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Nikola Tesla, drinking only milk, regaled guests at his 79th birthday party with a recounting of his accidental invention of an earthquake machine. Tesla had been experimenting with oscillators and was attempting to attune one to the frequency of the steel building housing his laboratory. He heard a loud crack. Naturally, he turned the machine up a few notches. Heavy machinery began to fly around the lab, and had he not taken a hammer to the machine, the building would have fallen and entombed them within minutes.

That’s the story Tesla told, at least.

There’s a certain air of mystery surrounding Nikola Tesla, especially since so many of his experiments were conducted in his mind without ever being transcribed. He was, nonetheless, an electrical and mechanical engineer of the highest caliber, so we would be remiss if we didn’t cover this enigmatic figure. Here are the life and times of Nikola Tesla.

Early Life

Nikola Tesla was born a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (modern-day Croatia) in 1856. He possessed a spark of creativity from a young age and dreamed of traveling to America to harness the power of Niagara Falls. Tesla’s father, a loving but devout priest, envisioned his son joining the priesthood — that is, until Tesla contracted cholera. If Tesla survived, his father agreed to allow him to pursue a career in engineering.

Tesla enrolled in the Austrian Polytechnic School at Graz to study engineering in 1875. During his time there, Tesla became obsessed with electric currents. His work and sleeping habits suffered, and he lost his tuition money gambling, dropped out of school and suffered a nervous breakdown. (The faculty members teaching our 100% online mechanical engineering programs recommend an alternative study approach.) In 1881, a recovered and reinvigorated Tesla was reciting poetry while walking through a park when he was struck by an epiphany. Drawing a diagram in the dirt, Tesla invented the induction motor. 

War of the Currents

When Tesla sailed for New York City in 1884, he carried four cents and a letter of recommendation from Charles Batchelor, a business associate of Thomas Edison. The letter read: “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!” Edison hired Tesla to improve upon his DC generating plants, promising the young inventor $50,000 if he succeeded. Tesla returned having completed the task, but the only reward he received was a remark from Edison: “When you become a full-fledged American you will appreciate an American joke.”

Tesla resigned and was soon hired by the Western Union Company, where he was given a laboratory not far from Edison’s. Here, Tesla designed the alternating current (AC) power systems that continue to be used the world over. “The motors I built there were exactly as I imagined them,” said Tesla. “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.” Industrialist George Westinghouse quickly purchased Tesla’s patents.

The “War of the Currents” had begun, with Thomas Edison’s direct current (DC) on one side and Westinghouse and AC on the other. Edison launched a propaganda campaign, going so far as to ensure that the first execution by electric chair was performed using AC. AC’s ability to be easily converted to different voltages would prove far too beneficial, however. On May 1, 1893, attendees of the Chicago World’s Fair were lit by a hundred thousand incandescent lamps powered by AC generator units, signaling the end of the War of the Currents.

Taming Niagara Falls

Lord Kelvin, a member of the international Niagara Falls Commission, was particularly impressed by the World’s Fair demonstration. Westinghouse was subsequently awarded the contract to design a hydroelectric power station at Niagara, giving Tesla the chance to fulfill his childhood dream. He didn’t waste it. The Edward Dean Adams Power Station began generating electricity on November 16, 1896. The War of the Currents had taken its toll, however, and George Westinghouse soon approached Tesla, asking for relief from financial royalties. Tesla tore up his contract, grateful for the one investor who believed in him. This move saved the Westinghouse Company but left Tesla in financial straits for the remainder of his life. 

Inventors of the Radio

Tesla’s next obsession was the wireless transmission of energy. He discovered that he could transmit and receive radio signals using a coil, known today as a Tesla coil, to generate extremely high voltages. Tesla was granted a patent in 1900, but the U.S. Patent Office ultimately awarded Guglielmo Marconi a patent for the invention of the radio. Tesla was, however, able to attract the attention of J.P. Morgan, one of the most powerful men of the Gilded Age.

“When wireless is fully applied,” Tesla told Morgan, “the earth will be converted into a huge brain, capable of response in every one of its parts.” Intrigued, Morgan agreed to fund Tesla’s Wardenclyffe project, a 187-foot tall tower that Tesla asserted would send free electricity across the Atlantic. Construction began, but additional funds were sorely needed. Marconi’s transmission of the letter “S” across the Atlantic in 1901 proved to be the project’s death knell, as Morgan refused to provide additional funding. The tower was abandoned, and Tesla again suffered a nervous breakdown.  

Decline, Death Beam and Death

Tesla’s mental state began to decline in the early 1900s. He’d walk through parks, sometimes rescuing and nursing injured pigeons. He began to exhibit symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, compulsively washing his hands and performing rituals in threes. Yet Tesla’s imagination continued to run wild. In 1931, he reported being on the verge of discovering a new source of energy, one that could be harnessed for a “death beam.” This anti-war weapon never became a reality, but on at least one occasion, Tesla did manage to pay for lodgings by convincing hotel management that a box containing common laboratory equipment housed a volatile death ray.

Nikola Tesla died on January 7, 1943, after a long and mystifying life of discovery. This Serbian-American inventor is credited for making dozens of breakthroughs in energy technology, including inventing the Tesla coil, neon lamp and induction motor as well as AC and hydroelectric power — innovations that power our world to this day. Tesla also had a hand in developing radio and X-rays and creating one of the earliest remote-controlled robots, although onlookers had to be convinced that he was controlling the robot with radio waves rather than his mind. Tesla, it would seem, was always ahead of his time, but he will go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, mechanical engineers who ever lived.

If you’re interested in following in the footsteps of this great inventor, consider joining The University of Texas at Austin. We offer two 100% online programs, the Executive MS in Mechanical Engineering and the Mechanical Engineering Controls Graduate Certificate, that can help you carry on Tesla’s electrifying legacy by becoming a leader in the field of mechanical engineering. 


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