Serbian-American inventor and physicist, Nikola Tesla is described as a “genius who lit the world” by the Tesla Memorial Society of New York. He was a visionary in the field of scientific development who was recognised for being far ahead of his contemporaries.

Early Life

Born on 10th July 1856, in Smiljan, Lika – modern-day Croatia – he was the son of a priest, Milutin Tesla, who was skilled at making mechanical appliances and craft tools. His mother, Djuka, invented household appliances.

While studying physics and mathematics at the Polytechnic Institute of Graz, Austria and the University of Prague, Nikola specialised in physics and mathematics and became fascinated by electricity.

He started work as an electrical engineer for a Budapest telephone company in 1881, when he began to study the rotating magnetic field – the key principle to operating an alternating-current motor. He then joined Paris-based Continental Edison Company, where he designed dynamos.

AC System

Nikola built a prototype of the induction motor in 1883 in Strasbourg but was unable to gain interest in Europe to develop his device, so in 1884, he moved to New York to work for inventor Thomas Edison.

Nikola looked into improving Edison’s line of dynamos, claiming the direct current electrical powerhouses were inefficient. He experimented, using the polyphase alternating current (AC) system instead. He developed the alternating current system of motors, generators and transformers and successfully applied for 40 US patents on the system. Entrepreneur and engineer, George Westinghouse, bought the patents to supply the AC system across America.

Electric Motor

In 1887, Nikola developed an induction motor that ran on alternating current, creating massive benefits for long-distance, high-voltage transmission. Its polyphase current generated a rotating magnetic field that turned the motor. The electric motor was patented in May 1888, featuring a self-starting design.

In 1888, he devised a system to power Pittsburgh’s streetcars and was also hired as a consultant at the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company’s laboratories in the city.

Tesla Coil

In 1889, Nikola travelled to Paris for the Exposition Universelle exhibition, where he learned of Heinrich Hertz’ experiments between 1886 and 1888 into electromagnetic radiation and radio waves. He decided to explore this more thoroughly and in 1891 invented the Tesla coil, which is widely used today in televisions and radios.

He also gained United States citizenship the same year. His discoveries also include the fluorescent light, wireless communications, the laser beam, remote control, the wireless transmission of electrical energy, Tesla’s turbines, robotics and the vertical take-off aircraft.

Lightning Experiments

It was Nikola’s experiments with thunder and lightning that gained him the reputation of “mad scientist”. In 1899, he began to experiment with high-frequency electricity and other phenomena at a purpose-built station at Colorado Springs.

Later Life

From 1905, Nikola’s friends began to fear he seemed depressed, eccentric and withdrawn. He became secretive about his discoveries and of those that he publicised, some seemed impossible to build.

However, in 1917, he described the principals of modern military radar in The Electrical Experimenter magazine. A similar design was successfully used to find aircraft and surface ships during World War II.

His final major scientific proposal in 1934 was for a charged particle beam weapon – a weapon of mass destruction. He tried to interest the British government without success. However, decades later, during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, both world powers spent time and money trying to develop such a device.

After his death at the age of 86, on 7th January 1943, Nikola’s technical papers mysteriously went missing and the FBI impounded the rest of his belongings. At the end of WWII, his papers about particle beam weaponry also disappeared. Mystery surrounds the incident to this day and speculation is rife that he had invented a secret weapon that was kept from the public for reasons of national security because the knowledge of such a weapon was too powerful for anyone to ever possess.

Nikola Tesla’s experiments – particularly his spectacular man-made thunder and lightning – are a fascinating piece of history. Today, however, the threat of lightning strikes caused by nature is very real. Lightning Strike supplies and installs reliable lightning defence and electrical earthing systems across the UK. For details of how our fully trained engineers can assure the best lightning protection for your property, please contact us.

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