Lessons from Tesla - Innovator Week


“An inventor’s endeavor is essentially lifesaving. Whether he harnesses forces, improves devices, or provides new comforts and conveniences, he is adding to the safety of our existence.”
Nikola Tesla

Photo from the Library of Congress.

It seems appropriate to talk about Nikola Tesla for Innovation Week because, contrary to popular belief, not only was he the inventor of the radio (a title stolen from him by Gugeilmo Marconi) but countless other innovations including our modern electric generators, wireless communications, remote control devices, x-rays, and artificial lightning. Tesla also taught the world the importance of following your dreams against all monied-interests and for the good of all mankind.

In his youth, Tesla was pushed by his parents to become a priest, an idea which Tesla rejected, saying, “the mere thought filled me with dread.” Tesla had bigger dreams.

Since he was a child, Tesla dreamed of harnessing the power of Niagara Falls. In his autobiography, My Inventions, Tesla writes, “I was fascinated by a description of Niagara Falls…and pictured, in my imagination, a big wheel run by the Falls. I told my uncle that I would go to America and carry out this scheme.”

The problem was that Tesla was not considered to be very bright. In fact as he says, “Had it not been for a few exceptionally stupid boys, who could not do anything at all, my record [in school] would have been the worst.”

This is because Tesla was considered to be mentally challenged, as he describes, “In my boyhood I suffered from a peculiar affliction due to the appearance of images, often accompanied by strong flashes of light, which marred the sight of real objects and interfered with my thought and action…None of the students of psychology or physiology whom I have consulted could ever explain satisfactorily these phenomena. They seem to have been unique to me…”

Tesla spent much of his youth trying to limit these visions, but soon discovered that far from impeding him, they actually provided him with deep insight. When he learned to control his visions, “Then I observed to my delight that I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind.”

Turning his condition into a tool, he learned to create three-dimensional machines in his mind with intricate, working parts that would function just as they would in real life. He claimed that it was “absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. There is no difference whatever — the results are the same.”[1]

One day, while walking through a Budapest park with a friend, he looked up at the sun, and recited some of his favorite lines from Goethe’s Faust:

“The glow retreats, done is the day of toil
It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring
Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil
Upon its track to follow, follow soaring”[2]

Suddenly, Tesla grabbed a stick and drew a diagram in the sand.

The official patent design of Tesla’s Alternating Motor.

At once the answer to his Niagara dreams became clear. By using a rotating magnet to generate electricity, alternating current would allow him to harness the natural power of the Falls. Unlike Thomas Edison’s direct current motors, this innovation would allow him to send the energy over long distances, making it available to everyone on the East Coast.

Tesla excitedly brought his idea to his professors, who rejected him as an eccentric. His teacher made an example of him in front of an entire class by saying, “Mr. Tesla may accomplish great things, but he certainly never will do this…It is a perpetual motion scheme, an impossible idea.”[1] But Tesla knew he was right and he was determined to build his AC motor, even if it meant that he had to bring his invention to Thomas Edison himself.

Luckily, Tesla got a job at a Parisian branch of Edison’s electric company, where the manager of the plant, Mr. Batchellor, quickly realized Tesla’s abilities and sent him to America with a letter of recommendation for Edison, which read, “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.”

Tesla came to America with nothing more than four cents and a book of poems, but after working for Edison for just a few months he was offered fifty thousand dollars to increase efficiency in Edison’s power stations.

After a year of backbreaking work, Tesla came for his promised reward. Edison, who was becoming afraid of the young genius, refused to pay him anything, saying, “Tesla, you just don’t understand our American humor.”[3]

Tesla resigned, and after failing to get any investors to fund his alternating current motors, he soon found himself working as a ditch-digger.

It was not long before his story spread. The foreman of the ditch that Tesla was digging finally introduced him to a financier who agreed to fund his endeavors. With the start-up money, he was finally able to set up his own workshop and make the AC motors he had envisioned in Budapest so many years prior.

Yet Thomas Edison was not about to loose his monopoly and did everything he could to discredit Tesla’s alternating current. He staged demonstrations in the streets where he electrocuted dogs, cats, and even an elephant using Tesla’s AC power, which he called the “death current.”[4]

Edison even went so far as to buy the rights to Tesla’s patents so he could create the world’s first electric chair. He rigged the chair so the convict would fail to die after the first shock and the ordeal had to be repeated again and again. The slow death was reported as “an awful spectacle, far worse than a hanging.”

To diminish the fears surrounding alternating current, Tesla used himself as a guinea-pig. He was commissioned to supply the power for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, which would be the first World’s Fair to be run by electricity. In a grand spectacle, Tesla allowed a quarter of a million volts to pass through his body for several minutes without the slightest sign of harm.[3] One reporter’s description shows “Mr. Tesla has ben receiving through his hands, currents at a potential of more than twenty thousand volts, vibrating a million times per second, and manifesting themselves in dazzling streams of light…”

Nicola Tesla at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The reporter continues to say that “Mr. Tesla’s body and clothing have continued for some time to emit fine glimmers or halos of splintered light. In fact, an actual flame is produced by the agitation of electrostatically charged molecules, and the curious spectacle can be seen of puissant, white, ethereal flames that do not consume anything, bursting from the ends of an induction coil as though it were the bush on holy ground.”[5]

It must have been strange for the visitors of the World’s Fair to see such a site. It is estimated that 25% of the United States’ population visited the fair that year and saw Tesla’s amazing inventions. For many of them it was their first time dealing with electricity at all. To see a man glow with more energy than anyone had ever produced quelled all fears of alternating current.

Soon Tesla was commissioned by George Westinghouse, the electric tycoon of Westinghouse Electric Corporation, to build the power station at Niagara Falls. Westinghouse offered Tesla the deal of a lifetime. In addition to a million dollars in cash for his patents, Westinghouse agreed to supply Tesla with the very generous offer of one dollar for every horsepower produced by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation.[3] When Westinghouse ran into financial problems just a few years later by continuing to fight Edison, Tesla tore up the contract that would have made him the world’s first billionaire.[5]

Tesla died penniless, living off the charity of friends. Since he was not interested in making money, he was also able to concentrate his energy on benefiting mankind, which was his real payment. As Tesla said just after his epiphany of alternating current, “Now I can die happy. But I must live, I must return to work and build the motor so I can give it to the world. No more will men be slaves to hard tasks. My motor will set them free, it will do the work of the world.”[3]


  1. Tesla, Nikola, and Ben Johnston. My inventions: the autobiography of Nikola Tesla. Williston, Vt.: Hart Bros., 1982. Print.
  2. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Goethes Faust. Munchen: Parcus, 1927. Print.
  3. Neill, John J. Prodigal genius: the life of Nikola Tesla. Kempton, Ill.: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2008. Print.
  4. McNichol, Tom. AC/DC: the savage tale of the first standards war. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006. Print.
  5. Cheney, Margaret, Tesla, Man Out of Time, New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1993.