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Nikola Tesla: Birth to Age 40

by Ron Kurtus (revised 9 March 2003)

Nikola Tesla was a prolific inventor who emigrated to America, worked for Thomas Edison and was later instrumental in the development of alternating current (AC) electricity. Nikola Tesla used his revolutionary ideas about electricity to gain prominence in the scientific world, but he also was not given the credit due to him for many of his achievements. He was a genius who seemed short-changed in his quest for fame and fortune in science.

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Birth to 19 years: 1856-75

Nikola was born in Smiljan, Austro-Hungary in on 10 July 1856. The town in now part of Croatia. His family was Serbian and consisted of his father, who was a parish priest, his mother, who was very intelligent but unschooled, three sisters and an older brother. His father was stern, but loving, and was considered a gifted writer and poet.

Sought parent's love

His brother Dane was considered the family genius, and when he died in an accident, his parents were devastated. Nikola felt guilty that their favorite had died, and he had survived. Throughout his life, he drove himself to try to merit his parent's love, but his achievements only made them feel their loss of Dane more keenly.

This resulted in Tesla feeling a lack of confidence in himself and resulted in a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, that showed up in eccentric behavior later in his life.

Note: It is a shame that some parents will cause emotional harm on one child as a result of their grief over the loss of another.

Educated in physics

Not much else is known about his formative years, except that his he was educated in physics and specialized in the new applications of electricity.

Tesla as a young man

Tesla as a young man

Traits that attributed to his success

Tesla was very curious about scientific phenomena. He was a creative genius, was able to focus on a project until it was completed and was a hard worker. These traits all contributed to the number of outstanding inventions he created throughout his life.

Ages 20 to 29: 1876-85

When Tesla was 24 years old, he had a nervous breakdown while he was working in Budapest for the American Telephone Company. During his recovery period, he came up with the idea of a revolutionary method of generating electricity using alternating current. He called it the polyphase system. It would not be until many years later that he would develop the idea into a working system.

Worked for Edison's company

Tesla then received a contract with the Edison Electric Company in France to help repair one of their electrical plants. After he completed the repairs, the company refused to pay the money it had promised him. Tesla angrily left the company. He decided to move to the United States to hopefully gain fame and fortune in the new American electrical industry.

Hired by Thomas Edison

Since he had a reputation as a brilliant inventor in Europe, Thomas Edison quickly hired him. The fact he took the job was a surprise, considering his bad experience with Edison's company in Europe.

Edison hired Tesla to improve the Edison dynamos, used to create direct current (DC) electricity. When Tesla offered to redesign them completely, Edison offered him $50,000 if he could successfully achieve that goal.

Showed tremendous focus

As with many of his projects, Tesla would concentrate and work for long hours each day to complete his projects. While Edison also worked long hours, he would often take cat-naps to refresh himself. Tesla, on the other hand, seemed to be able to work continuously. He also preferred to work alone. These factors may have contributed to his earlier nervous breakdown.

Edison cheated him

After working on the project for a year, Tesla showed Edison an improved version of the dynamo, which would greatly help Edison's company, and for which Edison and his company would take credit. But when Tesla asked for the promised $50,000, Edison told him he was just joking about giving the money!

Tesla quit and vowed he would never work for Edison again.

Worked as laborer

After leaving Edison, Tesla was unable to find other employment where he could use his skills with electricity. For two years he had to work as a laborer to support himself. In his free time, he worked on his idea of creating an alternating current system (AC) of electricity, using a polyphase system. He also spent time promoting his ideas to investors.

The advantage of this polyphase system was that it would allow AC electricity to be transmitted over large distances. This made it more practical than the DC system that Edison had developed.

Ages 30 to 39: 1886-95

Inventor and businessman George Westinghouse became interested in electricity and had recently started his own electricity company. So in 1886 he hired the 30 year old Tesla to work in his new laboratory in Pittsburgh.

Sells his system

Westinghouse then purchased the patent rights for Tesla's polyphase system for $1,000,000 (other sources say $216,000). He agreed to completely fund Tesla's research and offered a generous royalty agreement on future profits. This certainly was a big jump from digging ditches for a living.

Since Edison had a large investment in the DC electricity system, and he felt that Westinghouse and Tesla were a direct threat to his business. Edison did all he could to undermine Tesla's work.

The AC system Tesla developed is still the standard used today. The Westinghouse Co. used AC to beat out Edison’s General Electric Co. and force them to scrap their DC system.

In all, Tesla sold Westinghouse 40 patents that contributed to breaking the Edison's General Electric monopoly on electric power.

Starts Tesla Electric Company

A few years later, Tesla used much of the money he received from selling his patent to start the Tesla Electric Company in New York. He then spent his time inventing some new types of electrical devices, including his famous Tesla coil.

Other projects included a radio-guided torpedo and with the financial backing of banker J.P. Morgan, experiments to change the Earth's electric charge.

While working on high frequency research, Tesla discovered the Bremsstrahlung phenomenon, where high energy electrons striking a metal plate will generate x-rays. It is the basis for most x-ray machines today.

When Tesla was 39 years old, his laboratory burnt down, and he lost much of his work. He then moved to Colorado Springs, where he built a new laboratory with some of his remaining funds.


By the time he was 39, Tesla had established himself as one of the great scientists of all time, although his name is not as nearly as famous as others in his era. Unfortunately, Tesla seemed to be naive about the cutthroat methods of business in that era, so that unscrupulous businessmen such as Thomas Edison could take advantage of him.

Although Tesla is credited with inventing the AC electricity that we use every day, he actually took what was invented by a Swedish scientist several years before and made it feasible by inventing electrical generators and motors to use with AC.

Tesla had many inventions in his lifetime and had about 700 patents awarded to him.

Think in positive terms

Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials


Tesla Resources

Biography Resources


Top-rated books on Nikola Tesla

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