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Nikola Tesla, physicist, engineer and inventor of alternating current power, early 1900s

Nikola Tesla, physicist, engineer, and inventor of alternating current, in the early 1900s

Photograph by Everett Collection Inc., Alamy

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published October 3, 2013

A new statue of Nikola Tesla now graces New York's Long Island, the latest homage to the celebrated visionary. At the statue's unveiling last week, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic told the dedication crowd at Tesla's former Wardenclyffe laboratory that the scientist and inventor had been a man whose "ideas were larger than his time."

Long overshadowed in public memory by his one-time employer, Thomas Edison, Tesla (1856-1943) was a brilliant scientist and engineer who earned more than 700 patents. He is most famous for developing alternating current, but his work also led to advances in wireless communications, lasers, x-rays, radar, lighting, robotics, and much more.

"A lot of people nowadays are more interested in Tesla," said Jane Alcorn, a retired teacher who is president of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, home to the new statue. "He speaks to those who work hard but don't get recognition, and people are starting to recognize how important his contributions were."

As a sign of that growing appreciation, Elon Musk's start-up electric car company Tesla Motors was named after the visionary inventor in 2003. (See "Musk's Hyperloop Plan Draws Praise, Skepticism.")

Brilliant Inventor

Tesla was born to Serbian parents in what is now Croatia, but he emigrated to the U.S. as a young man, where he eventually became a naturalized citizen. Besides Edison, who later became his bitter rival, Tesla often worked with inventor George Westinghouse. In 1893, the pair demonstrated their advances in lighting and motors in the "White City" at the Chicago World's Fair. In 1895, Tesla and Westinghouse developed the world's first hydroelectric power plant, at Niagara Falls.

At the turn of the century, Tesla set up a laboratory called Wardenclyffe in the small community of Shoreham, Long Island, where he conducted some of his most ambitious experiments. The building was financed by J. P. Morgan and designed by acclaimed architect Stanford White.

The most prominent feature was Wardenclyffe Tower, also called Tesla Tower, a 187-foot-tall (57-meter-tall) metal lattice tower topped with a big, bulbous antenna that was intended to beam communications and even energy across the Atlantic.

The tower is long gone, but the three-quarter-length statue of Tesla unveiled last week is a fitting memorial, said Alcorn. "This is the last remaining Tesla laboratory anywhere in the world," she said.

It took years for Alcorn's nonprofit to buy the property, with some help from an Internet cartoonist (see below).

Tesla ran out of money while building the tower and was foreclosed on twice. As with his previous Colorado Springs lab, assets were sold to pay down his debts. In 1917, the U.S. government blew up the tower, fearing that German spies were using it in World War I. The metal was sold for scrap, according to Alcorn. For decades, the building was used for photo processing.

Today, the octagonal concrete and granite base of the tower remains. There may be remnants of the giant tesla coil that was placed below ground, Alcorn said, although she hasn't yet raised the money to look for the remnants with ground-penetrating radar.

Alcorn hopes to open the lab building as a museum to Tesla and as an educational science center for the area.

Here are a few surprising facts about Nikola Tesla:

1. The Tesla museum was helped by a cartoon.

In May, Wardenclyffe was purchased by the Tesla Science Center, using $1.37 million raised on the crowd-funding website Indiegogo (New York State then provided a matching grant). The campaign was launched by Matthew Inman, creator of the popular web comic The Oatmeal.

At the statue unveiling last week, Inman told the crowd that the money was raised by "geeks" who felt kinship with Tesla, a "geek at heart."

Perhaps building on that success, a separate Kickstarter campaign raised $127,000 from 722 backers to create a seven-foot tall statue of Tesla for Palo Alto, California, to be unveiled December 7, 2013. Hosting a free Wi-Fi hotspot and a time capsule, the statue is intended to "represent the power of the creative spirit and will inspire people from around the world to focus on humanity's greatest challenges."

2. Tesla was an environmentalist.

According to Alcorn, Tesla was "very concerned about the fact that we were using up the Earth's resources too quickly, and he wanted to make sure that we were using nonfossil, renewable fuels."

So Tesla researched ways to harvest the natural energy in the ground and in the sky. He created artificial lightning in his lab, and probed electrical potential differences in the Earth and across tall objects.

J. P. Morgan reportedly took exception to that line of research, arguing that he wasn't interested in funding a power source that he couldn't meter.

3. Tesla died a broke humanitarian.

"Tesla did what he did for the betterment of humanity, to help people have a better quality of life," said Alcorn. "He never seemed to be interested in monetary gain, although a possible downside of that was he never seemed to have enough money to do what he needed to do."

Tesla had famous friends, including Mark Twain and French actress Sarah Bernhardt, but he struggled financially. Edison and Westinghouse were much more successful businessmen, which partly explains the strength of their legacies.

4. Tesla rarely slept and suffered from OCD.

Tesla claimed to have required only two hours of sleep a night, although he occasionally napped. He loathed jewelry and round objects and wouldn't touch hair. He was obsessed with the number three and polished every dining implement he used to perfection, using 18 napkins.

5. Many of Tesla's inventions were classified.

When Tesla died in 1943, during World War II, the Office of Alien Property took his belongings, Alcorn said. Most of his things were later released to his family, and many ended up in the Tesla Museum in Belgrade, which opened in the 1950s. But some of Tesla's papers are still classified by the U.S. government.

"I know people have requested things through the Freedom of Information Act, and they are released heavily redacted," said Alcorn.

As a result of the years of secrecy, many people have speculated about what fantastic inventions might have been suppressed, perhaps to keep them out of enemy hands or, more darkly, to perpetuate the status quo. Perhaps supporting the former theory, Tesla had spoken publically about working on a "death beam." Those who fear the latter theory often point to his work on harvesting the energy in the forces of nature as something that would upset powerful oil companies.

For her part, Alcorn said she is inspired by both the genius and the perseverance of Tesla. "He taught us that when you believe in yourself, work on your goals, and follow through, a lot is possible," she said.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

39 comments
Ramprasad Sampath
Ramprasad Sampath

"The motors I build there were exactly as I imagined them. I made no attempt to improve the design, but merely reproduced the pictures as they appeared to my vision and the operation was always as I expected " - Tesla 


No body would dare to find a FLAW in the work of TESLA

Tanya Reddin
Tanya Reddin

About time too...so overlooked..a complete genius!

dave crow
dave crow

Unlike Edison, he came up with ideas and inventions that were truly his own.

Sharlene Martin
Sharlene Martin

Great new speculative fiction out by NYT Bestselling Author Anthony Flacco entitled IN THE MATTER OF NIKOLA TESLA:  A Romance of the Mind.  Totally accurate and factually based but an imagined love affair with his Muse.

Tony Sanders
Tony Sanders

He also had a patent for wireless communication from which Marconi would claim to have invented the radio. Tesla won his case in court , but people still are told that Marconi invented radio.

m s
m s

He was an incredible inventor in fact if many of this ideas were allowed to be expanded upon we would have 0 need for nuclear coal or natural gas power we'd have a continuous stream of natural EM energy from which to grab hold of store and then change to AC at will. So many of his patents that are either owned by the government (being classified) or by large power companies in which they just sit on them eternally. We need limits on how long patents can be owned by 1 company and how long they can be owned and not used.

Meredith B.
Meredith B.

I've never heard of Tesla before (which is surprising, because I am basically obsessed with science). He seems like an incredible inventor and it's a shame that his name has been basically lost to history. Maybe National Geographic can help spread the word!

David Kent
David Kent

As a scientist and author of a biography on Nikola Tesla, I particularly like your second item. Nikola Tesla was pushing for renewable energy sources 100 years ago, saying that coal and oil and gas were wasteful and dirty. He advocated for solar energy, windmills, and, of course, was behind the harnessing of Niagara Falls for hydroelectric power. Truly a man ahead of his time.

Asif H.
Asif H.

The Periodic table, was invented by a Russian scientist. Dmitri Mendeleev.

Dwight Prewitt
Dwight Prewitt

Mr. Tesla is and always has been my hero, we all owe all the electrons we borrow every day directly to him. He was the inventor of modern electricity and have been upset every time I read Edison, who was his boss and ripped off all his ideas from him and money, was the great electrifier. NIC ROCKS

Gustavo Angel
Gustavo Angel

Otro GENIO que coincide con aquello de perseverar persiguiendo las metas personales pensando en la humanidad

MaRozalia Abraham
MaRozalia Abraham

He's been a part of our long test. Unfortunately I always forgot him. Thanks for this article I will remember him for our quarterly test.

Philip Wilhelm
Philip Wilhelm

It was only recently, in the past twenty years or so that I looked into some of the facts of Tesla's inventions and his life (I found out some new things in this article)  He obviously to me, was a genius who had so much to give to the world, but was plagued by other inventors who only used their knowledge to foster their own lives and not in the interest of the rest of humanity.  I am a great admirer of his and hope that someday he will be given true credit for all his scientific work.

Shiva Meucci
Shiva Meucci

Something Tesla also taught us is that often those who contribute the most end up with the least and those who contribute the least end up with the most.


Tesla's life taught us that fairness, justice, hard work and brilliance don't automatically win in the end. The "goodness prevails" idea leads people to believe those who "have" must deserve and it's a lie that must end.

We have to fight injustice daily. We have to regularly renew and examine our society to not just be fair, but to be productive. Contribution must be rewarded. Parasites must be punished and often the parasites become larger and more powerful than the host.

Might does not make right. Ownership does not prove it was earned. Wealth does not prove contribution ... but it should.

El Gabilon
El Gabilon

Indeed Tesla was a great man of genius and he suffered what most geniuses suffer from lesser gifted humans. We happen to know of a child, who has attention deficiet disorder, but his IQ is high on the Mensa scale. In school he is bullied by his peers and teachers. Instead of recognizing these talented individuals we seem to put them down either because we fear them, or are jealous of their gifts. Rather then sending them to specialized schools to encourage them, we put them down, ridicule them and if for some reason they succeed in life we steal their inventions, misuse them or harvest their ideas. Edison was an example of this kind of person. In the final analysis Tesla is coming to the foreground while Edison is being found out for his coniving, but in Teslas' case too late for him to have seen his work recognized and to have profited and made a decent life for himself. How much has humanity lost because of these actions. It is quite well known that in the scientific world individuals have stolen others ideas in  order to benefit themselves as well as other dispicable actions to the detriment of the real scholars and scientists.  It is time that humanity recognized what we are ""parasites upon the earth and worse parasites upon ourselves", so that we can do something about correcting it. A rousing cheer for Tesla, a raspberry for Edison!

Larry Fast
Larry Fast

I highly recommend "Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age" by W. Bernard Carlson (Princeton University Press, 2013). By far the best and most deeply researched biography of Tesla to date.  It lays to rest many of the absurd and inaccurate legends which have surrounded Tesla in recent years (some repeated in this article and its comments).  At the same time Carlson examines and credits the brilliant work that has earned Tesla a place in engineering history.  If you want an exhaustively documented, technologically accurate study of the man in the context of his times and contemporaries at the beginning of the age of commercial electricity, this is the source.  

A few quick points made clear by reading the book:

-Tesla did not invent AC, though he did contribute to refining some aspects.  (There were commercial AC systems in operation even before Tesla entered the profession).

-Tesla and Edison were not direct rivals.  Edison exited the power and light business just as Tesla's work at Westinghouse was coming to the fore.  Tesla graciously accepted the IEE Edison Medal awarded for his achievements in 1917.  I challenge anyone to provide contemporaneous documentation of this non-existent feud.

-Carlson has untangled Wardenclyffe as an extension of Tesla's Colorado Springs experiments through Tesla's own papers and other documents.  The tower's proposed operational theory and Morgan's withdrawal from the project are not at all what current popular legend erroneously believes. 

Charles Varrone
Charles Varrone

Terrible research, Tesla did not invent AC current but went on to use it most effectively. This author should be fired.

Charles Varrone
Charles Varrone

This is a really badly researched article. Tesla did not invent AC current.

Ted Dubin
Ted Dubin

Why is it "surprising" that an inventor and industrialist also cares about the environment? 

Why is someone that supports development always caricatured as an environmental rapist?

It is science, technology and industry that creates and supports a high enough standard of living that we can begin to address environmental concerns.

Thomas Mc
Thomas Mc

He was a raging bigot, a homophobe and viscious antisemite.

Srebrovski Divoff
Srebrovski Divoff

Lovely article. However with one certain mistake: Tesla was not born in Serbia but was of Serbian nationality. He was born in Austrian empire, in village Smiljan in today's Croatia. Whoever gets to write these Natgeo articles should read Wikipedia at least - before they write, or ask someone who knows more.

Collin White
Collin White

Always glad to see Tesla getting more recognition... Without his invention of AC Edison would not have been able to do most of the things he did (or claimed as his own). AC was a truly scalable resource that would go on to power the world. I always bristle a little when I hear Edison getting credit for electricity, sure, he had DC, but DC was absolutely not scalable by any means... Can you even begin to imagine the amount of resources (especially environmental like coal and gas) and real estate DC would have consumed just to power NYC as it required sub-stations every few block just to keep it flowing? And forget about using it over long distances.

The entire world is indebted to Tesla and yet he died broke...

Geoffrey Wells
Geoffrey Wells

Release the Tesla papers. I am a firm believer in transparency mostly in order not to be inundated with more theories about who is doing the suppression and for what reasons. 

Carlton Dunlap
Carlton Dunlap

@m s Patents in general are limited to seventeen years in the US, except design patents at twenty-eight.  Regular patents are renewable only by special act of Congress.  I think some patents should be longer, especially those that are ahead of their time like many of Tesla.

Serb Srba
Serb Srba

@Croata Horvat

What you consider to be croatia today was founded in 1943!!!

Are you trying to say that 14 centuries ago, when you said croatia was founded, was within the same borders made in AVNOJ?

Dubrovnik, Istra, Dalmacija, Srpska Vojna Kajina, was never in the history part of croatia neither the citizens of those areas consider themselves croats (krvati). They become part of croatia 70 years ago during communist rule (and few years before during Nazi rule)!!! 

So, Nikola Tesla was a Serb and he himself was pointing that out numerous times! His direct relatives are declaring themselves today as Serbs! 

This statement of yours is combination of bulldog and Shih Tzu!

Larry Fast
Larry Fast

@El Gabilon Carlson's book documents Tesla as being aloof and isolated, but more because of his own elitist demeanor rather than being ostracized or bullied because he was socially backward, which he was not.  Rather, he was an elegant and formal man who looked down on those he felt to be of lesser intellect.  Tesla had excellent legal representation during the licensing of his AC motor patents and there is scant evidence of his ideas or inventions having been stolen and exploited by others, his technical patent priority over Marconi being one exception which took decades to resolve in Tesla's favor.  His later projects simply did not hold much economic value as they were largely unworkable.

The Edison comments are unfounded.  Documentation  shows that Edison was not at all "this kind of person".   The confusion may be that Edison's 60+ year career transcended the period of the lone inventor into that of the research laboratory "invention factory" and he was the founder of several eponymous major industries.  Like at other research labs already in existence later in Edison's career, such as Bell Labs, RCA, GE, etc., employees were hired to invent for the company.  Edison's operation still had the originator's name on it in 1931.  Work-for-hire and licensing is not stealing.

Tesla's downfall was due to his own failings.  He did not adapt as the understanding of physics and engineering disciplines evolved at the beginning of the 20th century.   His 19th century presumptions about the nature of energy, materials and other sciences proved in many cases to be badly flawed.  As late as 1931 he was stubbornly trying to disprove Einstein's work because it contradicted his own rigid assumptions based on earlier, but generally abandoned models.  After burning through other peoples' development money without producing promised results he found himself defunded and his grand projects halted.

Tom Mariner
Tom Mariner

@Thomas Mc Aside from the fact that one of those attack ad hominem is false, are you saying that therefore we should not honor him for his achievements for all of mankind? 

You belong in our present government.

Brian Howard
Brian Howard expert

@Srebrovski Divoff Hi. Yes that's true, I knew that from my research but messed it up when writing the draft, I fixed it. thanks

Collin White
Collin White

It's hard to imagine what treasures those papers hold and how beneficial they would be today. Such a shame they remain a secret...

M Nava
M Nava

@Serb Srba @Croata Horvat Just read your comments! I am a native speaker of English so I understand that Tesla was a Serb when I see "born to Serbian parents."  Please do not get upset! Maybe misunderstanding each other's languages is part of the problem the world has today. Let's try the international language of patience, listening, trying to understand... love!

angela p
angela p

@Serb Srba @Croata Horvat  

Yes, you're so well informed about the communist rule - hello? no one was allowed to call themselves Croatian when Yugoslavia existed. You're version of which areas were croatian is your version, not the truth.

greg gorden
greg gorden

@Larry Fast @El Gabilon Where are you getting this information?     You are using semantics when you suggest that "Work-for-hire and licensing is not stealing." I don't think anyone is claiming that what Edison did was illegal, but the fact is that Edison gets the acclaim in the history books for inventing things that he did not invent.  We can credit Edison with providing the environment where other scientists were able to create and discover incredibly important work -- and certainly he laid down some significant groundwork that was built upon by others, but it would be dishonest to say that Edison invented all the things he holds patents for.

Croata Horvat
Croata Horvat

Croatia exists for 14 centuries no mater who was the occupying force in between 1918  and 1998, or, no mater with who Croatia was in union prior to 1918.

So, birthplace always was, is and will be in Croatia, no mater how many Serbian tanks cross Danube river to conquer Croatian lands, from 1918 until 1998, with aim to erase the nation, country, history and the truth.

Does family name Tesla sound like typical Serbian family name? (Milošević, Karađić, Mladić, Karađorđević, Ranković, Mihajlović, Ražnjatović, Đinđić, Nikolić...)

Wikipedia on other hand speaks about itself through pages full of lies written on nonexistent servo-Croatian language.

Julie Natek
Julie Natek

@Croata Horvat Tesla's father was an Orthodox priest. There is no doubt about his nationality-Orthodox Serbs, Croats are Catholics!

Julie Natek
Julie Natek

@Croata Horvat Tesla's father was an Orthodox priest. There is no doubt about his nationality-Orthodox Serbs, Croats are Catholics!  


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