This month marks the 75th year since the death of famed inventor and and electrical innovator Nikola Tesla, a man whose life is as interesting as his technical achievements.
Tesla, a Serbian who was born in what’s now Croatia, brought the world numerous innovations in electricity that, to this day, define how we live.
On January 7th, Tesla was found dead in a hotel room by one of the hotel’s maids, bringing to an end a long 86-year journey peppered with cataclysmic events that would shape his life forever.
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Tesla is best known today by the public at large for the pioneering electric cars named in his honor.
In fact, he has given his name to two separate companies: Nikola is a startup maker of electrically driven heavy trucks partly powered by hydrogen.
Not-for-profit media outlet The Conversation earlier this month summarized the fortunes and misfortunes of Tesla’s life.
Famed electrical engineer Nikola Tesla, scanned image from postcard c. 1890.
The remarkable story highlights some of the accomplishments and missteps behind his “rags-to-riches-to-rags” tale of ingenuity, fame, and eventual financial ruin.
Tesla was a man of many talents who spoke eight languages and had a reputation for being a bit of a showman.
He often claimed he was born during a lightning storm, during which the midwife exclaimed, “He will be a child of the storm,” and his mother countered, “No, of the light.”
After leaving college before finishing a degree, Tesla took a position with the Continental Edison Company, where he focused on electrical lighting and motors.
Later, he would immigrate to the United States in a bit to meet Edison himself.
His time with Edison in the United States would be short-lived; Tesla claimed Edison backed out of a deal where Nikola was offered $50,000 to solve a series of problems Edison’s researchers couldn’t pin down.
Tesla must have been a trusting sort, as he then partnered with two investors to create Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing.
All the patents Tesla filed were attached to the company, and his partners would steal the company out from under Tesla, leaving him penniless and without his own inventions.
He remains legendary and revered today among engineers and inventors for making the idea of alternating current a practical reality, allowing electricity to be transmitted over long distances.
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While Edison remains far more famous, Tesla’s creation eventually overwhelmed the direct current pioneered by Edison.
The bulk of the world’s electricity systems used today by billions of humans owe their existence to Tesla’s brilliant mind.
For more on Tesla’s life and work, head over to The Conversation or pick up the superb 2004 book, Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, by Jill Jonnes.
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