Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, and futurist best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. He made dozens of breakthroughs in the production, transmission and application of electric power. He invented the first (AC) motor and developed AC generation and transmission technology. Though he was famous and respected, he was never able to translate his copious inventions into long-term financial success—unlike his early employer and chief rival, Thomas Edison.
During the 1890s Mark Twain struck up a friendship with inventor Nikola Tesla. Twain often visited him in his lab, where in 1894 Tesla photographed the great American writer in one of the first pictures ever lit by phosphorescent light.
Tesla arrived in New York in 1884 and was hired as an engineer at Thomas Edison’s Manhattan headquarters. He worked there for a year, impressing Edison with his diligence and ingenuity. At one point Edison told Tesla he would pay $50,000 for an improved design for his DC dynamos. After months of experimentation, Tesla presented a solution and asked for the money. Edison demurred, saying, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” Tesla quit soon after.
After an unsuccessful attempt to start his own Tesla Electric Light Company and a stint digging ditches for $2 a day, Tesla found backers to support his research into alternating current. In 1887 and 1888 he was granted more than 30 patents for his inventions and invited to address the American Institute of Electrical Engineers on his work. His lecture caught the attention of George Westinghouse, the inventor who had launched the first AC power system near Boston and was Edison’s major competitor in the “Battle of the Currents.”
Westinghouse hired Tesla, licensed the patents for his AC motor and gave him his own lab. In 1890 Edison arranged for a convicted New York murderer to be put to death in an AC-powered electric chair—a stunt designed to show how dangerous the Westinghouse standard could be. Edison also commonly electrocuted puppies to demonstrate the danger.
In the 1890s Tesla invented electric oscillators, meters, improved lights and the high-voltage transformer known as the Tesla coil. He also experimented with X-rays, gave short-range demonstrations of radio communication two years before Guglielmo Marconi and piloted a radio-controlled boat around a pool in Madison Square Garden. Together, Tesla and Westinghouse lit the 1891 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and partnered with General Electric to install AC generators at Niagara Falls, creating the first modern power station.
Tesla lived his last decades in a New York hotel, working on new inventions even as his energy and mental health faded. His obsession with the number three and fastidious washing were dismissed as the eccentricities of genius. He spent his final years feeding—and, he claimed, communicating with—the city’s pigeons.
Tesla died in his room on January 7, 1943. Later that year the U.S. Supreme Court voided four of Marconi’s key patents, belatedly acknowledging Tesla’s innovations in radio. The AC system he championed and improved remains the global standard for power transmission.