July 23, 2010

Remembering Nikola Tesla

Posted in Serbia tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:36 am by Liliana

Nikola Tesla

“Science is but a perversion of itself unless it has as its ultimate goal the betterment of humanity.” Nikola Tesla

As a schoolgirl in Yugoslavia, I grew up with great reverence for Nikola Tesla. Every child knew details of his life and his discoveries in science and electricity.

When my family moved to the US, I was shocked to discover that people here hardly knew his name.

My husband Jeff, a scientist himself, sent me an email about Tesla recently. It seems that people in the US are starting to talk about him more.

Nikola Tesla was a brilliant scientist and inventor. He single-handedly ushered in the age of alternating-current electrical power  over the objections of Thomas Edison, who proposed a massively inefficient scheme for distributing power via direct current (like batteries).

He was born on July 9, 1856, in the village of Smiljan, in the province of Lika, Croatia which was at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was a Serbian Orthodox priest. His mother, although not educated, descended from many generations of Serbian Orthodox priests and was an intelligent and innovative woman in her own right.

After completing his elementary education in Croatia, Tesla continued his schooling in Graz, Austira, then attended the University of Prague. Before emigrating to the United States in 1884, he worked as an electrical engineer in Germany, Hungary and France.

Once in the US, Tesla found employment with Thomas Edison in his New Jersey laboratories. In 1888 Tesla made the discovery that a magnetic field could be made to rotate if two coils at right angles are supplied with AC current 90 degrees out of phase . This discovery  made possible the invention of the AC induction motor. Soon after, Tesla and Edison separated over differences in style and approaches to science.

In 1885, George Westinghouse, founder of the Westinghouse Electric Company, bought patent rights to Tesla’s system of alternating-current. The advantages of alternating-current over Edison’s system of direct-current became apparent when Westinghouse successfully used Tesla’s system to light the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

In 1887, Tesla  built a laboratory in New York City. His experiments ranged from an exploration of electrical resonance to studies of various lighting systems. To counter fears of alternating current, Tesla gave exhibitions in his laboratory in which he lighted lamps without wires by allowing electricity to flow through his body.

Tesla became a US citizen in 1891.  He was at the peak of his creative powers at this time, developing  in rapid succession the induction motor, new types of generators and transformers, a system of alternating-current power transmission, fluorescent lights, and a new type of steam turbine. He also became interested in wireless transmission of power.

In 1900, Tesla began construction on Long Island of a wireless broadcasting tower, but due to a lack of funds it was never built. Tesla’s notebooks are still examined by scientists and engineers looking for original ideas.

In later years, Telsa’s hot temper, impractical business decisions, and eccentric beliefs damaged his reputation among the businessmen he depended upon for funding of his experiments. He spent the last years of his life in increasing poverty and seclusion, living in a hotel and feeding pigeons daily on the steps of the New York Public Library.

Still, when Tesla died in New York City on January 7, 1943, hundreds of admirers attended his funeral services, mourning the loss of a great genius. At the time of his death Tesla held over 700 patents.

Tesla was a shy, eccentric and reclusive man. He had very few friends. It delighted me to find out that one of his closest friends was Mark Twain. Oh, to be a fly on the wall and listen to their conversations!