The 75th anniversary of Tesla’s death on Jan. 7 provides a timely opportunity to review the life of a man who came from nowhere yet became world famous; claimed to be devoted solely to discovery but relished the role of a showman; attracted the attention of many women but never married; and generated ideas that transformed daily life and created multiple fortunes but died nearly penniless.
During his teen years, he fell seriously ill, recovering once his father abandoned his demand that Nikola become a priest and agreed he could attend engineering school instead. Although an outstanding student, Tesla eventually withdrew from polytechnic school and ended up working for the Continental Edison Company, where he focused on electrical lighting and motors.
Tesla then developed a relationship with two businessmen that led to the founding of Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. In 1887, Tesla met two investors who agreed to back the formation of the Tesla Electric Company.
With the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 looming in Chicago, Westinghouse asked Tesla to help supply power; they’d have a huge platform for demonstrating the merits of AC. Tesla helped the fair illuminate more light bulbs than could be found in the entire city of Chicago, and wowed audiences with a variety of wonders, including an electric light that required no wires.
Tesla did receive numerous honors and awards over his life, including, ironically, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers Edison Medal.
Tesla was a real-life Prometheus: the mythical Greek titan who raided heaven to bring fire to mankind, yet in punishment was chained to a rock where each day an eagle ate his liver.