A Young Genius
Nikola Tesla (right) was born in Croatia in
1856 and, from infancy, had remarkable memory
and comprehension. As a young man, he studied
mathematics and physics at the Polytechnic
Institute in Graz, Austria. His extraordinary
understanding of electricity, however, would lead
to ground-breaking developments in alternating
current, or AC, electrically-powered systems that
are still used today.
Inventing the AC Motor
Due to financial instability, Tesla was
forced to end his studies at the
Polytechnic Institute. From his
education there, he developed a
profound interest in alternating
At that time, physicists had some
understanding that AC had advantages
over direct current, or DC. However, it
was not understood how AC motors
could be built and utilized effectively
for the several attempts at building
motors were unsuccessful, and it was
thought that it was impossible for
motors to run on AC.
Tesla was fascinated by this concept of
AC power, and thought endlessly
about the failed motor designs he had
previously seen at the Institute.
In 1882, his fascination turned into
impromptu discovery. While walking in
a park with his friend, Tesla “abruptly
froze in mid-step and mid-sentence.”
A new idea for an AC motor had
spontaneously clicked in his mind. He
drew this mental design for the
revolutionary motor in the sand.
Six years after this discovery, Tesla
presented his design before the
American Institute of Electrical
Engineers. It became a pioneering
scientific standard for handling,
utilizing, and distributing AC power
which was believed to soon spread
across the entire world.
The Struggle for Power: AC vs. DC
In 1884, Tesla came to America to work for
Thomas Edison (left), a young scientist who had
been working exclusively with DC devices.
Edison had no interest in Tesla and his radical
work with AC, but he assured he would pay Tesla
$50, 000 if he could redesign Edison’s ineffective
DC generator designs. Tesla successfully
redesigned the generator, but Edison refused to
Tesla quit working for Edison, and, a poor man,
persistently sought support for his experiments
with AC. Eventually, he was able to find funding
for his research. He then applied for patents for
the polyphase AC motors and transformers he
developed through his adaptation of the rotating
magnetic field (induction).
His drastic ideas baffled engineers of the time,
who considered his concepts far-fetched. But he
was able to catch the attention of businessman
George Westinghouse, who took great interest in
• Westinghouse bought Tesla’s patents for his AC systems in hopes that their use
would spread across the globe. Westinghouse signed a contract with Tesla that
guaranteed Tesla $2.50 for each horsepower of AC that was sold.
• The rapid expansion of AC-motorized equipment became a threat to Edison
and his powerful DC industry. This started the “war of currents” between Tesla
• Edison, who feared Tesla’s AC motors would ruin his business, did everything he
could to discredit Tesla’s lifelong work. He spread rumors of the dangers of AC
via brochures and lobbying efforts. When that didn’t work, Edison began
weekend “demonstrations” of the lethal consequences of AC power by
electrocuting homeless animals and even invented the electric chair to scare
the public from AC. He guaranteed the people that DC was not deadly like AC,
though it certainly was.
• Though, in the long run, Edison’s attempts at destroying Tesla’s progressive
work failed, he did manage to taint his reputation and caused him extreme
financial distress. Westinghouse had to terminate their contract in order for the
AC business to continue. Tesla, without dispute, agreed. He died in 1943, an old
and poor man.
AC’s Impact on Society Today
Tesla is rarely credited for his immense
contributions to physics due to Edison. Every
common home appliance today runs on AC
motors invented by Tesla.
The advantages of AC surpasses those of DC
significantly. Because AC changes its
direction about 50 times a second, it can be
stepped up to high voltage levels, which
allows the supply of power over vast
distances. DC, however, flows in only one
direction and cannot step up to high voltage
levels, thus is unable to distribute power
farther than approximately two miles.
Without Tesla’s extraordinary work with
electricity and his discoveries with alternating
current, we would not have the cutting-edge
technology that we have today.
Tesla’s Other Contributions
Tesla was an innovator in a vast
amount of fields in science, not just AC.
Many of his experiments still confound
scientists all over the world, and his
exploration and development in the
following disciplines had significant roles in
several inventions of the latter 20th century
Guglielmo Marconi is commonly
credited for inventing the radio, though
Tesla had given lectures on wireless
broadcasting years before. The Supreme
Court gave credit to Tesla in 1943, the year of
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25 Sept. 2010. <http://www.electroherbalism.com/Bioelectronics/Tesla/
• "Nikola Tesla: The Forgotten Genius." Viewzone. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept.
• "One Story of Nikola Tesla." A Small Introduction to Nikola Tesla. N.p., n.d.
Web. 25 Sept. 2010. <http://flyingmoose.org/truthfic/tesla.htm>.
• Vujovic, Ljubo. "Nikola Tesla: The Genius who Lit the World." Tesla
Tesla Memorial Society of New York, 10 July 1998. Web. 25 Sept. 2010.