An American Dream Fulfilled: Nikola Tesla

From the time of this nation’s birth, immigrants have crossed over to America’s shores in pursuit of new lives built with hard work, determination, and ingenuity. Their immense contributions are part of the very fabric of this country. To highlight the incredible talent and diversity that immigrants have brought to our land over hundreds of years, MurthyDotCom periodically highlights the life of a notable immigrant who has left a lasting mark on history. The latest entry in our continuing series, entitled An American Dream Fulfilled, is inventor Nikola Tesla.

Born in what is now Croatia, in 1856, Tesla showed brilliance from an early age. He had a prodigious memory and taught himself how to speak several languages while still in grammar school. As an electrical engineering student at Austria’s Polytechnic Institute, Tesla gained the attention of his professors for his intensely focused research on electromagnetic fields and his desire to invent a motor powered by alternate current – a groundbreaking idea at the time. However, before Tesla could develop the motor, he suffered a mental breakdown and was forced to leave the school.

After regaining his mental health, Tesla immigrated to New York City, in 1884, with the intention of working for Thomas Edison, who had established a worldwide reputation as a prolific inventor and shrewd businessman. Edison hired him to improve the power and efficiency of the motors being used in his General Electric company, but when he refused to pay Tesla the $50,000 salary they agreed upon, Tesla quit and found a job digging ditches. He was soon hired by the Western Union Company to develop the alternate current motor he had long envisioned and patented his invention, which was touted as the most valuable commodity since the telephone.

Tesla’s breakthrough attracted the attention of George Westinghouse, an entrepreneur and fierce competitor of Edison’s. In a bid to defeat Edison, he licensed the patents for Tesla’s alternate current motor and used it to boost sales for his Westinghouse Electric company. Despite agreeing to pay Tesla millions in royalties for his invention, Westinghouse convinced Tesla to tear up the contract so his company could remain financially solvent. On the cusp of becoming one of the richest men in the world, Tesla simply walked away from fame and fortune.

His later life was further punctuated by bursts of genius, as he continued to struggle with his finances and mental health. In 1897, he patented the Tesla Coil, a high voltage coil that could broadcast radio transmissions and was granted funds by J.P. Morgan to build a giant tower to send and receive signals. However, a competing electrical engineer managed to actually send the first transatlantic radio signal and thus was credited as the inventor of radio technology. Construction of the tower was abandoned, and once again fame and fortune were just out of reach for Tesla. The defeat led to another mental breakdown, as Tesla lamented that his Tesla Coils were “not a dream – it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering … blind, faint-hearted, doubting world!”

By 1912, Tesla was in debt and living in a sparsely furnished hotel room in New York City. While he continued to develop innovations in the electrical engineering field, financial success eluded him, and his mental health became more and more fragile. It was only after his death, in 1943, that the magnitude of Tesla’s accomplishments became known to the world, making his American Dream a bittersweet one. [See The Rise and Fall of Nikoli Tesla and his Tower: The inventor’s vision of a global wireless-transmission tower proved to be his undoing by Gilbert King,, 04.Feb.2013.]


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