10 Misconceptions About Nikola Tesla’s Life & Inventions

Nikola Tesla the Mad Scientist Who Fought Thomas Edison – And Won!

Nikola Tesla was the original ‘mad scientist’ and possibly the greatest and most prolific inventor you have never heard of (he filed for 112 Patents in the US alone)   He is responsible for the electricity we use in our homes, experimented with x-rays, proposed the idea of radar and worked on radios and wireless controls and was in the process of developing a death ray when he died.

In addition to his experiments he was a mystic, an animal lover and pigeon fancier, Tesla claimed he changed the color of his eyes by using his mind! He was a man of defined habits – eating at the same restaurant at the same time every night.  He had a photographic memory and never slept for more than 2 hours at a time.  While very dapper in his dress and friendly when he needed to be, he was a recluse who never married claiming that celibacy helped him concentrate on his inventions and that wriggling his toes kept his brain active.

Why is Tesla not a well-known household name?  Most people – if they have heard of him at all know him only for his invention of the Tesla coil – used originally in radio transmitters and, these days, to create impressive electrical displays.  Tesla’s lack of fame comes down to his feud with Edison – Tesla may have won the ‘War of the Currents’ (see below) but Edison was a public relations genius.  So, in order to set the record straight here are our top 10 interesting fact that you never knew about the genius Nikola Tesla and his long running fight with Thomas Edison.

10.  Tesla was meant to be a priest and flunked college

Nikola Tesla was supposed to be priest but flunked.
Nikola Tesla was supposed to be priest but flunked.

Tesla’s family lived in what is now Serbia and Croatia where his father was an orthodox priest.  Tesla was meant to follow his father’s career and go to the seminary.  He was, however, very gifted at school showing a particular talent for mathematics and he wanted to pursue technical studies.  Following a brush with death after contracting cholera his father agreed that he could study engineering instead.

Tesla went to study in Graz, Austria where he earned extremely high grades, working so hard (3am-11pm daily) that his teachers wrote to his parents to warn them he might die from overwork.  By his third year, however he had become a gambling addict and failed to graduate.  He was so ashamed of flunking that he avoided all contact with his family – so much so that they thought he was dead, he claimed that he never gambled again but he showed a love of cards and billiards throughout his life.  Tesla and his family reconciled before his father’s death after which he went to study at Prague but while he could attend lectures he did not meet some of the prerequisites for the course (he could not speak Greek or Czech) and so could not be accredited in his studies.

9. Tesla moved to the US to work for Thomas Edison – a man he originally admired


Nikola Tesla idolized Thomas Edison.  Edison later betrayed him.
Nikola Tesla idolized Thomas Edison. Edison later betrayed him.

After his time in Prague Tesla moved to Budapest in 1881 where he worked as a telephone engineer.  In 1882 he moved to France to work for Thomas Edison’s European company where he was responsible for improving existing equipment.  A few years later he moved to New York to work directly for Edison.  Always confident in his own abilities Tesla claimed that he could make dramatic improvements to the equipment used in the company.  Edison promised Tesla fifty thousand dollars (a lot of money now, an unimaginable fortune at the time).  When Tesla delivered on his promises and asked for the money Edison claimed that he had been joking and passed off Tesla’s reliance on the promise as a cultural misunderstanding.

Tesla resigned immediately and the two men were never able to speak civilly to each other ever again.  It was the start of a feud that was to last a lifetime – seldom have two such well known men behaved with such well publicized animosity towards each other.  It ended up costing them the Nobel Prize and the result of the feud is something that we see in action every time we turn on the light at home.

8. Tesla – the man who is responsible for the way we light our homes once dug ditches for a living


Tesla worked hard labor.
Tesla worked hard labor.

Following his fight with Edison Tesla was even more convinced than ever that he could produce a viable alternative to the Direct Current electric system being promoted by Edison’s company.  Tesla found backers to finance his inventions but they used the company he founded to steal his patents and leave him without a job.  Tesla was penniless and ended up digging ditches to make a living and keep him going until he could find new backers.

7. Tesla worked closely with George Westinghouse – another American electrical pioneer
George Westinghouse
Tesla’s ditch digging came to an end in 1886 when he met new backers who helped him set up another company with a laboratory where he could work on inventing new electric generators.While Direct Current (DC) was popular at the time in the US Tesla was interested in working with Alternating Current (AC) which was popular in Europe and which a number of other key inventors were working on.   Tesla concentrated on designing a system that would be economic and work on a large scale.  By 1887 he had developed a new induction motor, he was not the only person working on developing an efficient motor, indeed an Italian physicist, Ferraris, published a paper shortly before Tesla obtained his patents but Tesla proved to be the in the right place at the right time.

George Westinghouse who was looking to develop an AC power system as an alternative to the DC systems promoted by Edison.  He was initially interested in obtaining Ferraris’ patents but it became clear that one of his competitors was close to striking a deal with Tesla for his apparatus.  Wanting to make sure that he had a monopoly on the AC  business Westinghouse therefore decided to work with Tesla and hired him as a consultant and gaining control of the use of Tesla’s system paying a large sum of money and promising a further $2.50 per horsepower created by AC.

6. Tesla enabled Westinghouse to take on Edison in the ‘War of the Currents’

The battle of the currents.
The battle of the currents.


Thomas Edison is widely accepted to have invented the lightbulb.  There is now some controversy about this claim but it is certain that even if he built on the work of others it was Edison who perfected the design and made it viable for use.  When houses in the United States first started to use electricity it was mainly required to power lights.  Thomas Edison developed a power distribution system that brought DC electricity into peoples’ homes and allowed them to be metered for its use.   Because of this Edison had a significant financial stake in the adoption of DC power distribution as the norm across the United States.

By the 1880s European inventors were making great strides in the technology that would make the use of AC electrical power efficient, this was demonstrated in Budapest in 1885 and by 1886 Rome became an electric city proving that AC power could outcompete DC power.

George Westinghouse was interested in using AC power to compete with the DC system promoted by Edison.  DC worked, and it was safe, but it was not very efficient.  Power stations had to be located within a mile of the properties consuming the electricity they produced because resistance within the wires meant that voltage was lost over distance.  DC is also very difficult to convert to an alternative voltage and therefore appliances operating at different voltages required separate power lines these were expensive to install and maintain.  To save costs many wires were strung overhead instead of underground causing a number of problems.

AC is much more adaptable, it does not loose voltage over distance in the same way.  Additionally the voltage can easily be stepped up or down meaning that it can be transported along power line at high voltage before being transformed to a lower voltage closer to the end user.  This meant fewer generating stations were required to serve any particular area and the electrical requirements for a variety of sources, from railways to a bedroom light could be generated from one single source – much more cost effective and efficient.

In 1893 Westinghouse was invited to electrify the World’s Columbian Exhibition showing that AC power was safe, adaptable and reliable.  Westinghouse, with Tesla’s help, had won the war of the currents – a victory Edison would never be able to forgive or forget.

The relationship between Tesla and Edison was so fraught and acrimonious that there are rumors that they refused to accept a joint nomination for a Nobel Prize and, on Edison’s death, Tesla wrote a very negative piece about him in the New York Times, the only negative view published.

5. Tesla nearly bankrupted Westinghouse Electric


Tesla almost sent George Westinghouse into the poor house
Tesla almost sent George Westinghouse into the poor house

Edison’s company General Electric (who disagreed with Edison’s feud) had, by the 1890s been taken over by financier JP Morgan who realized that the switch to AC power was inevitable.  General Electric and Westinghouse Electric were subsequently involved in extensive legal and patent fights only reaching an agreement in 1896. The costs of the fight were causing severe financial hardship to Westinghouse Electric and combined with the $2.50 per horsepower royalty payment to Tesla meant that the company was facing ruin.  At the time the offer was made no one had any idea that the provision of AC power would become so successful so quickly or anticipated the sheer number of horsepower that would be generated.  Westinghouse spoke directly to Tesla and informed him that if he insisted on Westinghouse continuing with the royalty payments it would destroy the company.  Tesla, believing that he owed a lot (including no longer having to dig ditches) to Westinghouse’s generosity agreed to end the arrangement.  In return for a one off payment of $216,600 Tesla tore up the contract, his actions saved the company.

4. The electric chair was developed as a direct result of Tesla and Westinghouse’s feud with Edison


Tesla and Edison's feud led to the creation of the electric chair
Tesla and Edison’s feud led to the creation of the electric chair

Westinghouse and Tesla may have won the War of the Currents and General Electric had been convinced to switch to AC but Edison would not be convinced.  He did everything he could to demonstrate that AC was too dangerous to use in the home.

At first dogs and cats started disappearing in the area close to Edison’s lab.  It turned out that he was electrocuting them with AC.  Edison even staged public demonstrations – electrocuting up to a dozen animals at a time in an effort to frighten the public.

These experiments led directly to the invention of the Electric Chair – the State of New York used hanging as their means of execution in death penalty cases and were looking for an alternative, more humane method.  Given Edison’s experiments his employees were tasked with inventing a method to use electricity to kill.  Kemmler, a murderer, was the first convict to be executed by electric chair.  This execution was certainly not clean – the first shock was not powerful enough and, due to the time needed to recharge the entire execution took eight minutes.  Edison was not, himself, in favor of the death penalty but he very much wanted AC to be proved too dangerous for daily use.  When Westinghouse protested the use of the Electric Chair (he funded the prisoner’s appeals and refused to supply generators and electrodes for the chair) Edison supplied the necessary equipment.

In 1903 Edison arranged the electrocution of Topsy an Elephant from Coney Island who was guilty of killing a bystander (under provocation, he had burned her trunk with his cigarette).  Edison called the electrocution procedure ‘being westinghoused’ and the aim of his campaign was to make sure that people became frightened of the power of AC and would refuse to allow an AC supply in their homes – poor Topsy’s death affected nothing, however, the war of the currents had already been won many years ago .

Had Tesla not worked with Westinghouse to promote AC as the standard for electrical current in the US Edison might never have supported the development of the electric chair.

3. Tesla ‘discovered’ X Rays a few weeks before Rontgen published his work – he was also fascinated by the possibilities of Radio and Wireless

The discovery of x-rays was due in large part to Tesla's genius
The discovery of x-rays was due in large part to Tesla’s genius


Tesla was good friends with Mark Twain.  The relationship was mutually beneficial, Tesla admired Twain’s writing and Twain enjoyed learning about new technology.  Tesla used Twain as the subject of one of the first photographs lit by incandescent light bulbs.  Some years later he repeated the experiment using Crookes tubes and a vacuum tube which emit electrodes.  The photograph of Twain did not work – instead it showed the screws used to adjust the lens.  Tesla and Twain though the photograph was ruined but, a few weeks later, when Rontgen announced his discovery of the X Ray Tesla realized that he had taken the first X Ray photograph in the US.  Tesla gave Rontgen full credit for his discovery and shared his images with him.  Rontgen in turn was very impressed with the quality of Tesla’s photographs.  Tesla continued to experiment with XRays and their application but much of his research was destroyed in a catastrophic fire at his lab in 1895.  During this time he identified many of the potential applications of XRays.  He further explored the problems and hazards of working with XRays and started to develop the principals of hazard mitigation (reducing time spent exposed or increasing distance from the source of exposure).

Tesla continued to pursue ever stranger experiments with all manner of electrical phenomenon – once accidentally setting butterflies on fire with an accidental discharge of artificial lighting.  At one stage Tesla was convinced that one of his radio receivers could pick up messages from space.  These claims caused Tesla to be discredited in many scientific circles.  These days it is understood that he may have intercepted quasar signals or even some code signals transmitted by Marconi.

Tesla was also fascinated by radio and radio waves and was working on their use in transmission was early as 1893.  By 1898 his experiments had progressed sufficiently to allow him to demonstrate a radio controlled boat.  He pitched it to the military in the hope that it would end all war as it would be possible to fight without putting any human life at risk.  Tesla did so much of the foundation work on radio transmissions that when Marconi had success with the first transatlantic radio transmission Tesla wished him every success – joking that Marconi’s system used 17 of Tesla’s patents.

Tesla was fascinated with the idea that inventions would render was unnecessary – in addition to his remote controlled boat he worked on a particle weapon (called a death ray by the press – much to Tesla’s distress) which could destroy an army.  With these inventions Tesla showed an understanding of the protection given to any nation that possesses weapons of awesome impact epitomized by the ‘MAD’ (Mutually Assured Destruction)  balance assured by the atomic weapons of the US and USSR in the Cold War.

2. Tesla built a huge tower to send wireless transmissions


Nikola Tesla was ahead of the curve on wireless transmissions
Nikola Tesla was ahead of the curve on wireless transmissions

Tesla was convinced that he could build a worldwide wireless system by making the earth resonate.  He postulated that by injecting current into the earth he could modulate the energy to send messages wherever they needed to go.  He also thought that he could transmit power using the same mechanism.  This system would charge the upper layers of the atmosphere and make them glow – this would, as a byproduct, provide ‘free’ night lighting.

JP Morgan was familiar with Tesla’s work through his involvement with General Electric and their attempts to get access to Tesla’s patents for AC generators.  Tesla persuaded Morgan to fund a communications transmitter.   After getting the original investment Tesla, wanting to make sure that his project would stand out, suggested that the transmitter could be used for the wireless transmission of power over distance.  This required significantly more funds and, when Tesla asked Morgan to increase his investment the two fell out – Tesla probably did not help matters by blaming Morgan for the stock market crash of 1901 for a significant increase in build costs and Morgan refused to advance the cash.

Tesla carried on with his project at Wardenclyffe, Long Island building a 187ft tower (to ionize the atmosphere) complete with a shaft descending 120ft into the ground with horizontal roots radiating out to a distance of 300 ft (to send the current into the earth).

Morgan continued to refuse to release money.  Tesla tried to interest other investors but Marconi’s cheaper system had been shown to work and Tesla’s system was written off as a hoax.  No other significant funding was forthcoming and the project was abandoned in 1906.

1.  Tesla died a recluse
Tesla circa 1890
The pronouncements of contact with outer space and the failure of the Wardenclyffe Tower made it progressively harder for Tesla to get funding for his experiments and research.  During the war he approached the US Government with a proposal to develop a radar system for detecting  enemy submarines (this could not have worked  as Radar will not penetrate water – a Sonar system is required).

Tesla became increasingly reclusive living in the New Yorker hotel, walking to the park every day to feed the pigeons and even bringing sick ones back to his room.  He admitted being particularly close to one white pigeon who gave a purpose to his life.  His rent and expenses covered by Westinghouse Electric who wanted to make sure that their former ‘star’ was not destitute.  Tesla gave press interviews, once a year, on his birthday, and it was at one of these where he introduced the concept of his ‘death ray’.  Whether or not Tesla’s work on this weapon was serious we will never know – after his death his room was fully inspected by the government and all his work taken away for examination.

Tesla was one of the most fascinating scientists of his generation.  A showman and eccentric he seems to the modern eye to be a cross between Caractacus Potts (the inventor in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Doc Emmett Brown (of Back to the Future Fame).  Many of his ideas were groundbreaking (some literally, he had to break one of his inventions with a sledgehammer when an experiment set up a resonance effect and ran the risk of breaking down buildings) but some, such as his Wardenclyffe trials were unrealistic.

Tesla was the epitome of the American dream, a Serbian immigrant boy, a one-time menial laborer he ended up rubbing shoulders with some of the most famous Americans of his generation before dying in poverty.  He arrived in the United States to work for Thomas Edison with four cents in his pocket and ended up engaged in a feud with his mentor so deep and protracted that they were both denied the Nobel Prize for Physics.

We still feel the impact of his genius on our lives today, every time we flick a light switch or boil a kettle.  Who knows what he would have made of the wonders of the modern world or what he would put his mind to inventing today!