This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for July 10, 2017: Woman with a Hole in Her Stocking

July 10, 2017: birthday: Nikola Tesla

It is the birthday of inventor Nikola Tesla (books by this author), born in Smiljan, Austria-Hungary (now Croatia) (1856). He picked up an interest in inventing from his mother, who used to come up with new and helpful household appliances in her spare time.

He patented the rotating magnetic field, which is the basis for alternating-current machinery, and he also invented the Tesla induction coil, an essential component in radio technology. He sailed to America in 1884, bringing with him four cents, plans for a flying machine, and a few poems he’d written. He got a job with Thomas Edison, but the two had incompatible styles and soon parted ways. Tesla then sold his patent for alternating-current dynamos to Edison’s rival, George Westinghouse. Edison waged a media campaign against Westinghouse, Tesla, and alternating current, but to no avail: the Westinghouse Corporation was selected to provide lighting at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, where Tesla demonstrated how safe alternating current was. He would hook himself up to an electric lamp and allow the current to pass through his body on its way to lighting the lamp.

Two years later, Tesla designed one of the first hydroelectric power plants in the country, at Niagara Falls; the plant was soon supplying power to the city of Buffalo, New York. In 1900, he imagined a worldwide wireless communication system that could also provide free electricity via an enormous tower. J.P. Morgan and other investors funded him at first, but then Edison — and Guglielmo Marconi — caught the investors’ eye with their own radio technology. Tesla was forced to scrap his project, literally as well as figuratively: his tower was dismantled and sold for scrap to pay Tesla’s debts. Tesla suffered a nervous breakdown, and eventually died, impoverished and alone, in 1943. His alternating current system is still the standard power system in use in the world today.