top of page

Barrie Blake-Coleman

Nikola Tesla -

Inventing a Legend

Part 1

They called him the Croatian Edison, though in fact he was of Serbian stock. Certainly he had the inventive genius of an Edison and had Nikola Tesla grown up with a different disposition he could well have equalled the accomplishments of Thomas Edison...


Indeed, in no few respects Tesla was more gifted than Edison but, as it was, Tesla became a contradiction and never realised his true abilities or standing.  In middle life he took on the role of the gentleman scientist, and for all his earlier bright pragmatism and utilitarian ways became somewhat vain and enigmatic.  To some he appeared overly affected, with a pride that seemingly approached narcissism.  Despite his many achievements and early prominence, he was to be virtually forgotten by the laity and his peers for the greater part of his later life.


Armed with a formidable intellect Tesla had, in his formative years, a rare creative genius and was as capable a theoretician as he was an inventor and engineer.  In this first respect he was to be a long way ahead of his time and of his contemporaries.  His development of the rotating magnetic field for AC generation and the induction motor (polyphase induction system) flew in the face of engineering and theoretical orthodoxy and was a technological milestone which gave the world its modern era of alternating current distribution.  Another landmark was Tesla's demonstration of long range radio

transmission and radio telemetry before any other workers.  He invented the first fluorescent tube, a durable and very efficient inductively coupled incandescent light and unbeknown to himself was probably the first to demonstrate laser action.  Importantly, he had in one series of experiments all the elements of a cathode ray tube and a form of electron microscope.  Tesla dabbled in other areas, he developed a bladeless (molecular drive) steam turbine and held patents in thermo-magnetic motors and pumps.  But his greatest invention was Tesla and the Tesla legend.

In this we can see that he lived to an ideal, an ideal which could never have wholly endeared him to his contemporaries nor those who were looking for a hero.  Yet, Tesla had always meant to be a hero.  As a young man he formed a passionate belief in his own destiny and had set himself a role model which some described as the 'Tesla Superman'.  The role fitted comfortably around Tesla but was often lost on others.




Nikola Tesla was born on the 'stroke of midnight' between the 9th and 10th of July 1856, a second son to the Rev. Milutin Tesla and his wife Djouka who lived in the hamlet of Similjan which was then in Lika, a border province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The family were to have five children, two boys and three girls.  When only five, Dana, the eldest brother, was killed in an accident.  It meant that Nikola became the centre of the family's hopes and ambitions and he had no intention of exempting himself from the responsibility.  Much of his inspiration came from his mother; untutored and practically illiterate, she was nevertheless resourceful and highly inventive.


Nikola grew to be very tall with piercing dark eyes that lightened as he grew beyond his teens.  He had jet black hair and unusually large thumbs.  He developed a love of nature and the ascetic, and of wildlife, especially birds.  Later this was to become an embarrassing peculiarity.


Attending first the Real Gymnasium at Gospic, and later, at fifteen, the Higher Real Gymnasium at Karlovac (Carlstadt) Nikola began a very thorough education.  These seminal years were ones of achievement for him.  He learnt, with some fluency, four languages including English.  He was constantly experimenting with home-made apparatus and had developed a vacuum motor at the age of 11.  The local town soon came to admire his abilities.  He was often approached, even at his tender age, to carry-out specialist tasks (such as helping to catalogue the books in the local library, a duty which was beyond the ability of anyone else in the town).


In 1875, at the age of 19, Tesla was admitted to the Polytechnic Institute at Graz in Austria to study electrical engineering.  Here, his undeviating, coldly objective and single minded devotion to his studies was counter-productive and although he excelled in his first term exams (passing in nine subjects with maximum marks, four more than was required) the rigours of his early morning study regimen badly effected his health.  Unbeknown to him, Nikola's professor had written to the Rev. Tesla asking him to remove his son from the Polytechnic because he feared that the boy would kill himself from overwork.  At the same time Nikola was, himself, already aware that he was running a dangerous course and on his return to the Polytechnic he decided to concentrate primarily on physics, mathematics and mechanics.

Later, in his second year, the Polytechnic received a Gramme motor, a direct current device which could be used either as a dynamo or an electric motor. Nikola was impressed, but felt that the machines principle disadvantage lay in the sparking that arose from the carbon brushes which contacted the revolving commutator.  Realising that the need to reverse the magnetic field was fundamental to any motor or generator, and that this, and the use of direct current, were the incompatible factors which demanded the crude field reversal system provided by a brushed commutator, Tesla was prompted to undertake a re-appraisal.  He immediately saw that alternating current would eliminate the commutator.  Unfortunately, electricity was always of the unidirectional kind (DC) at that time and he found it impossible to demonstrate his theory.


Confiding in his mentor, Professor Poeschi, Nikola provided a written and mathematical basis for his theory.  Poeschi appeared to be delighted and at the next lecture gave over the whole period to Tesla's ideas.


Flattered at first, Tesla was to undergo a terrible experience.  Poeschi ridiculed the whole theory in front of the class, demolishing each and every proposition in Tesla's thesis leaving the most wounding statement to the last - "Mr. Tesla will accomplish many things - but he most certainly will never do this!"


Initially crushed by the shear authority and credibility of his teacher, Tesla at first allowed himself to be weakened in his resolve.  But deep down he could not accept that his ideas were wrong.  He realised that Poeschi had simply illustrated that he could not himself show how an AC system might be achieved, not that it was impossible.  Nikola, with more time in his second year (as we know, he had been an 'intellectual glutton' in his first) allowed himself time to consider his field reversal ideas.  He didn't need to build models, his powerful eidetic memory and ability to 'step into' his thought experiments, with all the mathematical symbolism reduced to abstract sense terms, meant that he was constantly revising his design criteria.


He was still actively seeking solutions when he graduated from the Polytechnic and was admitted to the University of Prague in the Autumn of 1878.  However, uncharacteristically, he decided not to continue his studies immediately but to improve his finances by taking an engineering job.  The money he saved paid for the first year of university studies but, more importantly, some money was available to build experimental AC motor models.  However, his father’s death directly following Nikola's first year at University, a certain financial embarrassment, and the need to explore the electrical world, left him deciding not continue his studies to graduate level.  The decision was made easier because by this time Tesla felt that his tutors could not teach him anymore.

The Solution


A friend of the Tesla family, Puskas, was a partner in the new Budapest Telephone Project.  Through Puskas, Tesla found work with the programme and befriended an engineer called Antony Szigeti.  It was Szigeti who, walking in the city park with Tesla in February 1882, witnessed Tesla's sudden revelation regarding the solution to the AC motor problem.  While reciting from Goeth's Faust (to their mutual amusement - Tesla was word perfect) Tesla suddenly froze, became absolutely rigid and unresponsive.  Alarmed, Szigeti tried to shake the tall figure of Tesla into life but he was ignored.  Suddenly, Tesla turned to look directly into the sun and became hypnotised by it.  "Watch me…watch me reverse it!" Tesla blurted out.  "Watch, I stop it, I start it...see, there is no sparking!"  Szigeti tried to calm Tesla thinking he had gone mad.  "You don't understand" Tesla said coming out of his trance "It is the alternating motor - I have solved the problem."

The idea was elegant - instead of attempting to contrive a single variable field alternating field from direct current (through a commutator and stator, effecting a rotatable armature) a method which had failed other experimenters, Tesla intended to use a single alternating (AC) source which was diverted through separate or tapped field coils and time delayed in the different circuits through a capacitor.  This involved three field positions at 120 degree intervals.  The position of the coils; the fact that the AC supply built up the field at different times effectively resulted in a rotating field front.  The effect on a closed cage-wound armature was to induce an opposing field which was constantly running against the oncoming stator fields.  The result was an opposing force on the armature which produced rotary motion.  Later, the ability to supply three phase AC would simplify matters.


Over the next two months Tesla worked out a range of AC motors, alternators and transformers for a complete AC system.  But he had no resource to pursue any of the schemes.  By the time he reached Paris in February 1883, with a recommendation from Puskas to the Continental Edison Company, he had carried his ideas for more than 12 months.  The supremely confident Tesla became easily the outstanding man in the group working on Edison dynamos and lighting systems.  He was defiant and lofty but un-challengeable - there really wasn't a problem he couldn't resolve in conventional electrical engineering.  He was as useful with his hands as he was with his mind.

Strassburg - The Definitive Demonstration


Sent to Strassburg to trouble-shoot an Edison station Tesla took with him some materials to try his ideas out.  Working in the Strassburg machine shop - he worked without drawings - he had no need of them - Tesla machined every piece necessary to make an alternator.  Working to exacting tolerances he constructed the alternator and then he built his motor.  Neither came out as a surprise to him - what he saw on the bench was exactly what he had visualised in his mind’s eye for many months.  He said later that when he switched in the alternator, and then closed the circuit switch on the motor, he had no doubts or fears.  As the motor leapt into silent running, and reversed direction as Tesla reversed the phase, he was pleased but in no way surprised - after all he had seen it working already in his mind’s eye!


Returning to Paris he disclosed that he had re-designed the voltage regulators at Strassburg and asked for an honorarium for rights to a very novel design.  The company sidestepped the request and then refused.  At the same time Tesla's demonstration to local businessmen and city worthies of his AC system had no discernible effect.  Dismayed by this turn of events he resigned his position.  Only one man appeared to sympathise with Tesla.  This was Charles Batchelor, Thomas Edison's closest associate and in Paris to develop the Edison European business.  He urged Tesla to go to the United States to join the New York based Edison Electric Light Company.


Tesla arrived in Manhattan in the summer of 1884 with four cents, a letter of commendation to Edison from Batchelor, a book of his own poems, some technical articles he had written and evidence of his mathematical prowess in the form of a solution to a difficult integral.  He also carried bruises and cuts, the result of him helping to subdue a mutiny among crew members of the ship on which he had just arrived.  He began walking to find the address of a long emigrated family friend who had agreed to house him.  On the way he was timely in coming across a broken dynamo which the owner gladly paid him 20 dollars to repair.  Tesla was saved.



Tesla admired Thomas Edison immediately and had cause to wonder whether his years spent in formal education had been worth it.  Edison, only nine years senior to Tesla, was essentially untutored but had an amazing insight and understanding of his field.  Yet, as time passed, Tesla encountered Edison's technical deficiencies and became thankful that he had invested time in his studies.  The Edisonian method, essentially trial and error, conflicted with Tesla's careful calculation of everything.  Furthermore, Edison was a defiant, dyed in the wool, direct current enthusiast whereas Tesla, the primary advocate of alternating current, was diametrically opposite.


For a time Tesla carried out routine duties but a crisis on the steam vessel Oregon which had installed Edison generators and lighting meant some fast trouble-shooting for Tesla.  So effectively did he eliminate the problem that Edison, walking the New York streets with the now returned Batchelor, found Tesla meandering back to the Edison workshop at 5 a.m. the next morning.  "Here is our Parisian running round nights" said Edison to Batchelor implying that Tesla was shirking his duties.  On hearing that Tesla had actually finished the job Edison exclaimed "He's a damn good man."


But the respect was short lived. Tesla recommended to Edison a radical re-design of the standard Edison dynamos.  Edison promised $50,000 if the ideas worked but after months of sustained calculation and redevelopment Tesla found that the improved machines were not going to reward him.  Edison claimed that his promise had been a joke - a throwaway line.  After all, Tesla got a salary didn't he?  Tesla then offered to throw in his own inventions if Edison would honour his pledge but Edison declined - he had no need of AC systems!  Tesla pressed on - how about a raise in his salary then, from $18 to $25?  Again Edison declined and Tesla 'with an ego that reduced Edison's to a mite' walked out.  It was one of the biggest mistakes of Edison's life, and the same was almost true of Tesla.




At first Tesla seemed to have a future with a small consortium of business men who, in late 1885, backed him to develop an arc lighting system.  But they had no interest in Tesla's ideas about AC supply and application.  Though the arc lighting went into manufacture Tesla found himself marginalised by the consortium and eventually forced out from the new company.  He was too naive in business matters to understand how he had been ousted, but ousted he was and without a claim on the company of any legal value.


The most miserable period in Tesla's life now began.  For over 12 months, from spring 1886 to summer 1887, Tesla nearly starved.  With no income he took any menial job able to pay for bread but he seldom slept in a bed and had to endure casual employment ranging from ditch digging to sewer clearance.  He later said that his misery was compounded because he resented the utter waste of his abilities more than the personal degradation.  His education, he said, seemed a mockery.


By good fortune Tesla's ditch digging foreman, also in very reduced circumstances himself, and working below his station, recognised Tesla's obvious intellect and education.  The foreman still had some connections, in particular a wealthy investor, A. K. Brown, and in April of 1887 Brown and an associate from Western Union financed the Tesla Electric Company at 33-35 South Fifth Street (West Broadway) in New York - not far from the Edison Company.


Still able to remember every single calculation, dimension and design feature of his alternating units Tesla rapidly produced and demonstrated single, two phase and ployphase systems.  He made no preliminary experiments - all his units worked first time.  Independent tests showed that each unit could outperform the best DC equivalents.


Attempting to obtain a single master patent on the whole composite principle, Tesla was dismayed to learn from his patent agents Curtis and Page that the patent office would not have it.  They refused the single 'omnibus' application and insisted on seven separate filings.  But the ideas were so novel that no prior art was found to create difficulties and all Tesla's patents were granted within six months.


A flurry of activity followed as small AC installations were sold or demonstrated by the Tesla Electric Co.  Tesla found himself the centre of attention. Invited to lecture at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers Tesla re-found his dignity and pride.  He was determined to do it right and the lecture, given on May 16 1886 has been described as a 'classic of the electrical engineering field'.  Tesla's spectacular lecture had one particular member of the audience totally absorbed.  This was George Westinghouse, inventor of the rail air-brake and founder of the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh.

Here was a man who had a distinct dislike for his rival Edison and resented Edison's business ethics and his unwarranted (so Westinghouse believed) reputation.  Westinghouse was already a powerful industrialist and after listening to Tesla he was immediately struck by the fact that at the core of what Tesla had said was the ability to transfer power over very long distances with little appreciable loss from, or investment in, the copper conductors.  AC made power transmission distances short and cheap.


The story of the final meeting in June 1888 between the tall, elegant Tesla and the stocky and bluntly spoken Westinghouse is well known.  Tesla recounted that after once again seeing his laboratory demonstration Westinghouse immediately offered $1,000,000 for the Tesla patents plus a royalty.  Unmoved, Tesla asked for $1 per horsepower.  Westinghouse carefully repeated Tesla's offer "A million cash plus one dollar per horsepower royalty."

"That is acceptable." Tesla said.

"Sold." said Westinghouse "You will receive a cheque and a contract in a few days."


The amount was a record for the time, though in all Westinghouse gained title to some 40 separate patents.  Nevertheless, Tesla preferred to see the transaction as simply the sale of a polyphase system - he was delighted.  Additionally, Tesla went to Pittsburgh on a very high salary for a year as a consultant to the Westinghouse Company.  But it turned out to be less of a smooth process than Tesla expected.  Westinghouse engineers wanted to operate on a higher frequency (133 cycles), Tesla insisted on 60 cycles but smaller machines were less efficient at these lower frequencies.  After a year some designs were still not resolved and Westinghouse himself tried to get Tesla to stay on, but he refused and in September of 1889 returned to his laboratory in New York.  Nevertheless, the Westinghouse development continued and Tesla was pleased to see that the 60 cycle standard he had insisted on had been adopted.


However, a deep embarrassment for George Westinghouse was to follow.  His offer to Tesla had been far too generous for his company's backers.  Needing to amalgamate a number of smaller interests in order to proceed, Westinghouse was told firmly that cash flow was going to be a problem and that the Tesla $1 royalty might jeopardise the company's future mergers.  Westinghouse strongly disputed the obvious stupidity of the ruling but was strongly overruled by his board and forced to agree to re-negotiate the terms   of the royalty with Tesla.  Westinghouse knew that given the Pittsburgh experience Tesla was unlikely to be conciliatory.


Yet at the meeting Tesla relented without argument.  After assurances from Westinghouse Tesla said "You have been my friend and you believed in me when others had no faith - you continue to support my polyphase system which is more important to me than money," with which Tesla tore up his contract.  It has been calculated that Tesla subsequently forfeited $12,000,000, yet this would not have materialised had Westinghouse been without the resource to expand the Tesla technology.  Likewise, it has been said that it also impeded the march of technology - years later Tesla was to find he had insufficient money to support his inventions.

Tesla's Birthplace - Similjan, (now) Croatia

Statue of Tesla, Niagara Falls

The young


Prague University

City Park Budapest - where Tesla had his AC 'vision'.

Charles Batchelor

Thomas Edison

Edison Machine Works, NY, at the time Tesla (not pictured) worked there

S.S. Oregon

Nikola Tesla in his prime

Tesla Light and Manufacturing Co. - Share Certificate, 1886

Westinghouse Electric Co., Pittsburgh, PA

George Westinghouse

Tesla AC Motor circa 1888

Tesla (Curtis & Page) Patent Drawing, 1896

bottom of page