Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in what is now modern day Croatia, Tesla is most famous for his influence in introducing AC power, and by extension his famous clashes with Edison, the leading exponent of DC power.
In 1895 Tesla opened the first hydroelectric power station at Niagara Falls, securing the dominance of multiple phase AC power, which is now prevalent the world over. Another cornerstone of electrical engineering; the induction motor, was also made practically realisable by Tesla in 1883.
The young Nikola Tesla went to university in Graz, at the Austrian Polytechnic, and according to university records dropped out in the first term of his third year to go and work as an assistant engineer. During this time he severed contact with friends and family, leading some to believe he had drowned! In reality he was working in Marburg, though didn’t stay there for long after suffering a breakdown. Making a return to his studies in 1880, he studied in Prague at the Charles-Ferdinand University, though managed only a term before dropping out again.
His troubled mental state was accompanied by brilliant ideas, which he described as coming to him in a flash. Detailed depictions of his inventions were held in his mind, as opposed to on paper as diagrams. In the two years following his abortive studies, he went to work in Budapest at the national telephone company, where he developed more ideas, including a signal amplifier.
Making his move to Paris in 1882 to work for the Continental Edison Company, Tesla developed a reputation as a brilliant engineer, and on his arrival in New York two years later, was recruited to work for Edison. Dispute over alleged promises of payment in return for redesigning Edison’s DC motor drove Tesla to quit. Working as a manual labourer for a year, he then went on to found his first company, the Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. Over the next few years he embarked on a veritable spree of inventing, from a brushless AC induction motor, to X-ray imaging, to wireless energy transmission in 1891.
From these inventions, Tesla’s vision became grander, as he proposed worldwide wireless power transmission, as well as the electrolaser. Importantly, it was in his late 30s that his long term rivalry with Edison sparked into the “war of currents”, a dispute over the adoption of AC or DC power on a national scale. Eventually Tesla proved the superiority of AC power transfer, which is used throughout the world today. Tesla also began to experiment more with radio communication, developing remote controlled boats in 1898, and then moving on to Colorado Springs in 1899 to carry out further wireless power transmission experiments.
Later in life, Tesla became more eccentric, and with extreme obsessive compulsive disorder began to be regarded as a “mad scientist” in the press. His final patent, received in 1928 for a vertical takeoff aircraft, was followed by years of work on a “dynamic theory of gravity”, which he never published. In his final years, living in the Hotel New Yorker, he also began to develop a plan for a particle beam weapon dubbed a “death ray”. Tesla died at the age of 86, leaving behind vast swathes of research that were quickly declared to be top secret by the FBI.