Tesla, Nikola (1856–1943)
Eccentric scientific genius whose inventions in the field of
electrical apparatus stemmed from inspirations received in extraordinary
visions of a paranormal character. Unlike most innovators
in the fields of engineering and electricity, his inventions
did not require patient experiment and trial-and-error
testing of models. The ideas flashed into his mind as working
units, complete to the final details of component design and
size. For example, as a young student of electrical engineering
and physics, at a time when the concept of alternating current
was considered a fallacy of the perpetual motion type, he knew
that he could solve this problem. After only a few years of consideration
of the problem, the complete detailed vision of an
alternating current motor using a rotating magnetic field came
to him while he gazed at a sunset.
He was born in July 10, 1856, in the village of Similjan in
the Austro-Hungarian border area of Lika (now in Slovenia).
Even as a boy, he was inventive; at the age of nine he constructed
a 16-bug power motor by harnessing June bugs to a thin
wooden wheel. He was educated at an elementary school, then
had four years at Lower Realschule, Gospic, Lika, which was
followed by three years at the Higher Realschule, Carlstadt,
Croatia. He graduated in 1873. Tesla was a student for four
years at the Polytechnic School, Gratz, Austria, studying mathematics,
physics, and mechanics. Afterward he enrolled in philosophy
studies for two years at the University of Prague, Bohemia
(now the capital of the Czech Republic).
He commenced his career as an inventor in Budapest, Hungary,
in 1881. There he constructed a telephone repeater and
engaged in various branches of engineering and manufacture.
In 1884 he immigrated to the United States, later becoming a
naturalized citizen. For nearly a year he worked for inventor
Thomas A. Edison, who was impressed by his skill and hard
work, but the two men were diametrically opposed in temperament
and method. Tesla was a visionary who solved problems
in a flash of insight, whereas Edison relied on patient trial-anderror
in practical experiments. Tesla insisted on the superiority
of alternating current and its applications, whereas Edison believed
it a dead end and championed direct current. Tesla parted
company with Edison after being promised $50,000 for improving
the design and efficiency of dynamos. When Tesla
solved the problem and asked for the money, Edison said he
was only joking. Tesla immediately resigned.
His salary at the Edison Company had been modest. For the
next two years he had a difficult time, but in 1887 he was
backed to form the Tesla Electric Company in New York. He
was now able to construct the alternating current machines he
had visualized earlier.
The Tesla system made it possible to supply electricity economically
over distances of hundreds of miles, instead of the
short distances of the Edison direct current powerhouses.
Tesla’s demonstrations made a great impression on another inventor,
George Westinghouse of the Westinghouse Electric
Company of Pittsburgh. Westinghouse paid Tesla $1 million
for rights on his alternating current system, comprising some
40 patents, with a contract additionally stipulating a royalty of
a dollar per horsepower.
In attempting to span the continent with an alternating current
system, Westinghouse ran into financial difficulties; his
own backers insisted that he renounce his royalty contract to
Tesla, otherwise they would withdraw support. When Westinghouse
explained his difficulty to Tesla, Tesla recalled how Westinghouse
had believed in him. In a magnanimous gesture
Tesla tore up his contract, thereby sacrificing some $12 million
in unpaid royalties.
Tesla went on to invent new apparatus involving original
principles. He was responsible for many important innovations
the system of electricity conversion and distribution by
oscillatory dischargers, generators of high frequency current;
the Tesla coil or transformer, a system of wireless transmission
of intelligence; mechanical oscillators and generators of electrical
oscillation; research and discoveries in radiation, material
streams, and emanations; and high-potential magnifying transmitting.
One of his most spectacular achievements was harnessing
the water power of Niagara Falls. In 1895 the Westinghouse
Electric Company installed a gigantic hydroelectric project,
using the Tesla polyphase system of alternating current.
Tesla opened up many important avenues of scientific development
and has rarely been properly acknowledged by later
historians. His experiments with electromagnetic waves formed
the basis of the development of radio. He stated that cosmic
rays were responsible for the radioactivity of radium, thorium,
and uranium and predicted that other substances would be
made radioactive by bombardment. He thus anticipated the
basic principles of X-ray apparatus and the electron microscope.
In his work with wireless controlled automata he anticipated
radio-controlled rocket missiles.
Not surprisingly, he had one or two blind spots. He did not
accept for many years that atomic fission would produce energy.
He misunderstood the mechanism of vision; he believed
that visual images perceived by the brain were returned to the
retina of the eye, and might be amplified or projected. However,
there was no mistaking his own extraordinary visionary faculty
and the discoveries associated with it. In an article titled
‘‘Making Your Imagination Work For You,’’ he wrote
‘‘During my boyhood I had suffered from a peculiar affliction
due to the appearance of images, which were often accompanied
by strong flashes of light. . . . Then I began to take
mental excursions beyond the small world of my actual knowledge.
Day and night, in imagination, I went on journeys—saw
new places, cities, countries, and all the time I tried hard to
make these imaginary things very sharp and clear in my mind.
‘‘This I did constantly until I was 17, when my thoughts
turned seriously to invention. Then, to my delight, I found I
could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models,
drawings, or experiments. I could picture them all in my head.
‘‘Here, in brief, is my own method After experiencing a desire
to invent a particular thing, I may go on for months or
years with the idea in the back of my head. Whenever I feel like
it, I roam around in my imagination and think about the problem
without any deliberate concentration. This is a period of
‘‘There follows a period of direct effort. I choose carefully
the possible solutions of the problem I am considering, and
gradually center my mind on a narrowed field of investigation.
Now, when I am deliberately thinking of the problem in its specific
features, I may begin to feel that I am going to get the solution.
And the wonderful thing is, that if I do feel this way, then
I know I have really solved the problem and shall get what I am after.
‘‘The feeling is as convincing to me as though I already had
solved it. I have come to the conclusion that at this stage the
actual solution is in my mind subconsciously, though it may be
a long time before I am aware of it consciously.
‘‘Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked
out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements,
and even operate the device. Without ever having
drawn a sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen,
and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly
as though I had made the actual drawings. It is immaterial
to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my
‘‘The inventions I have conceived in this way have always
worked. In 30 years there has not been a single exception. My
first electric motor, the vacuum tube wireless light, my turbine
engine and many other devices have all been developed in exactly
this way.’’
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Tesla, Nikola
Tesla’s friend and biographer John J. O’Neill stated that
Tesla ‘‘was unquestionably an abnormal individual, and of a
type that does have what are known as ‘psychic experiences.’
He was emphatic in his denial that he ever had experiences of
that sort; yet he has related incidents that clearly belong in the
psychic category.’’ According to O’Neill, Tesla was fearful that
admitting to having psychic experiences might cause him to be
misunderstood as supporting Spiritualism or theories that
something operates in life other than matter and energy.
In his later years, Tesla suffered financial difficulties and was
unable to construct some of his most ambitious inventions. He
claimed he had discovered an inexhaustible source of energy
that could be transmitted anywhere in the world without wires
or loss of power. He correctly foresaw that at some future time
‘‘it will be possible for nations to fight without armies, ships, or
guns by weapons far more terrible, to the destructive action and
range of which there is virtually no limit.’’ Tesla is credited with
having discovered a protective radiation principle of the kind
popularly termed ‘‘death ray.’’
In 1912 he refused the Nobel Prize because it was to be
awarded jointly to himself and Thomas A. Edison; instead the
award went to the Swedish scientist Gustav Dalen.
In an unpublished article entitled ‘‘Man’s Greatest Achievement’’
(cited in O’Neill’s biographical Prodigal Genius, 1968),
Telsa writes
‘‘Long ago he [the human being] recognized that all perceptible
matter comes from a primary substance, or tenuity beyond
conception, filling all space, the Akasa or luminiferous ether,
which is acted upon by the life-giving Prana or creative force,
calling into existence, in never ending cycles, all things and
phenomena. . .’’
This is the language of Theosophy or Hindu metaphysics.
Tesla’s states of higher consciousness, achieved by intense concentration
and a celibate life, resemble Hindu concepts of cosmic
energy in the universe, aroused in the human body under
the name of kundalini through yoga disciplines and meditation,
resulting in expanded consciousness and access to an infinity
of cosmic intelligence.
Tesla died in poverty in New York on January 7, 1943. Soon
afterward, FBI operatives opened the safe in his room and took
away papers reputedly containing details of a secret invention
of possible value in warfare.
O’Neill, John J. Prodigal Genius The Life of Nikola Tesla. London
Neville Spearman, 1968. Reprint, London Granada,
Peat, David. In Search of Nikola Tesla. Bath, England Ashgrove
Press, 1983.
Tesla, Nikola. ‘‘Making Your Imagination Work For You.’’
American Magazine (April 1921).
Wilson, Colin, ed. Men of Mystery. London W. H. Allen,