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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla -- Electrical and Mechanical Engineer, Inventor

One of science's most influential visionaries. Developed the alternating-current (AC) electrical system widely used globally today; discovered the rotating magnetic field, and designed the first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls

Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla was considered a mathematical phenomenon since childhood, being able as a high school student to perform integral calculus in his head, which initially prompted his teachers to believe that he was cheating. He transformed his prowess in mathematics into an array of inventive achievements in electricity that live on today.

Arriving in the United States in 1884 from his native Croatia (now Serbia) almost penniless to begin working with famed inventor and business mogul Thomas Edison, Tesla (with a penchant for the writings of Mark Twain) was optimistic and brimming with ideas, and soon became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Note: Historical accounts of the relationship between Tesla and Edison differ at times. Some (such as Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Gilbert King, and writer Gene Patterson) describe the relationship as contentious -- a rivalry, even feud-like -- which they say began after Tesla began working for Edison. Others, such as representatives from The Thomas A. Edison Papers (based at Rutgers University) say the conflict was not between Edison and Tesla; it was, the representatives report, between Edison and inventor-entrepreneur George Westinghouse and began before Tesla patented his own AC electrical system and before the system was bought by Westinghouse. For further information, the Edison representatives recommend the biography, "Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age" by W. Bernard Carlson

After leaving the employ of Edison, Tesla ventured out on his own as an inventor. His efforts led him to George Westinghouse who later licensed Tesla's patent for the AC induction motor and transformer, and also hired Tesla as a consultant to help develop a power system using alternating current.

Although his inventions brought him fame and wealth, Tesla preferred living most of his days in a series of New York hotels (including the old Waldorf Astoria). He spent much of his money on setting up future experiments and laboratories and inviting famous people to his hotel residence for elaborate dinners to inform them of his new endeavors. Unfortunately, many of these key scientific undertakings did not prove successful (including his ill-fated Wardenclyffe Tower project), and when income from his patents ran out, he was forced to file for bankruptcy.

Tesla died poor and reclusive on January 7, 1943, at the age of 86 in his hotel room in New York City. His legacy, however, is rich, thriving for more than a century, and will undoubtedly live on for decades to come.

Why He is Important: One of the most influential visionaries in science, Nikola Tesla, among

other achievements, is especially known for the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system for generators, motors and transformers.

On the AC electrical system alone, Tesla held 40 basic U.S. patents, which he later sold to George Westinghouse, an American engineer and business man who was determined to supply the nation with the Tesla's AC system. Around this time, conflict arose between Tesla and Edison, as Edison was determined to sell his direct-current (or DC) system to the nation. According to the Tesla Memorial Society of New York, Tesla-Westinghouse ultimately won out because Tesla's system was "a superior technology," presenting greater "progress of both America and the world" than Edison's DC system. Outside of his AC system patents, Tesla sold several other patent rights to Westinghouse.

Other Achievements: In Colorado Springs, where he stayed from May 1899 until 1900, Tesla made what he regarded as his most important discovery-- terrestrial stationary waves. By this discovery he proved that the Earth could be used as a conductor and would be as responsive as a tuning fork to electrical vibrations of a certain frequency. He also lighted 200 lamps without wires from a distance of 25 miles( 40 kilometers) and created man-made lightning. And in 1895, Tesla designed the first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls, a feat that was highly publicized throughout the world.

While Tesla's ambitious Wardenclyffe Laboratory project and its transmitting tower in Shoreham, Long Island, NY had to be abandoned during his lifetime because of lack of funds (despite being financially supported by American business magnate J. Pierpont Morgan), plans have been underway in the past several years by non-profit organizations and others to convert the laboratory into a museum of Tesla's work. Wardenclyffe and its tower were originally envisioned by Tesla in the late 1890s to be the first broadcasting system, transmitting broadcast signals and electrical power without wires -- free of charge-- to any point on the globe by using the Earth as a gigantic dynamo.

Other tributes to the genius of Tesla include numerous books and films in his honor, in addition to: the International System of Units (Weights and Measures) in 1960 dedicating the term "tesla" to the unit measure for magnetic field strength; and in New York City, a street sign was erected in recent years titled "Nikola Tesla Corner" near the intersection of 40th Street-6th Avenue.

Tesla died in 1943 in the Hotel New Yorker, the New York City residence where he had lived for the last ten years of his life. There, he occupied a two-room suite in Room 3327 on the 33rd floor. His state funeral in New York was attended by 2,000 people including Nobel Laureates, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Vice President Wallace. He was cremated in Ardsley on the Hudson, New York. His ashes were interned in a golden sphere (Tesla's favorite shape) which is on permanent display at the Tesla Museum in Serbia's capital city of Belgrade, along with his death mask.