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Nikola Tesla was an engineer known for designing the alternating-current (AC) electric system, the system that powers our grid today. For a man that created such an important technology that helped bolster the development of human civilisation, you’d think he died a rich man basking in his glory but unfortunately Tesla died poor and reclusive, spending much of his time feeding – and communicating – with the local pigeons. Though he was famous and respected, he was never able to translate his copious inventions into long-term financial success.
Born in 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia, Tesla studied math and physics at the Technical University of Graz and philosophy at the University of Prague, eventually emigrating to America in 1884. Over the course of the next 60 years until his death, Tesla was to make some incredible inventions that helped shape the future of human civilisation.
The A/C Electrical System
Tesla designed the alternating-current (AC) electrical system, which has remained the worldwide standard ever since. In 1887, Tesla found funding for his new Tesla Electric Company, and by the end of the year he had successfully filed several patents for AC-based inventions.
In 1888 Tesla sold patents for his AC technology to American engineer and businessman George Westinghouse, who’s aim was to supply the nation with energy, for $60,000 and stock in his company the Westinghouse Corporation. The AC power supply system was in direct competition with the DC system championed by the infamous Thomas Edison. Edison was no stranger to Tesla due to their working together a few years earlier when Nikola had first arrived in America.
Despite spending two years working together, Edison and Tesla parted ways due to scientific differences (some speculate he wasn’t happy Edison didn’t pay him the promised $50,000 for improving his DC Dynamos). Because of the competition now arising between the two, Edison embarked upon a press campaign to undermine interest in Tesla’s AC power system. This ended up proving fruitless as the Westinghouse Corporation were awarded the opportunity to supply the lighting to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This was a fantastic platform for Tesla to show off his AC system.
Hydroelectric Power Plant
With his AC system gaining traction and popularity, Tesla designed what was among the first AC hydroelectric power plants in the United States in 1895, located at Niagara Falls on the American border. Previous attempts by others to harness the power of Niagara Falls had ended in failure or bankruptcy. The designs usually powered mechanical objects such as mill wheels or were used to generate DC current.
The biggest flaw of the DC current system was that it could inly be distributed over a distance of 1-2 miles. Growing cities such as Buffalo which was only 20 miles away were unable to benefit from the DC systems deployed there. This changed with the arrival of Tesla and the Westinghouse Corporation. A year after the plant opened, it was used to power the city of Buffalo, New York. This event was highly publicised the world over and helped secure the future of the AC system.
Tesla’s success changed the world, and soon many other power stations would be built at Niagara and elsewhere in the United States. Within ten years hydroelectric plants would provide 15 percent of all the electricity in the U.S.; by 1920 that had reached 25 percent.
The Tesla Coil
This creation laid the foundation for wireless technologies, a high-frequency transformer capable of creating very high voltage at low current. Circuitry using the Tesla coil was part of the first generation of transmitters to carry wireless telegraphy. Tesla used his brainchild to research such diverse areas as lighting, X-rays and electric power transmission. Customised Tesla coils are now frequently used to ignite powerful mercury and sodium streetlamps.
Although they have now been largely replaced by more modern circuitry, Tesla coils frequently show up in popular culture, most commonly in the form of high-tech guns in video games, blasting bolts of lightning at adversaries. On the big screen, a Tesla coil was used to produce lighting effects for the 1979 film "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."
Despite some of the ground-breaking work he was involved with Tesla’s last big project, a global, wireless communication system ended in failure after his financiers, including the financial giant J.P. Morgan, became dubious about the plausibility of Tesla’s system. The withdrawal of finances left Tesla with no choice but to shut the project down, eventually leading Tesla to declare bankruptcy and dismantling the tower to pay off debts he had accrued.
A nervous breakdown followed the closure of his project and Tesla eventually returned to work as a consultant. As time went on, his ideas became progressively more outlandish and impractical. He grew increasingly eccentric, devoting much of his time to the care of wild pigeons in New York City's parks.
Poor and reclusive, Nikola Tesla died on January 7, 1943, at the age of 86 however, his legacy lives on to this day as the foundation upon which all our electrical needs are supplied.
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