Formal Science

The Strange Genius of Nikola Tesla

Visionary. Genius. Charlatan. Nikola Tesla is one of the most celebrated (and controversial) scientific figures of the 20th century. During his life, the inventor, engineer, and futurist mastered eight languages, promoted modern alternating current (AC), created nearly 300 patents, and even had a photographic memory.

Even today, his genius is revered. Small wonder Elon Musk’s – another controversial tech mogul – electric car company is named after the eccentric genius. But Tesla remains an obscure figure in science: his fantastical ideas and feud with Thomas Edison are a rich breeding ground for conspiracy. Countless theorists and futurists have venerated Tesla as a man ahead of his time, wondering at the world that could have existed if only the “conspiratorial” financiers hadn’t pulled the plug.

But who was the real Nikola Tesla? And could his inventions truly have ushered in a better, bolder world for humanity?

Who was Nikola Tesla?

Lightning strikes a small village on the far borders of the Austrian empire in 1856 – amidst this thunderstorm, Tesla is born. Even in these dim recesses of Europe, technology was marching forward. The young Serb saw his first taste of electricity at school in Karlovac; it sparked an eternal interest “to know more of this wonderful force.”

Already there were early signs of genius. Tesla could perform integral calculus in his head. After blazing his way through the Imperial-Royal Technical College, he embarked on a career in the Budapest Telephone Exchange. He quickly realized the system under construction was not functional, redesigning it completely, earning him the position of chief electrician.

“My brain is only a receiver, in the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength and inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know that it exists.”

― Nikola Tesla

A Spark of Genius

In 1884, while working in Paris, Edison’s manager, Charles Batchelor, invited Tesla to the United States to manage the Edison Machine Works. During his tenure, Tesla worked on an arc lighting system that never went into production. Some reports suggest this disgruntled Tesla, who left shortly after. Other versions state that Tesla left after designing twenty-four different types of standard machines for a cash prize, which turned out to be a practical joke.

Either way, he found himself a free man. However, his time with Edison taught him an important lesson: showmanship is king. Indeed, during a lecture at the American Institute of Electrical Engineering in 1888, Tesla impressed the audience by showcasing his alternating current motors – the dazzling spectacle led to numerous offers to buy his patents.

What really captured popular imagination was his wireless illumination displays. A series of lectures in New York, London, and Paris shocked audiences as he unveiled his Tesla coil – a newly invented oscillating transformer. Walking around the stage with glowing tubes – not attached to anything – Tesla appeared like a magician: a latter-day Merlin.

The Heights of His Power

The 1890s were the heyday of Tesla’s fame. Tesla was the man of the future. Almost every story involving power was connected to Tesla’s genius. Local authorities devise an ambitious plan to generate hydroelectric power at Niagara Falls – Tesla is at work. Westinghouse won a contract to supply electricity to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago – Tesla is to thank.

Tesla’s mere presence was electric. When Marconi announced the invention of radio, Tesla, getting a little big for his boots, proclaimed it a folly. Not only would it not work, but Tesla could do it better.

“One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane.”

― Nikola Tesla

Indeed, he had his own plans for the wireless transmission of all electrical power. In 1896, Tesla built a steam-power oscillator capable of creating various changing frequencies. If the frequency matches the resonance frequency of the receiving device, then the mechanical oscillations would produce an electrical current.

Two years later, he managed to oscillate his New York lab so intensely that locals feared an earthquake. But that was only the beginning. Tesla envisioned his devices could transmit energy through the earth using vibrations. To achieve his goals, Tesla needed funds. Industrial titan J. P. Morgan bought into the idea of wireless transmission – mainly radio – ideologically and literally. He invested in Tesla, leading to the construction of the Wardenclyffe plant on Long Island.

A Shocking Conspiracy

The story goes that Tesla, preferring to work on wireless electricity, struggled to secure further funds from Morgan. The project eventually fizzled out – despite Tesla continuing to ask for funds until Morgan died – and the 57-meter tower at Wardenclyffe was deconstructed.

Wardenclyffe Tower (aka Tesla Tower), Long Island. 1904.

Conspiracy theories abound over this deal. Morgan, for his part, turned to Edison and others. Some speculate that Tesla’s dream of wireless technology would put Morgan out of business: after all, he was entrenched in everything from rubber to copper mining to wiring – all superfluous if Tesla got his way.

It’s easy to scoff at such theories. Tesla, ever the showman, had overplayed his hand. Yet, when the renowned inventor died in 1943, the US government’s Office of Alien Property reportedly seized numerous documents. In 1952, Tesla’s rightful heir petitioned the US court to return the files. Yet, of the 80 meticulously packed trunks among Tesla’s effects, only 60 arrived.

Death rays, the secrets to unlimited power, and other miraculous inventions are claimed to be in the missing twenty trunks. Whatever the truth, the legacy of Nikola Tesla is as electrifying as ever.


1 reply »

  1. From the story of NIKOLA TESLA, you will agree with me that Man is the enemy of Man and our world was made to be a Paradise.
    The only problem is the greedy and selfish heart of Humans.
    But that also is necessary as long as Humanity continues to be in this state of ignorance.
    Until we are qualified to live in a Paradise.


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