Meet Nikola Tesla: Inventor of the Induction Motor, Polyphase Electricity, Fluorescent Lighting, and the Tesla Coil

Sam Sattel Sam Sattel January 20, 2021

4 min read

Nikola Tesla, pictured at a younger and later age. Image courtesy of Vintage News Daily.

A holder of 308 patents across 27 countries and five continents, Nikola Tesla, helped revolutionize the electrical world. The Serbian-American inventor’s time with Thomas Edison and Westinghouse gave rise to some of his greatest creations—eventually leading to his own electric company: Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. How did Tesla’s scientific journey progress? Follow along as we trace Tesla’s career arc from start to finish.

Education and Immigration

Nikola Tesla jump-started his education at the Technical University of Graz in Styria, Austria, while living within the Austro-Hungarian Empire before spending a year at the University of Prague. He studied math and physics while enrolled. Tesla’s first foray into inventing was actually a spontaneous one. He conceived the brushless AC motor while on a walk—a design reliant on rotating electromagnets. This revelation, and continued creativity, landed him a job with the Continental Edison Company in Paris. 

At just 26 years old, while working at the Central Telegraph Office in Budapest, Tesla is reported to have developed the principles of the first rotating magnetic field, which is an idea that is still used today.

Tesla soon immigrated to the United States after spending time repairing DC power plants. His 1884 arrival in New York birthed a work opportunity alongside Thomas Edison. Edison promised Tesla $50,000 if he could craft improved designs for his DC (direct current) dynamos. When Tesla later delivered, Edison shrugged off those achievements, instead of chiding Tesla for his naivety and, some believe, effectively stealing his intellectual property. 

Nikola left the company after these events unfolded. This major development and others separated Tesla from inventors like Edison—the latter group becoming equally renowned for their profiteering and innovation. Edison and Tesla’s relationship sparked many debates, including one over who actually invented the light bulb and which electric power system would be more widely adopted: Edison’s DC (direct current) or Tesla’s AC (alternating current)?

What Tesla lacked in business acumen he made up for with altruism. Many who have studied him assert that Tesla’s efforts were centered on bettering the global quality of life

Partnering with Westinghouse

Despite unsuccessfully launching the Tesla Electric Light Company, Tesla gave his investors promise in his work on AC currents. He continued to earn over 30 patents from 1887 to 1888 with this financial boost. Tesla even presented his advancement to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Nikola Tesla soon found the resources he needed after catching George Westinghouse’s (notable rival of Thomas Edison) eye during his lecture. 

Tesla subsequently worked under Westinghouse, benefitting from funding, patent licensing, and finally having his own workspace. Nikola enjoyed royalty rights for a time before Westinghouse’s own backers forced him to renege. Undeterred, Tesla and Westinghouse forged ahead. They later unveiled their motor-and-lighting technology at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

The late 1880s and 1890s as a whole saw a flurry of inventions emerge from Tesla’s laboratory: 

Tesla sits and takes notes while his Tesla coil operates. Image courtesy of The Conversation.

Inventions Meet Resistance

Tesla became known for his environmental stances, opining that companies in his time were consuming too many of the world’s resources. Many of Tesla’s electrical inventions constituted a push for renewable energy. This concept was ahead of its time—flying in the face of Manhattan, New York City financial powerhouse J.P. Morgan and energy barons’ capitalistic ambitions. 

Tesla’s goal was to transmit power over long distances, without the need for fossil fuels. Many of his projects focused on extracting energy from the ground and sky. Accordingly, his Wardenclyffe Tower lab was topped with an antenna, which he hoped could transmit electrical energy and signals across the Atlantic. It was later closed and demolished by the U.S. government during World War I for national-security purposes.

Later Life and Advancements

Following the foreclosure of what later became known as ‘Tesla Tower,’ Nikola Tesla returned to New York. Low on funding yet full of inventive prowess, he continued to dabble in new discoveries throughout the 20th century—though none would match the grandeur of their predecessors. 

Tesla’s inventive genius gradually gave way to mental health declination in his later years. Past trauma and old age took their toll. Tesla’s energy and productivity thus faded. He passed away in his New York hotel room on January 7th, 1943. 

Tesla left behind a staggering legacy. His advancements in AC power are some of the most crucial to date. Current polyphase electrical systems owe their existence to Tesla’s original designs. Nikola Tesla’s work transcended his time period and thus remains a critical foundation for innovations in the electrical realm. In addition to his electrical advancements, Tesla’s legacy continues with the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia and the Tesla Science Center in Shoreham, New York.

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