Nikola Tesla’s Forgotten Inventions
He essentially invented the modern radio and arguably made more progress with electricity than Edison. He made early strides in the fields of robotics and computers. Some have even claimed he invented the 20th century. But perhaps most of all, Tesla demonstrated that there is such a thing as a noble inventor who is content just to have the opportunity to experiment in a lab, with little desire for money or acclaim. Unfortunately, this disinterest enabled his eventual downfall.
Tesla was born in what is now Croatia, the son of a reverend who was hell bent on pushing Tesla to become a member of the clergy. Yet, much of Tesla’s genius was actually a product of his mother, a housewife, who was said to be clever and inventive. Surprisingly, Tesla’s earliest signs of creativity may actually have come in the form of poetry, a hobby he kept up throughout his life, but Tesla the inventor emerged at a very early age as well.
“When he was five, he built a small waterwheel quite unlike those he had seen in the countryside. It was smooth, without paddles, yet it spun evenly in the current,” according to Tesla: Man Out of Time, a biography. However, many of his early attempts at inventing were failures, to say the least.
One time Tesla took apart all his grandfather’s clocks and tried to put them back together (failed); another time he tried to make an engine that was powered by bugs’ wings (failed and angered the bugs). And then there was the time he tried to fly… with an umbrella. From the biography:
Once he perched on the roof of the barn, clutching the family umbrella and hyperventilating on the fresh mountain breeze until his body felt light and the dizziness in his head convinced him he could fly. Plunging to earth, he lay unconscious and was carried off to bed by his mother.
In fact, Tesla later claimed to have nearly died many times in his youth, once nearly being “boiled alive in a vat of hot milk” and another time he “just missed being cremated.” A few years later, he was deathly sick from cholera, but in this case, Tesla used the sickness to his advantage. Tesla’s father was willing to do anything to console the boy, and realizing this, Tesla made his father promise to let him pursue engineering. So let that be a lesson to all those at odds with their parents: worse come to worse, you may just be able to wrestle their consent through pity.
Like many great thinkers, Tesla struggled a bit in school. According to the biography, he was nearly forced to repeat a grade because he had no interested in trying in the required drawing classes. Tesla’s other problem was what might be called the impossible standard. His older brother was killed in a a strange accident when Tesla was just seven. So for him and his parents, all of Tesla’s later accomplishments “seemed dull by comparison to the promise of the dead brother.” As Tesla later confessed, “I grew up with little confidence in myself.”
Tesla’s late teens were a bit chaotic. He apparently served a brief stint in the army and was in and out of school. He struggled to find work and gambled for money. At some point, he spent a year “wandering and dreaming” of fantastical inventions – a tube that would run underneath Atlantic and “shoot mail between the continents,” an “elevated ring around the equator” that would “employ some reactionary force that would make the ring hold still with relationship to the Earth [so that] travelers could climb aboard it [and the] Earth would race beneath them.”
Finally, he moved to Budapest where he got a job at the Central Telegraph Office. While there, he focused his mind on the scientific problem of the direct current machine, a motor that was widely in use at the time, but highly inefficient. One day, the answer to improving this machine came to him “like a flash of lightning” and he soon mapped out the design for what would become the world’s first alternating current motor. This machine would revolutionize the world, and bring Tesla to America where he met and challenged the giants like Edison.
But in the short term, this epiphany proved to Tesla that he was really destined to be an inventor. “It was a mental state of happiness about as complete as I have ever known in life,” he said later. “This was the one thing I wanted to be. I admired the work of artists, but to my mind they were only shadows and semblances. The inventor, I thought, gives the world creations which are palpable, which live and work.” Though Tesla had his breakthrough invention, he still had one big obstacle in front of him: he had to convince the world, or at least a few powerful people in it, that the invention was world building at all.
(If there is any doubt about his incredible accomplishments, just check out this long list of inventions Tesla patented.)