had forever changed the world of electrical engineering, Tesla’s final days were clouded by his business and social ineptitudes. He died at age 86, in debt, though Westinghouse had been paying his room and board at the hotel for years.

Additional Sources
Reflections on the Mind of Nikola Tesla” by R. (Chandra) Chandrasekhar
Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney (1981)
The Cult of Nikola Tesla” by Brian Dunning
Tesla: Live and Legacy, Tower of Dreams,” PBS
My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla by Nikola Tesla (1982)
The Future of Wireless Art” by Nikola Tesla
The Problem of Increasing Human Energy With Special References to the Harnessing of the Sun’s Energy” by Nikola Tesla
“Nikola Tesla, History of Technology, The Famous Inventors Worldwide” by David S. Zondy

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