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Top 11 Things You Didn't Know About Nikola Tesla

November 18, 2013 - 1:48pm


Nikola Tesla in or around 1890, when the inventor was in his mid-30s. | Photo is in the public domain. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Nikola Tesla in or around 1890, when the inventor was in his mid-30s. | Photo is in the public domain. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

This week on, we’re revisiting the storied rivalry between two of history’s most important energy-related inventors and engineers: Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Check back each day to learn more about their lives, their inventions and how their contributions are still impacting the way we use energy today. Support your favorite with the hashtags #teamedison and #teamtesla on social media, or cast your vote on our website. And be sure to submit questions about the inventors for our live Google+ Hangout with Tesla and Edison experts, happening Thursday, Nov. 21, at 12:30 p.m. EST.

11. Tesla was born on July 10, 1856, in the Austrian Empire, now Croatia. He was the fourth of five children. After a checkered academic career in Europe, he worked as a telegraph drafter and electrician before moving to the United States to work for Thomas Edison in 1884.

10. If you couldn’t imagine life without your TV remote, thank Nikola Tesla for making it possible. Tesla invented, predicted or contributed to development of hundreds of technologies that play big parts in our daily lives -- like the remote control, neon and fluorescent lights, wireless transmission, computers, smartphones, laser beams, x-rays, robotics and, of course, alternating current, the basis of our present-day electrical system.

9. Innovation runs in Tesla’s blood. Tesla once wrote: “My mother was an inventor of the first order and would, I believe, have achieved great things had she not been so remote from modern life and its multi fold opportunities. She invented and constructed all kinds of tools and devices and wove the finest designs from thread which was spun by her.” He credited both his parents’ influence for his success.

8. Tesla lived in New York City for 60 years, and remnants of his time there still remain. The corner of 40th Street and 6th Avenue in downtown Manhattan has been designated “Nikola Tesla Corner” -- with its own street sign -- because of its proximity to Tesla’s laboratory at 8 West 40th Street, where he worked in 1900 while building his now-infamous Tesla Tower on Long Island. At nearby Bryant Park Place, a plaque commemorates the Engineer’s Club, which awarded Tesla the Edison Medal on May 18, 1917. During his later years, Tesla fed pigeons in nearby Bryant Park.

7. Tesla received his U.S. citizenship in 1891, the same year he invented the Tesla coil. Tesla coils are a type of electrical circuit used to generate low-current, high-voltage electricity. Today, they’re widely used in radios, televisions and other electronics, and can be used for wireless transmission. A coil at Tesla’s experimental station in Colorado Springs, Colorado, created 30-foot sparks that could be seen from 10 miles away.

6. During the war of the currents, alternating current (AC) -- favored by Tesla -- battled for wide acceptance with direct current (DC), favored by Edison. At stake was the basis for the entire nation’s electrical system. Edison launched a campaign against AC, claiming it was dangerous and could kill people; Tesla countered by publicly subjecting himself to 250,000-volt shocks to demonstrate AC’s safety. Ultimately, alternating current won the fight.

5. Tesla designed the first hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls, New York, harnessing the power of the waterfalls he had marveled at since childhood. Construction took three years and power first flowed to homes in nearby Buffalo on Nov. 16, 1896. A statue of Tesla on Goat Island overlooks the falls today.

4. “Teslas,” a unit used to measure the strength of magnetic fields, are named after Tesla. Another namesake is Tesla Motors, the electric car start-up, in homage to Tesla’s role in the invention of the electric motor.

3. In 1901, Tesla received financial backing from J. Pierpont Morgan to build his Wardenclyffe laboratory in Shoreham, Long Island. The facility included the “Tesla Tower,” a 185-foot high structure with a 65-foot copper dome transmitter on the top. Tesla’s vision was to use the tower to transmit signals and free, unlimited wireless electricity all over the world. Thanks to Tesla's early work, wireless transfer of energy is finally being realized today -- from wireless chargers for electric toothbrushes and smartphones, to wireless electric vehicle charging, a technology being researched at the Energy Department’s National Labs.

2. Tesla was not a savvy businessman and suffered financially, despite his achievements. He lost financial backing from Morgan, who felt he couldn’t profit from Tesla’s wireless electricity concept, and sold his assets to make up for dual foreclosures on Wardenclyffe. The property was later sold to a film processing company. In 1917, the U.S. government demolished Tesla’s partially completed tower because it worried German spies would use it to intercept communications during World War I.

1. His long-abandoned Long Island laboratory will soon become a museum. Earlier this year, a non-profit organization raised enough money to purchase the long-abandoned Wardenclyffe. The group plans to restore the building and turn it into a Tesla museum and science education center.