Tesla, the genius who lit the world, pioneered AC electrical design that still remains the global standard for transmitting electricity and was a prolific inventor with over 300 patents. Here we take a look at nine lessons we can learn from this talented and exceptional individual.
Born in 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American engineer and physicist whose remarkable inventions would transform the way the world produced, transmitted and used electricity. Tesla’s father was a priest in the Serbian Orthodox church while his mother managed the family’s farm and was an inventor in her own right of household appliances. In 1863, Tesla’s brother Daniel was killed in a riding accident, which deeply affected the seven-year-old Tesla who was haunted by nightmares and troubling apparitions for many years after.
Tesla went on to study math and physics at the Technical University of Graz as a young man and later, philosophy at the University of Prague. In 1882, at the age of 26, while working as an electrical engineer with a telephone company in Budapest, Tesla came up with an idea for a brushless alternating current (AC) motor. On a walk, he came up with the idea for a brushless AC motor and drew the first sketches of electromagnets that he could see in his mind’s eye, in the sand of the path where he was walking. He decided to move to Paris and got employed repairing direct current (DC) power plants for the Continental Edison Company.
Tesla knew his concept had merit and felt that he needed to show it to Thomas Edison, the famous inventor and engineer known for popularizing the incandescent light bulb. Tesla moved to the United States two years later. Arriving in New York in 1884, he went straight to the Manhattan headquarters of Thomas Edison’s business. Tesla got a job there and worked diligently. He impressed Edison by his hard work and also his ingenuity.
Seeing his employee’s creativity, Edison wagered Tesla that if Tesla could improve the design for his DC dynamos, he would give him $50,000. Tesla came up with an excellent solution, solving the problem after several months of hard work and experimentation. Edison however, refused to pay up. Tesla quit and went out on his own.
Things were not easy for him, but he persisted. Tesla did not have the gigantic support of wealthy financiers such as J.P. Morgan who was determined to dominate the energy industry through his support of Thomas Edison’s DC technology. Tesla continued to work and struggled to support himself. He was granted over 30 patents for his inventions in just 1887 and 1888. When he was invited to address the American Institute of Electrical Engineers on his work, Tesla gave a lecture that drew the interest of George Westinghouse, an entrepreneur and engineer, with whom Tesla would collaborate with extensively in the next few years.
Lesson 1: Invention often consists of improving on an existing idea
Invention often consists of improving on an existing idea and developing it in a focused way that leads to a tangible, useful result. Many of the inventions we attribute to one individual, are built upon the foundation of prior inventions and discoveries that made them possible. Inventions refine existing designs and prior work. They “stand upon the shoulders of giants” as Bernard of Chartres observed in the 12th century.
For example, the concept of alternating current was developed by the British physicist Michael Faraday. By 1832, the instrument maker Hippolyte Pixii from Paris, France, had built the first form of an alternating current electrical generator, using the principle of electromagnetic induction that Michael Faraday had discovered.
Tesla had studied alternating current (AC) in college and obtained an electrical engineering degree. Tesla’s great achievement lay in making an AC motor design that allowed the transmission of electrical energy along distribution lines in different directions in multiple ways, using the polyphase principle. Numerous contemporaries of Tesla had worked on methods of AC power distribution without any success.
When Tesla came up with the new AC design, his method challenged Edison’s existing electrical powerhouses that were built all along the Atlantic seaboard. Edison’s existing lamps that used direct current, were weak and inefficient. They also required high voltage levels to transmit across long distances, thus necessitating a direct current power station within every two miles!
Direct current flows in one direction continuously. This is useful for powering small devices like lamps and personal gadgets at home. However, this fails to work over long distances or for larger power supply needs. Alternating current changes direction 50-60 times per second and can be increased to high voltage levels without power loss while traversing long distances. The use of AC is clearly a better technology method for the transmission of power across long distances.
Alternating current became standard power in the twentieth century. Tesla’s inventions are in use in full force today. Electricity is generated, transmitted and converted to mechanical power by the methods that he invented. Tesla’s polyphase alternating current system, lights the entire world. This single, remarkable accomplishment literally changed the world!
Lesson 2: Visualize and Be Willing to Think and See Things Differently
Despite being a scientist and engineer, Tesla did not hesitate to look for higher inspiration beyond the quantifiable and physical. He relied upon his own powers of visualization and intuition. He valued his intuition and recognized its ability beyond logical deduction. Tesla took time to introspect, to pray and visualize daily.
Tesla knew that so much of the universe lies beyond our current knowledge and methods.
He took the time to fully visualize ideas before working on them. Invention is a creative process. Invention involves creating in physical reality something which has only been dreamed of before.
Lesson 3: Demonstrate Your Work in a Way That Inspires and Engages People
Tesla had a penchant for the dramatic. Along with Westinghouse, Tesla lit up the Chicago Fair in 1893 with AC-powered electric lights, demonstrating irrevocably the magnificent power of electricity to visitors. It was a demonstration unlike anything else before it. At the time, streets were often dark and dimly lit at best at night. The spectacle of a brightly lit promenade, illuminating all buildings in the vicinity simultaneously, was amazing to behold.
Tesla helped illuminate more light bulbs at the Chicago Fair than available in the entire city of Chicago at the time. He also demonstrated an electric light that did not need any wires. His dazzling light display won people over instantly and also helped Tesla and Westinghouse to secure a government contract to generate electrical power at Niagara Falls at $150,000, besting the competition led by Edison and J.P. Morgan. Tesla and Westinghouse would go on to build the first large-scale AC power plant in the world.
Lesson 4: Experiment
You have to experiment to discover new ways of doing things and to test out your ideas. Tesla conducted experiments constantly. In the 1890s, through his experiments, Tesla invented electric oscillators, meters, a high voltage transformer called the Tesla coil and more. He improved artificial lighting, experimented with X-rays and helped design remote control devices, wireless methods of communication and the radio.
When you experiment, you discover how to do things well. Along the way, you will make a lot of errors. Some ideas will be suitable to develop further, while others may be abandoned. With over 300 patents, Tesla invented and designed countless innovations that we use today. He pioneered the design of several technologies that power and light the world today such as alternating current (AC), electric induction motor, fluorescent bulbs and neon bulbs.
Here are just four of Tesla’s inventions - all breakthroughs!
Rotating Magnetic Field (1882): When a professor in Croatia told Tesla that it was impossible to create an AC-powered motor, Tesla was intrigued. He was confident that was not true and decided to figure out how to make one. He thought about it, going over ideas in his mind for two years. Then one day, the solution came to him when he was taking a walk. He realized that a rotating magnetic field would allow alternating current (AC) to power an engine before being converted to direct current (DC).
AC Motor (1883): Tesla retained these detailed plans for his AC motor in his mind without any written plans until he could build a physical model the following year. Tesla designed a new AC motor model. The alternating current created magnetic poles that reversed themselves on their own, without mechanical assistance like DC motors needed. The flowing AC current also made the armature, the revolving part of any electromechanical device, rotate around the motor, thus creating a rotating magnetic field that could be used as a motor. Tesla’s method of delivering power to residences and businesses via AC current overtook the ineffective DC power system promoted by his former employer, Thomas Edison. Today we receive AC power in our homes. Tesla’s method is still the primary method of powering electricity all over the world today.
Tesla coil (1891): The Tesla coil named after its inventor, used polyphase alternating currents to create a transformer that could produce high voltages with electric flames and crackling sparks. Today the Tesla coil is widely used for radio and television sets and for large electronic equipment.
Radio (1897): Tesla invented the antennas, tuners and many other aspects associated with radio, but unfortunately, both his lab burned down in 1895, forcing him to restart and another inventor, Guglielmo Marconi supported by J.P. Morgan, was given actual credit for the wireless radio. In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Tesla's patent had precedence but by that time, the world already had credited Marconi as the father of radio.
Lesson 5: Protect Your Work
This lesson - a tough one for Tesla and one by omission - is to protect your work. Tesla, as we have shown partially here, was remarkably creative. He was undoubtedly inventive and a genius.
To be clear, an inventor’s job is to invent. It is not to be a marketer or a banker. Having those skills undoubtedly helps in pushing forward an idea or enterprise. Tesla was demonstrative and expressive, winning over audiences with his dramatic electrical displays and showing how his inventions worked.
Like many inventors, he was most interested in seeing his ideas come to fruition. He was focused on creating and building out his ideas. His name belongs among all the pioneers who spurred on electrical innovation. He was also generous.
Tesla’s innovations came at a time when the American landscape was dominated by a few major players, one of whom was J.P. Morgan. Morgan supported Thomas Edison’s work and had invested significantly in DC power. He was ruthless and determined to dominate industries and squash any competition.
Morgan demanded that Edison find a way to stop Tesla. At first, Edison tried to shoot down Tesla’s ideas as improbable. Then when Tesla won the support of industrialist George Westinghouse and began developing his AC motor fully and doing public demonstrations, Edison began an extensive smear campaign.
Tesla’s AC design work was supported by George Westinghouse, who had already invested in similar research with employees without success prior to Westinghouse hiring Tesla. Westinghouse financed the building of Tesla’s new AC motor and also his polyphase alternating current system. Westinghouse bought Tesla’s patents in return for a substantial royalty payment.
In 1893, Tesla successfully demonstrated his new technology at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, also called the Chicago Fair. He helped Westinghouse secure the government contract to design a new power station at Niagara Falls. Tesla designed the world’s first major hydroelectric plant for Westinghouse. With these two successes behind them, Westinghouse and Tesla were on route to becoming very wealthy. The government and the public supported their AC design.
J.P. Morgan was furious. He had also bid on the contract with Edison and lost out. He threatened to bankrupt Westinghouse. To help free Westinghouse, Tesla tore up his royalty contract, enabling Westinghouse to sell Tesla’s patents to J.P. Morgan. Tesla helped save Westinghouse from financial ruin, but lost the financial rewards of his own invention - something that would have made him one of the wealthiest men in the world.
In efforts to further discredit Tesla, J.P. Morgan and his supporters called Tesla a “dreamer” and incapable of commercializing his inventions. Dreaming though is a necessity when it comes to invention! An inventor is not a banker, a publicist, a marketing executive, an account representative or even a manufacturer. Despite all his influence, J.P. Morgan, did not have the skills or ability to invent like Tesla did, nor did the man that he hired, Thomas Edison.
Sadly, while J.P. Morgan and Edison reaped the benefits of Tesla’s AC design, Tesla struggled financially to even support himself. Hence a lesson you can learn from his life is to protect your work. What’s easy to an inventor is not easy for the business magnate, financier or marketing executive. Protect your work so that you can support yourself, reap the benefits of your work and be free to keep creating.
Lesson 6: Be Patient
Tesla understood, better than most, the value of patience as an inventor. He persisted and worked on his ideas for weeks, months and years at a time.
Lesson 7: Be Future-Oriented
While Tesla was often misunderstood, he did not let that deter his passion for pursuing his ideas or creating his inventions. He knew that people would often not accept his ideas, and that he had to be okay with that and keep going forward. Tesla thought at an accelerated rate. That was not something he ever needed to apologize for. At the same time, he was okay with accepting that he was alone and that many of his ideas were ahead of their time.
Lesson 8: Know Yourself
It is important to have self-awareness and to take time for reflecting on yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses so that you can fully achieve your goals.
Tesla knew the importance of solitude in providing him with insight, self-reflection, renewal and creativity.
While Tesla remained a bachelor during his life, he valued relationships deeply.
Lesson 9: Keep Learning and Creating
Creating is essential to growth. Tesla recognized how invention and creativity transformed the world. He also reminds us to use our abilities to help make the world just a little better. With over 300 patents that included the world’s standard method for transmitting electricity and the radio, Tesla was one of the world’s most talented and exceptional inventors. He stands right alongside giants such as Gilbert, Coulomb, Watt, Volta, Oersted, Ampere, Ohm, Faraday, Henry, Gauss, Weber, Maxwell, Siemens, and Hertz. While he was not awarded a Nobel Prize though he richly deserved one, Tesla’s contribution was commemorated by having a unit of electrical and magnetic measurement named after him, like his intellectual peers. The Tesla (symbol T) is the SI derived unit used to measure magnetic fields.
Despite his inventions being stolen, being bullied and not reaping the financial rewards of his incredible achievements, Tesla did not give up and continued on. He was not motivated by greed and power like Thomas Edison who although talented, was so threatened by Tesla that he was willing to ruin Tesla’s career and life in the most ominous way. Edison attempted to demonstrate the risks of using AC current by killing a prison inmate through electrocution in an electric chair. Edison also killed numerous animals to prove his point. Edison did not want his influence to be usurped or to lose the backing of the wealthy and dominant financier, JP Morgan who was determined to dominate several American industries, in whatever means necessary.
Tesla, on the other hand, was not motivated by money. He considered creating and inventing part of his contribution to humanity. Tesla in many ways, was ahead of his time, as some of the power struggles that he faced then could be avoided today. He could have gained more financial backing and genuine support for his incredible inventions and ideas.
Kosanovic, Bogdan R., "Nikola Tesla." University of Pittsburgh, December 29, 2000. www.neuronet.pitt.edu/~bogdan/tesla/
O’Neill, John J. Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla. Cosimo Classics, 2007; originally published 1944.
Uth, Robert, "Tesla: Master of Lightning." New Voyage Communications, 2000. www.pbs.org/tesla/
Tesla, Nikola. My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla. Waking Lion Press, 2006; originally published as a series of articles in Electrical Experimental magazine, 1919.