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Nicola Tesla was a Serbian-American inventor many believed was born before his time. Others thought of him as an outspoken and flamboyant showman, the darling of reporters and the social set, and an inspiration to writers like Samuel Clemens and Hugo Gernsback. Still others regarded Tesla a megalomaniachal madman and were thankful he was never given the opportunity to take his many inventions to the limits he envisioned.

Born in 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia Tesla matured into a man who was thought of as a great dreamer. He pursued an engineering career and attended university in Graz, Austria and then later the University of Prague. After seeing the Gramme dynamo, Tesla conceived of the concept of alternating currents and soon devised the principle of the rotating magnetic field and the induction motor.

He worked in Paris for a short time for Continental Edison Co. and during his off hours constructed his first induction motor prototype. In 1884 he landed in New York, virtually penniless, but with great plans for a successful future.

Tesla worked with Thomas Edison for a short time but neither inventor seemed to agree with the other’s theories or methods. However many of Edison’s most famous inventions like the carbon microphone, the phonograph, electric light and the movie projector, were influenced by his rival, Nicola Tesla.

By 1885 Tesla sold his patent rights for alternating current dynamos, transformers and motors. He then proceeded to set up his own laboratory and began experimenting with concepts that were similar to X-rays. These experiments lead him to make other discoveries like carbon button lamps, electrical resonance and to work to improve the
design of arc lamps. He also went on to design the induction motor, the invention that made him world famous.

He established the Tesla Electrical Company and in 1887 filed many more patents, some of them so unusual the US patent office granted them immediately. In 1891 he developed the Tesla coil, at the time a groundbreaking innovation and one that remains today as the basis for televisions and radios.

By now Tesla had gained much media attention and he basked in it. He regularly had exhibitions in his laboratory and amazed crowds by allowing electricity to flow through his body to light wireless lamps. Tesla lectured across the US and abroad. Westinghouse used one of his systems to light the World’s Exposition in Chicago in 1893. As a result he was awarded a contract for installation of the first power machinery at Niagara Falls. By 1896 his system was bringing electricity to Buffalo, New York.

By 1891 Tesla had discovered that a vacuum tube held beside a Tesla coil would light bulbs without wires or filaments. He realized that electrical resonance was responsible for this discovery and after calculating the frequency of the needed current was able to turn lights on and off from far away. Tesla had become a US citizen that year and gifted his “free energy” concept to the United States.

In 1893 Tesla was demonstrating the concepts of remote control at an exhibition in Madison Square Gardens. The audience thought they were witnessing magic but Tesla was simply using frequencies to control a toy ship.

Tesla re-located to Colorado in 1899 for freer rein with his experiments. He built a barn-like laboratory topped with what he called a “magnifying transformer”, a device he considered his greatest invention. Citizens of Colorado Springs soon noticed odd things happening around town: sparks shooting from the ground, the soles of shoes smoking, hydrants drawing tiny lightning bolts. Tesla claimed he was adjusting his transformer so it would be in perfect resonance with the Earth. To prove that the Earth is a conductor and would act like a tuning fork to electrical vibrations set at a specific frequency, he discharged ten million volts into the Earth. The charge shot across the planet, bounced back, raced up his special transformer and produced a 130 foot arc of lightning. Thunder was heard almost 30 miles away.

Tesla returned to New York and gained financing from J.P. Morgan to begin developing a means to transmit worldwide wireless communication. Experts believe his idea may have been a precursor to today’s Internet. In a facility called Wardenclyffe, Tesla suffered repeated accidents and bad luck and it didn’t take long for financial problems and labor difficulties to shut down the project.

During the last decade of Tesla’s life, many people wondered what secret or mad inventions he was concocting. He espoused genetic engineering, believed he could contact Martians, proposed the first theories of radar, used bizarre forms of electric physical therapy, devised a “thought photography” machine -- the list goes on. Tesla
even claimed that the one firing of his “particle beam weapon” prototype caused the devastating blast that leveled thousands of acres near Tunguska, Russia, in 1908.

Tesla was also intrigued by time, space, and matter displacement and may have been working on a way to manipulate electromagnetic waves. Was Tesla’s “wall of light” theory the basis for tests used years later in the infamous Philadelphia experiment? No one knows or will say for sure.

Nicola Tesla’s gifted mind spawned many ingenious, unbelievable and even bizarre inventions. Whether he was a genius or a madman, his legacy to science is unprecedented.