Happy Birthday, Mr. Tesla!

By Vernon Trollinger, July 10, 2014, Events & Fun

Happy Birthday, Mr. Tesla!

Take a moment today in front of one of your home electrical outlets and pause in grateful reflection.

Nikola Tesla was born on this date 158 years ago in Smiljan, Croatia. Not only was Tesla a mathematical genius, physicist, futurist, engineer, and prolific inventor, but his work on alternating current (AC) set the standard that made the modern electrical grid (as well as hundreds of other technologies) possible.

The Buzz of Early History

Tesla attended Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, Austria in 1875 to study mathematics and physics, but his attention was quickly captivated by electricity. His first year was marked with success and commendations, but his second with disagreement with faculty and dissipation as he became addicted to gambling. Subsequent financial problems forced him out of college. He drifted, briefly audited lectures at the University of Prague, and with family help, found a position at the Budapest Telephone Exchange. There he would eventually become Chief Electrician and make numerous improvements to equipment.

Tesla next landed a position with the Continental Edison Company in Paris, France. He submitted a plan for improving the Edison dynamos to the company’s administrator, and the plan was approved. As a German-speaker, he was sent to Strasbourg (then part of Germany) in 1883 to repair a railroad power plant built by the Edison Company. While there, he privately invented the first AC induction motor. In time, it would revolutionize the world.

Returning to Paris later that year, he was unable to find backing to develop his AC motor. However, Charles Batchelor, head of the French Edison, had been recalled to manage the Edison Machine Works in New York. In America, the race was on to develop successful power utilities to supply entire cities with electricity. Batchelor knew of Tesla’s dynamo improvements, and in 1884 took Tesla with him to improve Edison’s dynamos in the US.

Lighting Up the Room

Telsa worked on installing both arch and incandescent lighting systems as well as repairing dynamos and motor commutators. Asked to redesign the company’s existing direct current (DC) equipment, Tesla set to work, believing (as he would later say) that he was promised $50,000 to do the job. When he presented the finished work to his boss, Thomas Edison said that the amount was just a joke and offered him a modest raise. Tesla resigned instead, having only spent 6 months with the company.

Telsa spent the next year setting up a new company with two investors who soon forced him out. Penniless, he spent the winter of 1886 to 1887 doing odd jobs. At one point, he dug ditches for $2/day. By spring, he had found new backers and established the Tesla Electric Company. Tesla set up his own laboratory in Manhattan to develop new types of motors and generators, and soon filed for seven patents covering polyphase AC motors, generators, and power transmission.

The War of Currents

At the time, most electrical systems —most notably the ones developed, patented, sold, and licensed by Thomas Edison’s Company— relied upon DC power. It had one phase, that is positive and negative. And while it was effective for generating power, it became increasingly expensive to transmit that power the longer the length of copper wire grew. Plus, the utility grid could not maintain enough power further than 2 miles away from the generator.

Alternating current alternates direction, as in the positive and negative switches oscillates. Tesla later adapted the rate of the change to happen 60 times a second (expressed as 60 Hertz). Higher voltages of power could be now used to transmit more power over greater distances with less power loss due to wire resistance. Power can then be stepped down by using a transformer to the appropriate lower home-voltage as needed.

Unfortunately for Tesla, DC was the only viable market choice for electrical distribution at the time. Even worse, his new AC wouldn’t work with the available DC electric motors, and since AC motors weren’t being built, consumers could only use DC current.

Enter George Westinghouse. After inventing railroad air brakes and safety valves for residential natural gas lines, this Pittsburgh inventor became interested in the electricity utility business, but was convinced that Tesla’s AC had better possibilities than Edison’s DC. Westinghouse bought Tesla’s patents for $60,000 and also agreed to pay royalties of $2.50 per horsepower of electrical capacity sold.

The War of Currents” between Edison and Westinghouse raged for years. Westinghouse was able to show the improvements offered by AC while Edison railed at the increased risk of high voltage electricity, saying “Westinghouse will kill a customer within 6 months after he puts in a system of any size.” When the state of New York announced it sought to replace hanging with the electric chair, Edison eagerly demonstrated the danger of AC power by electrocuting a dog in front of reporters. It was only the botched and ghastly execution of William Kemmler that muted Edison’s shrill warnings.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Tesla!

Generating His Place in History

At long last, Westinghouse’s company outbid Edison to win the contract in 1893 to power the Chicago World’s Fair. Tesla engineered an 11,000 kW polyphase generation and distribution system that relied on 12 generators. Of the 27 million people who attended the fair, including President Grover Cleveland, none were electrocuted. Tesla’s technology defeated Edison’s, and within a year, Edison’s company would reorganize to become General Electric and adopt the use of AC power.

From then on, the standard electrical current in the US became 110- 120 volts AC, at about 60 hertz.

Tesla would go on to experiment, invent, and discover things that would change human life for ever: X-rays, radio waves, artificial lightning, and the Tesla Coil (the precursor to the fly-back transformer used in early television sets ). He would also delve into things that even to this day seem incredible: the resonant frequency of the earth, the wireless transmission of electrical energy attempted at Wardenclyffe, New York, and — most sensational — his famous 1934 “directed-energy weapon”, a charged particle beam projector that was never fully realized. Though Tesla carried the whole project to his grave, both the Soviet Union and the United States built versions of this during the Cold War.

On January 7, 1943, Nikola Tesla died at the New Yorker Hotel. A confirmed bachelor, he had never married because he maintained it would be too distracting to his work. Renowned for his achievements and showmanship, Tesla’s cremated remains were first buried in New York and later moved to the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Tesla!

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) at Age 34 and Nikola Tesla Time Magazine cover images courtesy of wikipedia.

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A native of Wyomissing Hills, PA, Vernon Trollinger studied writing and film at the University of Iowa, later earning his MA in writing there as well. Following a decade of digging in CRM archaeology, he now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, DIY projects, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.

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