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Nikola Tesla was a mysterious man. He was a genius who opened the door to the modern world. However, he is often forgotten in history books. Radio, remote controls, and x-rays are just some of the incredible inventions that he gave the world, but he died a poor man. His most important invention, a system to produce and transmit electricity using AC power is still used today to power the world. Without Tesla, we might still be living in a world of darkness.
Tesla was born in a small town, in what is now Croatia, in 1856. From a young age, Tesla was a dreamer and an inventor. At the age of five, he designed a unique water wheel different from any other water wheel in his country. His ideas were not always successful, however. Once as a child he tried to fly by jumping off the roof of his house with an umbrella. Another time, he tried to make a motor powered by june bugs. A friend ate his bugs, which ended his project. Tesla also had a strange illness throughout his life. He would experience flashes of light. Sometimes these flashes would also include visions. At times, he could not tell the difference between these visions and reality. During one vision as a child, he saw Niagara Falls and a wheel powered by the waterfalls. Later, he told his uncle about his vision and said that one day he would travel to America and make it come true.
At the age of 28, Tesla traveled to the U.S. to work for the famous inventor, Thomas Edison. He arrived in New York City with only four cents in his pocket and a letter of introduction from one of Edison’s European business partners.
Today, Thomas Edison is most famous for inventing the light bulb, but he created over a thousand inventions. At that time, he had a successful power company. He had invented a system of producing and transmitting power using direct current or DC. Edison recognized Tesla’s great mind and hired him to work on his DC system. He offered Tesla fifty thousand dollars to improve his system. Fifty thousand dollars in today’s money is equal to a million dollars!
Tesla worked incredibly hard for Edison. His day usually started at 5:30 in the morning and he didn’t stop until 10:30 at night. After working these long hours for almost one year, he made great improvements to Edison’s DC system.
These improvements made Edison lots of money, but when Tesla asked him for the fifty thousand dollar payment, Edison laughed. He told Tesla, the money was just a joke and said, you don’t understand American humor. Tesla did not care about money, but he was deeply hurt. He could no longer trust Edison so he quit. Unable to find work as an engineer, he had to take a back breaking job digging holes for power lines. Ironically, the power lines were for Edison’s DC power system.
The problem with Edison’s DC system was that it was not an efficient way to transmit electricity. Using direct current, electricity could only be transmitted for short distances. This meant that power plants would need to be built in every neighborhood. This would be incredibly expensive and would have taken a long time. Of course, this many power plants would also make Edison a lot of money. Tesla believed that there was a much more efficient way to produce and transmit electricity using a system called AC, alternating current. Tesla received the money he needed to produce his AC system from the powerful businessman, George Westinghouse. It worked. AC was cheaper, safer, and more efficient.
Edison was afraid that his DC system would lose to Tesla’s AC system, so he attacked Tesla and his alternating current. It was called the War of Currents.
Edison said Tesla’s alternating current system was dangerous and would surely kill people. In truth, Tesla’s system was safer. Edison traveled the country holding public demonstrations where he connected animals to AC electricity and killed them. Many cats, dogs, pigs and even an elephant were all cruelly killed in Edison’s war against Tesla and AC power. Of course, Edison didn’t tell people that DC electricity could also kill. He didn’t stop with killing just animals.
Edison persuaded the state of New York to make the first electric chair, using alternating current. Just like with animals, this was a slow and painful method of killing human prisoners. Despite Edison’s attacks, Tesla was slowly winning the war of currents. In 1893, Tesla’s childhood vision came true.
Tesla and Westinghouse won a contract to make an AC power plant at Niagara Falls. In one day, he produced more power than all the power plants in the world combined. That same year, Westinghouse also won a contract to provide electricity to the Chicago World’s Fair. It was the greatest demonstration of electrical power in the world. Everyone now knew that AC was much more efficient and safer than Edison’s DC system. The War of Currents was over and Tesla had won.
Tesla had a contract with Westinghouse to receive part of all future profits produced using his invention. This contract should have made Tesla into the richest man in the world, but Westinghouse made some poor business decisions.
At one point, Westinghouse was at risk of losing his company and asked Tesla for help. Tesla could have watched Westinghouse lose his company and still would have become the world’s first billionaire.
Instead, Tesla famously destroyed his contract with Westinghouse. He gave up all of his future profits to save Westinghouse’s company.
Tesla didn’t care about money. His mind was always moving towards the next great invention. He went on to invent the technology for radio. Today, we think nothing of radio technology, but in Tesla’s time, to transmit information through the air without wires must have seemed magical. Again, Tesla’s genius attracted businessmen. They gave him money to fund his ideas, but Tesla could not think like a practical businessman. Tesla was always busier with bigger projects. A network of free and limitless energy that would connect the world was one dream that he worked on during his life. Tesla was so busy with his dream of providing free energy for the world that an Italian scientist, named Marconi, beat him in the race to produce radio. Marconi went on to become famous for developing the radio, but the truth was he had stolen Tesla’s ideas. Another dream of Tesla was to make a death ray that would shoot lightning. Tesla was a peaceful man at heart. He hoped that his death ray would be so powerful that it would end war forever. Most people thought he had gone crazy, but when he died the U.S. government quickly took all of his research papers, so no one else could build his weapon of death.
Despite his incredible mind, he was often remembered as a strange man. He always calculated the volume of his food and drink before eating and only did things in multiples of threes. Today he would probably be called an obsessive compulsive. He never owned a house and instead always lived in hotels. He never had a wife and never had any romantic relationships. He was afraid of touching hair or even shaking hands, which were probably connected to his lack of relationships. He was often surrounded by the rich and famous, but his deepest friendships were with pigeons. Despite his inability to have relationships with people, he always wanted to help the world. At his funeral, another scientist said, without Tesla and his inventions, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead … The same could be said today.
It’s hard to imagine a world without Tesla’s AC system; a system we still use today. Every light, every TV, every computer, every electrical device that we use, would not be possible without the genius of Tesla.