“THE FORBIDDEN STORY – A FORGOTTEN GENIUS”
Alexander Graham Bell. Henry Ford. The Wright Brothers. Thomas Edison. Undoubtedly, we have all come across these names and we know that they were some of the greatest inventors of all time. Even if you are not the most aware about the latter, certainly all these names ring a bell at least. But there’s one name that is not as recognizable and is probably only heard once in a blue moon. His name might not be among the first few that come to mind. But the man is who you’ve got to thank, for being able to live in the comfort of your homes or enjoy the luxuries of your brand-new car. This is the once, forbidden story of the genius who was forgotten in his time. And the story begins when it ends.
On the 7th of January 1943, a maid working at the New Yorker hotel walked into room 3327 on the 33rd floor to find the dead body of the 86-year-old man. He had considered the hotel home during the last decade of his life. The room itself was quite an exceptional selection by the man and must have been a sequel from his rather unusual obsession with the number 3. Call it unfortunate or not, this is where he worked on his last inventions. Immediately following death, the FBI ordered the U.S Office of Alien Property to seize all his papers declaring it was vitally important to get hold of them before any foreign powers could. In a desperate attempt to at least obtain the personal possessions, his nephew put several requests forward laying claim to his uncle’s belongings. Only after a long court battle, were the items returned. However, out of the 80 trunks or so of the man’s work, only 60 of them were returned and what became of the rest, remains a mystery still unsolved.
Winding the clock back to the 10th of July 1856, this great man was born to a Serbian family in Smiljan, present-day Croatia. He was born in the dead of night amidst a terrible storm with lightning striking. Possibly, for the said reason, the midwife commented “This child will be a child of darkness”. To this, perhaps out of full understanding or typically out of love for her son, the mother replied, “No, he will be a child of light”. Little did she know how prophetic those words would be.
When he was little, he witnessed his older brother die, falling off a horse which unsettled the mind of the boy. This must have been what triggered the visions he saw for the rest of his life, which were usually accompanied by flashes of light, confusing what was real and what was imaginary. These visions spurred the ability to conceive inventions in his head in such detail that he didn’t even have to draw them out. An article published in 1919 had quoted how he explained the way he perfected the designs in his mind, “Invariably, my device works as I convinced that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In 20 years, there has not been a single exception” [Electrical Experimenter, February 1919].
He credits his mother for his creativity & interest in innovation. She too had invented small household appliances in her spare time and is said to have had an eidetic memory of which, she passed on to her son. His father, on the other hand, was a priest in the Serbian Orthodox church and wanted his son to become one too. However, when the child was contracted with cholera and nearly died, the father promised to let him become an Engineer like he always dreamt of. That is if he survived. Miraculously somehow, he did and enrolled at the Austrian Polytechnic School in Graz where he put his nose to the grindstone to the point his professors started to worry that he’d die from exhaustion.
The man had a beautiful mind. He was able to perform calculus in his head and spoke eight different languages. He started off being a good student, but by the end of his second year, he had lost his scholarship and was addicted to gambling. He stopped attending lectures towards the end of his third year and cut ties with his family so they wouldn’t find out. None of his friends knew what happened to him and some even assumed he drowned in a river.
Following these rather unpropitious events, he moved to Maribor, where he worked as a draftsman for a local engineering firm. Even then, he couldn’t last long since he did not own a residential permit. Consequently, he ended up in Budapest and started working as the chief electrician for a telephone company. During his employment, he made numerous improvements to the equipment and developed an amplifier device.
Habitually, he would take strolls in the park feeding birds, during his evenings. Accompanied by his astounding imagination, he would often recite his favorite poems to the setting sun. While he was doing so one of these days, he happened to envision the idea of generating electricity using alternating current. The very first diagram of the motor is said to have been drawn on the sand with a stick. He perceptualized that a rotating magnetic field could be used instead of the classic practice of having the magnetic poles hanging on the rotor.
Meanwhile, he accepted a position at a Continental Edison Company, which had recently been started in Paris. He started off installing lighting systems in major European countries, but the managers noticed his talents right away. They realized that the man was unquestionably capable of doing more complicated work like designing & building dynamos and motors. He was soon traveling throughout Europe fixing problems at Edison’s branches. During the same time, he also demonstrated his newly completed AC induction motor to potential investors, who failed to understand its value at the time.
In 1884, he was offered a job at Edison Machine Works in New York City. With his luggage and money stolen during the trip, he only arrives at New York with just four cents in his pocket, a few poems, and a couple of remnants of his belongings. Not being able to afford to lose another day, he jumps right into work as soon as he arrives. He is said to have worked on various avenues. Some of the significant few include the repairing of dynamos that powered a ship named Oregon, installing and repairing incandescent arc lamps, reassembling DC generators, and the designing of 24 different types of machines that became standards, replacing original Edison designs.
Edison, a brilliant marketer and astute businessman who was able to commercialize inventions and turn them into viable businesses, was amazed by the man’s work. However, the proposition of the AC power system to the general public would have meant people will no longer pay extra money to Edison’s company to power their homes with DC. Fearing the consequences of being thrown out of business, Edison never wanted to hear a word of the man’s AC concepts. But the man was still, Edison’s cream of the crop employee.
Nonetheless, being the visionary and prolific inventor, the man was so absorbed in bringing about his new inventions. He was very keen and headstrong about proposing the AC power system to the world. He had quite reasonable reasons to do so. According to him, the DC power system was unsuitable to power large regions. To address this problem although, with his AC power system was supposedly be a piece of cake. The man was well ahead of his time but there was hardly anybody who had faith in him, let alone invest. Amidst all these discrepancies, he continued to work at Edison’s company. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing anymore.
At one point, assuming the man wouldn’t really be able to do it, Edison’s company promised to offer him $50,000 if he could improve the designs of Edison’s motors and generators. But when he did present a solution, they refused to pay him up saying, “You don’t understand our American humor”. Regardless of how it played out, the man quit and set off to form his own Electric company the following year 1885. The investors that approached him asked him to develop an improved arc lighting system. At the completion of it, the investors decided to take the company and all his patents, which they could do because he had assigned the patents to the company in exchange for stocks. So, in the end, he was forced out of the company and was left with nothing but worthless stock certificates. It was quite the downfall for him. Having lost everything, he had lived for his entire life, he took up a job digging ditches just to survive and get by the day.
Two years later, he was introduced to Alfred Brown who agreed to fund the man’s laboratory in exchange for his patents on a fifty-fifty basis. The man’s fortunes began to change. He patented the AC motor and his paper “A New-System of Alternate-Current motors and transformers” was read at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at Columbia University, in New York.
The exhibit caught the attention of George Westinghouse, a major player in the electric market who understood the value of the AC motor as it is. He immediately recognized that this was exactly what was needed to compete against Edison’s DC System. At this proposition, the man licenses the patents for the AC motor to Westinghouse in return for $60,000 of money in stock and royalties. He was also hired as a consultant by Westinghouse for $2,000 a month.
With the foundations laid quite strong on the Westinghouse team’s end, the mighty war of currents began. Edison tried hard to discredit their findings. He began taking extreme measures to stand up for his DC power system. Once, he financed the electric chair that worked on AC to demonstrate how deadly it was. The chair was used to sentence criminals to death, proving the dangers of the new technology. Edison’s company also publicly tortured animals to prove their point. In 1903, they electrocuted a circus elephant named Topsy and produced a film about it called Electrocuting the Elephant.
Despite Edison’s schemes, good things were happening for Westinghouse & his partner. At the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, they underbid Edison and his newly formed company General Electric. For the 27 million people who attended, it was clear that AC would power the future. Lucky for those who believed, our lives, without a doubt, have become dependent upon a bewildering amount of technology that was once only a dream of a man who never gave up. Indeed, some of that technology is so pervasive that we have forgotten that it is even technology. We have forgotten so much that we are unaware that some man had to fight his entire life just so that we could live the cozy life we do now.
Perhaps that’s one reason why so many of us have forgotten the name of the Serbian-born inventor Nikola Tesla. Yes, you read right. Modern society is the way it is now, thanks to him. And thanks to great inventors of our time like Elon Musk, people are starting to learn more about the man who inspired the company, Tesla. A man whose inventions have powered the entire planet.
Tesla’s statue can still be found at Niagara Falls today. This was where he built the world’s first alternating current hydroelectric power station which became a massive success and helped light up the town of Buffalo, New York.
Tesla’s story wasn’t as happy of an ending as you might have thought it was going to be. Edison’s schemes created a bad public image for Westinghouse’s company spurring chaos. The company ran out of money and eventually went into debt. In a despairing shot to save the company, Westinghouse goes to Tesla hoping he would reduce his royalties. Being so compelled with compassion for his friend, he ripped up his contract as gratitude to Westinghouse for believing in him when no one else would.
Tesla willingly walked away from millions in royalties. In return, Westinghouse made a payment to Tesla to obtain the rights to use his AC patents forever. With that money, Tesla became financially independent and set up a series of laboratories in New York. He held over 300 patents in his entire life and many of which were creations from after he set up his laboratories.
A few of his remarkable developments included an early version of neon lighting, the Tesla turbine which was a bladeless turbine for vehicles, he also pioneered x-ray technology by experimenting with radiation. Another stand-out invention was one of the first remote controls. In 1898, he controlled a miniature boat at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was so far ahead of its time that the crowd thought he was using magic to make it move.
The Tesla coil, a device that can produce large amounts of high voltage electricity, was one sensational invention by him. With its development, Tesla discovered he could send and receive powerful radio signals when they resonated at the same frequency. He was getting ready to broadcast his first radio signal when disaster struck, again. A fire destroyed his lab in 1895 and he lost years and years of his work. Thus, Tesla couldn’t apply for a patent for the radio until two years later. At the same time Tesla was working on the radio, an Italian Entrepreneur Guglielmo Marconi was also working on the same in England. He tried to acquire patent rights in the U.S but was turned down because it was very similar to Tesla’s version.
Nonetheless, things changed when Marconi was able to send the world’s first transatlantic radio message in 1901 using 17 of Tesla’s patents. This captured Edison’s interest and he threw his financial support behind Marconi. Tesla had no issue with Marconi’s achievements until 1904. During the year, the U.S patent office suddenly changed its mind and awarded Marconi the patent for inventing the radio. There was never been given a reason for this decision, though some records mention, it could have been the powerful financial backing Marconi received. Marconi went on to win the Nobel prize in Physics in 1911 which was only possible due to Tesla’s work. Tesla was infuriated and sued Marconi to correct the injustice caused. The case dragged on in the U.S Supreme court for years and was only ruled in favor of Tesla as “The Father of Radio”, a few months after his death.
Using his findings of the Tesla coil, he also obsessed with bringing wireless communication to the world and built a huge wireless transmission station in Long Island, New York. It was called the ill-fated World-Wide wireless system or more commonly, the Wardenclyffe Tower. He imagined a world where he could send and receive messages wirelessly. However, financial backers did not have enough faith in his project. Hence, they pulled out and banked on Marconi’s radio invention instead. This left Tesla in financial ruin. He had no choice but to abandon his dream project in 1905. Eventually, he lost Wardenclyffe Tower to foreclosure.
Tesla’s life began going in a downhill spiral. He lived his last decade in the New Yorker Hotel beginning in 1933. Westinghouse Corporation hired him as a consultant with the agreement to pay his monthly rental expenses for the rest of his life. Following his taxicab accident in 1937, his back was severely wrenched and three of his ribs were broken in the process. Even so, he never sought medical attention, and consequently, he never fully recovered from the incident. He soon became a bedridden recluse preferring the company of pigeons to people, even growing to love one in particular. Sadly, he became more and more deluded and demented with each passing day.
By the time he reached his eighties, Tesla’s genius had all but completely given way to madness. He was no ordinary man. The love he had for poetry articulated his creativity and imagination, due to which we enjoy the luxuries we do now. He wanted to change the world and he did. The world we are living in was a dream, he once dreamt for us. He may be dead, but his legacy lives on and will continue to live on in the devices all around us. – Written by Crishmi Costa.