Nikola Tesla (1856-1943)

Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system.

Tesla gained experience in telephony and electrical engineering before emigrating to the United States in 1884 to work for Thomas Edison in New York City. He soon struck out on his own with financial backers, setting up laboratories and companies to develop a range of electrical devices. His patented AC induction motor and transformer were licensed by George Westinghouse, who also hired Tesla for a short time as a consultant. His work in the formative years of electric-power development was involved in a corporate alternating current/direct current “War of Currents” as well as various patent battles. He became a naturalized US citizen in 1891.

Tesla went on to pursue his ideas of wireless lighting and electricity distribution in his high-voltage, high-frequency power experiments in New York and Colorado Springs and made early (1893) pronouncements on the possibility of wireless communication with his devices. He tried to put these ideas to practical use in an ill-fated attempt at intercontinental wireless transmission, his unfinished Wardenclyffe Tower project. In his lab, he also conducted a range of experiments with mechanical oscillators/generators, electrical discharge tubes, and early X-ray imaging. He also built a wireless controlled boat, one of the first ever exhibited.

Tesla was renowned for his achievements and showmanship, eventually earning him a reputation in popular culture as an archetypal “mad scientist”. His patents earned him a considerable amount of money, much of which was used to finance his own projects with varying degrees of success. He lived most of his life in a series of New York hotels through his retirement. Tesla died on 7 January 1943. His work fell into relative obscurity after his death, but in 1960, the General Conference on Weights and Measures named the SI unit of magnetic flux density the tesla in his honor. There has been a resurgence in popular interest in Tesla since the 1990s.

Tesla obtained around 300 patents worldwide for his inventions. Some of Tesla’s patents are not accounted for, and various sources have discovered some that have lain hidden in patent archives. There are a minimum of 278 patents issued to Tesla in 26 countries that have been accounted for. Many of Tesla’s patents were in the United States, Britain, and Canada, but many other patents were approved in countries around the globe. Many inventions developed by Tesla were not put into patent protection.

Nikola Tesla on Time Magazine (1931)
Nikola Tesla on Time Magazine (1931)

Tesla’s legacy has endured in books, films, radio, TV, music, live theater, comics and video games. The impact of the technologies invented or envisioned by Tesla is a recurring theme in several types of science fiction.

On Tesla’s 75th birthday, in 1931, Time magazine put him on its cover. The cover caption “All the world’s his power house” noted his contribution to electrical power generation. He received congratulatory letters from more than 70 pioneers in science and engineering, including Albert Einstein.

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