It’s almost a cliché. Working alone, an inventive genius pioneers new devices that ultimately change the world but his genius is barely recognized and he goes on to die in relative poverty; and whilst he dies, virtually alone and unrecognized, his inventions eventually transform life across the planet.
Unfortunately it’s pretty much the story of Nikola Tesla, the scientific visionary whose inventions shaped much of the 20th century, whilst the man himself has been all but forgotten. And it is no exaggeration to call Tesla a visionary.
In contrast to many scientific pioneers who spent years developing their projects, Tesla’s ideas were often conceived and perfected in his mind’s eye in an instant.
“Birth, growth and development are phases normal and natural,” said Tesla, but, “It was different with my invention(s). In the very moment I became conscious of it, I ‘saw’ it fully developed and perfected…”
In fact these extraordinary powers of memory and visualization were to characterize much of his life and work. One day while walking with a friend in Budapest, Tesla was reciting lines from Goethe’s Faust when the idea of a rotating magnetic field suddenly appeared before him, literally. In an instant Tesla knew how to produce the alternating current.
“Can’t you see it right here in front of me, running almost silently?” He asked his companion: “It is the rotating magnetic field that does it… Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it simple? My motor will set man free, it will do the work for the world.”
He was in every sense of the word a scientific visionary; he initially developed the fluorescent bulb and neon lights; he pioneered the speedometer and the car ignition system, and helped reveal the basic scientific principles behind electron microscopes, and the microwave oven. Yet apart from a small but enthusiastic following that has grown around him, most people have hardly even heard of Nikola Tesla.
Born at the stroke of midnight, July 9-10, 1856 in Similjan, Croatia, the son of a priest of the local Serbian Orthodox Church, the young Tesla quickly distinguished himself as intelligent and went on to study physics and mathematics in Gospic and electrical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria.
A turning point came in 1884 when Tesla first arrived in America but initially he wasn’t too impressed: “What I had left was beautiful, artistic and fascinating in every way.” He wrote to a friend: “What I saw here was machined, rough and unattractive.”
The young immigrant arrived with four cents in his pocket, some mathematical computations and a letter of introduction from Charles Batchelor, one of Thomas Edison’s business associates in Europe.
After a short spell working for Thomas Edison, Tesla went out on his own and by December 1887 he had filed for seven US patents. These comprised a complete system of generators, transformers, transmission lines, motors and lighting. So original were the patents that they were issued without a challenge, as would normally happen. They turned out to be the most valuable patents since the telephone.
Pittsburgh industrialist George Westinghouse heard about Tesla’s inventions and decided to investigate for himself. Acting on his sharp business instincts, Westinghouse arrived at Tesla’s lab, inspected the inventions and promptly bought the patents, which ironically were to lay the foundations for the Westinghouse Corporation, one of the pillars of the Military/Industrial complex (otherwise known as the ‘New World Order’).
The Westinghouse Corporation went on to win the bid for illuminating the World’s Fair. Held in Chicago in 1893, the fair was also the world’s first ever all-electric fair. It opened on the evening of May 1 when President Grover Cleveland pushed a button and a hundred thousand incandescent lamps illuminated the fairground’s neoclassical buildings.
Tesla inventions had arrived and they were about to illuminate not only the World Fair but also the world itself.
Unlike Westinghouse though, Tesla didn’t have any business sense, nor was he driven by any overwhelming desire to make money; instead he had vision, genius, a God given creative gift that has led some observers to liken him to a Da Vinci of the modern day sciences.
In fact it’s no exaggeration to say that Westinghouse Corporation was built on Tesla’s lack of business sense. Years of fierce competition with Edison’s Corporation had left Westinghouse financially drained and by 1896 his company’s position was looking extremely precarious.
J.P. Morgan, the Stock Market’s ‘robber baron’, saw his chance. In an effort to bring the US power industry firmly under his control he began to manipulate the Stock Market, with the intention of ruining Westinghouse and buying Tesla’s valuable patents.
In desperation, Westinghouse pleaded with Tesla to revise his contract and release him from a bond to pay the inventor generous royalties. In a gesture that was typical of his true spirit, Tesla is said to have torn up the contract.