Originally published by Ives Washburn, New
York, 1944; Published in Great Britain by Neville Spearman Ltd.,
1968; Reprinted in the United States by Angriff Press, Los Angeles,
(C)1994 Brotherhood of Life, Inc., 110 Dartmouth,
SE, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87106 USA
New Typeset Edition - First printing, 1994,
Uploaded to the Internet October, 1996
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LIGHT AND POWER
"SPECTACULAR'' is a mild word for
describing the strange experiment with life that comprises the
story of Nikola Tesla, and ``amazing'' fails to do adequate justice
to the results that burst from his experiences like an exploding
rocket. It is the story of the dazzling scintillations of a superman
who created a new world; it is a story that condemns woman as
an anchor of the Xesh which retards the development of man and
limits his accomplishment--and, paradoxically, proves that even
the most successful life, if it does not include a woman, is
a dismal failure.
Even the gods of old, in the wildest
imaginings of their worshipers, never undertook such gigantic
tasks of world-wide dimension as those which Tesla attempted
and accomplished. On the basis of his hopes, his dreams, and
his achievements he rated the status of the Olympian gods, and
the Greeks would have so enshrined him. Little is the wonder
that so-called practical men, with their noses stuck in proWt-and-loss
statements, did not understand him and thought him strange.
The light of human progress is not a
dim glow that gradually becomes more luminous with time. The
panorama of human evolution is illumined by sudden bursts of
dazzling brilliance in intellectual accomplishments that throw
their beams far ahead to give us a glimpse of the distant future,
that we may more correctly guide our wavering steps today. Tesla,
by virtue of the amazing discoveries and inventions which he
showered on the world, becomes one of the most resplendent Xashes
that has ever brightened the scroll of human advancement.
Tesla created the modern era; he was
unquestionably one of the world's greatest geniuses, but he leaves
no oVspring, no legatees of his brilliant mind, who might aid
in administering that world; he created fortunes for multitudes
of others but himself died penniless, spurning wealth that might
be gained from his discoveries. Even as he walked among the teeming
millions of New York he became a fabled individual who seemed
to belong to the far-distant future or to have come to us from
the mystical realm of the gods, for he seemed to be an admixture
of a Jupiter or a Thor who hurled the shafts of lightning; an
Ajax who deWed the Jovian bolts; a Prometheus who transmuted
energy into electricity to spread over the earth; an Aurora who
would light the skies as a terrestrial electric lamp; a Mazda
who created a sun in a tube; a Hercules who shook the earth with
his mechanical vibrators; a Mercury who bridged the ambient realms
of space with his wireless waves--and a Hermes who gave birth
to an electrical soul in the earth that set it pulsating from
pole to pole.
This spark of intellectual incandescence,
in the form of a rare creative genius, shot like a meteor into
the midst of human society in the latter decades of the past
century; and he lived almost until today. His name became synonymous
with magic in the intellectual, scientiWc, engineering and social
worlds, and he was recognized as an inventor and discoverer of
unrivaled greatness. He made the electric current his slave.
At a time when electricity was considered almost an occult force,
and was looked upon with terror-stricken awe and respect, Tesla
penetrated deeply into its mysteries and performed so many marvelous
feats with it that, to the world, he became a master magician
with an unlimited repertoire of scientiWc legerdemain so spectacular
that it made the accomplishments of most of the inventors of
his day seem like the work of toy-tinkers.
Tesla was an inventor, but he was much
more than a producer of new devices: he was a discoverer of new
principles, opening many new empires of knowledge which even
today have been only partly explored. In a single mighty burst
of invention he created the world of power of today; he brought
into being our electrical power era, the rock-bottom foundation
on which the industrial system of the entire world is builded;
he gave us our mass-production system, for without his motors
and currents it could not exist; he created the race of robots,
the electrical mechanical men that are replacing human labor;
he gave us every essential of modern radio; he invented the radar
forty years before its use in World War II; he gave us our modern
neon and other forms of gaseous-tube lighting; he gave us our
Xuorescent lighting; he gave us the high-frequency currents which
are performing their electronic wonders throughout the industrial
and medical worlds; he gave us remote control by wireless; he
helped give us World War II, much against his will--for the misuse
of his superpower system and his robot controls in industry made
it possible for politicians to have available a tremendous surplus
of power, production facilities, labor and materials, with which
to indulge in the most frightful devastating war that the maniacal
mind could conceive. And these discoveries are merely the inventions
made by the master mind of Tesla which have thus far been utilized--scores
of others remain still unused.
Yet Tesla lived and labored to bring
peace to the world. He dedicated his life to lifting the burdens
from the shoulders of mankind; to bringing a new era of peace,
plenty and happiness to the human race. Seeing the coming of
World War II, implemented and powered by his discoveries, he
sought to prevent it; oVered the world a device which he maintained
would make any country, no matter how small, safe within its
borders--and his oVer was rejected.
More important by far, however, than
all his stupendously signiWcant electrical discoveries is that
supreme invention--Nikola Tesla the Superman--the human instrument
which shoved the world forward with an accelerating lunge like
an airplane cast into the sky from a catapult. Tesla, the scientist
and inventor, was himself an invention, just as much as was his
alternating-current system that put the world on a superpower
Tesla was a superman, a self-made superman,
invented and designed speciWcally to perform wonders; and he
achieved them in a volume far beyond the capacity of the world
to absorb. His life he designed on engineering principles to
enable him to serve as an automaton, with utmost eYciency, for
the discovery and application of the forces of Nature to human
welfare. To this end he sacriWced love and pleasure, seeking
satisfaction only in his accomplishments, and limiting his body
solely to serving as a tool of his technically creative mind.
With our modern craze for division of
labor and specialization of eVort to gain eYciency of production
in our industrial machine, one hesitates to think of a future
in which Tesla's invention of the superman might be applied to
the entire human race, with specialization designed for every
individual from birth.
The superman that Tesla designed was
a scientiWc saint. The inventions that this scientiWc martyr
produced were designed for the peace, happiness and security
of the human race, but they have been applied to create scarcity,
depressions and devastating war. Suppose the superman invention
were also developed and prostituted to the purposes of war-mongering
politicians? Tesla glimpsed the possibilities and suggested the
community life of the bee as a threat to our social structure
unless the elements of individual and community lives are properly
directed and personal freedom protected.
Tesla's superman was a marvelously successful
invention--for Tesla--which seemed, as far as the world could
observe, to function satisfactorily. He eliminated love from
his life; eliminated women even from his thoughts. He went beyond
Plato, who conceived of a spiritual companionship between man
and woman free from sexual desires; he eliminated even the spiritual
companionship. He designed the isolated life into which no woman
and no man could enter; the self-suYcient individuality from
which all sex considerations were completely eliminated; the
genius who would live entirely as a thinking and a working machine.
Tesla's superman invention was a producer
of marvels, and he thought that he had, by scientiWc methods,
succeeded in eliminating love from his life. That abnormal life
makes a fascinating experiment for the consideration of the philosopher
and psychologist, for he did not succeed in eliminating love.
It manifested itself despite his conscientious eVorts at suppression;
and when it did so it came in the most fantastic form, providing
a romance the like of which is not recorded in the annals of
Tesla's whole life seems unreal, as if
he were a fabled creature of some Olympian world. A reporter,
after writing a story of his discoveries and inventions, concluded,
``His accomplishments seem like the dream of an intoxicated god.''
It was Tesla's invention of the polyphase alternating-current
system that was directly responsible for harnessing Niagara Falls
and opened the modern electrical superpower era in which electricity
is transported for hundred of miles, to operate the tens of thousands
of mass-production factories of industrial systems. Every one
of the tall Martian-like towers of the electrical transmission
lines that stalk across the earth, and whose wires carry electricity
to distant cities, is a monument to Tesla; every powerhouse,
every dynamo and every motor that drives every machine in the
country is a monument to him.
Superseding himself, he discovered the
secret of transmitting electrical power to the utmost ends of
the earth without wires, and demonstrated his system by which
useful amounts of power could be drawn from the earth anywhere
merely by making a connection to the ground; he set the entire
earth in electrical vibration with a generator which spouted
lightning that rivaled the Wery artillery of the heavens. It
was as a minor portion of this discovery that he created the
modern radio system; he planned our broadcasting methods of today,
forty years ago when others saw in wireless only the dot-dash
messages that might save ships in distress.
He produced lamps of greater brilliance
and economy than those in common use today; he invented the tube,
Xuorescent and wireless lamps which we now consider such up-to-the-minute
developments; and he essayed to set the entire atmosphere of
the earth aglow with his electric currents, to change our world
into a single terrestrial lamp and to make the skies at night
shine as does the sun by day.
If other Wrst-magnitude inventors and
discoverers may be considered torches of progress, Tesla was
a conXagration. He was the vehicle through which the blazing
suns of a brighter tomorrow focused their incandescent beams
on a world that was not prepared to receive their light. Nor
is it remarkable that this radiant personality should have led
a strange and isolated life. The value of his contributions to
society cannot be overrated. We can now analyze, to some extent,
the personality that produced them. He stands as a synthetic
genius, a self-made superman, the greatest invention of the greatest
inventor of all times. But when we consider Tesla as a human
being, apart from his charming and captivating social manners,
it is hard to imagine a worse nightmare than a world inhabited
entirely by geniuses.
When Nature makes an experiment and achieves
an improvement it is necessary that it be accomplished in such
a way that the progress will not be lost with the individual
but will be passed on to future generations. In man, this requires
a utilization of the social values of the race, cooperation of
the individual with his kind, that the improved status may be
propagated and become a legacy of all. Tesla intentionally engineered
love and women out of his life, and while he achieved gigantic
intellectual stature, he failed to achieve its perpetuation either
through his own progeny or through disciples. The superman he
constructed was not great enough to embrace a wife and continue
to exist as such. The love he sought to suppress in his life,
and which he thought was associated only with women, is a force
which, in its various aspects, links together all members of
the human race.
In seeking to suppress this force entirely
Tesla severed the bonds which might have brought to him the disciples
who would, through other channels, have perpetuated the force
of his prodigal genius. As a result, he succeeded in imparting
to the world only the smallest fraction of the creative products
of his synthetic superman.
The creation of a superman as demonstrated
by Tesla was a grand experiment in human evolution, well worthy
of the giant intellect that grew out of it, but it did not come
up to Nature's standards; and the experiment will have to be
made many times more before we learn how to create a super race
with the minds of Teslas that can tap the hidden treasury of
Nature's store of knowledge, yet endowed too with the vital power
of love that will unlock forces, more powerful than any which
we now glimpse, for advancing the status of the human race.
There was no evidence whatever that a
superman was being born
when the stroke of midnight between July
9 and 10, in the year 1856, brought a son, Nikola, to the home
of the Rev. Milutin Tesla and Djouka, his wife, in the hamlet
of Smiljan, in the Austro-Hungarian border province of Lika,
now a part of Yugoslavia. The father of the new arrival, pastor
of the village church, was a former student in an oYcers' training
school who had rebelled against the restrictions of Army life
and turned to the ministry as the Weld in which he could more
satisfactorily express himself. The mother, although totally
unable to read or write, was nevertheless an intellectually brilliant
woman, who without the help of literal aids became really well
Both father and mother contributed to
the child a valuable heritage of culture developed and passed
on by ancestral families that had been community leaders for
many generations. The father came from a family that contributed
sons in equal numbers to the Church and to the Army. The mother
was a member of the Mandich family whose sons, for generations
without number, had, with very few exceptions, become ministers
of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and whose daughters were chosen
as wives by ministers.
Djouka, the mother of Nikola Tesla (her
given name in English translation would be Georgina), was the
eldest daughter in a family of seven children. Her father, like
her husband, was a minister of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Her
mother, after a period of failing eyesight, had become blind
shortly after the seventh child was born; so Djouka, the eldest
daughter, at a tender age was compelled to take over the major
share of her mother's duties. This not alone prevented her from
attending school: her work at home so completely consumed her
time that she was unable to acquire even the rudiments of reading
and writing through home study. This was a strange situation
in the cultured family of which she was a member. Tesla, however,
always credited his unlettered mother rather than his erudite
father with being the source from which he inherited his inventive
ability. She devised many household labor-saving instruments.
She was, in addition, a very practical individual, and her well-educated
husband wisely left in her hands all business matters involving
both the church and his household.
An unusually retentive memory served
this remarkable woman as a good substitute for literacy. As the
family moved in cultured circles she absorbed by ear much of
the cultural riches of the community. She could repeat, without
error or omission, thousands of verses of the national poetry
of her country--the sagas of the Serbs--and could recite long
passages from the Bible. She could narrate from memory the entire
poetical- philosophical work Gorski Venac (Mountain Wreath),
written by Bishop Petrovich Njegosh. She also possessed artistic
talent and a versatile dexterity in her Wngers for expressing
it. She earned wide fame throughout the countryside for her beautiful
needlework. According to Tesla, so great were her dexterity and
her patience that she could, when over sixty, using only her
Wngers, tie three knots in an eyelash.
The remarkable abilities of this clever
woman who had no formal education were transmitted to her Wve
children. The elder son, Dane Tesla, born seven years before
Nikola, was the family favorite because of the promise of an
outstanding career which his youthful cleverness indicated was
in store for him. He foreshadowed in his early years the strange
manifestations which in his surviving brother were a prelude
Tesla's father started his career in
the military service, a likely choice for the son of an oYcer;
but he apparently did not inherit his father's liking for Army
life. So slight an incident as criticism for failure to keep
his brass buttons brightly polished caused him to leave military
school. He was probably more of a poet and philosopher than a
soldier. He wrote poetry which was published in contemporary
papers. He also wrote articles on current problems which he signed
with a pseudonym, ``Srbin Pravicich.'' This, in Serb, means ``Man
of Justice.'' He spoke, read and wrote Serbo-Croat, German and
Italian. It was probably his interest in poetry and philosophy
that caused him to be attracted to Djouka Mandich. She was twenty-Wve
and Milutin was two years older. He married her in 1847. His
attraction to the daughter of a pastor probably inXuenced his
next choice of a career, for he then entered the ministry and
was soon ordained a priest.
He was made pastor of the church at Senj,
an important seaport with facilities for a cultural life. He
gave satisfaction, but apparently he achieved success among his
parishioners on the basis of a pleasing personality and an understanding
of problems rather than by using any great erudition in theological
and ecclesiastical matters.
A few years after he was placed in charge
of this parish, a new archbishop, elevated to head of the diocese,
wished to survey the capabilities of the priests in his charge
and oVered a prize for the best sermon preached on his oYcial
visit. The Rev. Milutin Tesla was bubbling over, at the time,
with interest in labor as a major factor in social and economic
problems. To preach a sermon on this topic was, from the viewpoint
of expediency, a totally impractical thing to do. Nobody, however,
had ever accused the Rev. Mr. Tesla of being practical, so doing
the impractical thing was quite in harmony with his nature. He
chose the subject which held his greatest interest; and when
the archbishop arrived, he listened to a sermon on ``Labor.''
Months later Senj was surprised by an
unanticipated visit from the archbishop, who announced that the
Rev. Mr. Tesla had preached the best sermon, and awarded him
a red sash which he was privileged to wear on all occasions.
Shortly afterward he was made pastor at Smiljan, where his parish
then embraced forty homes. He was later placed in charge of the
much larger parish in the nearby city of Gospic. His Wrst three
children, Milka, Dane and Angelina, were born at Senj. Nikola
and his younger sister, Marica, were born at Smiljan.
Tesla's early environment, then, was
that of an agricultural community in a high plateau region near
the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea in the Velebit Mountains,
a part of the Alps, a mountain chain stretching from Switzerland
to Greece. He did not see his Wrst steam locomotive until he
was in his `teens, so his aptitude for mechanical matters did
not grow out of his environment.
Tesla's homeland is today called Yugoslavia,
a country whose name means ``Land of the Southern Slavs.'' It
embraces several former separate countries, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia,
Montenegro, Dalmatia and also Slovenia. The Tesla and Mandich
families originally came from the western part of Serbia near
Montenegro. Smiljan, the village where Tesla was born, is in
the province of Lika, and at the time of his birth this was a
dependent province held by the Austro-Hungarian Empire as part
of Croatia and Slovenia.
Tesla's surname dates back more than
two and a half centuries. Before that time the family name was
Draganic (pronounced as if spelled Drag'-a-nitch). The name Tesla
(pronounced as spelled, with equal emphasis on both syllables),
in a purely literal sense, is a trade name like Smith, Wright
or Carpenter. As a common noun it describes a woodworking tool
which, in English, is called an adz. This is an axe with a broad
cutting blade at right angles to the handle, instead of parallel
as in the more familiar form. It is used in cutting large tree
trunks into squared timbers. In the Serbo-Croat language, the
name of the tool is tesla. There is a tradition in the Draganic
family that the members of one branch were given the nickname
``Tesla'' because of an inherited trait which caused practically
all of them to have very large, broad and protruding front teeth
which greatly resembled the triangular blade of the adz.
The name Draganic and derivatives of
it appear frequently in other branches of the Tesla family as
a given name. When used as a given name it is frequently translated
``Charlotte,'' but as a generic term it holds the meaning ``dear''
and as a surname is translated ``Darling.''
The majority of Tesla's ancestors for
whom age records are available lived well beyond the average
span of life for their times, but no deWnite record has been
found of the ancestor who, Tesla claimed, lived to be one hundred
and forty years of age. (His father died at the age of Wfty-nine,
and his mother at seventy-one.)
Although many of Tesla's ancestors were
dark eyed, his eyes were a gray-blue. He claimed his eyes were
originally darker, but that as a result of the excessive use
of his brain their color changed. His mother's eyes, however,
were gray and so are those of some of his nephews. It is probable,
therefore, that his gray eyes were inherited, rather than faded
by excessive use of the brain.
Tesla grew to be very tall and very slender--tallness
was a family and a national trait. When he attained full growth
he was exactly two meters, or six feet two and one-quarter inches
tall. While his body was slender, it was built within normal
proportions. His hands, however, and particularly his thumbs,
seemed unusually long.
Nikola's older brother Dane was a brilliant
boy and his parents gloried in their good fortune in being blessed
with such a Wne son. There was, however, a diVerence of seven
years in the two boys' ages, and since the elder brother died
as the result of an accident at the age of twelve, when Nikola
was but Wve years old, a fair comparison of the two seems hardly
possible. The loss of their Wrst-born son was a great blow to
his mother and father; the grief and regrets of the family were
manifest in idealizing his talents and predicting possibilities
of greatness he might have realized, and this situation was a
challenge to Nikola in his youth.
The superman Tesla developed out of the
superboy Nikola. Forced to rise above the normal level by an
urge to carry on for his dearly beloved departed brother, and
also on his own account to exceed the great accomplishment his
brother might have attained had he lived, he unconsciously drew
upon strange resources within. The existence of these resources
might have remained unsuspected for a lifetime, as happens with
the run of individuals, if Nikola had not felt the necessity
for creating a larger sphere of life for himself.
He was aware as a boy that he was not
like other boys in his thoughts, in his amusements and in his
hobbies. He could do the things that other lads his age usually
do, and many things that they could not do. It was these latter
things that interested him most, and he could Wnd no companions
who would share his enthusiasms for them. This situation caused
him to isolate himself from contemporaries, and made him aware
that he was destined for an unusual place if not great accomplishments
in life. His boyish mind was continually exploring realms which
his years had not reached, and his boyhood attainments frequently
were worthy of men of mature age.
He had, of course, the usual experience
of unusual incidents that fall to the lot of a small boy. One
of the earliest events which Tesla recalled was a fall into a
tank of hot milk that was being scalded in the process used by
the natives of that region as a hygienic measure, anticipating
the modern process of pasteurizing.
Shortly afterward he was accidentally
locked in a remote mountain chapel which was visited only at
widely separated intervals. He spent the night in the small building
before his absence was discovered and his possible hiding place
Living close to Nature, with ample opportunity
for observing the Xight of birds, which has ever Wlled men with
envy, he did what many another boy has done with the same results.
An umbrella, plus imagination, oVered to him a certain solution
of the problem of free Xight through the air. The roof of a barn
was his launching platform. The umbrella was large, but its condition
was much the worse for many years of service; it turned inside
out before the Xight was well started. No bones were broken,
but he was badly shaken up and spent the next six weeks in bed.
Probably, though, he had better reason for making this experiment
than most of the others who have tried it. He revealed that practically
all his life he experienced a peculiar reaction when breathing
deeply. When he breathed deeply he was overcome by a feeling
of lightness, as if his body had lost all weight; and he should,
he concluded, be able to Xy through the air merely by his will
to do so. He did not learn, in boyhood, that he was unusual in
One day when he was in his Wfth year,
one of his chums received a gift of a Wshing line, and all the
boys in the group planned a Wshing trip. On that day he was on
the outs with his chums for some unremembered reason. As a result,
he was informed he could not join them. He was not permitted
even to see the Wshing line at close range. He had glimpsed,
however, the general idea of a hook on the end of a string. In
a short time he had fashioned his own interpretation of a hook.
The reWnement of a barb had not occurred to him and he also failed
to evolve the theory of using bait when he went oV on his own
Wshing expedition. The baitless hook failed to attract any Wsh
but, while dangling in the air, much to Tesla's surprise and
satisfaction it snared a frog that leaped at it. He came home
with a bag of nearly two dozen frogs. It may have been a day
on which the Wsh were not biting, but at any rate his chums came
home from the use of their new hook and line without any Wsh.
His triumph was complete. When he later revealed his technique,
all the boys in the neighborhood copied his hook and method,
and in a short time the frog population of the region was greatly
The contents of birds' nests always excited
Tesla's curiosity. He rarely disturbed their contents or occupants.
On one occasion, however, he climbed a rocky crag to investigate
an eagle's nest and took from it a baby eagle which he kept locked
in a barn. A bird on the wing he considered fair prey for his
sling shot, with which he was a star performer.
About this time he became intrigued with
a piece of hollow tube cut from a cane growing in the neighborhood.
This he played with until he had evolved a blow gun and later,
by making a plunger and plugging one end of the tube with a wad
of wet hemp, a pop gun. He then undertook the making of larger
pop guns, and contrived one in which the end of the plunger was
held against the chest and the tube pulled energetically toward
the body. He engaged in the manufacture of this article for his
chums, as a Wve-year-old businessman. When a number of window
panes happened to get broken accidentally by getting in the way
of his hemp wad, his inventive proclivities in this Weld were
quickly curbed by the destruction of the pop guns and the administration
of the parental rod.
Tesla started his formal education by
attending the village school in Smiljan before he reached his
Wfth birthday. A few years later his father received his appointment
as pastor of a church in the nearby city of Gospic, so the family
moved there. This was a sad day for young Tesla. He had lived
close to Nature, and loved the open country and the high mountains
among which he had thus far spent all of his life. The sudden
transition to the artiWcialities of the city was a very deWnite
shock to him. He was out of harmony with his new surroundings.
His advent into the city life of Gospic,
at the age of seven, got oV to an unfortunate start. As the new
minister in town, his father was anxious to have everything move
smoothly. Tesla was required to dress in his best clothes and
attend the Sunday services. Naturally, he dreaded this ordeal
and was very happy when assigned the task of ringing the bell
summoning the worshipers to the service and announcing the close
of the ceremonies. This gave him an opportunity to remain unseen
in the belfry while the parishioners, their daughters and dude
sons were arriving and departing.
Thinking he had waited long enough after
the close of the service for the church to be cleared on this
Wrst Sunday, he came downstairs three steps at a time. A wealthy
woman parishioner wearing a skirt with a long train that fashionably
dragged along the ground, and who had come to the service with
a retinue of servants, remained after the other parishioners
to have a talk with the new pastor. She was just making an impressive
exit when Tesla's Wnal jump down the stairs landed him on the
train, ripping this dignity-preserving appendage from the woman's
dress. Her mortiWcation and rage and his father's anger came
upon him simultaneously. Parishioners loitering outside rushed
back to revel in the spectacle. Thereafter no one dared be pleasant
to this youngster who had enraged the wealthy dowager who domineered
it over the social community. He was practically ostracized by
the parishioners, and continued so until he redeemed himself
in a spectacular manner.
Tesla felt strange and defeated in his
ignorance of city ways. He met the situation Wrst by avoidance.
He did not care to leave his home. The boys of his age were neatly
dressed every day. They were dudes and he did not belong. Even
as a child Tesla was meticulously careful in dress. At the earliest
moment, however, he would slip work clothes over his dress clothes
and go wandering in the woods or engage in mechanical work. He
could not enjoy life if limited to the activities in which he
could engage while dressed up. Tesla, however, possessed ingenuity,
and there was rarely a situation in which he was not able to
use it. He also possessed knowledge of the ways of Nature. These
gave him a distinct superiority over the city boys.
About a year after the family moved to
Gospic a new Wre company was organized. It was to be supplied
with a pump which would replace the useful but inadequate bucket
brigade. The members of the new organization obtained brightly
colored uniforms and practiced marching for parades. Eventually
the new pump arrived. It was a man-power pump to be operated
by sixteen men. A parade and demonstration of the new apparatus
was arranged. Almost everyone in Gospic turned out for the event
and followed to the river front for the pump demonstration. Tesla
was among them. He paid no attention to the speeches but was
all eyes for the brightly painted apparatus. He did not know
how it worked but would have loved to take it apart and investigate
The time for the demonstration came when
the last speaker, Wnishing his dedicatory address, gave the order
to start the pumping operation that would send a stream of water
shooting skyward from the nozzle. The eight men regimented on
either side of the pump bowed and rose in alternate unison as
they raised and lowered the bars that operated the pistons of
the pump. But nothing else happened, not a drop of water came
from the nozzle!
OYcials of the Wre company started feverishly
to make adjustments and, after each attempt, set the sixteen
men oscillating up and down at the pump handles, but each time
without results. The lines of hose between the pump and the nozzle
were straightened out, they were disconnected from the pump and
connected again. But no water came from the far end of the hose
to reward the eVorts of the perspiring Wremen.
Tesla was among the usual group of urchins
that always manages to get inside the lines on such occasions.
He tried to see everything that was going on from the closest
possible vantage point and undoubtedly got on the nerves of the
vexed oYcials when their repeated eVorts were frustrated by continuous
failures. As one of the oYcials turned for the tenth time to
vent his frustration on the urchins and order them away from
his range of action, Tesla grabbed him by the arm.
``I know what to do, Mister,'' said Tesla.
``You keep pumping.''
Dashing for the river, Tesla peeled his
clothes oV quickly and dove into the water. He swam to the suction
hose that was supposed to draw the water supply from the river.
He found it kinked, so that no water could Xow into it, and Xattened
by the vacuum created by the pumping. When he straightened out
the kink, the water rushed into the line. The nozzlemen had stood
at their post for a long time, receiving a continuous repetition
of warnings to be prepared each time an adjustment was made,
but, as nothing happened on these successive occasions, they
had gradually relaxed their attention and were giving little
thought to the direction in which the nozzle was pointed. When
the stream of water did shoot skyward, down it came on the assembled
oYcials and townspeople. This item of unexpected drama excited
the crowd at the other end of the line near the pump, and to
give vent to their joy they seized the scantily dressed Tesla,
boosted him to the shoulders of a couple of the Wremen, and led
a procession around the town. The seven-year-old Tesla was the
hero of the day.
Later on Tesla, in explaining the incident,
said that he had had not the faintest idea of how the pump worked;
but as he watched the men struggle with it, he got an intuitive
Xash of knowledge that told him to go to the hose in the river.
On looking back to that event, he said, he knew how Archimedes
must have felt when, after discovering the law of the displacement
of water by Xoating objects, he ran naked through the streets
of Syracuse shouting ``Eureka!
At the age of seven Tesla had tasted
the pleasures of public acclaim
for his ingenuity. And further, he had
done something which the dudes, the boys of his age in the city,
could not do and which even their fathers could not do. He had
found himself. He was now a hero, and it could be forgotten that
he had jumped on a woman's skirt and ripped the train oV.
Tesla never lost an opportunity to hike
through the nearby mountains where he could again enjoy the pleasures
of his earlier years spent so close to Nature. On these occasions
he would often wonder if there was still operating a crude water
wheel which he made and installed, when he was less than Wve
years old, across the mountain brook near his home in Smiljan.
The wheel consisted of a not too well-smoothed
disk cut from a tree trunk in some lumbering operations. Through
its center he was able to cut a hole and force into it a somewhat
straight branch of a tree, the ends of which he rested in two
sticks with crotches which he forced into the rock on either
bank of the brook. This arrangement permitted the lower part
of the disk to dip in the water and the current caused it to
rotate. To the lad there was a great deal of originality employed
in making this ancient device. The wheel wobbled a bit but to
him it was a marvelous piece of construction, and he got no end
of pleasure out of watching his water wheel obtain power from
This experiment undoubtedly made a life-long
impression on his young plastic mind and endowed him with the
desire, ever afterward manifested in his work, of obtaining power
from Nature's sources which are always being dissipated and always
In this smooth-disk water wheel we Wnd
an early clue to his later invention of the smooth-disk turbine.
In his later experience he discovered that all water wheels have
paddles--but his little water wheel had operated without paddles.
Tesla's Wrst experiment in original methods
of power production was made when he was nine years old. It demonstrated
his ingenuity and originality, if nothing else. It was a sixteen-bug-power
engine. He took two thin slivers of wood, as thick as a toothpick
and several times as long, and glued them together in the form
of a cross, so they looked like the arms of a windmill. At the
point of intersection they were glued to a spindle made of another
thin sliver of wood. On this he slipped a very small pulley with
about the diameter of a pea. A piece of thread acting as a driving
belt was slipped over this and also around the circumference
of a much larger but light pulley which was also mounted on a
thin spindle. The power for this machine was furnished by sixteen
May bugs (June bugs in the United States). He had collected a
jar full of the insects, which were very much of a pest in the
neighborhood. With a little dab of glue four bugs were aYxed,
heading in the same direction, to each of the four arms of the
windmill arrangement. The bugs beat their wings, and if they
had been free would have Xown away at high speed. They were,
however, attached to the cross arms, so instead they pulled them
around at high speed. These, being connected by the thread belt
to the large pulley, caused the latter to turn at low speed;
but it developed, Tesla reports, a surprisingly large torque,
or turning power.
Proud of his bug-power motor and its
continuous operation--the bugs did not cease Xying for hours--he
called in one of the boys in the neighborhood to admire it. The
lad was a son of an Army oYcer. The visitor was amused for a
short time by the bug motor, until he spied the jar of still
unused May bugs. Without hesitation he opened the jar, Wshed
out the bugs--and ate them. This so nauseated Tesla that he chased
the boy out of the house and destroyed the bug motor. For years
he could not tolerate the sight of May bugs without a return
of this unpleasant reaction.
This event greatly annoyed Tesla because
he had planned to add more spindles to the shaft and stick on
more Xiers until he had more than a one-hundred-bug-power motor.
TESLA'S years in school were more important
for the activities in which he engaged in after-school hours
than for what he learned in the classroom. At the age of ten,
having Wnished his elementary studies in the Normal School, Tesla
entered the college, called the Real Gymnasium, at Gospic. This
was not an unusually early age to enter the Real Gymnasium, as
that school corresponds more to our grammar school and junior
high school than to our college.
One of the requirements, and one to which
an unusually large percentage of the class time was devoted throughout
the four years, was freehand drawing. Tesla detested the subject
almost to the point of open rebellion, and his marks were accordingly
very low, but not entirely owing to a lack of ability.
Tesla was left-handed as a boy, but later
became ambidextrous. Left-handedness was a deWnite handicap in
the freehand-drawing studies, but he could have done much better
work than he actually produced and would have gotten higher marks
if it were not for a piece of altruism in which he engaged. A
student whom he could excel in drawing was striving hard for
a scholarship. Were he to receive the lowest marks in freehand
drawing, he would be unable to obtain the scholarship. Tesla
sought to help his fellow student by intentionally getting the
lowest rating in the small class.
Mathematics was his favorite subject
and he distinguished himself in that study. His unusual proWciency
in this Weld was not considered a counterbalancing virtue to
make amends for his lack of enthusiasm for freehand drawing.
A strange power permitted him to perform unusual feats in mathematics.
He possessed it from early boyhood, but had considered it a nuisance
and tried to be rid of it because it seemed beyond his control.
If he thought of an object it would appear
before him exhibiting the appearance of solidity and massiveness.
So greatly did these visions possess the attributes of actual
objects that it was usually diYcult for him to distinguish between
vision and reality. This abnormal faculty functioned in a very
useful fashion in his school work with mathematics.
If he was given a problem in arithmetic
or algebra, it was immaterial to him whether he went to the blackboard
to work it out or whether he remained in his seat. His strange
faculty permitted him to see a visioned blackboard on which the
problem was written, and there appeared on this blackboard all
of the operations and symbols required in working out the solution.
Each step appeared much more rapidly than he could work it out
by hand on the actual slate. As a result, he could give the solution
almost as quickly as the whole problem was stated.
His teachers, at Wrst, had some doubts
about his honesty, thinking he had worked out some clever deceit
for getting the right answers. In due time their skepticism was
dispelled and they accepted him as a student who was unusually
apt at mental arithmetic. He would not reveal this power to anyone
and would discuss it only with his mother, who in the past had
encouraged him in his eVorts to banish it. Now that the power
had demonstrated some deWnite usefulness, though, he was not
so anxious to be completely rid of it, but desired to bring it
under his complete control.
Work that Tesla did outside school hours
interested him much more than his school work. He was a rapid
reader and had a memory that was retentive to the point, almost,
of infallibility. He found it easy to acquire foreign languages.
In addition to his native Serbo-Croat language he became proWcient
in the use of German, French and Italian. This opened to him
great stores of knowledge to which other students did not have
access, yet this knowledge, apparently, was of little use to
him in his school work. He was interested in things mechanical
but the school provided no manual training course. Nevertheless,
he became proWcient in the working of wood and metals with tools
and methods of his own contriving.
In the classroom of one of the upper
grades of the Real Gymnasium models of water wheels were on exhibition.
They were not working models but nevertheless they aroused Tesla's
enthusiasm. They recalled to him the crude wheel he had constructed
in the hills of Smiljan. He had seen pictures of the magniWcent
Niagara Falls. Coupling the power possibilities presented by
the majestic waterfalls and the intriguing possibilities he saw
in the models of the water wheels, he aroused in himself a passion
to accomplish a grand achievement. Waxing eloquent on the subject,
he told his father, ``Some day I am going to America and harness
Niagara Falls to produce power.'' Thirty years later he was to
see this prediction fulWlled.
There were many books in his father's
library. The knowledge in those books interested him more than
that which he received in school and he wished to spend his evenings
reading them. As in other matters, he carried this to an extreme,
so his father forbade him to read them, fearing that he would
ruin his eyes in the poor light of tallow candles then used for
illumination. Nikola sought to circumvent this ruling by taking
candles to his room and reading after he was sent to bed, but
his violation of orders was soon discovered and the family candle
supply was hidden. Next he fashioned a candle mould out of a
piece of tin and made his own candles. Then, by plugging the
keyhole and the chinks around the door, he was able to spend
the night hours reading volumes purloined from his father's bookshelves.
Frequently, he said, he would read through the entire night and
feel none the worse for the loss of sleep. Eventual discovery,
however, brought paternal discipline of a vigorous nature. He
was about eleven years old at this time.
Like other boys of his age he played
with bows and arrows. He made bigger bows, and better, straighter
shooting arrows, and his marksmanship was excellent. He was not
willing to stop at that point. He started building arbalists.
These could be described as bow-and-arrow guns. The bow is mounted
on a frame and the string pulled back and caught on a peg from
which it is released by a trigger. The arrow is laid on the midpoint
of the bow, its end against the taut string. The bow lies horizontal
on the frame whereas in ordinary manual shooting the bow is held
in vertical position. For this reason the device is sometimes
called the crossbow. In setting an arbalist the beam is placed
against the abdomen and the string pulled back with all possible
force. Tesla did this so often, he said, that his skin at the
point of pressure became calloused until it was more like a crocodile's
hide. When shot into the air the arrows from his arbalist were
never recovered, for they went far out of sight. At close range
they would pass through a pine board an inch thick.
Tesla got a thrill out of archery not
experienced by other boys. He was, in imagination, riding those
arrows which he shot out of sight into the blue vault of the
heavens. That sense of exhilaration he experienced when breathing
deeply gave him such a feeling of lightness he convinced himself
that in this state it would be relatively easy for him to Xy
through the air if he only could devise some mechanical aid that
would launch him and enable him to overcome what he thought was
only a slight remaining weight in his body. His earlier disastrous
jump from the barn roof had not disillusioned him. His conclusions
were in keeping with his sensations; but a twelve-year-old lad
exploring this diYcult Weld alone cannot be condemned too severely
for not discovering that our senses sometimes deceive us, or
rather that we sometimes deceive ourselves in interpreting what
our senses tell us.
In breathing deeply he was overventilating
his lungs, taking out some of the residual carbon dioxide which
is chemical ``ashes,'' and largely inert, and replacing it with
air containing a mixture of equally inert nitrogen and very active
oxygen. The latter being present in more than normal proportions
immediately began to upset chemical balances throughout the body.
The reaction on the brain produces a result which does not diVer
greatly from alcohol intoxication. A number of cults use this
procedure to induce ``mystical'' or ``occult'' experiences. How
was a twelve-year-old boy to know all these things? He could
see that birds did an excellent job in Xying. He was convinced
that some day man would Xy, and he wanted to produce the machine
that would get him oV the ground and into the air.
The big idea came to him when he learned
about the vacuum--a space within a container from which all air
had been exhausted. He learned that every object exposed to the
air was under a pressure of about fourteen pounds per square
inch, while in a vacuum objects were free of such pressure. He
Wgured that a pressure of fourteen pounds should turn a cylinder
at high speed and he could arrange to get advantage of such pressure
by surrounding one half of a cylinder with a vacuum and having
the remaining half of its surface exposed to air pressure. He
carefully built a box of wood. At one end was an opening into
which a cylinder was Wtted with a very high order of accuracy,
so that the box would be airtight; and on one side of the cylinder
the edge of the box made a right-angle contact. On the cylinder's
other side the box made a tangent, or Xat, contact. This arrangement
was made because he wanted the air pressure to be exerted at
a tangent to the surface of the cylinder--a situation that he
knew would be required in order to produce rotation. If he could
get that cylinder to rotate, all he would have to do in order
to Xy would be to attach a propeller to a shaft from the cylinder,
strap the box to his body and obtain continuous power from his
vacuum box that would lift him through the air. His theory of
course was fallacious, but he had no means of knowing that at
The workmanship on this box was undoubtedly
of a very high order, considering it was made by a self-instructed
twelve-year-old mechanic. When he connected his vacuum pump,
an ordinary air pump with its valves reversed, he found the box
was airtight, so he pulled out all the air, watching the cylinder
intently while doing so. Nothing happened for many strokes of
the pump except that it made his back lame to pull the pump handle
upward while he created the most ``powerful'' possible vacuum.
He rested for a moment. He was breathing deeply from exertion,
overventilating his lungs, and getting that joyous, dizzy, light-as-air
feeling which was a highly satisfactory mental environment for
Suddenly the cylinder started to turn--slowly!
His experiment was a success! His vacuum-power box was working!
He would Xy!
Tesla was delirious with joy. He went
into a state of ecstasy. There was no one with whom he could
share this joy, as he had taken no one into his conWdence. It
was his secret and he was forced to endure its joys alone. The
cylinder continued to turn slowly. It was no hallucination. It
was real. It did not speed up, however, and this was disappointing.
He had visualized it turning at a tremendous speed but it was
actually turning extremely slowly. His idea, at least, he Wgured,
was correct. With a little better workmanship, perhaps he could
make the cylinder turn faster. He stood spellbound watching it
turn at a snail's pace for less than half a minute--and then
the cylinder stopped. That broke the spell and ended for the
time his mental air Xights.
He hunted for the trouble and quickly
located what he was sure was the cause of the diYculty. Since
the vacuum, he theorized, is the source of power, then, if the
power stops, it must be because the vacuum is gone. His pump,
he felt sure, must be leaking air. He pulled up the handle. It
came up easily and that meant very deWnitely he had lost the
vacuum in the box. He again pumped out the air--and again when
he reached a high vacuum the cylinder started to turn slowly
and continued to do so for a fraction of a minute. When it stopped
he again pumped a vacuum and again the cylinder turned. This
time he continued to operate the pump and the cylinder continued
to turn. He could keep it turning as long as he desired by continuing
to pump the vacuum.
There was nothing wrong with his theory,
as far as he could see. He went over the pump very carefully,
making improvements which would give him a high vacuum, and studied
the valve to make that a better guard of the vacuum in the box.
He worked on the project for weeks but despite his best eVorts
he could get no better results than the slow movement of the
Finally the truth came to him in a Xash--he
was losing the vacuum in the box because the air was leaking
in around the cylinder on that side where the Xat board was tangent
to the surface of the cylinder. As the air Xowed into the box
it pulled the cylinder around with it very slowly. When the air
stopped Xowing into the box the cylinder stopped turning. He
knew now his theory was wrong. He had supposed that even with
the vacuum being maintained, and no air leaking in, the air pressure
would be exerted at a tangent to the surface of the cylinder
and the pressure would produce motion in the same way as pushing
on the rim of a wheel will cause it to turn. He discovered later,
however, that the air pressure is exerted at right angles to
the surface of the cylinder at all points, like the direction
of the spokes of a wheel, and therefore it could not be used
to produce rotation in the way he planned.
This experiment, nevertheless, was not
a total loss, even though it greatly disheartened him. The knowledge
that the air leaking into a vacuum had actually produced even
a small amount of rotation in a cylinder remained with him and
led directly, many years later, to his invention of the ``Tesla
turbine,'' the steam engine that broke all records for horsepower
developed per pound of weight--what he called ``a power house
in a hat.''
Nature seemed to be constantly engaged
in staging spectacular demonstrations for young Tesla, revealing
to him samples of the secret of her mighty forces.
Tesla was roaming in the mountains with
some chums one winter day after a storm in which the snow fell
moist and sticky. A small snowball rolled on the ground quickly
gathered more snow to itself and soon became a big one that was
not too easy to move. Tiring of making snowmen and snow houses
on level stretches of ground, the boys took to throwing snowballs
down the sloping ground of the mountain. Most of them were duds--that
is, they got stalled in the soft snow before they accumulated
additional volume. A few rolled a distance, grew larger and then
bogged down and stopped. One, however, found just the right conditions;
it rolled until it was a large ball and then spread out, rolling
up the snow at the sides as if it were rolling up a giant carpet,
and then suddenly it turned into an avalanche. Soon an irresistible
mass of snow was moving down the steep slope. It stripped the
mountainside clean of snow, trees, soil and everything else it
could carry before it and with it. The great mass landed in the
valley below with a thud that shook the mountain. The boys were
frightened because there was snow above them on the mountain
that might have been shaken into a downward slide, carrying them
along buried in it.
This event made a profound impression
on Tesla and it dominated a great deal of his thinking in later
life. He had witnessed a snowball weighing a few ounces starting
an irresistible, devastating movement of thousands of tons of
inert matter. It convinced him that there are tremendous forces
locked up in Nature that can be released in gigantic amounts,
for useful as well as destructive purposes, by the employment
of small trigger forces. He was always on the lookout for such
triggers in his later experiments.
Tesla even as a boy was an original thinker
and he never hesitated to think thoughts on a grand scale, always
carrying everything to its largest ultimate dimension as a means
of exploring the cosmos. This is demonstrated by another event
that took place the following summer. He was wandering alone
in the mountains when storm clouds started to Wll the sky. There
was a Xash of lightning and almost immediately a deluge of rain
descended on him.
There was implanted in his thirteen-year-old
mind on that occasion a thought which he carried with him practically
all his life. He saw the lightning Xash and then saw the rain
come down in torrents, so he reasoned that the lightning Xash
produced the downpour. The idea become Wrmly Wxed in his mind
that electricity controlled the rain, and that if one could produce
lightning at will, the weather would be brought under control.
Then there would be no dry periods in which crops would be ruined;
deserts could be turned into vineyards, the food supply of the
world would be greatly increased, and there would be no lack
of food anywhere on the globe. Why could he not produce lightning?
The observation and the conclusions drawn
from it by young Tesla were worthy of a more mature mind, and
it would require a genius among the adults to have evolved the
project of controlling the world's weather through such means.
There was, however, a Xaw in his observation. He saw the lightning
come Wrst and the rain afterward. Further investigation would
have revealed to him that the order of events was reversed higher
in the air. It was the rain that came Wrst and the lightning
afterward up in the cloud. The lightning, however, arrived Wrst
because it made the trip from the cloud in less than 1/100,000
of a second, while the raindrops required several seconds to
fall to the ground.
At this time there was planted in Tesla's
mind the seed of a project which matured more than thirty years
later when, in the mountains of Colorado, he actually produced
bolts of lightning, and planned later to use them to bring rain.
He never succeeded in convincing the U.S. Patent OYce of the
practicability of the rain-making plan.
Tesla, as a boy, knew no limits to the
universe of his thinking; and as a result he built an intellectual
realm suYciently large to provide ample space in which his more
mature mind could operate without encountering retarding barriers.
Tesla Wnished his course at the Real
Gymnasium in Gospic in 1870,
at the age of fourteen. He had distinguished
himself as a scholar. In one grade, however, his mathematics
professor gave him less than a passing mark for his year's work.
Tesla felt an injustice had been done him, so he went to the
director of the school and demanded that he be given the strictest
kind of examination in the subject. This was done in the presence
of the director and the professor, and Tesla passed it with an
almost perfect mark.
His Wne work at school and the recognition
by the towns-people that he possessed a broader scope of knowledge
than any other youth in town led the trustees of the public library
to ask him to classify the books in their possession and make
a catalogue. He had already read most of the books in his father's
extensive library, so he was pleased to have close access to
a still larger collection and undertook the task with considerable
enthusiasm. He had scarcely begun work on this project when it
was interrupted by a long intermittent illness. When he felt
too depressed to go to the library he had quantities of the books
brought to his home, and these he read while conWned to his bed.
His illness reached a critical stage and physicians gave up hope
of saving his life.
Tesla's father knew that he was a delicate
child and, having lost his other son, tried to throw every possible
safeguard around this one. He was greatly pleased over his son's
brilliant accomplishments in almost every activity in which he
engaged, but he recognized as a danger to Nikola's health the
great intensity with which he tackled projects. Nikola's trend
toward engineering was to him a dangerous development, as he
thought work in that Weld would make too heavy demands upon him,
not only because of the nature of the work but in the extended
years of study in which he would have to engage. If, however,
the boy entered the ministry, it would not be necessary for him
to extend his studies beyond the Real Gymnasium which he had
just completed. For this reason his father favored a career for
him in the Church.
Illness threw everything into a somber
aspect. When the critical stage of his illness was reached and
his strength was at its lowest ebb, Nikola manifested no inclination
to help himself get better by developing an enthusiasm for anything.
It was in this stage of his illness that he glanced listlessly
at one of the library books. It was a volume by Mark Twain. The
book held his interest and then aroused his enthusiasm for life,
enabling him to pass a crisis, and his health gradually returned
to normal. Tesla credited the Mark Twain book with saving his
life, and when, years later, he met Twain, they became very close
At the age of Wfteen Tesla, in 1870,
continued his studies at the Higher Real Gymnasium, corresponding
to our college, at Karlovac (Carlstadt) in Croatia. His attendance
at this school was made possible by an invitation from a cousin
of his father's, married to a Col. Brankovic, whose home was
in Karlovac, to come and live with her and her husband, a retired
Army oYcer, while attending school. His life there was none too
happy. Scarcely had he arrived when he contracted malaria from
the mosquitoes in the Karlovac lowlands, and he was never free
from the malady for years afterward.
Tesla relates that he was hungry all
during the three years he spent at Karlovac. There was plenty
of deliciously prepared food in the home, but his aunt held the
theory that because his health seemed none too rugged he should
not eat heavy meals. Her husband, a gruV and rugged individual,
when carving a second helping for himself, would sometimes try
to slip a healthy slice of meat onto Tesla's plate; but the Colonel
was always overruled by his wife, who would take back the slice
and carve one to the thinness of a sheet of paper, warning her
husband, ``Niko is delicate and we must be very careful not to
overload his stomach.''
His studies at Karlovac interested him,
however, and he completed the four-year course in three years,
tackling the school work with a dangerous enthusiasm, partly
as an escape mechanism to divert his attention from the none
too pleasing conditions where he was living. The lasting favorable
impression which Tesla carried away from Karlovac concerned his
professor of physics, a clever and original experimenter, who
amazed him with the feats he performed with laboratory apparatus.
He could not get enough of this course. He wanted to devote his
whole time henceforth to electrical experimenting. He knew he
would not be satisWed in any other Weld. His mind was made up;
he had selected his career.
His father wrote to him shortly before
his graduation advising him not to return home when school was
closed but to go on a long hunting trip. Tesla, however, was
anxious to get home--to surprise his parents with the good news
that he had completed his work at the Higher Real Gymnasium a
year ahead of schedule, and to announce his decision to make
the study of electricity his life work. Greatly worried, his
parents, who at that moment were making strenuous eVorts to protect
his health, were doubly alarmed. Wrst, there was his violation
of the instruction sent him not to return to Gospic. The reason
for this advice they had not disclosed--an epidemic of cholera
was raging. And second, there was his decision to enter on a
career which they feared would make dangerous demands on his
delicate health. On returning home, he found his plan deWnitely
opposed. This made him very unhappy. In addition, he would shortly
have to face a situation which was even more repugnant than entering
upon a career in the Church, and that was the compulsory three-years'
service in the Army. Those two powerful factors were operating
against him and seeking to thwart him in his burning desire to
start immediately unraveling the mystery and harnessing the great
power of electricity.
Nothing, he thought, could exceed the
diYculty of the predicament in which he found himself. In this,
however, he was mistaken, for he was soon to face a much more
serious problem. On the very day after his arrival home, while
these issues were still red hot, he became ill with cholera.
He had come home malnourished because of the inadequate amount
of food to which he had been limited and the strain of his intense
application to his studies. Besides, he was still suVering from
malaria. Then came the cholera. Now all other problems became
secondary to the immediate one of maintaining life itself against
the deadly scourge. His physical condition made the doctors despair
of saving him. Nevertheless, he survived the crisis, but it left
him in a thoroughly weakened and run-down condition. For nine
months he lay in bed almost a physical wreck. He had frequent
sinking spells and from each successive one it seemed harder
to rally him.
Life held no incentive for him. If he
survived he would be forced to enter the Army and, if nothing
happened to prevent him from Wnishing that term of something
worse than slavery, he would be forced to study for the ministry.
He did not care whether he survived or not. Left to his own decision,
he would not have rallied from earlier sinking spells; but the
decision was not left to him. Some force stronger than his own
consciousness carried him through, but it had to succeed in spite
of him and not because of any assistance he was giving. The sinking
spells came on with startling regularity, each one with increasing
depth. It seemed a miracle that he had come out of the last one,
and now with less reserve strength he was sinking into another
and edging rapidly into unconsciousness. His father entered his
room and tried desperately to rouse him and stir him to a more
cheerful and hopeful attitude in which he could help himself
and do more than the doctors could do for him, but without results.
``I could--get well--if you--would let
me--study electrical--engineering,'' said the prostrate young
man in a hardly audible whisper. He had scarcely enough energy
left for even this eVort; and having made the speech, he seemed
to be dropping over the edge of nothingness. His father, bending
intently over him and fearing the end had come, seized him.
``Nikola,'' he commanded, ``you cannot
go. You must stay. You will be an engineer. Do you hear me? You
will go to the best engineering school in the world and you will
be a great engineer. Nikola, you must come back, you must come
back and become a great engineer.''
The eyes of the prostrate Wgure opened
slowly. Now there was a light shining in the eyes where before
they presented a death-like glaze. The face moved a little, very
little, but the slight change this movement made seemed to be
in the direction of a smile. It was a smile, a weak one, and
he was able to keep his eyes open although it was very apparently
a struggle for him to do so.
``Thank God'' said his father. ``You
heard me, Nikola. You will go to an engineering school and become
a great engineer. Do you understand me?''
There was not enough energy for voice
but the smile became a little more deWnite.
Another crisis in which he had escaped
death by the narrowest margin had been passed. His rise out of
this situation seemed almost miraculous. It seemed to him, Tesla
later related, that from that instant he felt as if he were drawing
vital energy from his loved ones who surrounded him; and this
he used to rally himself out of the shadow.
He was again able to whisper. ``I will
get well,'' he said weakly. He breathed deeply, as deep as his
frail tired frame would permit, of the oxygen which he had found
so stimulating in the past. It was the Wrst time he had done
so in the nine months since he became ill. With each breath he
felt reinvigorated. He seemed to get stronger by the minute.
In a very short time he was taking nourishment
and within a week he was able to sit up. In a few days more he
was on his feet. Life now would be glorious. He would be an electrical
engineer. Everything he dreamed of would come true. As the days
passed he recovered his strength at a remarkably rapid rate and
his hearty appetite returned. It was now early summer. He would
prepare himself to enter the fall term at an engineering school.
But there was something he had forgotten,
everyone in the family had forgotten, in the stress of his months
of illness. It was now brought sharply to his and their attention.
An Army summons--he must face three years' military servitude!
Was his remarkable recovery to be ruined by this catastrophe,
which seemed all the worse now that his chosen career seemed
otherwise nearer? Failure to respond to a military summons meant
jail--and after that the service in addition. How would he solve
There is no record of what took place.
This spot in his career Tesla glossed over with the statement
that his father considered it advisable for him to go oV on a
year's hunting expedition to recover his health. At any rate,
Nikola disappeared. He left with a hunting outWt and some books
and paper. Where he spent the year, no one knows--probably at
some hideaway in the mountains. In the meantime, he was a fugitive
from Army service.
For any ordinary individual this situation
would be a most serious one. For Tesla it had all the gravity
associated with ordinary cases, plus the complication that his
family on his father's side was a traditional military family
whose members had won high rank and honors in Army activities,
and many of whom were now in the service of Austria-Hungary.
For a member of that family to become equivalent to a ``draft
dodger'' and a ``conscientious objector,'' both, was a serious
blow to its prestige, and could provoke a scandal if word of
the situation got into circulation. Tesla's father used this
circumstance and the fact of NikoIa's delicate health as talking
points to induce his relatives in Army positions to use their
inXuence to enable his son to escape conscription and avoid punishment
for failing to respond to the Army call. In this he was successful,
apparently, but required considerable time in which to make the
Hiding in the mountains and with a year's
time to kill, on this enforced vacation Tesla was able to indulge
in working out totally fantastic plans for some gigantic projects.
One of the plans was for the construction and operation of an
under-ocean tube, connecting Europe and the United States, by
which mail could be transported in spherical containers moved
through the tube by water pressure. He discovered early in his
calculations that the friction of the water on the walls of the
tube would require such a tremendous amount of power to overcome
it that it made the project totally impracticable. Since, however,
he was working on the project entirely for his own amusement,
he eliminated friction from the calculations and was then able
to design a very interesting system of high-speed intercontinental
mail delivery. The factor which made this interesting project
impracticable--the drag of the water on the sides of the tube--Tesla
was later to utilize when he invented his novel steam turbine.
The other project with which he amused
himself was drawn upon an even larger scale and required a still
higher order of imagination. He conceived the project of building
a ring around the earth at the Equator, somewhat resembling the
rings around the planet Saturn. The earth ring, however, was
to be a solid structure whereas Saturn's rings are made up of
Tesla loved to work with mathematics,
and this project gave him an excellent opportunity to use all
of the mathematical techniques available to him. The ring which
Tesla planned was to be a rigid structure constructed on a gigantic
system of scaVolding extending completely around the earth. Once
the ring was complete, the scaVolding was to be removed and the
ring would stay suspended in space and rotating at the same speed
as the earth.
Some use might be found for the project,
Tesla said, if someone could Wnd a means of providing reactionary
forces that could make the ring stand still with respect to the
earth while the latter whirled underneath it at a speed of 1,000
miles per hour. This would provide a high-speed ``moving'' platform
system of transportation which would make it possible for a person
to travel around the earth in a single day.
In this project, he admitted, he encountered
the same problem as did Archimedes, who said ``Give me a fulcrum
and a lever long enough and I will move the earth.'' ``The fulcrum
in space on which to rest the lever was no more attainable than
was the reactionary force needed to halt the spinning of the
hypothetical ring around the earth,'' said Tesla. There were
a number of other factors which he found necessary to ignore
in this project, but ignore them he did so that they would not
interfere with his mathematical practice and his cosmical engineering
With his health regained, and the danger
of punishment by the Army removed, Tesla returned to his home
in Gospic to remain a short time before going to Grätz,
where he was to study electrical engineering as his father had
promised he could do. This marked the turning point in his life.
Finished with boyhood dreams and play, he was now ready to settle
down to his serious life work. He had played at being a god,
not hesitating to plan refashioning the earth as a planet. His
life work was to produce accomplishments hardly less fantastic
than his boyhood dreams.
TESLA entered manhood with a deWnite
knowledge that nameless forces were shaping for him an unrevealed
destiny. It was a situation he had to feel rather than be able
to identify and describe in words. His goal he could not see
and the course leading to it he could not discern. He knew very
deWnitely the Weld in which he intended to spend his life, and
using such physical laws as he knew he decided to plan a life
which, as an engineering project, would be operated under principles
that would yield the highest index of eYciency. He did not, at
this time, have a complete plan of life drawn up, but there were
certain elements which he knew intuitively he would not include
in his operations, so he avoided all activities and interests
that would bring them in as complications. It was to be a single-purpose
life, devoted entirely to science with no provisions whatever
for play or romance.
It was with this philosophy of life that
Tesla in 1875, at the age of 19, went to Grätz, in Austria,
to study electrical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute.
He intended henceforth to devote all his energies to mastering
that strange, almost occult force, electricity, and to harness
it for human welfare.
His Wrst eVort to put this philosophy
to a practical test almost resulted in disaster despite the fact
that it worked successfully. Tesla completely eliminated recreation
and plunged into his studies with such enthusiastic devotion
that he allowed himself only four hours' rest, not all of which
he spent in slumber. He would go to bed at eleven o'clock and
read himself to sleep. He was up again in the small hours of
the morning, tackling his studies.
Under such a schedule he was able to
pass, at the end of the Wrst term, his examinations in nine subjects--nearly
twice as many as were required. His diligence greatly impressed
the members of the faculty. The dean of the technical faculty
wrote to Tesla's father, ``Your son is a star of Wrst rank.''
The strain, however, was aVecting his health. He desired to make
a spectacular showing to demonstrate to his father in a practical
way his appreciation of the permission he gave to study engineering.
When he returned to his home at the end of the school term with
the highest marks that could be awarded in all the subjects passed,
he expected to be joyfully received by his father and praised
for his good work. Instead, his parent showed only the slightest
enthusiasm for his accomplishment but a great deal of interest
in his health, and criticized Nikola for endangering it after
his earlier narrow escape from death. Unknown to Tesla until
several years afterward, the professor at the Polytechnic Institute
had written to his father early in the term, asking him to take
his son out of the school, as he was in danger of killing himself
On his return to the Institute for the
second year he decided to limit his studies to physics, mechanics
and mathematics. This was fortunate because it gave him more
time in which to handle a situation that arose later in his studies,
and was to lead to his Wrst and perhaps greatest invention.
Early in his second year at the Institute
there was received from Paris a piece of electrical equipment,
a Gramme machine, that could be used as either a dynamo or motor.
If turned by mechanical power it would generate electricity,
and if supplied with electricity it would operate as a motor
and produce mechanical power. It was a direct-current machine.
When Prof. Poeschl demonstrated the machine,
Tesla was greatly impressed by its performance except in one
respect--a great deal of sparking took place at the commutator.
Tesla stated his objections to this defect.
``It is inherent in the nature of the
machine,'' replied Prof. Poeschl. ``It may be reduced to a great
extent, but as long as we use commutators it will always be present
to some degree. As long as electricity Xows in one direction,
and as long as a magnet has two poles each of which acts oppositely
on the current, we will have to use a commutator to change, at
the right moment, the direction of the current in the rotating
``That is obvious,'' Tesla countered.
``The machine is limited by the current used. I am suggesting
that we get rid of the commutator entirely by using alternating
Long before the machine was received,
Tesla had studied the theory of the dynamo and motor, and he
was convinced that the whole system could be simpliWed in some
way. The solution of the problem, however, evaded his grasp,
nor was he at all sure the problem could be solved--until Prof.
Poeschl gave his demonstration. The assurance then came to him
like a commanding Xash.
The Wrst sources of current were batteries
which produced a small steady Xow. When man sought to produce
electricity from mechanical power, he sought to make the same
kind the batteries produced: a steady Xow in one direction. The
kind of current a dynamo would produce when coils of wire were
whirled in a magnetic Weld was not this kind of current--it Xowed
Wrst in one direction and then in the other. The commutator was
invented as a clever device for circumventing this seeming handicap
of artiWcial electricity and making the current come out in a
one- directional Xow.
The Xash that came to Tesla was to let
the current come out of the dynamo with its alternating directions
of Xow, thus eliminating the commutator, and feed this kind of
current to the motors, thus eliminating the need in them for
commutators. Many another scientist had played with that idea
long before it occurred to Tesla, but in his case it came to
him as such a vivid, illuminating Xash of understanding that
he knew his visualization contained the correct and practical
answer. He saw both the motors and dynamos operating without
commutators, and doing so very eYciently. He did not, however,
see the extremely important and essential details of how this
desirable result could be accomplished, but he felt an overpowering
assurance that he could solve the problem. It was for this reason
that he stated his objections to the Gramme machine with a great
deal of conWdence to his professor. What he did not expect was
to draw a storm of criticism.
Prof. Poeschl, however, deviated from
his set program of lectures and devoted the next one to Tesla's
objections. With methodical thoroughness he picked Tesla's proposal
apart and, disposing of one point after another, demonstrated
its impractical nature so convincingly that he silenced even
Tesla. He ended his lecture with the statement: ``Mr. Tesla will
accomplish great things, but he certainly never will do this.
It would be equivalent to converting a steady pulling force like
gravity into rotary eVort. It is a perpetual motion scheme, an
Tesla, although silenced temporarily,
was not convinced. The professor had paid him a nice compliment
in devoting a whole lecture to his observation, but, as is so
often the case, the compliment was loaded with what was expected
by the professor to be a crushing defeat for the one whom he
complimented. Tesla was nevertheless greatly impressed by his
authority; and for a while he weakened in his belief that he
had correctly understood his vision. It was as clear-cut and
deWnite as the visualizations that came to him of the solutions
of mathematical problems which he was always able to prove correct.
But perhaps, after all, he was in this case a victim of a self-induced
hallucination. All other things Prof. Poeschl taught were solidly
founded on demonstrable fact, so perhaps his teacher was right
in his objections to the alternating-current idea.
Deep down in his innermost being, however,
Tesla held Wrmly to the conviction that his idea was a correct
one. Criticism only temporarily submerged it, and soon it came
bobbing back to the surface of his thinking. He gradually convinced
himself that, contrary to his usual procedure, Prof. Poeschl
had in this case demonstrated merely that he did not know how
to accomplish a given result, a deWciency which he shared with
everyone else in the world, and therefore could not speak with
authority on this subject. And, in addition, Tesla reasoned,
the closing remark with which Prof. Poeschl believed he had clinched
his argument--``It would be equivalent to converting a steady
pulling force like gravity into a rotary eVort--was contradicted
by Nature, for was not the steady pulling force of gravity making
the moon revolve around the earth and the earth revolve around
``I could not demonstrate my belief at
that time,'' said Tesla, ``but it came to me through what I might
call instinct, for lack of a better name. But instinct is something
which transcends knowledge. We undoubtedly have in our brains
some Wner Wbers which enable us to perceive truths which we could
not attain through logical deductions, and which it would be
futile to attempt to achieve through any wilful eVort of thinking.''
His enthusiasm and conWdence in himself
restored, Tesla tackled the problem with renewed vigor. His power
of visualization--the ability to see as solid objects before
him the things that he conceived in his mind, and which he had
considered such a great annoyance in childhood--now proved to
be of great aid to him in trying to unravel this problem. He
made an elastic rebound from the intellectual trouncing administered
by his Professor and was tackling the problem in methodical fashion.
In his mind he constructed one machine
after another, and as he visioned them before him he could trace
out with his Wnger the various circuits through armature and
Weld coils, and follow the course of the rapidly changing currents.
But in no case did he produce the desired rotation. Practically
all the remainder of the term he spent on this problem. He had
passed so many examinations during the Wrst term that he had
plenty of time to spend on this problem during the second.
It seemed, however, that he was doomed
to fail in this project, for at the term's end he was no nearer
the solution than he was when he started. His pride had been
injured and he was Wghting on the defensive side. He did not
know that those seeming failures in his mental and laboratory
experiments were to serve later as the raw material out of which
yet another vision was to be created.
A radical change had taken place in Tesla's
mode of life while at Grätz. The Wrst year he had acted
like an intellectual glutton, overloading his mind and nearly
wrecking his health in the process. In the second year he allowed
more time for digesting the mental food of which he was partaking,
and permitted himself more recreation. About this time Tesla
took to card-playing as a means of relaxation. His keen mental
processes and highly developed powers of deduction enabled him
to win more frequently than he lost. He never retained the money
he won but returned it to the losers at the end of the game.
When he lost, however, this procedure was not reciprocated by
the other players. He also developed a passion for billiards
and chess, in both of which he became remarkably proWcient.
The fondness for card-playing which Tesla
developed at Grätz got him into an embarrassing situation.
Toward the end of the term his father sent him money to pay for
his trip to Prague and for the expenses incident to enrolling
as a student at the university. Instead of going directly to
Prague, Tesla returned to Gospic for a visit to the family. Sitting
in at a card game with some youths of the city, Tesla found his
usual luck had deserted him, and he lost the money set aside
for his university expenses. He confessed to his mother what
he had done. She did not criticize him. Perhaps the fates were
using this method for protecting him from overwork that might
ruin his health, she reasoned, since he needed rest and relaxation.
Losses of money were much easier to handle than loss of health.
Borrowing some money from a friend, she gave it to Tesla with
the words, ``Here you are. Satisfy yourself.'' Returning to the
game, he experienced a change in luck and came out of it not
only with the money his mother had given him but practically
all of the university expense money he had previously lost. These
winnings he did not return to the losers as was his previous
custom. He returned home, gave his mother the money she had advanced
him, and announced that he would never again indulge in card-playing.
Instead of going to the University of
Prague in the fall of 1878 as he had planned, Tesla accepted
a lucrative position that was oVered him in a technical establishment
at Maribor, near Grätz. He was paid sixty Xorins a month
and a separate bonus for the completed work, a very generous
compensation compared with the prevailing wages. During this
year Tesla lived very modestly and saved his earnings.
The money he had saved at Maribor enabled
him to pay his way through a year at the University of Prague,
where he extended his studies in mathematics and physics. He
continued experimenting with the one big challenging alternating-current
idea that was occupying his mind. He had explored, unsuccessfully,
a large number of methods and, though his failures gave support
to Prof. Poeschl's contention that he would never succeed, he
was unwilling to give up his theory. He still had faith that
he would Wnd the solution of his problem. He knew electrical
science was young and growing, and felt deep within his consciousness
that he would make the important discovery that would greatly
expand the infant science to the powerful giant of the future.
It would have been a pleasure to Tesla
to have continued his studies, but it now was necessary for him
to make his own living. His father's death, following Tesla's
graduation from the University at Prague, made it necessary for
him to be self-supporting. Now he needed a job. Europe was extending
an enthusiastic reception to Alexander Graham Bell's new American
invention, the telephone, and Tesla heard that a central station
was to be installed in Budapest. The head of the enterprise was
a friend of the family. The situation seemed a promising one.
Without waiting to ascertain the situation
in Budapest, Tesla, full of youthful hope and the self-assurance
which is typical of the untried graduate, traveled to that city,
expecting to walk into an engineering position in the new telephone
project. He quickly discovered, on his arrival, that there was
no position open; nor could one be created for him, as the project
was still in the discussion stage.
It was, however, urgently necessary for
Wnancial reasons, that he secure immediately a job of some kind.
The best he could obtain was a much more modest one than he had
anticipated. The salary was so microscopically small he would
never name the amount, but it was suYcient to enable him to avoid
starvation. He was employed as draftsman by the Hungarian Government
in its Central Telegraph OYce, which included the newly developing
telephone in its jurisdiction.
It was not long before Tesla's outstanding
ability attracted the attention of the Inspector in Chief. Soon
he was transferred to a more responsible position in which he
was engaged in designing and in making calculations and estimates
in connection with new telephone installations. When the new
telephone exchange was Wnally started in Budapest in 1881, he
was placed in charge of it.
Tesla was very happy in his new position.
At the age of twenty-Wve he was in full charge of an engineering
enterprise. His inventive faculty was fully occupied and he made
many improvements in telephone central-station apparatus. Here
he made his Wrst invention, then called a telephone repeater,
or ampliWer, but which today would be more descriptively called
a loud speaker--an ancestor of the sound producer now so common
in the home radio set. This invention was never patented and
was never publicly described, but, Tesla later declared, in its
originality, design, performance and ingenuity it would make
a creditable showing alongside his better-known creations that
followed. His chief interest, however, was still the alternating-current
motor problem whose solution continued to elude him.
Always an indefatigable worker, always
using up his available energy with the greatest number of activities
he could crowd into a day, always rebelling because the days
had too few hours in them and the hours too few minutes, and
the seconds that composed them were of too short duration, and
always holding himself down to a Wve-hour period of rest with
only two hours of that devoted to sleep, he continually used
up his vital reserves and eventually had to balance accounts
with Nature. He was forced Wnally to discontinue work.
The peculiar malady that now aVected
him was never diagnosed by the doctors who attended him. It was,
however, an experience that nearly cost him his life. To doctors
he appeared to be at death's door. The strange manifestations
he exhibited attracted the attention of a renowned physician,
who declared medical science could do nothing to aid him. One
of the symptoms of the illness was an acute sensitivity of all
of the sense organs. His senses had always been extremely keen,
but this sensitivity was now so tremendously exaggerated that
the eVects were a form of torture. The ticking of a watch three
rooms away sounded like the beat of hammers on an anvil. The
vibration of ordinary city traYc, when transmitted through a
chair or bench, pounded through his body. It was necessary to
place the legs of his bed on rubber pads to eliminate the vibrations.
Ordinary speech sounded like thunderous pandemonium. The slightest
touch had the mental eVect of a tremendous blow. A beam of sunlight
shining on him produced the eVect of an internal explosion. In
the dark he could sense an object at a distance of a dozen feet
by a peculiar creepy sensation in his forehead. His whole body
was constantly wracked by twitches and tremors. His pulse, he
said, would vary from a few feeble throbs per minute to more
than one hundred and Wfty.
Throughout this mysterious illness he
was Wghting with powerful desire to recover his normal condition.
He had before him a task he must accomplish--he must attain the
solution of the alternating-current motor problem. He felt intuitively
during his months of torment that the solution was coming ever
nearer, and that he must live in order to be there when it crystallized
out of his unconscious mind. During this period he was unable
to concentrate on this or any other subject.
Once the crisis was past and the symptoms
diminished, improvement came rapidly and with it the old urge
to tackle problems. He could not give up his big problem. It
had become a part of him. Working on it was no longer a matter
of choice. He knew that if he stopped he would die, and he knew
equally well that if he failed he would perish. He was enmeshed
in an invisible web of intangible structure that was tightening
around him. The feeling that it was bringing the solution nearer
to him--just beyond his Wnger tips--was cause for both regret
and rejoicing. That problem when solved would leave a tremendous
vacancy in his life, he feared.
Yet in spite of his feeling of optimism
it was still a tremendous problem without a solution.
When the acute sensitivity reduced to
normal, permitting him to resume work, he took a walk in the
city park of Budapest with a former classmate, named Szigeti,
one late afternoon in February, 1882. While a glorious sunset
overspread the sky with a Xamboyant splash of throbbing colors,
Tesla engaged in one of his favorite hobbies--reciting poetry.
As a youth he had memorized many volumes, and he was now pleased
to note that the terriWc punishment his brain had experienced
had not diminished his memory. One of the works which he could
recite from beginning to end was Goethe's Faust.
The prismatic panorama which the sinking
sun was painting in the sky reminded him of some of Goethe's
The glow retreats, done is the
day of toil;
It yonder hastes, new Welds of
Ah, that no wing can lift me from
Upon its track to follow, follow
soaring. . . .
Tesla, tall, lean and gaunt, but with
a Wre in his eye that matched the Xaming clouds of the heavens,
waved his arms in the air and swayed his body as he voiced the
undulating lines. He faced the color drama of the sky as if addressing
the red-glowing orb as it Xung its amorphous masses of hue, tint
and chrome across the domed vault of heaven.
Suddenly the animated Wgure of Tesla
snapped into a rigid pose as if he had fallen into a trance.
Szigeti spoke to him but got no answer. Again his words were
ignored. The friend was about to seize the towering motionless
Wgure and shake him into consciousness when instead Tesla spoke.
``Watch me!'' said Tesla, blurting out
the words like a child bubbling over with emotion: ``Watch me
reverse it.'' He was still gazing into the sun as if that incandescent
ball had thrown him into a hypnotic trance.
Szigeti recalled the image from Goethe
that Tesla had been reciting: ``The glow retreats . . . It yonder
hastes, new Welds of life exploring" a poetic description
of the setting sun, and then his next words--''Watch me! Watch
me reverse it.'' Did Tesla mean the sun? Did he mean that he
could arrest the motion of the sun about to sink below the horizon,
reverse its action and start it rising again toward the zenith?
``Let us sit and rest for a while,''
said Szigeti. He turned him toward a bench, but Tesla was not
to be moved.
``Don't you see it?'' expostulated the
excited Tesla. ``See how smoothly it is running? Now I throw
this switch--and I reverse it. See! It goes just as smoothly
in the opposite direction. Watch! I stop it. I start it. There
is no sparking. There is nothing on it to spark.''
``But I see nothing,'' said Szigeti.
``The sun is not sparking. Are you ill?''
``You do not understand,'' beamed the
still excited Tesla, turning as if to bestow a benediction on
his companion. ``It is my alternating-current motor I am talking
about. I have solved the problem. Can't you see it right here
in front of me, running almost silently? It is the rotating magnetic
Weld that does it. See how the magnetic Weld rotates and drags
the armature around with it? Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it sublime?
Isn't it simple? I have solved the problem. Now I can die happy.
But I must live, I must return to work and build the motor so
I can give it to the world. No more will men be slaves to hard
tasks. My motor will set them free, it will do the work of the
Szigeti now understood. Tesla had previously
told him about his attempt to solve the problem of an alternating-current
motor, and he grasped the full meaning of the scientist's words.
Tesla had never told him, however, about his ability to visualize
objects which he conceived in his mind, so it was necessary to
explain the vision he saw, and that the solution had come to
him suddenly while they were admiring the sunset.
Tesla was now a little more composed,
but he was Xoating on air in a frenzy of almost religious ecstasy.
He had been breathing deeply in his excitement, and the overventilation
of his lungs had produced a state of exhilaration.
Picking up a twig, he used it as a scribe
to draw a diagram on the dusty surface of the dirt walk. As he
explained the technical principles of his discovery, his friend
quickly grasped the beauty of his conception, and far into the
night they remained together discussing its possibilities.
The conception of a rotating magnetic
Weld was a majestically beautiful one. It introduced to the scientiWc
world a new principle of sublime grandeur whose simplicity and
utility opened a vast new empire of useful applications. In it
Tesla had achieved the solution which his professor had declared
was impossible of attainment.
Alternating-current motors had heretofore
presented what seemed an insoluble problem because the magnetic
Weld produced by alternating currents changed as rapidly as the
current. Instead of producing a turning force they churned up
Up to this time everyone who tried to
make an alternating-current motor used a single circuit, just
as was in direct current. As a result the projected motor proved
to be like a single-cylinder steam engine, stalled at dead center,
at the top or bottom of the stroke.
What Tesla did was to use two circuits,
each one carrying the same frequency of alternating-current,
but in which the current waves were out of step with each other.
This was equivalent to adding to an engine a second cylinder.
The pistons in the two cylinders were connected to the shaft
so that their cranks were at in angle to each other which caused
them to reach the top or bottom of the stroke at diVerent times.
The two could never be on dead center at the same time. If one
were on dead center, the other would be oV and ready to start
the engine turning with a power stroke.
This analogy oversimpliWes the situation,
of course, for Tesla's discovery was much more far-reaching and
fundamental. What Tesla had discovered was a means of creating
a rotating magnetic Weld, a magnetic whirlwind in space which
possessed fantastically new and intriguing properties. It was
an utterly new conception. In direct-current motors a Wxed magnetic
Weld was tricked by mechanical means into producing rotation
in an armature by connecting successively through a commutator
each of a series of coils arranged around the circumference of
a cylindrical armature. Tesla produced a Weld of force which
rotated in space at high speed and was able to lock tightly into
its embrace an armature which required no electrical connections.
The rotating Weld possessed the property of transferring wirelessly
through space, by means of its lines of force, energy to the
simple closed circuit coils on the isolated armature which enabled
it to build up its own magnetic Weld that locked itself into
the rotating magnetic whirlwind produced by the Weld coils. The
need for a commutator was completely eliminated.
Now that this magniWcent solution of
his most diYcult scientiWc problem was achieved, Tesla's troubles
were not over; they were just beginning; but, during the next
two months, he was in a state of ecstatic pleasure playing with
his new toy. It was not necessary for him to construct models
of copper and iron: in his mental workshop he constructed them
in wide variety. A constant stream of new ideas was continuously
rushing through his mind. They came so fast, he said, that he
could neither utilize nor record them all. In this short period
he evolved every type of motor which was later associated with
He worked out the design of dynamos,
motors, transformers and all other devices for a complete alternating-current
system. He multiplied the eVectiveness of the two-phase system
by making it operate on three or more alternating currents simultaneously.
This was his famous polyphase power system.
The mental constructs were built with
meticulous care as concerned size, strength, design and material;
and they were tested mentally, he maintained, by having them
run for weeks--after which time he would examine them thoroughly
for signs of wear. Here was a most unusual mind being utilized
in a most unusual way. If he at any time built a ``mental machine,''
his memory ever afterward retained all of the details, even to
the Wnest dimensions.
The state of supreme happiness which
Tesla was enjoying was
destined soon, however, to end. The telephone
central station by which he was employed, and which was controlled
by Puskas, that friend of the family, was sold. When Puskas returned
to Paris, he recommended Tesla for a job in the Paris establishment
with which he was associated, and Tesla gladly followed up his
opportunity. Paris, he reasoned, would be a wonderful springboard
from which to catapult his great invention on the world.
The budding superman Tesla came to Paris
light in baggage but with his head Wlled to bursting with his
wonderful discovery of the rotating magnetic Weld and scores
of signiWcant inventions based on it. If he had been a typical
inventor, he would have gone among people wearing a look indicating
that he knew something important, but maintaining absolute secrecy
concerning the nature of his inventions. He would be fearful
that someone would steal his secret. But Tesla's attitude was
just the reverse of this. He had something to give to the world
and he wanted the world to know about it, the whole fascinating
story with all the revealing technical details. He had not then
learned, and never did learn, the craft of being shrewd and cunning.
His life plan was on a secular basis. He cared less for the advantages
of the passing moment, more for the ultimate goal; and he wanted
to give his newly discovered polyphase system of alternating-current
to the human race that all men could beneWt from it. He knew
there was a fortune in his invention. How he could extract this
fortune he did not know. He knew that there was a higher law
of compensation under which he would derive adequate beneWts
from the gift to the world of his discovery. The method by which
this would work out did not interest him nearly so much as the
necessity for getting someone to listen to the details of his
Six feet two inches tall, slender, quiet
of demeanor, meticulously neat in dress, full of self-conWdence,
he carried himself with an air that shouted, ``I defy you to
show me an electrical problem I can't solve''--an attitude that
was consistent with his twenty-Wve years, but also matched by
Through Puskas's letter of recommendation
he obtained a position with the Continental Edison Company, a
French company organized to make dynamos, motors and install
lighting systems under the Edison patents.
He obtained quarters on the Boulevard
St. Michel, but in the evenings visited and dined at the best
cafes as long as his salary lasted. He made contact with many
Americans engaged in electrical enterprises. Wherever he could
get a patient ear, among those who had an understanding of electrical
matters, he described his alternating-current system of dynamos
Did someone steal his invention? Not
the slightest danger. He could not even give it away. No one
was even slightly interested. The closest approach to a nibble
was when Dr. Cunningham, an American, a foreman in the plant
where Tesla was employed, suggested formation of a stock company.
With his great alternating-current-system
invention pounding at his brain and demanding some way in which
it could be developed, it was a hardship for him to be forced
to work all day on direct-current machines. Nowadays, though,
his health was robust. He would arise shortly after Wve o'clock
in the morning, walk to the Seine, swim for half an hour, and
then walk to Ivry, near the gates of Paris, where he was employed,
a trip that required an hour of lively stepping. It was then
half-past seven. The next hour he spent in eating a very substantial
breakfast which never seemed suYcient to keep his appetite from
developing into a disturbing factor long before noon.
The work to which he was assigned at
the Continental Edison Company factory was of a variegated character,
largely that of a junior engineer. In a short time he was given
a traveling assignment as a ``trouble shooter'' which required
him to visit electrical installations in various parts of France
and Germany. Tesla did not relish ``trouble shooting'' but he
did a conscientious job and studied intensely the diYculties
he encountered at each powerhouse. He was soon able to present
a deWnite plan for improving the dynamos manufactured by his
company. He presented his suggestions and received permission
to apply them to some machines. When tested they were a complete
success. He was then asked to design automatic regulators, for
which there was a great need. These too gave an excellent performance.
The company had been placed in an embarrassing
position and was threatened with heavy loss through an accident
at the railroad station in Strassburg in Alsace, then in Germany,
where a powerhouse and electric lights had been installed. At
the opening ceremony, at which Emperor William I was present,
a short circuit in the wiring caused an explosion that blew out
one of the walls. The German government refused to accept the
installation. Tesla was sent, early in 1883, to put the plant
in working order and straighten out the situation. The technical
problem presented no diYculties but he found it necessary to
use a great deal of tact and good judgment in handling the mass
of red tape extruded by the German government as precaution against
Once he got the job well under way he
gave some time to constructing an actual two-phase alternating-current
motor embodying his rotary-magnetic-Weld discovery. He had constructed
so many in his mind since that never-to-be-forgotten day in Budapest
when he made his great invention. He had brought materials with
him from Paris for this purpose and found a machine shop near
the Strassburg station where he could do some of the work. He
did not have as much time available as he had expected, and,
while he was a clever amateur machinist, nevertheless the work
took time. He was very fussy, making every piece of metal exact
in dimensions to better than the thousandth of an inch and then
carefully polishing it.
Eventually there was a miscellaneous
collection of parts in that Strassburg machine shop. They had
been constructed without the aid of working drawings. Tesla could
project before his eyes a picture, complete in every detail,
of every part of the machine. These pictures were more vivid
than any blueprint and he remembered exact dimensions which he
had calculated mentally for each item. He did not have to test
parts through partial assembly. He knew they would Wt.
From these parts Tesla quickly assembled
a dynamo, to generate the two-phase alternating current which
he needed to operate his alternating-current motor, and Wnally
his new induction motor. There was no diVerence between the motor
he built and the one which he visualized. So real was the visualized
one that it had all the appearance of solidity. The one he built
in the machine shop presented no elements of novelty to him.
It was exactly as he had visualized it a year before. He had
mentally experimented with its exact counterpart and with many
variations of it during the months that had passed since the
great vision came to him while rhapsodizing the sunset sky in
The assembly completed, he started up
his power generator. The time for the great Wnal test of the
validity of his theory had arrived. He would close a switch and
if the motor turned his theory would be proven correct. If nothing
happened, if the armature of his motor just stood still, but
vibrated, his theory was not correct and he had been feeding
his mind on hallucinations, based on fantasy not on fact.
He closed the switch. Instantly the armature
turned, built up to full speed in a Xash and then continued to
operate in almost complete silence. He closed the reversing switch
and the armature instantly stopped and as quickly started turning
in the opposite direction. This was complete vindication of his
In this experiment he had tested only
his two-phase system; but he needed no laboratory demonstration
to convince him that his three-phase systems for generating electricity
and for using this current for transmission and power production
would work even better, and that his single-phase system would
work almost as well. With this working model he would now be
able to convey to the minds of others the visions he had been
treasuring for so long.
This test meant much more to Tesla than
just the successful completion of an invention; it meant a triumph
for his method of discovering new truths through the unique mental
processes he used of visualizing constructs long before they
were produced from materials. From these results he drew an unbounded
sense of self-conWdence; he could think and work his way to any
goal he set.
There was good reason for Tesla's self-assurance.
He had just passed his twenty-seventh birthday. It seemed to
him only yesterday that Prof. Poeschl had seemingly so completely
vanquished him for saying that he could operate a motor by alternating
current. Now he had demonstrably accomplished what the learned
professor said could never be done.
Tesla now had available a completely
novel type of electrical system utilizing alternating current,
which was much more Xexible and vastly more eYcient than the
direct-current system. But now that he had it, what could he
do with it? The executives of the Continental Edison Company
by whom he was employed had continually refused to listen to
his alternating-current theories. He felt it would be useless
to try to interest them in even the working model. He had made
many friends during his stay in Strassburg, among them the Mayor
of the city, M. Bauzin, who shared his enthusiasm about the commercial
possibilities of the new system and hoped it would result in
the establishment of a new industry that would bring fame and
prosperity to his city.
The Mayor brought together a number of
wealthy Strassburgers. To them the new motor was shown in operation,
and the new system and its possibilities described, by both Tesla
and the Mayor. The demonstration was a success from the technical
viewpoint but otherwise a total loss. Not one member of the group
showed the slightest interest. Tesla was dejected. It was beyond
his comprehension that the greatest invention in electrical science,
with unlimited commercial possibilities, should be rejected so
M. Bauzin assured him that he would undoubtedly
receive a more satisfactory reception for his invention in Paris.
Delays of oYcialdom in Wnally accepting the completed installation
at the Strassburg station, however, postponed his return to Paris
until the spring of 1884. Meanwhile, Tesla looked forward with
pleasurable expectancy to a triumphant return to Paris. He had
been promised a substantial compensation if he was successful
in handling the Strassburg assignment; also, that he would be
similarly compensated for the improvements in design of motors
and dynamos, and for the automatic regulators for dynamos. It
was possible that this would supply him with enough cash to build
a full-size demonstration set for his polyphase alternating-current
system, so that the tremendous advantages of his system over
direct current could be shown in operation. Then he would have
no trouble raising the needed capital.
When he got back to the company's oYces
in Paris and asked for a settlement of his Strassburg and automatic-regulator
accounts, he was given what in modern terminology is called the
``runaround.'' To use Wctitious names, as Tesla told the story,
the executive, Mr. Smith, who gave him the assignments, now told
him he had no jurisdiction over Wnancial arrangements; that was
all in the hands of the executive, Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown explained
that he administered Wnancial matters but had no authority to
initiate projects or to make payments other than those directed
by the chief executive, Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones explained that such
matters were in the hands of his department executives, and that
he never interfered with their decisions, so Tesla must see the
executive in charge of technical matters, Mr. Smith. Tesla traveled
this vicious circle several times with the same result and Wnally
gave up in disgust. He decided not to renew his oVer of the alternating-current
system nor to show his motor in operation, and resigned his position
Tesla was undoubtedly entitled to an
amount in excess of $25,000 for the regulators he designed and
for his services in Strassburg. Had the executives been endowed
with even a smattering of horse sense, or the ordinary garden
variety of honesty, they would have made an attempt to settle
for $5,000, at the least. Tesla, hard pressed for cash, would
undoubtedly have accepted such an amount, although with a feeling
that he was being cheated in a large way.
Such an oVer would probably have held
Tesla on the payroll of the company and preserved for it the
possession of the world's greatest inventor and one who at the
time had deWnitely demonstrated he was an extremely valuable
For a paltry few thousand dollars they
lost not only a man who would have saved them many times that
amount every year, but they also lost an opportunity to obtain
world control of the greatest and most proWtable electrical invention
One of the administrators of the company,
Mr. Charles Batchellor, Manager of the Works, who was a former
assistant and close personal friend of Thomas A. Edison, urged
Tesla to go to the United States and work with Edison. There
he would have a chance to work on improvements to the Edison
dynamos and motors. Tesla decided to follow Mr. Batchellor's
suggestion. He sold his books and all other personal possessions
except a few articles which he expected to take with him. He
assembled his very limited Wnancial resources, purchased tickets
for his railroad trip and transatlantic journey to New York.
His baggage consisted of a small bundle of clothes carried under
his arm and some other items stuVed into his pockets.
The Wnal hours were busy ones and, as
he was about to board the train, just as it was ready to pull
out of the station, he discovered his package of baggage was
missing. Reaching quickly for his wallet, which contained his
railroad and steamship tickets and all his money, he was horriWed
to discover that that too was missing. There was some loose change
in his pocket, how much he did not know--he did not have time
to count it. His train was pulling out. What should he do? If
he missed this train, he would also miss the boat--but he could
not ride on either without tickets. He ran alongside the moving
train, trying to make up his mind. His long legs enabled him
to keep up with it without diYculty at Wrst, but now it was gaining
speed. He Wnally decided to jump aboard. The loose change he
discovered was suYcient to take care of the railroad fare, with
a negligible remainder. He explained his situation to the skeptical
steamship oYcials and, when no one else showed up to claim his
reservations on the ship up to the time of sailing, he was permitted
To one as fastidious as Tesla, a long
steamship journey without adequate clothing was a trying experience.
He had expected to encounter annoyances when getting along with
the minimum amount of clothing which he planned carrying with
him, but when even that limited layout was lost the annoyance
became hardship. Coupled with this was the memory of disappointment
and resentment over his recent experiences.
The ship oVered little to interest him.
He explored it thoroughly and in doing so made some contacts
with members of the ship's company. There was unrest among the
crew. There was unrest in Tesla also. He extended sympathy to
members of the crew in their claimed unjust treatment. The grievances
aVecting the crew had built up one of those situations in which
a small spark can cause a large explosion. The spark Xew somewhere
on the ship while Tesla was below decks in the crew's quarters.
The captain and oYcers got tough and, with some loyal members
of the crew, decided to settle the trouble with belaying pins
as clubs. It quickly became a battle royal. Tesla found himself
in the middle of a Wght which when anyone saw a head he hit it.
Had Tesla not been young as well as tall
and strong, his useful career might have ended at this point.
He had long arms in proportion to his six feet two inches of
height. The Wst at the end of his arm could reach as far as a
club in the hands of an adversary, and his height enabled him
to tower over the other Wghters so his head was not easy to reach.
He struck hard and often, never knowing for or against which
side he was Wghting. He was on his feet when the Wght was over,
something which could not be said of a score of the crew members.
The oYcers had subdued what they called a mutiny, but they too
carried indications that they had been through a battle. Tesla
was deWnitely not invited to sit at the captain's table during
He spent the remainder of his journey
nursing scores of bruises and sitting in meditation at the stern
of the ship, which too slowly made its way to New York. Soon
he would set foot on the ``land of golden promise'' and meet
the famous Mr. Edison. He was destined to learn that it was really
a ``land of golden promise''--but also to discover something
that would open his eyes about the fulWllment of promises.
WHENTesla stepped out of the Immigration
OYce at Castle Garden, Manhattan, in the summer of 1884, his
possessions consisted of four cents, a book of his own poems,
a couple of technical articles he had written, calculations for
designing a Xying machine, and some mathematical work done in
an eVort to solve an extremely diYcult integral. He had Mr. Batchellor's
letter introducing him to Mr. Edison, and the address of a friend.
In this letter to Edison, Batchellor wrote: ``I know two great
men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.''
Lacking carfare, Tesla had to walk the
several miles to his friend's home. The Wrst person he spoke
to, seeking traveling directions, was a policeman, a gruV individual.
The way he supplied the information suggested to Tesla that he
was willing to start a Wght on the subject. Although Tesla spoke
English very well, all he understood of the policeman's lingo
was the direction in which he pointed his club.
While walking in what he believed was
the right direction, wondering how he would be able to contrive
a meal and lodgings out of four cents should he be unable to
locate his friend, he passed a shop in which he could see a man
working on an electrical machine that seemed to him familiar.
He entered just as the man was about to give up as impossible
the task of repairing the device.
``Let me do it,'' said Tesla, ``I will
make it operate.'' And without more ado he tackled the job. It
proved to be a diYcult task but eventually the machine was working
``I need a man like you to handle these
blankety-blank foreign machines,'' said the man. ``Do you want
Tesla thanked him and told him he was
on his way to another job, whereupon the man handed him twenty
dollars. Tesla had expected no compensation for doing what he
considered a slight favor, and said so, but the man insisted
his work was worth that much, and he was glad to pay it. Never
was Tesla more thankful for a windfall. He was now assured of
food and lodgings for the time being. With the aid of walking
directions, this time more graciously given, he located his friend
and was a guest at his home overnight. The next day he went to
Edison's New York headquarters, then on South Fifth Avenue (now
The introduction by Mr. Batchellor gave
him ready access to Mr. Edison, who was busily engaged in problems
in connection with his new generating station and electric-light
system--the former located in downtown Pearl Street and serving
a relatively small radius of territory.
Tesla was favorably impressed by Edison
on their Wrst meeting. He marveled that a man so limited in education
could accomplish so much in so technical a Weld as electricity.
It caused Tesla to wonder if all the time he had spent in gaining
an education of very broad scope had not been wasted. Would he
have been further ahead if he had started his practical work
on the basis of experience, as Edison had done? He deWnitely
decided, however, before many days had passed, that the time
and eVort he had spent on his education constituted the wisest
kind of an investment.
Edison, for his part, was none too favorably
impressed by Tesla. Edison was an inventor who got his results
by trial-and-error methods. Tesla calculated everything mentally
and solved his problems before doing any ``work'' on them. As
a result, the two great men spoke an entirely diVerent technical
language. There was one more very important diVerence. Edison
belonged to the direct-current and Tesla to the alternating-current
school of thought. The electricians of that day could, and did,
become highly emotional over their diVerences of opinion on this
subject. Discussions roused all the fervor of a religious or
political debate, and everything unpleasant was associated with
the adherents on the other side of the discussion. The least
unpleasant thought applied to an opponent was that he was of
a low order of mentality. When Tesla enthusiastically described
his polyphase system and told Edison he believed alternating-current
was the only practical kind of current to use in a power-and-lighting
system, Edison laughed. Edison was using direct current in his
system. He told Tesla very bluntly he was not interested in alternating-current;
there was no future to it and anyone who dabbled in that Weld
was wasting his time; and besides, it was a deadly current whereas
direct current was safe. Tesla did not yield any ground in the
discussion--nor could he make any progress in his eVort to get
Edison to listen to a presentation of his polyphase power system.
On technical grounds, they were worlds apart.
Nevertheless, because of Batchellor's
statement on the valuable work he had done on the Edison direct-current
machines in Europe, Tesla was, without much formality, given
a job on Edison's staV--doing minor routine work. A few weeks
later he had an opportunity to demonstrate his ability. Edison
had installed one of his electric-light plants on the steamship
Oregon, the fastest and most up-to-date passenger ship of that
time. The installation worked well for many months but Wnally
both dynamos went out of commission. It was impossible to remove
the dynamos and install new ones, so it was necessary to repair
the old ones in some way--but this, Edison had been told, was
impossible without taking them to the shop. The scheduled sailing
date of the ship had passed and Edison was being placed in an
embarrassing position over the accumulating days of delay caused
by his machines.
Edison asked Tesla if he would go to
the ship and see what could be done about the situation. This
was in the afternoon. Taking such instruments as he thought he
would need, Tesla went aboard the Oregon. He found that short
circuits had caused some of the armature coils to be burned out;
and open circuits had developed elsewhere on the machines.
Calling on members of the crew to assist
him, Tesla worked through the night and by 4 am had both machines
running as well as they did the day they were newly installed.
Walking back to the shop on lower Fifth Avenue at 5 am, in the
dim early dawn he met a group of men just leaving. In it were
Edison, Batchellor, who had returned from Paris in the meantime,
and several others who had Wnished their night's work and were
returning to their homes.
``Here is our Parisian running around
nights,'' said Edison.
``Am just coming back from the Oregon,''
Tesla replied. ``Both machines are operating.''
Edison, amazed, shook his head and turned
away without another word. On rejoining the group he said to
Batchellor, loud enough for the keen-eared Tesla to hear him,
``Batchellor, this is a damn good man.''
Thereafter Tesla's status on the staV
was raised several levels and he was given closer contact with
design and operating problems. He found the work interesting
and applied himself to it more than eighteen hours a day, from
10:30 am until 5 am, every day including Sundays. Edison, observing
his industry, told him, ``I have had many hard-working assistants
but you take the cake.'' Tesla observed many ways in which the
dynamos could be improved in design to operate more eYciently.
He outlined his plan to Edison, and stressed the increased output
and lower cost of operating that would result from the changes
he suggested. Edison, quick to appreciate the value of increased
eYciency, replied, ``There's Wfty thousand dollars in it for
you if you can do it.''
Tesla designed twenty-four types of dynamos,
eliminating the long-core Weld magnets then in use and substituting
the more eYcient short cores, and provided some automatic controls,
on which patents were taken out. Months later, when the task
was Wnished, and some of the new machines built and tested and
found measuring up to his promises, Tesla asked to be paid the
$50,000. Edison replied, ``Tesla, you don't understand our American
humor.'' Tesla was shocked to discover that what he thought was
a speciWc promise was being tossed aside merely as a standard
practical joke of the day. He received not a penny of compensation
from the new designs and inventions, or for the tremendous amount
of overtime, beyond the none too generous weekly pay. He resigned
his job immediately. This was in the spring of 1885.
In the period of less than a year which
he spent with Edison, Tesla had developed a good reputation in
electrical circles; so when he was free he was oVered an opportunity
to capitalize on it. A group of promoters oVered to form a company
under his name. This looked like a possible chance to bring out
his alternating-current system, and he eagerly entered into the
project. But when he urged his plan, the promoters informed him
they were not interested in alternating-current. What they wanted
him to develop was a practical arc light for street and factory
illumination. In about a year he developed the desired lamp,
took out several patents on his invention, and its manufacture
and use were under way.
From a technical point of view the venture
was a success, but Tesla himself suVered another painful Wnancial
experience in connection with it. He had been paid a comparatively
small salary during the period of development. According to the
agreement, he was to receive his principal compensation in the
form of shares of stock in the company. He received a beautifully
engraved stock certiWcate, and then, by some manipulations he
did not understand, he was forced out of the company and aspersions
were cast upon his ability as an engineer and an inventor. When
he sought to convert the certiWcate into cash, he found that
the shares of newly organized companies of undemonstrated power
to earn dividends possess very slight value. His opinion of Wnancial
men in both the Old World and the New was taking on a decidedly
Now came the most unpleasant experience
of Tesla's life. He was without a source of income, and from
the spring of 1886 to the spring of 1887 he was forced to work
as a day laborer. ``I lived,'' he said, ``through a year of terrible
heartaches and bitter tears, my suVering being intensiWed by
material want.'' Business conditions were none too good in the
country. Not only did he have diYculty in getting anyone to listen
to his alternating-current project, but even in his eVort to
earn room and board as a laborer he had tremendous competition,
and found it none too easy to secure the most menial tasks at
almost starvation wages. He would never discuss this period of
his life, probably because it was so unpleasant that he banished
all thoughts of it from his memory. Some electrical repair work
and even ditch digging at $2 a day were among the jobs he tackled.
He resented the utter waste of his abilities more than the personal
degradation involved. His education, he said, seemed a mockery.
During the winter of early 1887, while
engaged in ditch digging, he attracted the attention of the foreman
of the gang who, too, was being forced by circumstances to work
below his accustomed level. The foreman was impressed by Tesla's
story of his inventions and his great hopes for his alternating-current
system. Through this foreman, Tesla said, he was introduced to
Mr. A. K. Brown of the Western Union Telegraph Company who put
up some of his own money and interested a friend in joining him
in Tesla's project.
These two gentlemen organized and Wnanced
the Tesla Electric Company, and in April, 1887, established a
laboratory at 33-35 South Fifth Avenue (now West Broadway), near
Bleecker Street, not far from the shop of the Edison Company.
Edison had turned down Tesla's alternating-current idea--and
now Tesla was his neighbor with a laboratory of his own, starting
to develop the competing idea. Within this small area was to
be fought the great battle of the electrical industry over the
question of whether direct or alternating current should be used.
Edison, already famous, was wholeheartedly committed to direct
current; his powerhouses were operating in several cities and,
in addition, he had the support of the famous Wnancier, J. P.
Morgan. Tesla, on the other hand, was unknown and had only very
modest Wnancial support. The direct current was technically simple,
whereas alternating-current was technically complex. Tesla knew,
however, that in these complexities were unlimited possibilities
Tesla's dark days were over. Yet he was
soon to discover that the acceptance or rejection of the alternating-current
system was not based on technical facts but upon Wnancial considerations,
emotional reactions and prejudices, and that human nature was
a bigger factor than scientiWc truths. Nevertheless, in a short
time, he would see some of his greatest hopes and dreams realized,
and success in large measure reward his eVorts.
Once he had achieved something resembling
fair conditions under which to carry on his work, the rising
star of Tesla's genius shot across the electrical heavens like
a meteor. As soon as the newly organized Tesla Electric Company
opened its South Fifth Avenue laboratories he started the construction
of a variety of pieces of dynamo electric machinery. It was not
necessary for him to do any calculating, or work out blueprints.
Everything was crystal clear in his mind down to the Wnest detail
of each piece of apparatus. As a result he very quickly produced
the working units with which he demonstrated the principles of
his polyphase alternating-current system. The single piece of
apparatus he had built while in Strassburg, the Wrst model of
the induction motor, supplied the physical proof he needed that
all the remainder of his calculations were correct.
The apparatuses built in his new laboratory
were identical with those which he conceived during the two months
in Budapest following the remarkable revelation of the principle
of the revolving magnetic Weld. He did not make the slightest
change, he said, in the machines he had mentally constructed
at that time. When the machines were physically constructed not
one of them failed to operate as he had anticipated. Five years
had elapsed since he evolved the designs. In the meantime he
had not committed a line to paper--yet he had remembered perfectly
every last detail.
Tesla produced as rapidly as the machines
could be constructed three complete systems of alternating-current
machinery--for single-phase, two-phase and three-phase currents--and
made experiments with four- and six-phase currents. In each of
the three principal systems he produced the dynamos for generating
the currents, the motors for producing power from them and transformers
for raising and reducing the voltages, as well as a variety of
devices for automatically controlling the machinery. He not only
produced the three systems but provided methods by which they
could be interconnected, and modiWcations providing a variety
of means of using each of the systems. A few months after opening
the laboratory he submitted his two-phase motor to Prof. W. A.
Anthony, of Cornell University, for testing. Prof. Anthony reported
that it had an eYciency equal to that of the best direct-current
Tesla now not only constructed the machines
which he visualized but he worked out the basic mathematical
theory underlying all of the apparatus. The mathematical theory
was so basic that it covered not only the principles applying
to machinery for operation at 60 cycles per second, which is
the frequency now in standard use, but applied equally well to
the whole range of low- and high-frequency currents. With Edison
direct current, it had not been found practicable to work with
potentials higher than 220 volts on distribution systems; but
with alternating-current it was possible to produce and transmit
currents of many thousands of volts, thus permitting economical
distribution, and these could be reduced to the lower voltages
for customer use.
Tesla sought to obtain a single patent
covering the entire system and all of its constituent dynamos,
transformers, distribution systems and motors. His patent attorneys,
Duncan, Curtis & Page, Wled the application for this patent
October 12, 1887, six months after the laboratory opened and
Wve and a half years after Tesla had made his rotary magnetic-Weld
The Patent OYce, however, objected to
considering such an ``omnibus'' application and insisted it be
broken down to seven separate inventions, with individual applications
Wled on each. Two groups of separate applications were Wled,
on November 30 and December 23 respectively. These inventions
were so original and covered such a virgin Weld of electrical
science that they encountered practically no diYculties in the
Patent OYce and within about six months the patents were issued.
(They were numbered 381,968; 381,969; 381,970; 382,279; 382,280;
382,281 and 382,282. These covered his single and polyphase motors,
his distribution system and polyphase transformers. In April
of the following year, 1888, he applied for and was later granted
Wve more patents, which included the four-and three-wire three-phase
systems. These were numbered 390,413; 390,414; 390,415; 390,721;
and 390,820. Within the year he applied for and was granted eighteen
more: 401,520; 405,858; 405,859; 416,191; 416,192; 416,193; 416,194;
416,195; 418,248; 424,036; 433,700; 433.701; 433,702; 433,703;
445,207; 445,067; 459,772 and 464,666.)
As a succession of fundamental patents
started to issue from the Patent OYce to Tesla, the attention
of the electrical engineering profession was drawn to this practically
unknown inventor. The signiWcance of his epoch-making discoveries
was quickly grasped and he was invited to deliver a lecture before
the American Institute of Electrical Engineers on May 16, 1888.
This invitation was evidence that he had ``arrived.'' Tesla accepted
the invitation and put his whole heart into preparing the lecture
which, he felt, would enable him to tell the electrical world
the magniWcent story of his complete alternating-current system
and the tremendous advantages it possessed over direct-current.
This lecture became a classic of the
electrical engineering Weld. In it Tesla presented the theory
and practical application of alternating-current to power engineering.
This, with his patents, described the foundation, in the matter
of circuits, machines and operation, and theory, upon which almost
the entire electrical system of the country was established and
is still operating today. No new development of anything even
slightly approaching comparable magnitude has been made in the
Weld of electrical engineering down to the present time.
Tesla's lecture, and the inventions and
discoveries which he included in it, established him before the
electrical engineering profession as the father of the whole
Weld of alternating-current power system, and the outstanding
inventor in the electrical Weld.
It is not easy to visualize the tremendous
burst of electrical development and progress that came out of
Tesla's laboratory in the few months after he established it.
He produced a tidal wave of advancement which carried the electrical
world into the opening of the new power age in one grand surge--although
it took several years, naturally, for the commercial exploitation
to get under way. The world of electrical engineering was amazed,
bewildered and mystiWed by the host of discoveries thrown into
its midst in rapid succession from the Tesla laboratory, and
was Wlled with admiration for the prodigious new genius who had
Xared up within its ranks.
Tesla's power system, employing high
voltage for transmission, released electrical powerhouses using
direct current from functioning as purely local enterprises,
capable of serving an area within a radius of one mile at the
very most. His motors used alternating-current that could be
economically transmitted hundreds of miles, and he provided an
economical two- and three-phase system for transmission lines.
The stupendous changes which the Tesla
alternating-current inventions and discoveries brought about
in the electrical industry can be realized by considering the
handicap under which the direct-current powerhouses of the Edison
system had operated up to that time. Electricity was generated
in powerhouses by relatively small-size dynamos, and the current
then distributed to customers over copper conductors laid in
conduits under the streets. Some of the electrical energy fed
into these conductors at the powerhouse did not arrive as electricity
at the far end of the line but was converted along the route
to useless heat by the resistance of the conductors.
Electrical energy is composed of two
factors, the current, or amount of electricity, and the voltage,
or the pressure under which the current is moved. Resistance
losses were undergone by the current regardless of the voltage.
One ampere of current experienced a deWnite loss caused by resistance
and this loss was the same whether the pressure was 100, or 1,000
or 100,000 volts. If the current value remained Wxed, then the
amount of energy transported over a wire varied with the voltage.
There is, for example, 100,000 times as much energy transported
over a wire carrying a current of one ampere at 100,000 volts
as there is when the current is one ampere and the pressure is
If the amount of current carried by a
wire is doubled, the heat losses are increased four fold; if
the current is tripled, these losses are increased nine fold,
and if the current is increased four fold, the losses rise sixteen
fold. This situation put deWnite limits to the amount of current
which could be loaded on to conductors.
In addition there is an accompanying
drop in pressure. In a half-mile-long conductor, of the size
adopted and under the average currents carried, there would be
a drop of about 30 volts. To compensate for this, to some extent,
the dynamos were designed to generate 120 volts instead of the
standard 110 volts for which lamps were designed. Near the powerhouse
the customers would get excess voltage--and a half-mile away
their current would be delivered at 90 volts. The early Edison
carbon lamps were none too brilliant at 110 volts and gave much
less than satisfactory illumination at 90 volts.
As a result of this situation the generation
and distribution of direct-electric current became very much
of a localized matter. The Edison powerhouse could serve an area
less than a mile in diameter. In order to give service to a large
city it would be necessary to have a powerhouse in every square
mile, or even closer if a uniformly satisfactory current were
to be supplied. Outside large cities the situation became even
more diYcult. This was a severe handicap if electricity was to
become the universal power source.
Tesla's alternating-current power system,
which Edison so emphatically rejected when it was oVered to him,
freed electricity from its bondage to local isolation. Not alone
were his alternating-current motors more simple and Xexible than
the direct-current machines, but it was possible by a highly
eYcient method of using transformers, which consisted of two
coils of wire around an iron core, to step up the voltage and
simultaneously step down the current in a proportionate amount,
or use the process in reverse. The amount of energy involved,
however, would remain practically unchanged.
Copper wire entails a heavy investment
when it is bought by the mile. The diameter of the wire sets
the limit to the amount of current it will carry. With the Edison
direct-current system there was no practical way for transforming
an electric current. The voltage remained Wxed and when the current
was increased to the carrying capacity of the wire no further
expansion was possible on that circuit.
With the Tesla system the amount of energy
a wire would transport would be increased tremendously by increasing
the voltage and letting the current remain Wxed below the carrying
limit of the circuit. A very small wire could carry a thousand
or more times as much electrical energy in the Tesla polyphase
alternating system as it could in the Edison direct-current system.
By using Tesla's alternating-current
system electricity could be delivered economically at vast distances
from the powerhouse. It would be possible, if desired, to burn
coal at the mouth of a mine for generating electricity, and deliver
the current cheaply at distant cities, or to generate electricity
where water power was available and transmit it to distant points
where it could be used.
Tesla rescued the electrical giant from
the apron strings of the powerhouse and gave it geographical
freedom, the opportunity to expand into the wide-open spaces
and work its magic. He laid the foundation for our present superpower
system. A development of such magnitude was bound to be loaded
with dynamite, and action was sure to follow as soon as someone
set a match to the fuse.
TESLA'S spectacular lecture and demonstration
before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in New
York focused on his work the attention of the electrical fraternity
throughout the world. There was no doubt in the mind of the vast
majority of electrical engineers that Tesla's discoveries created
a new epoch in the electrical industry. But what could be done
about it? There were few manufacturers who could take advantage
of it. His discoveries were in the same predicament as a ten-pound
diamond. No one would question the value of the stone but who
would be in a position to purchase it or make any use of it?
Tesla had given no speciWc thought to
commercializing his work at this time. He was in the midst of
a program of experimental work which was far from complete and
he desired to Wnish it before engaging in another line of activity.
He expected that there would be no alternative to establishing
his own company and engaging in the manufacture of his dynamos,
motors and transformers. Such a course would take him away from
the original experimental work which greatly fascinated him,
and which he did not wish to interrupt. Commercializing his inventions,
therefore, was a problem that could be postponed, as far as he
was concerned, at least as long as the present Wnancing of his
George Westinghouse, head of the Westinghouse
Electric Company in Pittsburgh, was a man of vision. He was already
famous as an inventor of numerous electrical devices but principally
for his air brake for trains, and had made a fortune out of the
exploitation of his own inventions. He recognized the tremendous
commercial possibilities presented by Tesla's discoveries and
the vast superiority of the alternating- over the direct- current
system. He was a practical man of business and was not limited
in his choice between the two systems.
Edison, head of the Edison General Electric
Company, on the other hand, was under a limitation. Edison's
invention was the incandescent electric lamp. Having developed
this project, he was faced with Wnding some way to use it commercially.
In order to sell his lamps to the public it was necessary to
make the electricity available for lighting them. This necessitated
the building of powerhouses and distribution systems. Another
kind of electric lamp was already available--the arc lamp--in
which he was but slightly interested. The Edison system powerhouses
were standardized on low-voltage direct current. At that time
direct-current motors were in use, and most technical men believed
it was not at all likely there would ever be a practical alternating-current
motor. The direct-current system, therefore, oVered a number
of advantages of a practical nature from Edison's viewpoint.
Westinghouse had no pet project comparable
to the incandescent lamp around which he had to throw protecting
conditions such as direct-current limitations, so he could look
at the Tesla alternating-current discoveries from an unbiased
and purely objective point of view. He reached his decision a
month after Tesla's lecture. Having done this, he forwarded a
brief note to Tesla, making an engagement to see him in the latter's
The two inventors had not previously
met but each of them was well acquainted with the other's work.
Westinghouse, born in 1846, was ten years older than Tesla. He
was a short, stout, bearded, impressive-looking individual, and
had a habit of directness in conducting his aVairs that amounted
almost to bluntness. Tesla, thirty-two years old, was tall, dark,
handsome, slender and suave. They made a strongly contrasting
pair as they stood in Tesla's laboratory, but they had three
things in common: they both were inventors, engineers and loved
electricity. Tesla had in his laboratory dynamos, transformers,
and motors with which he could demonstrate his discoveries and
models in actual operating conditions. Here Westinghouse was
right at home and quickly became completely sold on the inventor
and his inventions.
So favorably impressed was Westinghouse
that he decided to act quickly. The story was related to the
author by Tesla.
``I will give you one million dollars
cash for your alternating-current patents, plus royalty,'' Westinghouse
blurted at the startled Tesla. This tall, suave gentleman, however,
gave no outward sign that he had almost been bowled over by surprise.
``If you will make the royalty one dollar
per horsepower, I will accept the oVer,'' Tesla replied.
``A million cash, a dollar a horsepower
royalty,'' Westinghouse repeated.
``That is acceptable,'' said Tesla.
``Sold,'' said Westinghouse. ``You will
receive a check and a contract in a few days.''
Here was a case of two great men, each
possessed with the power of seeing visions of the future on a
gigantic panorama, and each with complete faith in the other,
arranging a tremendous transaction with utter disregard of details.
The amount involved was unquestionably
a record one, for that time, for an invention. While Tesla liked
to think of his complete polyphase system as a single invention,
he was, nevertheless, selling about twenty inventions on which
patents were already issued, and about as many more still to
issue. With a total of forty patents involved in the transaction,
most of them strongly basic in nature, he received, therefore,
about $25,000 per patent. Westinghouse thereby obtained a record-breaking
bargain by buying the patents in wholesale quantities.
Westinghouse arranged with Tesla to come
to Pittsburgh ``at a high salary'' for a year, to act as consultant
in the commercial application of his inventions. The generous
oVer made by the Pittsburgh magnate for the purchase of his patents
made it unnecessary for Tesla to have any more worries about
having to devote a major portion of his time to exploiting his
inventions commercially through his own company. He could aVord,
therefore, to give this year of his time.
The apparatus which Tesla demonstrated
to Westinghouse when the latter visited his laboratory, and which
worked so beautifully, was designed for operation with a current
of 60 cycles. Tesla's investigation had demonstrated that this
was the frequency at which the greatest eYciency of operation
could be achieved. At higher frequencies there was a saving in
the amount of iron required; but the drop in eYciency, and design
diYculties that developed, were not compensated for by the very
small saving in cost of metal. At lower frequencies the amount
of iron required increased, and the apparatus grew in size faster
than increased eYciency justiWed.
Tesla went to Pittsburgh and expected
to clear up all problems in less than a year. Here, though, he
encountered engineers who faced the problem of producing a motor
with a design that would insure, Wrst, certainty of smooth and
reliable operation; second, economy of operation; third, economy
in use of materials; fourth, ease of manufacture; as well as
other problems. Tesla had these problems in mind but not with
the urgency with which the engineers faced them. In addition
he was quite adamant in the choice of 60 cycles as the standard
frequency for alternating current while engineers, who had experience
on 133 cycles, were not so sure that the lower frequency would
be best for the Tesla motors. At any rate there was conXict between
the inventor, interested mainly in principles, and engineers
interested in practical design problems. Very deWnite problems
were encountered in making the Tesla motor work on a single-phase
current in small sizes. In this type of design, artiWces had
to be incorporated in the motor to achieve some of the characteristics
of a two-phase current from the single-phase current that was
supplied to operate it.
Tesla was thoroughly disgusted with the
situation. He felt his advice concerning his own invention was
not being accepted, so he quit Pittsburgh. Westinghouse was sure
the situation would work itself out. Seeking to persuade Tesla
to remain, he oVered him, Tesla revealed many years later, twenty-four
thousand dollars a year, one third of the net income of the company
and his own laboratory, if he would stay on and direct the development
of his system. Tesla, now wealthy and anxious to return to original
research, rejected the oVer.
Development work proceeded after Tesla
left, and soon practical designs were produced for all sizes
of motors and dynamos, and their manufacture started. Tesla was
happy to note that the 60-cycle standard, his emphatic choice,
but which had been questioned on the ground it was less practical
in small units, had been adopted as the standard frequency.
On returning to his New York laboratory,
Tesla declared that he had not made a single worth-while contribution
to electrical science during the year he spent at Pittsburgh.
``I was not free at Pittsburgh,'' he explained; ``I was dependent
and could not work. To do creative work I must be completely
free. When I became free of that situation ideas and inventions
rushed through my brain like a Niagara.'' During the following
four years he devoted a large fraction of his time to further
developments of his polyphase power system, and applied for,
and was granted, forty-Wve patents. Those granted in foreign
countries would bring the total to several times this number.
The ideas of the two giants among inventors--Edison
and Tesla--were meeting in head-on battle. Out of the laboratories
of the two geniuses, within sight of each other in South Fifth
Avenue in New York, had come world-shaking developments.
There had been considerable conXict between
Edison, who adhered strictly to direct current, and those who
supported the claims for alternating current. The Thomson-Houston
Company and the Westinghouse Electric Company had extensively
developed this Weld for series electric lighting and arc lighting
before the Tesla power system was developed. Edison had engaged
in many tilts at these competitors, attacking alternating-current
as unsafe because of the high voltages used. The advent of the
Tesla system added fuel to the Wre.
It was Tesla's belief that when the New
York State Prison authorities adopted high-voltage alternating
current for electrocution of condemned prisoners, the Edison
interests had engineered the project to discredit alternating
current. There is no doubt about the aid the prison authorities'
choice gave the direct-current group; but their decision was
undoubtedly based on the fact that direct current could not,
by any practical means, be produced at the high voltages required,
whereas alternating-current potentials could be very easily increased.
Direct current is just as deadly, at the same voltage and amperage,
as alternating current. In this ``war of the currents,'' however,
as in other wars, appeal to the emotions, instead of to simple
facts, were the governing inXuences.
The task of putting the United States
on an electrical power basis--which is what George Westinghouse
undertook when he began to exploit the Tesla patent--was a gigantic
one requiring not only engineering talent but capital. The Westinghouse
Electric Company experienced a tremendous expansion in the volume
of its business, but the upward surge came at a time when the
country was going into a stage of commercial and Wnancial depression;
and Westinghouse soon found himself in diYculties.
This was, in addition, an era in which
competing giant Wnancial interests were battling for control
of the industrial structure of the country through control of
capital. It was a time of mergers, a period when the Wnancial
interests were building larger units of production by uniting
smaller companies in related Welds, frequently forcing these
combinations without regard to what the owners of the companies
One merger, internally initiated and
arranged by mutual consent, brought together the Thomson-Houston
Company and the Edison General Electric Company, the two biggest
competitors of Westinghouse Electric, to form the present General
Electric Company. This was a challenge to competing Wnancial
Westinghouse had expanded his business
at a very rapid rate in exploiting the Tesla patents. Because
his Wnancial structure thereby lost a certain amount of Xexibility,
he became vulnerable to Wnancial operators and soon found himself
in the toils of a merger that involved uniting several other
small companies with his organization. Financial interests that
had stepped into the situation demanded that the Westinghouse
Electric Company be reorganized as a step toward bringing about
a merger with it of the U. S. Electric Company and the Consolidated
Electric Light Company, the new unit to be known as the Westinghouse
Electric and Manufacturing Company.
Before this reorganization would be consummated
the Wnancial advisers, in strategic positions, insisted that
Westinghouse jettison some of his plans and projects which they
considered inadvisable or a detriment to getting the new company
onto a new foundation that would be sounder from a Wnancial point
One of the requirements was that Westinghouse
get rid of the contract with Tesla calling for royalty payments
of $1 per horsepower on all alternating-current articles sold
under his patents. (No documentary evidence exists concerning
this contract. The author located two sources of information.
One was in complete agreement with the story here related. The
other states that the million-dollar payment was advance royalties
and Tesla so described it to him, declaring no further royalties
were paid.) The Wnancial advisers pointed out that if the business
which Westinghouse expected the company would do under the Tesla
patents in the ensuing year was anywhere near as great as estimated,
the amount to be paid out under this contract would be tremendous,
totaling millions of dollars; and this, at the time of reorganization,
appeared a dangerous burden, imperiling the stability which they
were trying to attain for the new organization.
Westinghouse strenuously objected to
the procedure. This patent-royalty payment, he insisted, was
in accordance with usual procedures and would not be a burden
on the company, as it was included in costs of production, was
paid for by the customers, and did not come out of the company's
earnings. Westinghouse, himself an inventor of Wrst magnitude,
had a strong sense of justice in his dealings with inventors.
The Wnancial advisers, however, were
not to be overruled. They nailed Westinghouse on the spot by
insisting that the million dollars he had paid Tesla was more
than adequate compensation for an invention, and that by making
such an exorbitant payment he had imperiled the Wnancial structure
of his company and jeopardized his bankers' interest. Any further
imperiling of the reorganization by any eVort to retain the royalty
contract would, it was argued, result in the withdrawing of support
that would save the company.
The situation boiled down to the common
Westinghouse was required to handle the
negotiations with Tesla. No situation could be more embarrassing
to him. Nevertheless, Westinghouse was a realist among realists.
He never hesitated to face facts squarely and with a blunt directness.
``I will give you one million dollars cash for your alternating-current
patents, plus royalty'': he had been both brief and blunt when
he purchased the patents from Tesla. Now he was faced with the
problem of undoing the situation into which he had entered with
such brevity. Then money talked and he held the money. Now Tesla
held the dominant position; he held a perfectly valid contract
worth many millions, and he could go to court to force compliance
with its terms. Edison's successful suit against infringers of
his electric-light patent, bringing disaster to many companies
that violated his patent property rights, had caused the whole
industrial world to hold a new and wholesome respect for patent
Westinghouse had no reason for believing
that Tesla would show the slightest inclination to relinquish
his contract or permit its terms to be changed to provide a smaller
rate of royalty. He knew that Tesla's pride had been hurt by
the disagreement with the Pittsburgh engineers, and that he might
not now be in a conciliatory mood. On the other hand, Westinghouse
knew that he had succeeded in having Tesla's ideas adopted. His
greatest comfort came from the fact that he had entered into
the contract with good faith--and with the same good faith he
was trying to handle a much less satisfactory situation. Perhaps
he could oVer Tesla an executive position in the company in lieu
of the contract. There would be mutual advantages in such an
There is no means of Wxing the deWnite
value of the contract Tesla held. His patents covered every department
of the new alternating-current power system, and royalties could
be collected on powerhouse equipment and motors. At that time
the electric power industry had barely started; no one could
look into the future and see the tremendous volume of business
that would be developed. (The latest data available indicate
that in 1941 there was 162,000,000 horsepower of electrical generating
machinery in operation in the United States, practically all
of it for alternating current. Assuming a uniform growth from
1891 to 1941, the installed horsepower in 1905, when the Wrst
Tesla patents would have expired, would have been about twenty
million. This Wgure is, apparently, too high.
According to a census of central stations
in the United States conducted by T. Commerford Martin (Electrical
World, March 14, 1914) the horsepower of generators in operation
in 1902 was 1,620,000 and in 1907 the Wgure had risen to 6,900,000.
On a pro rata, per-year basis, this would make the Wgure for
1905, the year when Tesla's Wrst patents expired, 5,000,000.
During this period many manufacturers who had been using steam
power installed dynamos in their factories and operated isolated
plants. These would not be included in the central-station Wgures
and, if added, would bring the total horsepower to perhaps 7,000,000.
Tesla would have been entitled to $7,000,000 royalties on this
equipment, on the basis of his $1-per-horsepower arrangement.
In addition he would have been entitled to royalties on motors
that used the power generated by these dynamos. If only three
quarters of the current generated were used for power, this would
have entitled him to additional royalties of $5,000,000, or a
total of $12,000,000.)
It would be a tough job for any executive,
no matter how shrewd or clever, to talk a man out of a contract
that would net him many millions of dollars, or induce him to
accept a reduction in rates amounting to millions.
Westinghouse called on Tesla, meeting
him in the same South Fifth Avenue laboratory where he had purchased
the patents four years before. Without preliminaries or apologies
Westinghouse explained the situation.
``Your decision,'' said the Pittsburgh
magnate, ``determines the fate of the Westinghouse Company.''
``Suppose I should refuse to give up
my contract; what would you do then?'' asked Tesla.
``In that event you would have to deal
with the bankers, for I would no longer have any power in the
situation,'' Westinghouse replied.
``And if I give up the contract you will
save your company and retain control so you can proceed with
your plans to give my polyphase system to the world?'' Tesla
``I believe your polyphase system is
the greatest discovery in the Weld of electricity,'' Westinghouse
explained. ``It was my eVorts to give it to the world that brought
on the present diYculty, but I intend to continue, no matter
what happens, to proceed with my original plans to put the country
on an alternating-current basis.''
``Mr. Westinghouse,'' said Tesla, drawing
himself up to his full height of six feet two inches and beaming
down on the Pittsburgh magnate who was himself a big man, ``you
have been my friend, you believed in me when others had no faith;
you were brave enough to go ahead and pay me a million dollars
when others lacked courage; you supported me when even your own
engineers lacked vision to see the big things ahead that you
and I saw; you have stood by me as a friend. The beneWts that
will come to civilization from my polyphase system mean more
to me than the money involved. Mr. Westinghouse, you will save
your company so that you can develop my inventions. Here is your
contract and here is my contract--I will tear both of them to
pieces and you will no longer have any troubles from my royalties.
Is that suYcient?''
Matching his actions to his words Tesla
tore up the contract and threw it in the waste basket; and Westinghouse,
thanks to Tesla's magniWcent gesture, was able to return to Pittsburgh
and use the facilities of the reorganized company, which became
the present Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company,
to make good his promise to Tesla to make his alternating-current
system available to the world.
Probably nowhere in history is there
recorded so magniWcent a sacriWce to friendship as that involved
in Tesla's stupendous gift to Westinghouse of $12,000,000 in
unpaid royalties, although Westinghouse personally received only
indirect beneWts from it.
It is also probable that the failure
to pay Tesla these royalties resulted in one of the greatest
handicaps to scientiWc and industrial progress which the human
race has experienced. A few years later Tesla, still an intellectual
giant far from the peak of his greatest growth, still pouring
forth a profusion of inventions and discoveries of Wrst magnitude,
equal in importance to his Wrst eVorts which put the world on
an electrical power basis, found himself without funds with which
to develop his discoveries, with the result that many of them
have been lost.
Nearly Wfty years after this majestic
relinquishment of wealth on the altar of friendship, during which
time Tesla had had opportunity to see the United States and the
world as a whole wax wealthy out of the power he had made available,
he was called on to respond, with a speech, to honorary citation
by the Institute of Immigrant Welfare. Tesla, then about eighty,
was unable to appear in person. He had experienced decades of
poverty in which he faced ridicule for his failure to develop
inventions which he declared he had made, and had been forced
to move frequently from hotel to hotel, owing to inability to
pay his bills. In spite of these experiences he developed no
rancor toward Westinghouse in whose behalf he sacriWced his $12,000,000
in royalties. Instead, he retained his original warm friendship.
This is indicated by a statement in the speech he sent to the
Institute to be read at its dinner held in the Hotel Biltmore,
May 12, 1938:
``George Westinghouse was, in my opinion,
the only man on this globe who could take my alternating-current
system under the circumstances then existing and win the battle
against prejudice and money power. He was a pioneer of imposing
stature, one of the world's true noblemen of whom America may
well be proud and to whom humanity owes an immense debt of gratitude.''
WHEN Tesla left the Westinghouse plant
at Pittsburgh in 1889 to return to his laboratory in New York,
he entered a new world. The magniWcent polyphase system which
he had already produced was but a small sample of the greater
wonders that still remained to be revealed, and he was anxious
to start exploring the new realm.
He was not approaching an entirely unknown
realm in which he would have to feel his way in darkness in the
hope of stumbling upon something of value, although anyone else
at that time would have been in that position. On that fateful
afternoon in February in Budapest in 1882, when he was given
the vision of the rotating magnetic Weld, there had come with
it an illumination that revealed to him the whole cosmos, in
its inWnite variations and its myriad of forms of manifestations,
as a symphony of alternating currents. For him, the harmonies
of the universe were played on a scale of electrical vibrations
of a vast range in octaves. In one of the lower octaves was a
single note, the 60-cycle-per second alternating current, and
in one of the higher octaves was visible light with its frequency
of billions of cycles per second.
Tesla had in mind a course of experimentation
in which he would explore this region of electrical vibration
between his alternating current and light waves. He would increase
the frequency of the alternating current through the unknown
intervening regions. If one note in a lower octave produced such
a magniWcent invention as the rotating magnetic Weld and the
polyphase system, who could imagine the glorious possibilities
that lay hidden on other notes in higher octaves? And there were
thousands of octaves to be explored. He would construct an electrical
harmonium by producing electrical vibrations in all frequencies,
and study their characteristics. He would then, he hoped, be
able to understand the motif of the cosmic symphony of electrical
vibrations that pervaded the entire universe.
Tesla, at the age of thirty-three, was
now wealthy. He had received $1,000,000 from the Westinghouse
Company for his Wrst crop of inventions. Of this, $500,000 went
to A. K. Brown and his associate who had Wnanced his experiments.
Still greater inventions were to follow. He would never need
money. He would, he then believed, have royalties in the millions
from his alternating-current patents. He could spend as freely
as he wished, penetrating the secrets of Nature and applying
his discoveries to human welfare. It was his responsibility to
be so engaged. He knew he was gifted as no other man had been
blessed with vision, talent and ability; and he in turn would
endow the world with supernal treasures of scientiWc knowledge
which he would extract from the secret recesses of the universe
and, through the activities of his mighty mind, transform into
agencies to brighten the lives, lighten the labors and increase
the happiness of the human race.
Was he a superegoist in his attitude?
If so, he was not activated by selWsh motives. To him it mattered
not what he thought, so long as he remained objective in his
thinking and his thoughts could be translated into demonstrable
facts. What if he did consider himself greater than other men:
did not this viewpoint conform to the facts? Suppose he did consider
himself a man of destiny. Could he not bring evidence to support
the contention? It was not necessary for Tesla actually to see
an event occur in order to enjoy its realization. Had he not
as a youth declared that he would make a practical alternating-current
motor, only to be told by his professor that the goal was impossible
of attainment--and had he not already accomplished this ``impossibility''?
Had he not taken the direct-current dynamos of Edison, whom all
the world looked upon as a great genius, and had he not greatly
improved their design and operation; and in addition, had he
not produced a vastly superior system for producing, distributing
and using electricity? To all of these inquiries Tesla could
answer in the aYrmative without going beyond the bounds of modesty
concerning his achievements.
His attitude was not that of an egoist.
It was an attitude of supreme faith in himself and in the vision
that had been given him. To a man of ability, with such supreme
faith in himself, and necessary Wnancial resources to advance
his purposes, the world of accomplishments is without limits.
This was the picture of Tesla as he returned to his laboratory
in lower Fifth Avenue, New York, in the latter part of 1889.
Tesla had studied a wide range of frequencies
of alternating current in order to select the frequency at which
his polyphase system would operate most eYciently. His calculations
indicated important changes in characteristics and eVects as
the frequency of the current was increased; and his observations
with the electrical machinery he built conWrmed his calculations.
He noted that ever smaller quantities of iron were required as
the frequencies were increased, and he now wished to explore
the very high frequencies at which unusual eVects should be produced
without any iron in the magnetic circuit.
When, back in Budapest following his
rotating magnetic-Weld discovery, he had played with mental calculations
of the properties of alternating currents all the way from the
very lowest frequency up to that of light, no one had yet explored
this region. James Clerk Maxwell, at Cambridge University, England,
had, however, nine years before, in 1873, published his beautiful
presentation on an electromagnetic theory of light, and his equations
indicated that there was a vast range of electro-magnetic vibrations
above and below visible light--vibrations of much longer and
much shorter wavelengths. While Tesla was engaged in making models
of his polyphase system in 1887, too, Professor Heinrich Hertz,
in Germany, put the Maxwell theory to test in the range of waves
a few meters long. He was able to produce such waves by the spark
discharge of an induction coil, and was able to absorb such waves
from space and change them back to a small spark at some distance
from the coil.
Hertz's work gave support to Tesla's
theory that there was an interesting discovery to be made on
almost every note of the whole gamut of vibrations between the
known ones of the electrical current and those of light. Tesla
felt sure that if he could continually increase the frequency
of electrical vibrations until they equaled that of light, he
would be able to produce light by a direct and highly eYcient
process instead of the extremely wasteful process used in the
Edison incandescent lamp, in which the useful light waves were
a very small fraction of the wasted heat waves emitted in the
process, and only Wve per cent of the electrical energy was eVectively
Tesla started his investigations by building
rotary alternating-current dynamos with up to 384 magnetic poles,
and with these devices he was able to generate currents up to
10,000 cycles per second. He found that these high-frequency
currents presented many fascinating possibilities for even more
eYcient power transmission than his very practical 60-cycle polyphase
system. He therefore carried on a parallel line of research into
transformers for raising and lowering the voltage of such currents.
High-frequency alternating-current dynamos,
similar to those designed by Tesla in 1890, were subsequently
developed by F. W. Alexanderson into the high-power wireless
transmitters which put transatlantic wireless transmission, more
than two decades later, on such a sound practical basis that
the Government would not permit control of it to go to a foreign
country and preserved for the United States its predominant position
in world wireless.
The high-frequency current transformers
which Tesla developed proved to be spectacular performers. They
contained not a trace of iron; as a matter of fact, the presence
of iron was found to interfere with their operation. They were
air-core transformers and consisted merely of concentric primary
and secondary coils. The voltages he was able to produce with
these transformers, which became known as Tesla coils, were very
high. In the early experiments he attained potentials that would
spark across a couple of inches of air, but in a short time he
made tremendous progress and was producing Xaming discharges.
In working with these voltages he encountered diYculties in insulating
his apparatus, and so he developed the technique that is now
in universal use in high-tension apparatus: that of immersing
the apparatus in oil and excluding all air from the coils, a
discovery of great commercial importance.
There was a limit, however, above which
the use of rotary generators of high-frequency currents was not
practicable, so Tesla set about the task of developing a diVerent
type of generator. There was nothing novel about the basic idea
he employed. In rotary dynamos, current is generated by moving
a wire in a circle past a number of magnetic poles in succession.
The same eVect can be attained by moving the wire back and forth
with an oscillating motion in front of one magnetic pole. No
one, however, had as yet produced a practical reciprocating dynamo.
Tesla produced one that was extremely practical for his particular
purpose; but otherwise it had little utility, and he later felt
that he could have employed much better the time he spent on
it. It was an ingenious single-cylinder engine without valves,
and could be operated by compressed air or steam. It was supplied
with ports like a small two-cycle marine engine. A rod extended
from the piston through the cylinder head at either end, and
at each end of the rods was attached a Xat coil of wire which,
by the reciprocating action of the piston, was caused to move
back and forth through the Weld of an electromagnet. The magnetic
Weld through its cushioning eVect served as a Xywheel.
Tesla was able to obtain a speed of 20,000
oscillations per minute, and to maintain such a remarkable degree
of constancy in operation that he proposed the maintenance of
equally constant speed of operation for his 60-cycle polyphase
system and the use of synchronous motors, geared down to the
proper extent, as clocks which would furnish correct time wherever
alternating current was available. This proposal furnished the
foundation for our modern electric clocks. As with many another
of his practical and useful suggestions, he did not take out
a patent on the idea, and gained no Wnancial advantage from it.
In working with his polyphase system,
Tesla gained a thorough understanding of the part played by the
two factors, capacity and inductance, in alternating-current
circuits; the former acting like a spring and the latter like
a storage tank. His calculations indicated that with currents
of suYciently high frequency it would be possible to produce
resonance with relatively small values of inductance and capacity.
Producing resonance is tuning a circuit electrically. The mechanical
eVects analogous to electrical resonance are the causing of a
pendulum to swing through a wide arc by giving it a series of
very light but equally timed touches, or the destruction of a
bridge by soldiers marching in unison over it. Each small vibration
re-enforces its predecessors until tremendous eVects are built
In a tuned electrical circuit a condenser
supplies the capacity and a coil of wire supplies the inductance.
A condenser ordinarily consists of two parallel metal plates
separated from each other a short distance by an insulating material.
Each plate is connected to either end of the inductance coil.
The size of the condenser and the coil is determined by the frequency
of the current. The coil-condenser combination and the current
are tuned to each other. The current can be pictured as Xowing
into the condenser until it is fully charged. It then Xows elastically
into the inductance coil, which stores the energy by building
up its magnetic Weld. When the current ceases to Xow in the coil,
the magnetic Weld collapses and gives back to the coil the energy
previously used in building up the magnetic Weld, thus causing
a current to Xow back into the condenser to charge it up to overXowing
again, so that it is ready to repeat the process. This Xow back
and forth between the condenser and coil takes place in step
with the periodic reversal of the alternating current which supplies
the energy when resonance is established. Each time it takes
place, the charging current comes along at the right instant
to give it a boost, so that the oscillations build up to tremendous
Tesla, in discussing this plan of electrical
tuning of circuits in a lecture, given several years later, said:
The Wrst question to answer then is whether
pure resonance eVects are producible. Theory and experiment show
that such is impossible in nature for, as the oscillations become
more vigorous, the losses in vibrating bodies and environing
media rapidly increase, and necessarily check the vibrations,
which would otherwise go on increasing forever. It is a fortunate
circumstance that pure resonance is not producible for, if it
were, there is no telling what dangers might lie in wait for
the innocent experimenter. But, to a certain degree, resonance
is producible, the magnitude of the eVects being limited by the
imperfect conductivity and imperfect elasticity of the media,
or, generally stated, frictional losses. The smaller these losses
the more striking are the eVects.
Tesla applied the electrical tuning principles
to his coils and discovered that he was able to produce tremendous
resonance eVects and build up very high voltages. The tuning
principles he developed in 1890 are those which have made our
modern radio, and the development of the earlier art, ``wireless,''
possible. He had been working with, and demonstrating, these
principles before others who received credit had begun to learn
the Wrst lessons in electricity.
Seeking a new source of high-frequency
currents, higher than could be produced by any mechanical apparatus,
Tesla made use of a discovery that had been made the year in
which he was born, by Lord Kelvin, in England, in 1856, and for
which no use had thus far been found. Up to the time of Kelvin's
discovery it had been believed that when a condenser was discharged
the electricity Xowed out of one plate into the other, like water
being poured from a glass, thus establishing equilibrium. Kelvin
showed that the process was far more interesting and complex;
that its action was like the bobbing up and down that takes place
when a weighted stretched spring is released. The electricity,
he showed, rushes from one plate into the other and then back
again, the process continuing until all of the stored up energy
is used up in overcoming frictional losses. The back-and-forth
surges take place at a tremendously high frequency, hundreds
of millions a second.
The combination of condenser discharges
and tuned circuits opened a new realm in electrical science as
signiWcant and as important as Tesla's polyphase system. He worked
out remarkably simple and automatic methods for charging the
condensers by low voltage (direct and alternating currents),
and discharging them through his new air-core transformers, or
Tesla coils, to produce currents of enormously high voltages
that oscillated at the tremendously high frequency of the condenser
discharge. The properties of these currents were unlike anything
that had been seen before. He was again pioneering in an entirely
new Weld, with tremendous possibilities. He labored feverishly
in his laboratory; and as he lay in bed at night for his Wve-hours'
rest, which included two hours of sleep, he formulated new experiments.
Tesla announced the heating eVect of
high-frequency currents on the body in 1890 and proposed their
use as a therapeutic device. In this he was a pioneer, but soon
had many imitators here and abroad who claimed to be originators.
He made no eVort to protect his discovery or prevent the pirating
of his invention. When the same observation was made thirty-Wve
years later in laboratories using vacuum-tube oscillators as
the source of the high-frequency currents, it was hailed as a
new discovery and developed as a modern wonder. Tesla's original
discovery is, however, the basis of a vast array of very recent
electronic applications in which high-frequency currents are
used to produce heat for industrial purposes.
When he gave his Wrst lecture on the
subject before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers
at Columbia College, in May, 1891, he was able to produce spark
discharges Wve inches long, indicating a potential of about 100,000
volts, but, more important, he was able to produce phenomena
which included, electrical sheets of Xame, and a variety of new
forms of illumination--electric lamps the like of which had never
been seen before, nor dreamed of in the wildest imagination of
This lecture produced a sensation in
engineering circles. He was already famous in this Weld for the
astounding revelations he had made before the same organization
on that earlier occasion when he described his discovery of the
polyphase alternating current system. That discovery was an intellectual
accomplishment of bewildering brilliance, made impressive by
the tremendous commercial importance of the discovery. The experiments
with the high-frequency and high-potential currents, however,
were spectacular; the crackling of the high-voltage sparks, the
Xashing of the high-potential sheets of electrical Xame; the
brilliant bulbs and tubes of electrical Wre, the amazing physical
eVects he produced with the new currents, made a profound emotional
appeal to the startled beholders.
The man who could produce these two pioneering
developments within two years must be more than a genius! The
news of his new accomplishment Xashed quickly throughout the
world, and Tesla's fame now rested on a double foundation.
The world-wide fame that came to him
at this time was unfortunate. Tesla would have been entirely
superhuman had he not derived a great deal of satisfaction out
of the hero-worshiping adulation that now came to him. It was
only Wve years ago that he had been hungry and penniless in the
streets of New York, competing with equally hungry hordes of
unemployed for the few existent jobs calling for brute labor,
while his head bulged with important inventions which he was
anxious to give to the world. No one would listen to him then--and
now the intellectual élite of the nation were honoring
him as an unrivaled genius.
Tesla was a spectacular Wgure in New
York in 1891. A tall, dark,
handsome, well-built individual who had
a Xair for wearing clothes that gave him an air of magniWcence,
who spoke perfect English but carried an atmosphere of European
culture which was worshiped at that time, he was an outstanding
personality to all who beheld him. Hidden behind his quiet, self-eVacing
demeanor, and an extreme modesty that manifested itself as an
exaggerated shyness, was the mind of a genius which had worked
electrical wonders that Wred the imagination of all and exceeded
the understanding of the vast majority of the population. In
addition Tesla was a young man, not yet thirty-Wve, who had recently
received a million dollars and was a bachelor.
A bachelor with a million dollars, culture
and fame, could not avoid being a shining mark in New York in
the early years of the gay nineties. Many were the designing
matrons with marriageable daughters who cast envious eyes in
the direction of this eligible young man. The social leaders
looked upon him as a fascinating decoration for their salons.
The big men of business looked upon him as a good man to know.
The intellectuals of the day found his almost unbelievable accomplishments
a source of inspiration.
Except at formal dinners Tesla always
dined alone, and never under any circumstances would he dine
with a woman at a two-some dinner. No matter how much a woman
might gush over him or strive to gain his favor, Tesla, in most
adamant fashion, maintained a thoroughly impersonal attitude.
At the Waldorf-Astoria and at Delmonico's he had particular tables
which were always reserved for him. They occupied secluded positions
in the dining rooms because when he entered either room he was
the cynosure of all eyes and did not enjoy being on exhibition.
In spite of all of the adulation that
was heaped upon him, Tesla had but one desire--to continue his
laboratory experiments undisturbed by outside distractions. There
was a tremendous empire of new knowledge to be explored. He was
Wred with a potential of enthusiasm for the work that was as
high as the voltage of the currents with which he was working,
and new ideas were coming to him with almost the rapidity of
the cycles in his high-frequency current.
There were three broad Welds in which
he wished to develop applications which were now clearly outlined
in his mind: a system of wireless power transmission that would
excel his own polyphase system, a new type of illumination, and
the wireless transmission of intelligence. He wished to work
on them all simultaneously. They were not separate and isolated
subjects but all closely intermeshed, all notes on that vast
cosmic scale of vibration represented by his beloved alternating
currents. He did not wish to play on one note at a time, as would
a violinist; he preferred to play as a pianist, striking many
notes at once and weaving them into beautiful chords. Were it
possible to occupy the position of leader and simultaneously
play all of the instruments in a great symphony orchestra, he
would have been still better pleased. The instruments in his
orchestra, however, would be electrical devices oscillating in
tune with their energizing currents or with their environment.
To the extent that he was unable to realize his most expansive
desires, he was under mental pressure that drove him to a working
pace which no individual of ordinary strength could withstand
without a resulting complete physical breakdown.
The spectacular lecture and demonstration
on high-frequency and high-potential currents which he gave before
the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in February, 1891,
at Columbia College, created as profound a sensation as did his
earlier one. Each opened an entirely new realm of scientiWc investigation
and practical discoveries. The discoveries contained in either
lecture would have been suYcient to stand as the fruit of a lifetime's
work and bring lasting fame. Two such events in rapid succession
seemed almost unbelievable--yet Tesla seemed to be scarcely well
launched on his career, with more important work still to come.
Requests that he give lectures came from
learned societies throughout this country and Europe, but he
begged to be excused because of the tremendous pressure on his
time which his work entailed. Equally insistent were the social
demands that were being made upon him. Social groups sought in
every way to honor him, and incidentally to shine in his reXected
glory. Tesla was not vulnerable to the importunings of the socialites
who sought him merely as a scintillating satellite, but the clever
``lion hunters'' of that day soon discovered his Achilles' heel--an
intelligent interest in his accomplishments and a sympathetic
ear for his dreams of wonders still to come.
With this technique in successful operation,
Tesla was captured and soon completely lionized. He was guest
of honor at a continuous round of functions and he met the social
obligations involved in them by staging, in return, elaborate
dinners at the Waldorf-Astoria followed by demonstration parties
at his laboratory on South Fifth Avenue. Tesla never did a halfway
job on anything. When he staged a dinner he left nothing to chance
in the matter of cuisine, service and decorations. He sought
rare Wsh and fowl, meats of surpassing excellence, and choicest
liquors and exquisite wines of the best vintages. His dinners
were the talk of the town and having been a guest at a Tesla
dinner was a mark of social distinction, proof of membership
in the inner group of the élite within Ward MacAllister's
``400.'' At these dinners Tesla presided as a most meticulous
host, or more accurately, as an old-world absolute monarch, for
he would sample all food brought to the dining room; and rarely
did an event pass without the grandiose host sending back some
sauce or wine of unquestioned excellence as unworthy of his guests.
Following each of these meals Tesla would
escort his guests to his laboratory below Washington Square;
and here his demonstrations were even more spectacular than his
dinners. He had a Xair for the dramatic; and the strange-looking
devices with which his laboratory was furnished provided a grotesque
and bizarre background for the fantastic displays of seemingly
unearthly forces that with invisible Wngers set objects whirling,
caused globes and tubes of various shapes to glow resplendently
in unfamiliar colors as if a section of a distant sun were suddenly
transplanted into the darkened room, and crackling of Wre and
hissing sheets of Xame to issue from monster coils to the accompaniment
of sulfurous fumes of ozone produced by the electrical discharges
that suggested this magician's chamber was connected directly
with the seething vaults of hell. Nor was this illusion dispelled
when Tesla would permit hundreds of thousands of volts of electricity
to pass through his body and light a lamp or melt a wire which
The amazing feat of harmlessly passing
through his body currents of tremendously high voltage and high
frequency was one which Tesla evolved by his mental experiments
long before he had an opportunity to test them in his laboratory.
The low-frequency alternating currents, such as are now used
on home-lighting circuits, would, he knew from unpleasant experiences,
produce a painful shock if passed through the body. When light
waves impinged on the body, however, no such painful sensation
was produced. The only diVerence between the electric currents
and light waves, he reasoned, was a matter of frequency, the
electric currents oscillating at the rate of 60 per second and
the light waves at billions per second.
Somewhere between these two extremes
the shock-producing property of electromagnetic vibrations must
disappear; and he surmised the point would be near the lower
end of the gap. Damage done to the body by electric shock he
divided into two factors, one--the destruction of tissues by
the heating eVect which increased or diminished as the amperage
of the current was raised or lowered; and two--the sensation
of acute pain which varied with the number of alternations of
the current, each alternation producing a single stimulus which
was transmitted by the nerves as a pain.
Nerves, he knew, could respond to stimuli
up to a rate of about 700 per second, but were unable to transmit
impulses received at a more rapid rate. In this respect they
acted very much like the ear, which is unable to hear air vibrations
above a frequency of about 15,000 per second, and the eye, which
is blind to color vibrations of a frequency higher than that
in violet light.
When he constructed his high-frequency
alternating-current dynamos, he had frequencies up to 20,000
per second with which to test his theory; and by Wnger tests
across the terminals he was able to demonstrate that the nerves
were unable to perceive the individual vibrations at this rapid
rate. The amperage, which carried the tissue-destroying power,
was still too high in the output of these machines to pass safely
through his body, even though the sensation of pain was lacking.
By passing these currents through his
newly invented air-core transformers, he could increase their
voltage ten-thousand fold and reduce the amperage proportionately.
The current density would thereby be reduced below the point
at which it would injure tissues. He would then have a current
which would not produce sensation and would not harm the tissues.
He cautiously tested the theory by passing the currents through
two Wngers, then his arm, next from hand to hand through his
body and Wnally from his head to his feet. If a spark jumped
to or from his body, there was a pin-prick sensation at the point
of contact, but this could be eliminated by holding a piece of
metal to and from which the spark could jump while the current
passed through the tissues without producing any sensation.
The energy content of these currents,
which is proportionate to the current multiplied by the voltage,
could be very high and produce spectacular eVects such as melting
metal rods, exploding lead disks, and lighting incandescent or
vacuum-tube lamps after passing painlessly through his body.
The European scientiWc societies were
persistent in their eVorts to induce Tesla to accept their invitations
to lecture before them, and Wnally he acceded. He set extravagantly
high standards for the contents of his lectures, and their preparation
entailed a tremendous amount of labor. All of the material had
to be entirely new. He would never repeat an experiment previously
presented. Every technical statement had to be tested at least
twenty times to insure complete accuracy. His lectures would
last two or three hours; and every minute of the time was crowded
with new and awe-inspiring demonstrations of his constant stream
of discoveries. He used a great array of devices fashioned by
himself and built in his own laboratories to illustrate his talks.
A Tesla lecture, therefore, was an extremely important event
in the scientiWc world and a most impressive occasion to those
who were fortunate enough to be able to attend.
Tesla arranged to give a lecture before
the Institution of Electrical Engineers in London on February
3, 1892, and one before the International Society of Engineers
in Paris on February nineteenth. His decision to give the European
lectures was inXuenced to some extent by the fact that they would
aVord him an opportunity to visit his home in Gospic, for recent
letters had indicated that his mother's health was failing.
The lecture before the Institution of
Electrical Engineers was a great success. English engineering
journals, as will be seen, had been niggardly in extending recognition
to Tesla for priority in the discovery of the rotating magnetic
Weld, and had belittled the practical value of his polyphase
alternating-current system, but in this attitude they were not
representative of the great body of engineers, who were most
generous in their praise and enthusiasm; and the attitude of
the engineers was shared by the English scientists.
When Tesla arrived in London he was entertained
at many places by famous men. At the Royal Institution, where
the immortal Michael Faraday had carried on his fundamental researches
in magnetism and electricity, Sir James Dewar, and a committee
of equally famous scientists, sought to prevail upon Tesla to
repeat his lecture before that organization. Tesla could be plain
stubborn in sticking to his plans, and in this case was exhibiting
his usual Wrmness. The famous Scottish scientist matched Tesla's
stubbornness with an equal persuasive persistence. He escorted
Tesla to Faraday's chair, an almost sacred relic to English science,
seated him in this throne, and then brought out an almost equally
precious heirloom, a portion of a bottle of whiskey, the remainder
of Faraday's personal supply, untouched for nearly a quarter
of a century. Out of this he poured a generous half glass for
Tesla. Sir James won. Tesla relented and gave the lecture the
Lord Rayleigh, the eminent English physicist,
was chairman of the meeting at the Royal Institution, which was
attended by the élite of the scientiWc world and a generous
representation of the nobility of the realm. Rayleigh, after
witnessing the performance of Tesla's experiments, which were
none the less awe inspiring to scientists than to laymen, showered
words of praise on the inventor.
Rayleigh declared that Tesla possessed
a great gift for the discovery of fundamental scientiWc principles,
and urged that he concentrate his eVorts on some one big idea.
Tesla, in his conversation after the
meeting, disclaimed ability as a great discoverer; but in this
he was merely being modest, for he knew that he was unique among
men in his ability to discover fundamental truths. He did, however,
give very serious consideration to Rayleigh's suggestion that
he concentrate on some one big idea. It is doubtful, however,
whether Rayleigh's suggestion was good advice. Tesla's mind had
a range that was cosmic in magnitude and adjusted to broad slashing
advances through unknown regions. Rayleigh's advice was like
suggesting to an explorer who had unique ability for penetrating
an unknown continent and opening it to civilization that he settle
down and cultivate a homestead, since that would give more deWnite
and speciWc returns for eVorts expended.
Two weeks later Tesla gave his scheduled
lecture before the Physical Society in Paris and repeated it
before the International Society of Electrical Engineers. This
was his second visit to Paris since he had quit his job with
the Continental Edison Company in that city eight years before.
Immediately after leaving the Westinghouse Company in the autumn
of 1889--at which time, too, he completed his U.S. citizenship
requirements--he had made a brief visit to Paris to attend the
International Exposition. In the meantime, the fame of his polyphase
system had spread to Europe; and to this was added the glory
for his spectacular work with the new high-frequency currents.
He was given a hero's reception in Paris, as well as in London.
It would be interesting to know what
thoughts passed through the minds of the executives of the Continental
Edison Company as they observed the tremendous contributions
to science and industry by the engineer whose services they had
lost through their penny-wise tactics when they were oVered in
1883, and could undoubtedly have purchased for a relatively small
amount, the polyphase system for which Westinghouse paid Tesla
$1,000,000 Wve years later.
A tesla lecture was an avalanche of new
and fascinating electrical
knowledge. He completely overwhelmed
his listeners with a wealth of spectacular original experiments,
and as a result almost every individual contribution lost its
identity in the dazzling concentration of the whole galaxy of
In the 1892 lectures, entitled ``Experiments
with Alternating Currents of High Potential and High Frequency,''
Tesla described many of his discoveries which are only coming
into general use today and are being hailed as modern inventions.
Among these are the ``neon'' and other gas-Wlled lamps, and phosphorescent
lamps. Many of the discoveries described are still unutilized,
including, as will be seen, the carbon or metallic-button incandescent
lamp, requiring but a single wire connection; and still others,
which he later discovered, were rich producers of the mysterious
The transcript of these lectures runs
to 40,000 words. Scores of pieces of apparatus were used and
usually several experiments were performed with each. He described
``wireless'' lamps, glowing glass tubes that required no wire
connection for their operation. He described motors which operated
on one wire, and ``wireless'' or ``no wire'' motors. But perhaps
the most important development he described was the sensitive
electronic tube--the original of all our modern radio and other
electronic tubes--which, he predicted, was the device that would
permit receiving wireless telegraph messages across the Atlantic.
Of all these discoveries we shall presently have more to say
It had been Tesla's intention to make
a short visit to his early home in Gospic when his lectures were
out of the way, but circumstances forced him to make the trip
sooner than he expected. Returning to his hotel after delivering
the second Paris lecture, he received word that his mother was
gravely ill. He rushed to the railroad station, arriving in time
to board a train just about to pull out. He telegraphed ahead
for special transportation facilities to shorten his trip, and
succeeded in reaching Gospic in time to see his mother alive.
He arrived in the afternoon and she died that night.
The great anxiety from which Tesla suVered
during his sleepless rush from Paris to Gospic caused a patch
of hair on the right side of his head to turn white over night.
Within a month its jet black color was restored naturally.
Almost immediately after his mother's
death, Tesla contracted an illness which incapacitated him for
many weeks. When he recovered, he visited his sister Marica,
in Plaski, for two weeks. From there he went to Belgrade, the
capital of Serbia, where he arrived in May and was received as
a national hero.
During the weeks of enforced physical
inactivity imposed on him by his illness, Tesla took stock of
himself and became thoroughly dissatisWed with the manner in
which he had been conducting his life. No human being could feel
anything but a pleasurable reaction in response to the adulation
that had been heaped upon him during the past two years. Tesla,
however, prided himself upon his wisdom in having so designed
his life that he would not become a victim of human frailties,
but would function far above the normal human level of physical
limitations and intellectual activities. Now Tesla saw, in retrospect,
that insofar as he had adhered to his superman plan of life,
he had succeeded in achieving his goal of producing the works
of a superman at a rate which astounded the world. When, however,
he submitted to the Wrst blandishments of the lion hunters after
his New York lecture in May, 1891, he observed, social activities
had cut into his available time and had interfered with his creative
activities. He had let the ``man magniWcent'' supersede his ``superman,''
and two years of valuable time had been largely lost. In addition,
he had spent that totally unproductive year at the Westinghouse
plant. At the close of that period, he had vowed he would never
again work for anyone. He now vowed that he would put an end
to the vacuous social activities into which he had been inveigled.
It was not easy for Tesla to live up
to his good resolutions, for his European trip had greatly enhanced
his fame and triumphant celebrations were scheduled on his reappearance
in New York. Nevertheless, he rejected all invitations. He returned
to the Hotel Gerlach, where he lived a solitary existence. With
a pent-up reserve of physical energy owing to his long abstinence
from his heavy daily routine of work, he plunged with great vigor
into his new program which was to open up new and enchanting
realms of scientiWc wonders.
THE Wrst public application of Tesla's
polyphase alternating-current system was made at the Chicago
World's Fair, the Columbian Exposition, which opened in 1893
to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery
of America. This was the Wrst world's fair for which electric
lighting was a possibility, and the architects availed themselves
of the opportunities it aVorded for obtaining spectacular eVects
in illuminating the grounds and buildings at night, as well as
for interior lighting during the day. The Westinghouse Electric
Company secured the contract for installing all power and lighting
equipment at the Fair, and took full advantage of this opportunity
to use the Tesla system and demonstrate its great versatility.
It supplied all the current used for lighting and power.
While the Chicago World's Fair was in
reality a monument to Tesla, he had, in addition, a personal
exhibition in which he demonstrated his most recent inventions.
One of his exhibits was a spinning egg, made of metal. The egg
was shown lying on top of a small velvet-covered circular platform.
When Tesla closed a switch the egg stood on its small end and
rotated at a high speed as if by magic. The ``magic'' phase of
this feat appealed to a public which, however, grasped little
of the explanation that it illustrated the principle of the rotating
magnetic Weld produced by the polyphase alternating currents.
In other of his exhibits, glass tubes suspended in space or held
in his hands lighted up in an equally ``magical'' fashion.
But his most spectacular feat was to
let 1,000,000 volts pass through his body. This was alternating
current of very high frequency as well as high voltage. He had
discovered means of producing such currents. Eight years had
passed since Edison, attacking high-voltage alternating current
as deadly, had refused to become interested in Tesla's polyphase
system. Now the Tesla system was providing the electricity for
the great world's fair and the Edison direct-current system was
ignored. The Wnal gesture of victory was for Tesla to answer
Edison's charge that alternating current was deadly by passing
the highest voltage of it ever produced through his own body
for many minutes without the slightest sign of harm. This bit
of showmanship endeared Tesla to the public and brought him a
tremendous burst of world-wide fame. Unfortunately, however,
it obscured his more important work with polyphase currents.
The next great achievement to be attained
by his polyphase system was the harnessing of Niagara Falls.
(Before this was done, and even before the opening of the Chicago
fair, the practicability of his system was demonstrated in Europe;
but this had been undertaken without his knowledge. A practical
test of the transmission of polyphase alternating current at
30,000 volts was made between a hydroelectric station at LauVen
and the City of Frankfurt, the current being used to furnish
electricity at a fair held at the latter city. This installation
was built in 1891. The current was used to light incandescent
and arc lamps and also to operate a Tesla motor.) In 1886 a charter
had been granted for developing power at the Falls. The project
made slow progress and was taken over by a New York group which
organized the Cataract Construction Company, of which Edward
Dean Adams was made president. Mr. Adams' company desired to
develop power on the largest scale possible. The total energy
supply available in the Falls had been variously estimated from
4,000,000 to 9,000,000 horsepower. Mr. Adams organized the International
Niagara Commission for the purpose of ascertaining the best means
of harnessing the Falls, and made Lord Kelvin, the famous English
scientist, its chairman. A prize of $3,000 was oVered for the
most practical plan submitted.
Tesla had predicted nearly thirty years
before, as a boy, that he would someday harness Niagara Falls.
Here was the opportunity. In the meantime, he had made it possible
to fulWl his boyhood boast by completing the series of inventions
which made it possible to change the hydraulic power of the Falls
into electrical energy.
The prize-oVer plan adopted by Mr. Adams
did not, however, set well with Mr. Westinghouse when he was
urged to submit a proposal. He replied, ``These people are trying
to get one hundred thousand dollars' worth of information for
three thousand dollars. When they are ready to talk business
we will submit our plans.'' This adamant attitude of Westinghouse
was one handicap for the Tesla alternating-current plan. The
second big handicap was the fact that Lord Kelvin had declared
himself in favor of the use of direct current.
About twenty plans were submitted in
the contest but none of them was accepted by the commission,
and no prize was awarded. The big electrical companies, Westinghouse,
Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston, did not submit plans.
This took place in 1890.
Original developers of the Falls planned
to use locally the mechanical power provided by water wheels;
but the only practical plan was, clearly, the generation of electricity
by dynamos driven by water wheels, and the distribution of the
current throughout the district. There was a good additional
market for it at BuValo, a large industrial city about twenty-two
miles distant. There was always the hope, too, that the current
could be transmitted to New York City and serve the rich intervening
territory. If direct current were used, its transmission twenty-two
miles to BuValo was totally unfeasible. The Tesla alternating-current
system, however, made the transmission to BuValo extremely practicable
and the delivery of the current to New York City a possibility.
In due time the Cataract Construction
Company decided that the hydroelectric system was the only feasible
one, and proposals and bids were asked on a power system consisting
of three generating units, each of 5,000 horsepower, from the
Westinghouse Electric Company and the General Electric Company.
Each one submitted a proposal to install a Tesla polyphase generating
system. The General Electric Company, successor to the Edison
General Electric Company, having in the meantime secured a license
to use the Tesla patents, proposed to install a three-phase system,
and Westinghouse a two-phase system. The Wrst proposal concerned
the building of the powerhouse. A second proposal on which bids
were asked concerned the transmission line between Niagara Falls
and BuValo and a distribution system in the latter city.
Bids were asked for early in 1893, and
in October of that year Mr. Adams announced that the Westinghouse
plan for the powerhouse and the General Electric plan for the
transmission line were accepted. The latter included a transformation
of the two-phase current from the generators into three-phase
current to be transmitted to BuValo. This change indicated the
Xexibility of the Tesla polyphase system.
Westinghouse completed the powerhouse
and in 1895 it stood ready to deliver 15,000 horsepower; the
most gigantic piece of electrical engineering conceived or accomplished
up to that time. In 1896 General Electric completed the transmission
and distribution system, and electrical power extracted from
Niagara Falls, without in any way impairing the beauty of the
spectacle they presented, was delivered to industries through
the Falls and BuValo areas. So successful was this installation
that the Westinghouse Company installed seven additional generating
units, bringing the output to 50,000 horsepower. A second equivalent
powerhouse, also using alternating current, was later built by
the General Electric Company. Today, the powerhouses at Niagara
Falls are linked directly with the electric power system in New
York City, all using the Tesla system.
Dr. Charles F. Scott, Professor Emeritus
of Electrical Engineering at Yale University, and former president
of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, who was a
Westinghouse engineer when that company was developing the Tesla
system, in a memorial review of Tesla's accomplishments, (Published
in Electrical Engineering, August 1943, pp. 351-555.) describes
the Niagara development and its results:
The simultaneous development of the Niagara
project and the Tesla system was a fortuitous coincidence. No
adequate method of handling large power was available in 1890;
but while the hydraulic tunnel was under construction, the development
of polyphase apparatus justiWed the oYcial decision of May 6,
1893, Wve years and Wve days after the issuing of Tesla's patents,
to use his system. The Polyphase method brought success to the
Niagara project; and reciprocally Niagara brought immediate prestige
to the new electric system.
Power was delivered in August 1895 to
the Wrst customer, the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (now Aluminum
Company of America) for producing aluminum by the Hall process,
patented in the eventful year 1886. . . .
In 1896 transmission from Niagara Falls
to BuValo, 22 miles, was inaugurated. Compare this gigantic and
universal system capable of uniting many power sources in a superpower
system, with the multiplicity of Lilliputian ``systems'' which
previously supplied electrical service. As Mr. Adams aptly explained:
``Formerly the various kinds of current required by diVerent
kinds of lamps and motors were generated locally; by the Niagara-Tesla
system only one kind of current is generated, to be transmitted
to places of use and then changed to the desired form.''
The Niagara demonstration of current
for all purposes from large generators led immediately to similar
power systems in New York City--for the elevated and street railways
and for the subway; for steam railway electriWcation; and for
the Edison systems, either by operating substations for converting
alternating current to direct current or by changing completely
to A.C. service.
The culminating year 1896 inaugurated
two far reaching developments for the extension of polyphase
power, one commercial and one engineering. By exchange of patent
rights, the General Electric Company obtained license rights
under Tesla patents, later made impregnable by nearly a score
of court decisions. Also the Parsons turbine, accompanied by
its foremost engineer, was transplanted to America and enabled
George Westinghouse to bring to fruition by a new method the
ideal of his Wrst patent, a ``rotary steam engine.'' The acme
of the reciprocating engine came in the early 1900's; a century's
development produced the great engines that drove 5,000 to 7,500
kilowatt alternators for New York's elevated and subway. But
the rapidly growing steam turbine of diVerent types soon doomed
the engine to obsolescence; single units with the capacity of
a score of the largest engines are now supplying power to the
metropolis. Single powerhouses now supply more power than all
of the thousands of central stations and isolated plants of 1890.
Prof. Scott concludes: ``The evolution
of electric power from the discovery of Faraday in 1831 to the
initial great installation of the Tesla polyphase system in 1896
is undoubtedly the most tremendous event in all engineering history.''
Lord Kelvin, who had originally favored
direct current for Niagara, later conceded, but only after the
system was in operation, that alternating current had many more
advantages for long-distance distribution systems, and declared,
``Tesla has contributed more to electrical science than any man
up to his time.''
There should never have been the slightest
shadow of doubt concerning the credit due to Tesla not only for
discovering the rotating magnetic Weld but also for inventing
the Wrst practical alternating-current motor, the polyphase system
of alternating currents, dynamos for generating them, a variety
of motors for converting the currents into power, a system of
polyphase transformers for raising and lowering voltages, and
economical methods for transmitting electrical power for long
distances. Nevertheless, credit for priority has unjustly been
given to and taken by others. Tesla succeeded in establishing
his claims; but in the meantime, however, damage was done by
raising these unfair claims, and to this day the electrical engineering
profession, and public service and major electrical industries,
have never extended to Tesla the credit to which he is entitled.
If they had done so, the name of Tesla would carry at least as
much fame as the names Edison and Westinghouse.
Tesla, as we have seen, made his rotating
magnetic Weld invention in 1882, and within two months evolved
the complete power system, including all the apparatus which
he later patented. In 1883 he described his invention to oYcials
of the Continental Edison Company. In 1884 he demonstrated his
motor to the mayor of Strassburg and others. In this same year
he described the invention to Thomas A. Edison. In 1885 he sought
to have the promoters of the Tesla Arc Light Company develop
his system. In 1887 he secured Wnancial backing and built a series
of the dynamos and motors which were tested by Prof. Anthony
of Cornell University. On October 12, 1887, the Wrst patent applications
covering his basic inventions were revealed to the Patent OYce.
The patents were granted on various dates in the early months
of 1888. On May 16, 1888, he presented a demonstration and description
of his basic inventions before the American Institute of Electrical
Engineers in New York. So much for the record.
The Wrst complication arose when Prof.
Galileo Ferraris, a physicist in the University of Turin, presented
a paper on ``Rotazioni elettrodynamiche'' (Electrodynamic Rotation)
before the Turin Academy in March, 1888. This was six years after
Tesla made his discovery, Wve years after he demonstrated his
motor and six months after he had applied for patents on his
system. Prof. Ferraris had been carrying on researches in the
Weld of optics. The problem that particularly interested him
was polarized light. In this period it was considered necessary
to build mechanical models to demonstrate all scientiWc principles.
It was not very diYcult to devise models to demonstrate the nature
of plane-polarized light, but circularly polarized light presented
a more diYcult problem.
Prof. Ferraris gave some thought to this
problem in 1885, but made no progress until 1888 when he turned
to alternating currents for a solution. In that period light
was erroneously thought of as a continuously undulating wave
in the ether. Prof. Ferraris took the continuously alternating
current as an analogue of the plane-polarized light wave. For
a mechanical analogue of the circularly polarized light wave
he visualized a second train of waves 90 degrees out of step
with the Wrst, giving a right-angle vector to the component that
should manifest itself by rotation. This paralleled the solution
at which Tesla had arrived six years earlier.
In arranging a laboratory demonstration
Prof. Ferraris used a copper cylinder suspended on a thread to
represent the light waves, and caused two magnetic Welds to operate
on it at right angles to each other. When the currents were turned
on, the cylinder rotated, wound up the thread on which it was
suspended and raised itself. This was an excellent model of rotary
polarized light waves. The model bore no resemblance to a motor,
nor did the Turin scientist have any intention that it should
be so considered. It was a laboratory demonstration in optics,
using an electrical analogy.
Prof. Ferraris' next experiment mounted
the copper cylinder on a shaft and divided each of his two coils
into two parts, placing one on either side of the copper cylinder.
The device worked up to a speed of 900 revolutions per minute--and
beyond this point lost power so rapidly it ceased to operate
entirely. He tried iron cylinders but they did not work nearly
so well as the copper ones. Prof. Ferraris predicted no future
for the device as a power source, but he did predict it would
Wnd usefulness as the operating principle for a meter for measuring
Prof. Ferraris thus demonstrated that
he failed by a wide margin to grasp the principle which Tesla
developed. The Italian scientist found that the use of the magnetic
iron cylinder interfered with the operations of his device, whereas
Tesla, following the correct theory, utilized iron cores for
the magnetic Weld of his motor, used an iron armature, and obtained
an eYciency of about 95 per cent in his Wrst motor, which had
a rating of about a quarter horsepower. The eYciency of Ferraris'
device was less than 25 per cent.
It was Prof. Ferraris' belief that he
had performed an important service to science by demonstrating
that the rotating magnetic Weld could not be used on any practical
basis for producing mechanical power from alternating current.
He never deviated from this conclusion, nor did he ever claim
that he had anticipated Tesla's discovery of a practical means
for utilizing the rotating Weld for producing power. Knowing
that his process was entirely diVerent from Tesla's, he never
advanced a claim to independent discovery of the alternating-current
motor. He even conceded that Tesla had arrived at his discovery
of the rotating magnetic Weld entirely independently of him,
and that Tesla could not in any way have known of his work before
A description of Prof. Ferraris' experiments,
however, was published in The Electrician, in London, May 25,
1888 (page 86). This was accompanied by the statement:
Whether the apparatus devised by Prof.
Ferraris will lead to the discovery of an alternating current
motor is a question we do not pretend to prophesy, but as the
principle involved may also have other applications, notably
in the construction of meters for measuring the supply of electricity
. . .
A year before this time Prof. Anthony
had already tested Tesla's alternating-current motors in the
United States and reported that they attained an order of eYciency
equal to that of direct-current motors; and Tesla's U.S. patents
had been publicly announced several months previously.
It was obvious that the editors of this
London publication were not keeping up to date on developments
in the United States.
Tesla responded quickly, informing the
editors of their oversight and submitting an article describing
his motors and the results obtained with them.
No great enthusiasm was exhibited by
the editors of The Electrician. They receded to only the least
possible extent from their stand in favor of Ferraris by publishing
an editorial note:
Our issue of the 25th of May contained
an abstract of a paper by Prof. Galileo Ferraris describing a
method of producing a revolving resultant magnetic Weld by means
of a pair of coils with the axes at right angles and traversed
by alternating currents, and we drew attention to the possibility
that the principle of the apparatus might be applied to the construction
of an alternating current motor. The paper by Mr. Nikola Tesla,
which appears in our columns this week, contains a description
of such a motor, founded on exactly the same principle. (VoI.
XX, p. 165, June 15, 1888.)
No attention was drawn to the fact that
Ferraris had reached the conclusion that the principle could
never be used for making a practical motor, whereas Tesla had
produced such a motor.
This attitude toward the American development
did not disappear from the London engineering journals. Later
the Electrical Review ( London: Vol. XXVIII, p. 291, March 6,
1891) published an editorial which opened with the statement:
For several years past, from the days
of Prof. Ferraris' investigations, which were followed by those
of Tesla and Zipernowski and a host of imitators, we have periodically
heard of the question of alternating current motors being solved.
At this time the Westinghouse Company
was already commercially exploiting the successful and practical
Tesla polyphase system in the United States. Not one word of
credit to Tesla appeared in the London engineering press.
A letter of protest dated March 17, 1891,
was forwarded by Tesla, and this was published some weeks later
(p. 446) by the Review. He said in part:
In all civilized countries patents have
been obtained almost without a single reference to anything which
would have in the least degree rendered questionable the novelty
of the invention. The Wrst published essay--an account of some
laboratory experiments by Prof. Ferraris--was published in Italy
six or seven months after the date of Wling my application for
the foundation patents. . . . Yet in your issue of March 6, I
read: ``For several years past, from the days of Prof. Ferraris'
investigations, which were followed by those of Tesla and Zipernowski
and a host of imitators, we have periodically heard of the question
of alternating current motors being solved.
No one can say that I have not been free
in acknowledging the merit of Prof. Ferraris, and I hope that
my statement of facts will not be misinterpreted. Even if Prof.
Ferraris' essay would have anticipated the date of Wling of my
application, yet, in the opinion of all fair minded men, I would
have been entitled to the credit of having been the Wrst to produce
a practical motor; for Prof. Ferraris denies in his essay the
value of the invention for the transmission of power. . . .
Thus in the most essential features of
the system--the generators with two or three currents of diVering
phase, the three wire system, the closed coil armature, the motors
with direct current in the Weld, etc.,--I would stand alone,
even had Prof. Ferraris' essay been published many years ago.
. . .
Most of these facts, if not all, are
perfectly well known in England; yet according to some papers,
one of the leading English electricians does not hesitate to
say that I have worked in the direction indicated by Prof. Ferraris,
and in your issue above referred to it seems I am called an imitator.
Now, I ask you where is that well known
English fairness. I am a pioneer and I am called an imitator.
I am not an imitator. I produce original work or none at all.
This letter was published; but the Electrical
Review neither expressed regret for the misstatement nor extended
recognition to Tesla.
Charles Proteus Steinmetz, later to achieve
fame as the electrical wizard of the General Electric Company,
came to the support of Tesla. In a paper presented before the
American Institute of Electrical Engineers, he said: ``Ferraris
built only a little toy, and his magnetic circuits, so far as
I know, were completed in air, not in iron, though that hardly
makes any diVerence.''(Transactions, A.I.E.E., VoI. VIII, p.
Other American engineers likewise rallied
to Tesla's support.
An industrial exposition, as already
mentioned, was held at Frankfurt, Germany, in 1891. The United
States Navy sent Carl Hering, an electrical engineer who had
done much writing for technical journals, as observer to report
on any developments that would be of interest to the Navy. Hering,
unfortunately, had not informed himself of the inventions embodied
in the Tesla patents before going abroad.
The outstanding new development at the
Frankfurt exposition was the Wrst public application of Tesla's
system. The grounds and building were lighted by electricity
brought to the city by a long-distance transmission line over
which electricity was carried from the hydroelectric station
at LauVen by three-phase alternating current carried at 30,000
volts. There was exhibited a two-horsepower motor operated by
the three-phase current.
Hering recognized the signiWcance of
the new development, and sent back enthusiastic reports describing
it as of German origin. In his article in the Electrical World
(N.Y.), he waxed enthusiastic about the work of Dolivo Dobrowolsky
in designing the three-phase motor and its associated system,
hailing it as an outstanding scientiWc discovery and of tremendous
commercial importance. The impression was given that all other
inventors had missed the main point, and that Dobrowolsky had
achieved the grand broad accomplishment that would set the pace
for future power developments. Nor was Hering the only one to
whom this impression was communicated.
Ludwig Gutman, an American electrical
engineer, a delegate to the Frankfurt Electrical Congress, in
a paper on ``The Inventor of the Rotary Weld System,'' delivered
before that body, slammed back at Dobrowolsky. He stated:
As we have enjoyed in America several
years' experience with this system represented by the Tesla motors
I must oppose the assertion lately made by Herr von Dobrowolsky
at a meeting of the Electrotechnische Zesellschaft held here
in Frankfurt. The gentleman said: ``I believe I am able to assert
that the motor problem for large and small works has been by
this completely solved.'' This assertion goes most likely too
far. The problem was already solved, theoretically and electrically,
in 1889. (Electrical World, N.Y.: Oct. 17, 1891)
Dobrowolsky, in a paper published in
the Electrotechnische Zeitschrift (p. 149-150; 1891), reduced
his claim to that of having produced the Wrst practical alternating-current
motor; and he asserted that in the Tesla two-phase motor there
were Weld pulsations amounting to 40 per cent, while in his three-phase
motor, in operation at the Frankfurt exposition, these were greatly
Even this reduced claim of Dobrowolsky's
was quickly smashed. It drew Wre from an American and an English
source, and also from the chief engineer of the project of which
his motor was a part.
Dr. Michael I. Pupin, of the Department
of Engineering, Columbia University, analyzing Dobrowolsky's
claim, (Ibid., Dec. 26, 1891) demonstrated that he had failed
to comprehend the basic principles of the Tesla system, and that
the three-phase system which he claimed as his own was included
in Tesla's inventions.
C. E. L. Brown, the engineer in charge
of the pioneering LauVen-Frankfurt 30,000-volt transmission system
and its three-phase generating system, including the Dobrowolsky
motor, settled deWnitely and completely the question of credit
for the whole system. In a letter published in the Electrical
World (Nov. 7, 1891), he concluded with the statement: ``The
three phase current as applied at Frankfurt is due to the labors
of Mr. Tesla and will be found clearly speciWed in his patents.''
Mr. Brown wrote letters to other technical
publications to this same eVect, and in them criticized Mr. Hering
for failing to give Tesla his due credit, and for diverting it
These criticisms Wnally brought a response
from Mr. Hering. This appeared in the Electrical World, Feb.
As Mr. C. E. L. Brown, in communications
to the Electrical World and other journals, seems determined
to insist that I have neglected the work of Mr. Tesla on rotary
current I wish to state there is no one more willing than myself
to give Mr. Tesla due credit for his work, and I have always
considered him to be an original inventor of the rotary Weld
system and Wrst to reduce it to practice, and I believe I so
stated in my articles. If I have at any time failed to give him
credit for the extent to which he developed it, it has been because
Mr. Tesla has been too modest (or perhaps prudent) to let the
world know what he has accomplished. When the articles which
have caused this discussion were being written Mr. Tesla's patents
were not accessible to me. Just where Mr. Dobrowolsky's improvements
begin I have not been able to ascertain. . . .
Dobrowolsky, though he may have been
an independent inventor, admits Tesla's work is prior to his
. . . The modesty of both of these gentlemen would, I feel sure,
lead to a clear understanding. Regarding the subject of priority
it may be of interest here to say that in a conversation with
Prof. Ferraris last summer that gentleman told me with very becoming
modesty that, although he had experimented with the rotary Weld
several years before Tesla's work was published he did not think
it was possible that Tesla could have known of his work and he
therefore believed Tesla invented it entirely independently.
He also stated that Tesla developed it much further than he (Ferraris)
Thus the scientists and engineers in
the United States, Germany and Italy gave Tesla clear and unquestioned
credit for being the sole inventor of the magniWcent polyphase
electrical system in all of its details. French and British journals
then fell in line.
Thus, by 1892, there was universal acclaim
for Tesla as the unquestioned inventor of the alternating-current
motor and the polyphase system in engineering circles. There
was none, therefore, to dispute his claim or to seek to rob him
of credit when his fame reached the public through the operation
of his system at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, and later
when his system made possible the harnessing of Niagara Falls.
In due time, however, there came many
who claimed to have made improvements on Tesla's inventions;
and widespread eVorts were made to exploit these ``improvements.''
The Westinghouse Company, now owners of the Tesla patents, undertook
to defend the patents and to prosecute infringers. As a result
about twenty suits were carried to the courts, and, in every
one of them, decisions gave a decisive victory to Tesla.
A sample of the sweeping decisions that
were handed down is that of Judge Townsend in the United States
Circuit Court of Connecticut in September, 1900, when, passing
judgment on the Wrst group of basic patents, he said in part:
It remained to the genius of Tesla to
capture the unruly, unrestrained and hitherto opposing elements
in the Weld of nature and art and to harness them to draw the
machines of man. It was he who Wrst showed how to transform the
toy of Arago into an engine of power; the ``laboratory experiment''
of Bailey into a practically successful motor; the indicator
into a driver; he Wrst conceived the idea that the very impediments
of reversal in direction, the contra-indications of alternations
might be transformed into power-producing rotations, a whirling
Weld of force.
What others looked upon as only invincible
barriers, impassable currents and contradictory forces he seized,
and by harmonizing their directions utilized in practical motors
in distant cities the power of Niagara.
The resentments and antagonisms engendered
by the unvarying series of successful decisions caused individuals
who were adversely aVected to vent their antagonisms on Tesla
although he had not in ten years held any personal interests
in the patents.
The situation that developed is well
described by B. A. Behrend, later vice-president of the American
Institute of Electrical Engineers:
It is a peculiar trait of ignorant men
to go always from one extreme to another, and those who were
once the blind admirers of Mr. Tesla, exalting him to an extent
which can be likened only to the infatuated praise bestowed on
victims of popular admiration, are now eagerly engaged in his
derision. There is something deeply melancholy in the prospect,
and I can never think of Nikola Tesla without warming up to my
subject and condemning the injustice and ingratitude which he
has received alike at the hands of the public and of the engineering
profession. (Western Electrician, Sept., 1907)
With the scientiWc and engineering worlds,
and the courts, extending to him a clear title to the honor of
being the great pioneer discoverer and inventor of the principles
and machines that created the modern electrical system, Tesla
stands without a rival as the genius who gave the world the electrical
power age that made our mass-production industrial system possible.
The name Tesla should, therefore, in all right and justice, be
the most famous name in the engineering world today.
Last Modified: 06:0606 06, October October, October
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