Nikola Tesla: story of a defrauded genius


He was one of the greatest inventors of all time. Nikola Tesla, a Serbo-Croatian scientist who immigrated to the United States in 1884, registered as many patents as his rival Thomas Alva Edison. But he did not succeed as well in benefiting from his ideas: each time he was deprived of the deserved earnings. Precisely for this reason his figure attracts so much sympathy and consideration today.

Nikola Tesla, story of a defrauded genius

The unlucky scientist. Nikola Tesla, a Serbo-Croatian who moved to the USA in 1884, was one of the greatest inventors of all time. But he was deprived each time of the earnings related to more than 200 of his patents.

A snap of the fingers and the show begins: it’s an evening in 1891 and on stage is Nikola Tesla, a Serbo-Croatian scientist who emigrated to the USA. For an instant a red ball of fire blazes in his hand. The very tall man carefully lets the flames slide onto his white tailcoat, then onto his black hair. Finally the magician, who to the amazement of the audience is completely unharmed, places the mysterious fire in a wooden box.

“Now I will shine as if it were day,” Tesla declares. And so the theater of his performances, the laboratory on New York’s South Fifth Avenue, shines with an extraordinarily clear light. Then the inventor leaps onto a platform connected to an electrical voltage generator.

Slowly the scientist raises the regulator, until his body is exposed to a voltage of two million volts. Electrical charges crackle around his torso. Lightning and flames leap from his hands.

When Tesla turns off the power, so spectators will report, a bluish glow sparkles around him.

Spectacular electrical discharges emerge from a coil structure, generated by voltages exceeding 12 million volts. So in 1899 Nikola Tesla tested whether electric current could be transported through the air, like radio waves. But the “wizard of electricity” was also a showman: he seems to be sitting among the deadly discharges, but it’s all appearance. The trick? A double exposure.

THE ELECTRON TAMER. The “wizard of electricity” loved to enchant New York high society with his displays. And show journalists the power and safety of the electric current system he developed. The spectacular performances were part of his propaganda in the war for the electrification of the world .

It is a war that Tesla (albeit against his will) fought against another, equally famous inventor. A man with such a different nature that he personified the exact opposite of Tesla: Thomas Alva Edison . Casual, smart, good at business. For Americans, Tesla was on the contrary a “poet of science”, a theorist and an unfortunate brainiac, whose ideas were “great, but completely useless”.

Edison measured the value of a discovery by the amount of dollars his company received. For Tesla, however, it was not just about money: the objective of an invention, he maintained, consists primarily in the exploitation of natural forces for human needs.

WINNER LOSER. In the end, Tesla will win the battle for electricity. Yet – as often happened in his life – he will come out a loser. And it is precisely as a loser that today he has returned to enchant the public: the number of books and websites about him is increasing, there are videos dedicated to him on YouTube, a rock group has chosen to call itself Tesla. And a car company financed by Google’s founders was named Tesla Motor.

The mysterious force of electricity fascinated Tesla since childhood. Born on July 10, 1856 to Serbian parents in the Croatian village of Smiljan, as a child he saw dazzling lightning.

«In some cases the air around me was filled with animated tongues of fire» Tesla recalled in his autobiography. Usually these visions were accompanied by internal images. In his mind’s eye, Tesla observed environments and objects so clearly that he could not distinguish reality and imagination.

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BRILLIANT MIND. Over time he learned to control these suggestions: he traveled in his thoughts to foreign cities and countries, entertaining people and making friends.

The strength of his imagination manifested itself at the age of 17, when he began to “seriously deal with inventions”. He did not need any models, drawings or experiments to develop the devices: the entire creative process took place in his mind. There she built her devices, corrected errors, put them into action. «For me it is completely indifferent to build a turbine in my head or in the workshop» she wrote «I can even notice when it goes out of balance».

In 1875 the 19-year-old Nikola received a scholarship to the Polytechnic University of Graz , Styria. His commitment to books was obsessive, sometimes from three in the morning to eleven at night, and in his first year he passed nine exams with top marks. «I was possessed by a real mania: I had to finish everything I started» he remembered. When he began to read Voltaire, he learned to his dismay that “that monster” had written a hundred books. But he faced the mammoth undertaking anyway.

OBSESSIVE DELUSIONS. The young man continued to be subject to compulsive behaviors. He had a strong aversion to pearls and earrings and was disgusted by other people’s hair. He felt warm in front of a peach. He repeated some activities so that the repetitions were divisible by three. He counted the steps as he walked, calculated the volume of the contents of the coffee cups, the soup plates, the food. “If I don’t, I don’t like the food,” he noted.

Tesla in 1878 at 23 years old.

In Graz Tesla finally came across a mysterious object of study that would accompany him for the rest of his life: electricity . Most men, at that time, considered electric current a mysterious sap that flowed along wires thanks to the intervention of a phantom hand.

Tesla wanted to master the laws of this fluid. And he instinctively convinced himself that the future belonged to a system that was not yet applicable: alternating current .

A direct current generator produces it thanks to a permanent magnet and a coil that rotates inside the equipment; in the case of an alternating current generator, the magnet rotates in the center and produces the current in the coils located outside.

The advantage is that it is not necessary to draw electrical current from a rotating coil, using sliding contacts that throw sparks. It is instead formed in the external, static part of the generator.

At the time, all electrical appliances were powered by direct current, the one that flows incessantly in the same direction (see illustration below). Scientists of the time considered electric motors powered by alternating current unthinkable. But Tesla believed in his own intuition. In his mind he experienced one AC motor after another. With his thoughts she followed the fast alternating movement of the electric current rustling in the switching circuits, unsuccessfully at first.

Direct or alternating current? In the first case, the electric current supplied by a battery (1) flows in the circuit to which the light bulb is connected in one direction only. On the other hand, alternating current, like the one that comes out of an electrical socket (2 and 3), continuously changes direction. But even so, the light bulb lights up without interruption.

LIGHTNING-FAST INTUITION. It took seven years for Tesla, employed by a telephone company in Budapest, to achieve a breakthrough. One evening in 1882, during a walk in the city park, the solution came to his mind “like a bolt of lightning”. Tesla grabbed a stick and drew in the dust the diagram of an absolutely innovative motor, in which the external coils, crossed by the flow of alternating current, generated a rotating magnetic field. In this way, the forces that set the internal rotor in motion were created (see illustration below).

The electric motor according to Tesla: the alternating current flows in the coils (1) and generates magnetic fields whose forces and directions (red: north pole; green: south pole) change continuously. These fields induce an electric current in the rotor (2) which creates a further magnetic field, in interaction with the first ones. This creates forces that set the rotor in motion.

As if in a frenzy, over the next few weeks Tesla developed additional motors, dynamos, and transformers; everyone needed alternating current, or produced it. “A spiritual state of complete happiness such as I had never experienced in my life,” he wrote. «Ideas came to me in an uninterrupted flow. The only difficulty was managing to fix them.”

Tesla realized that alternating current offered a decisive advantage over direct current: thanks to its physical properties, it could be transported by cable for hundreds of kilometers, with almost zero losses. With direct current, however, this could only be done for short stretches.

IN AMERICA. Two years later, in 1884, he resigned from the company and headed to New York, armed with a letter of recommendation. He wanted to work with the great Thomas Alva Edison and convince him of the value of his pioneering discovery. The light bulb tycoon had built the world’s first public power plant in downtown Manhattan.

But the current produced was only able to illuminate the electric street lamps within a radius of a hundred metres. For this reason, Edison planned to cover the city with a network of generators.

The letter of recommendation got Tesla an interview with Edison. From the first meeting, however, he was disillusioned: when he explained the characteristics of his electrical system, the American angrily replied to him to stop with that madness. “People want direct current, and that’s all I want to deal with.”

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EDISON’S THEFT. In any case, Edison recognized the technical talent of the young Serbian and hired him, promising him a reward of 50 thousand dollars if he managed to improve the performance of direct current dynamos. Tesla accepted the offer. After almost a year of hard work, he was able to announce his successes to his boss: the modifications to Edison’s dynamos were completed, the efficiency had increased substantially. But the promised remuneration did not arrive. Edison refused to pay the premium: «Tesla, you don’t understand the American sense of humor» he justified.

Outraged, Tesla quit . He later wrote about the (alleged) genius of the century: «If Edison were to look for a needle in a haystack, he would begin to examine, with the frenzy of a bee, one thread after another, until he found the object he was looking for. With regret I witnessed his way of proceeding, well aware that a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90% of the work.”

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BETTER ALONE THAN BADLY ACCOMPANIED. However, his excellent work for the Edison Electric Light Company made Tesla known in the circle of specialists. Soon after his dismissal, the 29-year-old accepted an offer from a group of investors and founded his own company, Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing Company. But once again his hopes were not realized. Instead of preparing the alternating current systems for marketing, at the request of his financiers he found himself building innovative lighting for streets and factories.

Tesla meticulously dedicated himself to the development of an arc lamp and filed several patents. But after completing his tasks, he was ousted from the company and cheated on his compensation. “A period of struggle followed,” the inventor recalled dryly. For a year he found himself making ends meet by working, on call, in road construction.

TURNING POINT. But in early 1887 his fate took an unexpected turn: the head of the construction crew learned of Tesla’s supposed miracle engine and put him in contact with Alfred K. Brown, the director of the Western Union Telegraph Company . Telegraph companies needed electricity; and Brown was interested in alternating current, which could be transmitted over great distances without loss. Not far from the Edison Company, in Manhattan, the two rented a spacious laboratory in which Tesla was finally able to accelerate the practical transposition of his alternating current system.

Thomas Edison in 1889. He promised Tesla a reward of 50 thousand dollars. But he didn’t keep his word

THE WAR OF THE ELECTRIC CURRENT. Thus began the Electric War: Tesla filed patent after patent for components of his innovative engine, lectured, staged demonstrations before enthusiastic audiences, and soon caught the attention of industrialist George Westinghouse.

Westinghouse, himself an engineer and inventor, had entered the electricity market a few years ago, purchasing various patents. Unlike Edison, he believed in the profitability of the new technique. He purchased Tesla’s patents, charging a $2.50 license fee for each horsepower of “Tesla’s electricity” sold. And he took the field in the battle for alternating current.

Thanks to reduced energy losses, Westinghouse was able to erect its power plants outside of cities. Furthermore, its copper wires were thinner than those required for direct current, and the costs for power lines were lower than those incurred by competitors.

Westinghouse was able to sell electricity at more favorable prices than Edison, and soon found itself having more customers. But the latter went on the counterattack: he collected information on accidents involving alternating current, wrote pamphlets and put pressure on politicians.

EDISON’S DIRTY GAME. He paid young students to capture dogs and cats which, during official performances, he tied to metal plates, then passed alternating current through their twitching bodies. Finally he asked the spectators: “Is this the invention that our beloved women should use for cooking?”.

In January 1889, a new law went into effect in New York State: murderers would be sentenced to death by electric current. Edison made the case for alternating current. In August 1890 a man (William Kemmler) died in the first electric chair: via alternating current. The switch had to be pressed twice before the condemned man stopped flinching.

But the defamation campaign promoted by Edison did not achieve its objectives. Within two years Westinghouse built over 30 power plants and supplied 130 American cities with Tesla’s alternating current. In 1893 the tender for the lighting of the Chicago Expo was launched: Westinghouse offered almost a million dollars less than Edison.

From November 1896 onwards, cities around the world installed almost exclusively alternating current power plants. Nikola Tesla was about to become one of the richest men on the planet : according to the licensing contract he would have to collect a percentage for each electric motor sold, and for each use of the patents on alternating current. But investors pushed Westinghouse to change the contract.

Tesla and his inventions.

NAIVE OR MAGNANIMOUS? The entrepreneur clearly told Tesla that the company’s fate depended on his decision. Tesla, who saw a friend in Westinghouse, tore up the contract and exchanged the percentage for the patents for a lump sum of 216 thousand dollars. In this way he lost all rights not only to the fees already earned, presumably 12 million dollars, but also to the billions that would be produced in the future

For Tesla, money wasn’t important: what mattered was the spread of his technique . The inventor was already immersed in new tasks. He imagined a world in which all men would receive free and unlimited energy . For Tesla, electrical networks were only an intermediate stage on the path to a wireless system capable of sending information and energy around the globe.


PhotogalleryHistorical lies (that everyone believes to be true)


REMOTE ENERGY. In 1898 he developed the first remote radio control . The following year from a laboratory located near Colorado Springs he managed to send radio waves to a distance of more than 1,000 kilometers.

With these coils, high-voltage alternating currents were produced, which Tesla wanted to use for long-distance wireless telegraphy. But in 1906 he stopped his attempts.

In 1900, Tesla found a financier for the construction of a futuristic antenna tower on Long Island: its goal was to send highly energetic waves into the upper layers of the atmosphere to distribute energy around the globe. But shortly before the completion of the project, the investor withdrew: if anyone in the world could use the energy produced on Long Island without control, where would the profits come from? Tesla suffered a nervous breakdown from which he struggled to recover. In 1917 the steel framework of the tower was blown up and the scrap sold for a thousand dollars.

In the same year the inventor should have received the prestigious Edison Medal.

But Tesla refused: the honor would have brought prestige only to Edison himself. Bernard Arthur Behrend, president of the jury, persuaded him to accept it. “If we deprived the industrial world of everything that came from Tesla’s work,” Behrend said, “our wheels would stop turning, electric cars and trains would stop, cities would be dark, and factories would be dead and useless. His work is so far-reaching that it has become the very foundation of our industry.”

Albert Einstein visits Tesla’s wireless tower with other scientists in 1921 (also indicated with the arrow).

Despite his fame and his 700 patents, the electricity wizard was never financially successful.

On January 7, 1943, at the age of 86, Nikola Tesla, the most selfless inventor in history, died in poverty in a hotel room in New York.

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