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Nikola Tesla: the deceived genius

The Serb Nikola Tesla was one of the most brilliant inventors of all time, but again and again he allowed himself to be deprived of the fruits of his labor.

One evening in 1891, Serbian Nikola Tesla, who emigrated to the USA, opened the performance with a snap of his fingers: a red fireball flares up in his hand. The tall man gently lets the flames slide onto his white tailcoat, then onto his black hair, which is parted in the middle. Finally, the magician stows the mysterious fire in a wooden box - completely unharmed to the astonishment of the audience.

“Now I'll make daylight for you,” Tesla calls out. Suddenly the screening room, his laboratory on New York's South Fifth Avenue, shines in a wonderfully bright light.

Then the inventor jumps onto a platform that is connected to an electrical voltage generator. He slowly turns the regulator up until his body is finally exposed to a voltage of two million volts.

Electric discharges crackle around his body. Lightning and flames flash from his hands. When Tesla switches off the voltage, a bluish glow still shimmers around him, as some later recall. The "magician of electricity" loves to enchant New York's high society with his productions and

To show reporters the power and safety of the electricity system he developed. Last but not least, his spectacular demonstrations are propaganda in the war for global electrification.

Nikola Tesla's opponent is a shrewd businessman

It is a war that Tesla is waging (albeit involuntarily) against a second, no less celebrated inventor. A man of such a different nature that he looks like the alternative to Tesla: Thomas Alva Edison - shirt-sleeved, cunning, business-minded.

For the American, Tesla is nothing more than a “science poet”, a theorist and hapless inventor whose ideas are “great, but extremely useless”. Edison measures the value of an invention by how many dollars it makes his company.

For Tesla, on the other hand, it's not just about money: the purpose of an invention, he says, is primarily to harness the forces of nature for human needs.

The battle for electricity: Tesla will win it. And yet - as so often in his life - emerge as a loser.

Nikola Tesla seems to have grasped the mysterious power of electricity as a child. The son of Serbian parents, who was born on July 10, 1856 in the Croatian village of Smiljan, sees bright flashes of light again and again. "In some cases, all of the air around me was filled with living, flaming tongues," Tesla later recalls in his autobiography.

Often these appearances go hand in hand with inner images. Then Tesla sees rooms or objects in his mind's eye, so clearly that he can hardly tell dream and reality apart. Over time, he learns to control these visual inspirations. He travels in his mind to foreign cities and countries, talks to people in his mind, makes friends.

The young inventor works without drawings and models

When Tesla begins to “seriously deal with inventions” at the age of 17, his imagination is revealed: He doesn't need models, drawings or experiments to develop devices - he follows the entire creative process of an invention in his head. There he sets up the equipment, corrects mistakes and lets them run. “It doesn't matter at all to me whether I'm running a turbine in my mind or in the workshop,” he writes. "I can even tell when she's out of whack."

In 1875 the 19-year-old received a scholarship at the Technical University in Graz. He learns obsessively - sometimes from three in the morning until eleven in the evening - and passes nine exams with top marks in the first year. "I

had a real mania to finish everything that I had started, ”Tesla recalls later. When he begins to read Voltaire, he discovers to his chagrin that “this monster” has written around 100 books - but still torments his way through the mammoth work.

In any case, there is something obsessive about the young man. He has a strong dislike for pearls and earrings, is disgusted with other people's hair. He gets hot when he sees a peach. He repeats certain

Activities so often that the number of repetitions can be divided by three. He always counts the steps

Walk, calculates the volume of soup plates, coffee cups, groceries. “If I didn't, I didn't like my food,” he notes.

In Graz, Tesla finally stumbled upon that mysterious research area that he would never let go of in his life: electricity. For most people at that time, electricity is still an occult sap that flows through wires as if by magic. Tesla wants to understand the laws of this fluid - and is instinctively convinced that the future belongs to a system that was not yet practical at the time, alternating current.

Nikola Tesla believes in the future of alternating current

In contrast to a direct current generator, which generates electricity with a fixed magnet and a coil rotating inside the device, in an alternating current generator the magnet rotates in the center and thus produces electricity in the external coils.

The advantage: the current no longer has to be drawn on a rotating coil with the help of sparks spraying sliding contacts. Instead, it arises in the outer, static part of the generator.

But all electrically operated devices of that time draw their power from the direct current flowing permanently in one direction. In particular, electric motors that are operated by alternating current are unthinkable by scientists. But Tesla trusts its intuition. In his mind he tests one AC motor after the other, mentally observing how the rapidly changing current rushes through the circuits. Initially without success.

It took seven years for the engineer, now employed by a Budapest telephone company, to make his breakthrough. During an evening stroll through the city park in 1882, the solution shot through his head "like lightning".

Tesla grabs a stick and draws a diagram of a completely new type of motor in the dust, in which external coils, through which alternating currents flow, generate a rotating magnetic field. As a result, forces act on the rotor inside, which drive it.

As if in a frenzy, he developed more motors, dynamos and transformers in the following weeks, all of which require - or generate - alternating current. “It was a mental state of happiness, more complete than I have ever known before in my life,” he writes. "The ideas came in a steady stream, and the only difficulty I had was getting hold of them."

Tesla also recognizes that alternating current has a decisive advantage over direct current: Due to its physical nature, it can be sent through the cables over hundreds of kilometers with almost no loss. Direct current, on the other hand, can only be transported over short distances.

Two years later, in 1884, he quit his company and set off for New York with a letter of recommendation in hand. He wants to look for a job there with the great Thomas Alva Edison and inspire him for his groundbreaking invention.

Edison promises the genius a $ 50,000 bonus

In the middle of Manhattan, the light bulb magnate built the world's first public power plant. However, the direct current produced there is only able to illuminate the electric street lamps within a few hundred meters. So Edison plans to cover the city with a network of generators.

The letter of recommendation gives Tesla an interview. But even the first encounter with Edison is sobering: When Tesla explains the advantages of his electricity system, the American angrily replies that he should stop the nonsense. “People like direct current, and it's everything I'll ever bother with.” However, Edison recognizes the young Serb's technical talent, hires him - and even promises Tesla a bonus of 50,000 US dollars if he can should succeed in improving the performance of the direct current dynamos.

Tesla accepts the offer and, after almost a year of hard work, can report the success to its boss: The modifications to Edison's dynamos have been completed, the efficiency has increased significantly.

But the promised reward does not materialize - Edison refuses to pay the bonus: “Tesla, you don't understand American humor,” he explains. Tesla announces indignantly. He will later write of the alleged genius of the century: “If Edison had to find a needle in a haystack, he would immediately go about with the eagerness of a bee to examine straw by straw until he found the object he was looking for. I was a regretful witness of such acts and knew that a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the work. "

Nikola starts his own company

Tesla has made his outstanding work at the "Edison Electric Light Company" known in specialist circles. And so, shortly after his resignation, the 29-year-old accepted an offer from a group of investors and founded his own company, the "Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing Company".

But again his hopes are not fulfilled. Instead of bringing alternating current systems to market maturity, the financiers let him design innovative street and factory lights. Among other things, Tesla is working on the development of an arc lamp, acquires several patents - and after completing his task is pushed out of the company by investors and cheated out of his remuneration.

“This was followed by a period of struggle,” recalls the inventor. For a year he even had to make ends meet as a day laborer in road construction.

Until his fate took an unexpected turn in the spring of 1887: the foreman of his construction crew found out about Tesla's supposed miracle engine and put him in contact with Alfred K. Brown, director of the Western Union Telegraph Company (telegraph companies need electricity - so Brown is interested in alternating current, the can be transmitted over long distances without loss).

Not far from the Edison Company in Manhattan, they rent a spacious laboratory in which Tesla can finally drive the practical implementation of its AC system. The war over electricity begins: Tesla brings out one patent after the other for components of its innovative engines, gives lectures, puts itself in the limelight in front of an enthusiastic audience and soon wins the attention of industrialist George Westinghouse.

A financially strong industrialist acquires Nikola Tesla's patents

Westinghouse, himself an engineer and inventor, entered the electricity market a few years earlier and bought several patents. Unlike Edison, he believes in the cost-effectiveness of the new technology. He acquires Tesla's patents, agrees to pay a license fee of two and a half dollars for every horsepower “Tesla electricity” sold - and goes into battle for alternating current.

Due to the low energy losses, Westinghouse can build its power plants outside the cities. In addition, thinner copper cables are sufficient than with direct current, so that the costs for the cables are lower than those of the competitor. This means that Westinghouse can sell electricity more cheaply and will soon have more customers

as Edison.

But he strikes back: Edison collects information about accidents with alternating current, writes pamphlets and urges politicians. He pays schoolboys to catch cats and dogs for him, straps the animals onto metal plates in public demonstrations and chases them with alternating current through their twitching bodies. Then he asks the audience: "Is that the invention your dear women should cook with?"

In January 1889, a law came into force in New York under which murderers were sentenced to death by electrocution - and Edison promptly advocated the use of alternating current. In August 1890 a person died for the first time in an electric chair: from alternating current. The switch has to be thrown twice until the convict stops twitching.

But Edison's abuse campaigns do not have the desired effect. Within two years, Westinghouse is building more than 30 power plants and supplying 130 American cities with Tesla's alternating current.

Nikola Tesla waives royalties in the billions

In 1893 the contract for the lighting of the World's Fair in Chicago was put out to tender: Westinghouse undercuts Edison by almost a million dollars. From November 1896, cities around the world almost exclusively installed AC systems. Nikola Tesla is about to become one of the richest men in the world: According to the license agreement, he should collect fees for every electric motor sold, and indeed for all applications of the AC patent.

But donors urge Westinghouse to change the contract. The entrepreneur makes it clear to Tesla that his decision will determine the fate of the company. Tesla, seeing a friend in Westinghouse, tears up his contract and exchanges the royalties on his patents for a one-time lump sum of $ 216,000.

In doing so, he not only loses the right to probably twelve million dollars in fees already earned, but also billions that would have accrued in the future.

But Tesla is not concerned with the money, but with the spread of its new technology. In addition, the inventor has already immersed himself in new tasks: He has visions of a world in which everyone can be supplied with unlimited and free energy. Tesla sees power grids only as an intermediate stage on the way to a wireless system that is supposed to send information and energy across the globe.

In 1898 he developed the first remote control. The following year he succeeds in transmitting radio waves over a distance of 1,000 kilometers from a laboratory near Colorado Springs. In 1900, Tesla found a financier for the construction of a futuristic radio tower on Long Island: From there, among other things, he would like to send high-energy waves into the upper layers of the atmosphere and distribute their energy around the globe.

When an investor jumps out, Tesla collapses

But shortly before the completion of the ambitious project, the investor jumps off: If everyone around the world can tap into the energy from Long Island in an uncontrolled manner, how would they still be able to earn money?

Tesla then suffers a nervous breakdown from which he is slow to recover. In 1917 the steel structure of the tower was blown up and sold for $ 1,000 worth of scrap. In the same year, the inventor is to be awarded the prestigious Edison Medal. Tesla initially refuses: The award would not honor him, but Edison.

Bernard Arthur Behrend, the jury president, finally persuades him to accept the medal after all.

"Did we want to remove everything that has so far been created from Tesla's factory from the industry," says Behrend in

a laudatory speech, “their wheels would stop rolling, our electric cars and trains would stand still, our cities would be dark and our mills would be dead and useless. Yes, his work is so far-reaching that it has become the foundation of our industry. "

Despite his fame and his 700 or so patents, the electricity magician remains financially unsuccessful. Nikola Tesla, probably the most selfless inventor in history, dies impoverished on January 7, 1943 at the age of 86 in a New York hotel room.