Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856 in Smiljan, Lika, which was in what is now called Croatia. His father was a Serbian Orthodox Priest, his mother an inventor of household appliances. As a young boy, Tesla was always engineering things and displaying his curiosity.
He attended a number of universities, including the Realschule, the Polytechnic Institute in Austria, and the University of Prague. He originally intended to study physics and mathematics, but became fascinated by the emerging science of electricity.
His first job in the industry was as an electrical engineer at a telephone company in Budapest, Hungary in 1881. One day as he was walking through the park, he had a vision of a rotating magnetic field. He sketched a drawing of an induction motor on the ground, which was his first great idea.
He went to Paris, France for a while to work for the Continental Edison Company. While there, he designed dynamos and built a prototype of his induction motor. He attempted to sell the idea to investors in Europe unsuccessfully, finally deciding to move to New York City to work for Thomas Edison.
In 1884, he met Thomas Edison and began working for him in New Jersey. During that time he improved Edison's dynamos that used direct current, whereas Tesla's induction motor used alternating current. He showed his idea to Thomas Edison who promptly dismissed it as a terrible idea that would never work. Tensions developed between Tesla and Edison, eventually resulting in Edison firing him.
Tesla looked for other people that would believe in his idea, finally meeting a man named George Westinghouse, who funded Nikola Tesla's research. They developed a system that would allow AC power generation and transmission over long distances. In the meantime, a furious Thomas Edison began going around the country demonstrating the "dangers" of AC by electrocuting animals with very high voltages.
Tesla was able to show the right people that his system worked, resulting in a very important contract to build the Niagara generation station. The system was hydroelectric and used AC to transmit electricity over twenty miles to Buffalo, New York. This was the final nail in the coffin of Edison's DC system and AC slowly became the standard.
George Westinghouse purchased all 40 of Nikola Tesla's patents related to AC power with intent to build power stations all over the world. The power of AC was demonstrated to the public at the Wold Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The success of his system at the fair caused him to be talked about all over the world and given numerous awards.
In 1891, Tesla invented the Tesla coil, which was widely used in radios and television sets. The same year, he was given citizenship in the United States. Over many years he registered over 700 patents, including fluorescent light, laser beams, wireless communication, wireless transmission of energy, remote control, robotics, Tesla turbines, and vertical take-off aircraft.
In 1896, Tesla's X-rays were published in a magazine. About the same time, Roentgen announced that he had discovered X-rays and Tesla never tried to claim credit. Today, Roentgen is still credited with the discovery.
That same year, he patented a system of radio and successfully transmitted a signal and received it over a small distance in New York City. Tesla's radio system was used in US Navy ships and some other applications. In 1901, Marconi established radio transmissions across the Atlantic Ocean, earning him the Nobel Prize and dwarfing Tesla's discovery. In 1943, the US Supreme Court invalidated Marconi's most important patent, recognizing Tesla's discoveries as more significant. Despite most of Marconi's work not being original, he is given the record in history books as the inventor of radio.
Tesla also built a huge Tesla Coil at a Colorado Springs laboratory. It was able to create sparks eighty feet long, which could be seen for ten miles. It was here that he discovered terrestrial stationary waves. He showed that the Earth could be used as a conductor and was capable of resonating. He also lit 200 lamps from a distance of 25 miles, created lightning, and claimed that he received signals from another planet.
Between 1901 and 1905, he built the Wardenclyffe laboratory, which was financed by J.P. Morgan, on Long Island. There, he constructed a transmission tower with a height of 187 feet. It was intended to be able to transmit signals and power to any point on the globe. Unfortunately, Morgan withdrew his funds and it was demolished in 1917 before becoming fully operational.
At this point, Tesla's career began to decline. Despite all of his discoveries, he lived the remainder of his life in relative poverty, dying January 7, 1943 in the Hotel New Yorker.
Tesla received many honors throughout his life, including honorary doctoral degrees from Yale and Columbia, decorations from various nations, and numerous publications in major journals. At one point in 1915, the New York Times announced that both Tesla and Edison were to share a Nobel Prize. However, neither of the men received the award, with rumors abounding that the two refused to share anything.
After his death, the FBI seized his lab and all of his papers. A number of his journals have been published, but much of his research is still unknown. Today he has developed a sort of mystique and cult following, remembered as one of the greatest engineers in history who advanced science a great deal.