You are not currently logged in.

Login through your institution for access.


Log in through your institution.


Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 520
Stable URL:
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Nikola Tesla was a major contributor to the electrical revolution that transformed daily life at the turn of the twentieth century. His inventions, patents, and theoretical work formed the basis of modern AC electricity, and contributed to the development of radio and television. Like his competitor Thomas Edison, Tesla was one of America's first celebrity scientists, enjoying the company of New York high society and dazzling the likes of Mark Twain with his electrical demonstrations. An astute self-promoter and gifted showman, he cultivated a public image of the eccentric genius. Even at the end of his life when he was living in poverty, Tesla still attracted reporters to his annual birthday interview, regaling them with claims that he had invented a particle-beam weapon capable of bringing down enemy aircraft.

    Plenty of biographies glamorize Tesla and his eccentricities, but until now none has carefully examined what, how, and why he invented. In this groundbreaking book, W. Bernard Carlson demystifies the legendary inventor, placing him within the cultural and technological context of his time, and focusing on his inventions themselves as well as the creation and maintenance of his celebrity. Drawing on original documents from Tesla's private and public life, Carlson shows how he was an "idealist" inventor who sought the perfect experimental realization of a great idea or principle, and who skillfully sold his inventions to the public through mythmaking and illusion.

    This major biography sheds new light on Tesla's visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4655-9
    Subjects: History, Physics
    × Close Overlay

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations
  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations (pp. ix-xvi)

    It was a hot summer night in New York in 1894, and the reporter had decided that it was time to meet the Wizard.

    The reporter, Arthur Brisbane, was an up-and-coming newspaperman from Joseph Pulitzer’sNew York World. He had covered the mystery of Jack the Ripper in London, the Homestead Strike in Pittsburgh, and the first execution by electrocution at Sing Sing. Brisbane had an eye for detail and could tell a story that would intrigue a hundred thousand readers. He would go on to edit theNew York Journalfor William Randolph Hearst, help start the Spanish-American War,...

  5. CHAPTER ONE AN IDEAL CHILDHOOD (1856–1878) (pp. 12-33)

    Inventors must live with an exquisite tension. On the one hand, they must be in touch with their inner feelings, insights, and impulses—what Tesla calls the “promptings of an imagination vivid and undisciplined”—since these are often the source of new ideas and inventions. On the other hand, inventors can convert an insight into a practical invention only by connecting it to the larger world of markets and needs, and they do this by systematic thinking and design. Inventors must merge the subjective (what they know from inside themselves) with the objective (what they learn about the outside world).¹...

  6. CHAPTER TWO DREAMING OF MOTORS (1878–1882) (pp. 34-59)

    Tesla arrived in Graz in the fall of 1875 to begin his studies at the Joanneum Polytechnic School. The Joanneum was founded in 1811 as a gift from Archduke John to the counts of Styria (an Austrian province), and in 1864 it became a Technische Hochschule. Along with institutes at Vienna, Prague, and Brno, the Joanneum was one of four schools in the Austrian Empire that offered engineering degrees.¹

    Though the school offered a course of study in civil engineering, Tesla initially enrolled in mathematics and physics, with the intention of becoming a professor.² In so doing, he would have...

  7. CHAPTER THREE LEARNING BY DOING (1882–1886) (pp. 60-75)

    Armed with his insight about using a rotating magnetic field in his motor, Tesla resumed his mental engineering. “For a while,” he recalled fondly,

    I gave myself up entirely to the intense enjoyment of picturing machines and devising new forms. It was a mental state of happiness about as complete as I have ever known in life. Ideas came in an uninterrupted stream and the only difficulty I had was to hold them fast. The pieces of apparatus I conceived were to me absolutely real and tangible in every detail, even to the minutest marks and signs of wear. I...


    In the midst of hardship, Tesla mustered the energy needed to file a patent application for a thermomagnetic motor in March 1886. Just as his arc-lighting inventions saved him after he left Edison, so this new application helped him get back on his feet.

    It is likely that Tesla got to thinking about the relationship between magnetism and heat while working at the Edison Machine Works since Edison was then experimenting with a pyromagnetic generator that would directly produce electricity from burning coal. In one dramatic experiment in 1884, Edison heated coal until it incandesced and then introduced a gas...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE SELLING THE MOTOR (1888–1889) (pp. 100-116)

    Prodded by Brown and Page, Tesla spent April and May 1888 working at a feverish pace. He now understood the necessity of testing and preparing patent applications for as many split-phase motor designs as possible. “I made daily experiments,” he remembered, “and improvised . . . models from pieces of sheet iron and disks and rotors of various shapes placed in temporary bearings. I may have had possibly 20 finished models that were complete, as nearly as I can recollect.” As his experiments progressed, Tesla gave Page oral reports from which Page prepared patent applications. Out of the plethora of...

  10. CHAPTER SIX SEARCHING FOR A NEW IDEAL (1889–1891) (pp. 117-128)

    By August 1889 Tesla had grown restless and was ready to leave Westinghouse. He had uncovered the perfect idea for an AC motor, and it was up to others to work out the details. He was ready to move on to fresh fields.

    Living off what he had earned at Westinghouse, Tesla traveled to Europe that summer as a member of the delegation from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers to the Congrès International des Electriciens. This congress was being held in conjunction with the Exposition Universelle in Paris, and so Tesla was able to review the numerous electrical exhibits...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN A VERITABLE MAGICIAN (1891) (pp. 129-142)

    During the winter of 1890–91, Tesla was probably thinking about how to generate public interest and financial support for his inventions because his major patron, Westinghouse, was in deep financial trouble. Thanks to the company’s innovative AC product line, annual sales at Westinghouse had grown from $800,000 in 1887 to $4.7 million in 1890.¹ As sales boomed, though, Westinghouse had to develop an engineering staff and enlarge his factories. At the same time, Westinghouse joined Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston in buying out smaller companies and engaging in vigorous patent litigation. Westinghouse partly financed this expansion by advancing the...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT TAKING THE SHOW TO EUROPE (1891–1892) (pp. 143-157)

    In the months following the Columbia lecture, Tesla tried to ignore the public acclaim and concentrate on his high-frequency experiments. “When my tubes were first publicly exhibited they were viewed with [an] amazement impossible to describe,” Tesla recalled. “From all parts of the world I received urgent invitations and numerous honors and other flattering inducements were offered to me, which I declined.” With cans on the rooftop and grounded circuits, he was getting promising results and felt little desire to interrupt his labors. As theElectrical Worldobserved in January 1892, “In his skillful hands the experiments have extended far...


    Tesla sailed from Hamburg on theAugusta Victoriaand arrived back in New York on 27 August 1892.¹ Upon his return, he changed both his laboratory and residence. He enlarged his laboratory by relocating from Grand Street to 33–35 South Fifth Avenue (today LaGuardia Place) where he occupied the fourth floor in a nondescript factory building. Located just south of Washington Square, his new laboratory was “in the heart of that picturesque neighborhood known as the French Quarter, teeming with cheap restaurants, wine shops, and weather-beaten tenements.” In late September, Tesla switched from the Astor House to the Gerlach...


    Through the winter of 1892–93, while he was corresponding with Adams about Niagara, Tesla was also working on his high-frequency apparatus. In doing so, several strands from his recent trip to Europe came together. Lord Rayleigh had told him that he was destined to discover great things, Sir William Crookes had suggested the possibility of using electromagnetic waves to transmit messages, and he had had a moment of insight during the thunderstorm that the forces of the Earth might somehow be harnessed. Weaving these strands together, Tesla decided to see if he could discover a way of using the...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN EFFORTS AT PROMOTION (1894–1895) (pp. 193-213)

    By 1894, based on his investigation of high frequencies, Tesla had worked out a new system of electric lighting as well as a new steam-powered oscillator. It was now time to start promoting these inventions in order to attract new customers for the patents he had secured. Just as he had done with Peck and Brown five years earlier with the AC motor, Tesla set out to shape the expectations—the illusions—that people would have for these new inventions. To do so, Tesla decided that he needed to establish his reputation as a leading electrical inventor (Figure 11.1).


  16. CHAPTER TWELVE LOOKING FOR ALTERNATIVES (1895–1898) (pp. 214-261)

    As Tesla’s public persona grew during the 1890s, so did his social circle. Along with T. Commerford Martin and the Johnsons, he could now count on Mark Twain and Joseph Jefferson as friends, but another new acquaintance was the architect Stanford White. The son of a Shakespeare scholar, White studied architecture under Henry H. Richardson. In 1879 he joined Charles Follen McKim and William Rutherford Mead to form what became one of the most famous firms in American architectural history. Drawing on the Beaux Arts movement, McKim, Mead, and White designed many of the most important public buildings of their...

  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN STATIONARY WAVES (1899–1900) (pp. 262-301)

    By the spring of 1899, all the elements needed to realize his ideal wireless power system were falling into place for Tesla: he had perfected the circuitry needed to create a powerful high-voltage, high-frequency transmitter, he had discovered how to tune his transmitter and receivers by adjusting the capacitance and inductance, and he had become convinced that the atmosphere could serve as the return circuit for his system.

    Yet to make this system practical, several areas required further investigation. First he had “to ascertain the laws of propagation of currents through the earth and the atmosphere” to ensure that his...

  18. CHAPTER FOURTEEN WARDENCLYFFE (1900–1901) (pp. 302-330)

    Satisfied in his own mind that power could be transmitted around the world without wires, Tesla triumphantly returned to New York in January 1900. With wireless power, Tesla was now at the same point he had been in 1887 with his AC motor. In both cases he had observed phenomena he believed were ideal for shaping into major inventions. In 1887, he had just succeeded in getting a shoe polish tin to spin in a rotating magnetic field whereas in 1900, Tesla was convinced that he could set up stationary waves in the Earth and transmit power and messages. It...

  19. CHAPTER FIFTEEN THE DARK TOWER (1901–1905) (pp. 331-367)

    Through the fall of 1901, as Tesla supervised construction of his laboratory and tower at Wardenclyffe, he was confident that he was close to success. As he gaily wrote to Katharine Johnson on 13 October 1901:

    13 is my lucky number and so I know you will comply with my wish . . . [for you to] come to the Waldorf. And if you do—when I transmit my wireless messages across seas and continents you will get the finest bonnet ever made [even] if it breaks me. . . .

    I have ordered a simple lunch and you must...

  20. CHAPTER SIXTEEN VISIONARY TO THE END (1905–1943) (pp. 368-395)

    Tesla lived well into the twentieth century and passed away at the age of eighty-seven in 1943. He continued to invent, but as John G. Trump, an MIT professor, observed after reviewing Tesla’s papers in 1943, “his thoughts and efforts during at least the past fifteen years were primarily of a speculative, philosophical and somewhat promotional character—often concerned with the production and wireless transmission of power—but did not include new sound workable principles or methods for realising such results.”¹ Ideal and illusion continued to shape Tesla’s creative approach to the very end.

    As he recovered from his nervous...

  21. EPILOGUE (pp. 396-414)

    In the decades since his death, Tesla has enjoyed a curious legacy. On one hand, he is acknowledged by engineers for his contributions to alternating current (AC), and in 1956 “Tesla” was adopted as the name for the unit of measure for the flux density of magnetic fields. On the other hand, thanks to the many colorful predictions he made about his inventions, Tesla has become a figure in popular culture. In these closing pages, I wish to reflect not only on Tesla as a cultural figure but, more important, on what we can learn from him about the invention...

  22. NOTE ON SOURCES (pp. 415-420)
  24. NOTES (pp. 423-472)
  25. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. 473-476)
  26. INDEX (pp. 477-500)