The Unseen Story

Born in 1856 in what is now Croatia, Tesla got his passion for invention not from his father — a Serbian Orthodox priest — but from his mother, a homemaker who invented her own appliances. Obsessed with electricity, Tesla decided as a child that he wanted to move to America and harness the power of Niagara Falls.

By the age of 27, he had built a prototype of the induction motor while working as an electrical engineer for the Continental Edison Company in Strassbourg. Unable to interest anyone in Europe in the device, he accepted a job at the Thomas Edison Company in New York. There he discovered the inefficiency of Edison’s direct-current system and began espousing for a shift to alternating current. Edison had already invested heavily in direct-current infrastructure and didn’t want to change course, but that didn’t stop Tesla from experimenting with alternating current, racking up 40 related patents in the process. He eventually resigned from Edison and found financial backers to start the Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing Company, a venture that ended in disaster when his investors unceremoniously ousted Tesla, keeping his patents.

Discouraged but undeterred, Tesla was digging ditches for $2 a day, but used his evenings to stage experiments and write papers about his discoveries. He eventually met new investors — Alfred S. Brown, a Western Union superintendent, and Charles F. Peck, an attorney — who agreed to set up a lab for Tesla in Manhattan and to split proceeds from any patents evenly between Tesla, the company, and a fund earmarked for ongoing research and development. By July 1888 they had inked a licensing deal with George Westinghouse, and set up a consulting gig for Tesla that netted the inventor the equivalent to $52,000 a month in today’s dollars, more than enough for Tesla to afford his penchant for fancy hotels and fine clothing, and to continue with his experiments. Tired of the ever-present threat that Edison would take over the company and wrest Tesla’s patents away, Westinghouse eventually bought them outright for $216,000 (an outrageous amount of money at the time). Meanwhile, Tesla was on to his new invention: the Tesla Coil, an electrical resonant transformer circuit used to produce high-voltage, low-current, high frequency alternating-current electricity, which enabled everything from wireless electricity to X-rays to radio and telegraph transmissions.

Despite his success, Tesla continued to relentlessly pursue the next big idea, cycling through several boom and bust periods along the way. In 1895 he realized his childhood dream, designing the world’s first hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls. A few years later he moved from his beloved Manhattan to the middle of nowhere, Colorado Springs, so he’d have room to stage massive high-voltage, high-frequency experiments. He received his last patent in 1928, at the age of 72, for a biplane capable of taking off vertically — it’s the earliest known design of a turbine engine in aircraft.