Nikola Tesla was a futurist and noted inventor.
Nikola Tesla was a futurist and noted inventor.
Image: from Century Magazine, 1906, via Library of Congress.
Set in the late 1800s, the movie The Current War explores the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over control of the budding electric power industry. But a lesser known man figures prominently in the plot and in the history -- the genius Nikola Tesla.

       In the film, Tesla is introduced as a "futurist." And now, we associate the name Tesla with the electric vehicle that was the brainchild of another futurist, Elon Musk.
      So, who was Tesla? Here is the rundown:

The basics: Tesla was born either July 9 or 10, 1856, in Smiljan, Austrian Empire. This is now a part of Croatia, but Encyclopedia Britannica identifies Tesla's family as Serbian. He was one of five children. And apparently, he wasn't the first thinker in his family. His father, Milutin Tesla, was an Orthodox priest, and his mother, Djuka Mandic, invented small household appliances, according to the website

Budding genius: Tesla showed promise early in life. As a boy, he invented a motor powered by June bugs, an air piston gun and a frog catching device, according to the website for the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, New York. While still in elementary school, he built water turbines. He studied at the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria, and at the University of Prague. Later, when hired to install lights in Paris, he "made improvements to Edison’s dynamos (generators) and created an automatic regulator," the science center's website says.

Working for Thomas Edison: In 1884, Tesla sailed for America. He was 28 years old and carried with him a letter of recommendation from Charles Batchelor, one of Edison's business associates. The letter said, "My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!"  Edison hired Tesla to work as an electrical engineer.
      Edison had developed direct current, which the U.S. Department of Energy website defines this way: "current that runs continually in a single direction, like in a battery or a fuel cell. During the early years of electricity, direct current (shorthanded as DC) was the standard in the U.S."
    The problem was that direct current was not easily converted to higher or lower voltages, the department explains. 
    "Tesla believed that alternating current (or AC) was the solution to this problem. Alternating current reverses direction a certain number of times per second -- 60 in the U.S. -- and can be converted to different voltages relatively easily using a transformer."
     Tesla stayed in his position only six months, according to Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, which has an online site indexing Edison's papers.

Arc lighting: After leaving Edison, Tesla and a group of investors established a company to market his arc light, the website explains. Tesla delivered. But "all of the money earned went to the investors and all Tesla got was a stack of worthless stock certificates," according to the article "Tesla -- Life and Legacy," on the PBS website.

Association with Westinghouse: If Edison didn't appreciate Telsa's ability, George Westinghouse did. Four years after Tesla arrived in the U.S., he sold the patent rights to his system of alternating-current dynamos, transformers and motors to Westinghouse, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. "Westinghouse used Tesla’s alternating current system to light the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893," the encyclopedia recounts. The two then won a contract to install the first power machinery at Niagara Falls.

Inventions: Notably, Tesla "discovered and patented the rotating magnetic field, the basis of most alternating-current machinery," notes Encyclopedia Britannica. "He also developed the three-phase system of electric power transmission."

Significance: Today, our electricity is mostly powered by alternating current, the U.S. Department of Energy points out. But direct current is more stable now, and "LEDs, solar cells and electric vehicles all run on DC power," according to the department. Throughout his lifetime, Tesla acquired almost 300 patents, including a coil that paved the foundation for wireless technology.

Death: Tesla was known to work long hours. Even so, he had little money at the end of his life, and died on Jan. 7, 1943, in a hotel room in New York.


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