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Bright Sparks – Nikola Tesla

The modern world would look very different without the contributions of those who helped us harness electricity and develop electrical equipment. Here, we focus on some of the pioneers of the electrical world and their remarkable achievements.

NAME: Nikola Tesla

DATES: 10 July 1856 (Smiljan, Lika, Croatia) – 7 January 1943 (Hotel New Yorker, New York, USA)

EARLY LIFE: Raised in a rural area in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Tesla lived on the family farm, run by his mother who was also an inventor. His father was a priest in the Orthodox Church. When Tesla was seven, his brother Daniel was killed in a riding accident.

From an early age, Tesla had an astonishing memory and could visualise inventions in his head from concept to perfection.

In 1881 – following his studies at the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria (maths and physics) and the University of Prague (philosophy), Tesla worked as an electrical engineer for a Budapest telephone company, then for the Continental Edison Company in Paris.

Tesla moved to New York in 1884. British- born inventor and Thomas Edison’s right- hand man, Charles Batchelor, wrote a letter to introduce Tesla to Edison, which led to a job at Edison Machine Works. Tesla resigned after Edison failed to pay him money promised for redesigning the company’s direct current generators.

FIRST INVENTION: The brushless AC motor with rotating electromagnets. The idea came to him while walking through the park with a friend – he drew a design in the dirt and later built his own induction motor prototype.

MAJOR ACHIEVEMENTS: The discovery of the rotating magnetic field and invention of the AC induction motor; x-rays; invention of the Tesla coil for radio transmission; advances in hydrotechnology.


1882 discovered the rotating magnetic field, which today is used for most devices using alternating current.
Built the first AC induction motor and developed the polyphase system still used for generating and transmitting electricity.

1883 demonstrated his invention at the World Columbian Exposition, Chicago.

1884 worked in Edison’s New Jersey laboratory, developing dynamos. Tesla’s promotion of AC over Edison’s DC later led to a major dispute, as Edison had invested heavily in DC. Tesla pointed out that Edison’s electrical plants would run more efficiently on AC.

1888 delivered his paper ‘A New System of Alternating Current Motors and Transformers’ at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, attended by the industrialist George Westinghouse, who bought Tesla’s 40 US patents and worked with him to champion his inventions across the US.


1891 invented the Tesla coil, used in electronic devices, including radios and televisions.

1893 Tesla’s principles of telegraphy without wires were printed in The Century Magazine.

1895 the world’s first hydroelectric power plant opened at Niagara Falls, designed by Tesla and built by Westinghouse’s company, using 13 of Tesla’s patents. At the opening ceremony, Tesla said: ‘It is a monument worthy of our scientific age,

a true monument of enlightenment and of peace. It signifies the subjugation of natural forces to the service of man, the discontinuance of barbarous methods, the relieving of millions from want and suffering.’

1896 Tesla’s pictures showing x-rays of a human were published in the Electrical

Review magazine. William Roentgen, who had discovered x-rays the end of the year before, sent his congratulations on the quality of the images.

1896 patented a basic radio transmitter, creating diagrams used later by Marconi to invent the radio. Tesla had originally outlined his ideas at a famous lecture he delivered at the Franklin Institute

in Philadelphia in 1893 and he was recognised as the inventor of radio technology by the US Supreme Court in 1943.

1899 discovered terrestrial stationery waves.


1901-1905 designed the Wardenclyffe laboratory on Long Island with a 187ft transmitting tower with a copper dome. However, his financial backer, J Pierpont Morgan, pulled out of the venture, and the plan to make this first system to wirelessly transmit signals and power across the world was abandoned.

3 things you might not know:

1. The writer Mark Twain became friends with Tesla in the 1890s and often visited him in his laboratory.

2. Tesla became a US citizen in 1891.

3. In his final years he lived in the New Yorker hotel, working on new ideas while suffering from mental health issues, including talking to pigeons and obsessing about the number three.


Tesla’s development of the alternating current helped change the world, as did his pioneering work on radio transmission. After appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1931 for his 75th birthday, Tesla was sent letters from over 70 scientists and engineers, including Albert Einstein, congratulating him on his achievements.

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