"The Man who Invented the Twentieth Century".

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Nikola Tesla  (Никола Тесла) (1856 Jul 10 - 1943 Jan 7)[1]
Engineer -  Inventor - Physicist

Life and Education

On a dark and electrically stormy night at midnight (or so the legend goes) [1] Tesla was born to a Serbian Orthodox Church priest and his wife [2] in Smiljan, Austria (now Croatia) [1].

Post-Secondary, Tesla enrolled at the Austrian Polytechnic School in Graz to study engineering, but due to being financially unable to complete his formal training, he was largely self-educated in the new frontier of electrical engineering [2].

The Rise to Engineer

In January 1881, Tesla was employed by Central Telegraph Office of Hungarian Government in Budapest at an entry level position as a draftsman.

Before long, he was promoted to job of “troubleshooter” for the company’s Edison power plants located throughout France and Germany.

With a letter of introduction to Thomas Edison by means of a mutual working associate, Tesla moved to America in 1884 and began work as an “Engineer” repairing Edison power plants [2].

Winds of Change

Tesla left Edison’s employment after a dispute over a verbal contract. A contract which Edison declared was a joke (“American sense of humor”) but Tesla believed to be a failure to compensate for an assigned task (that of improving Edison’s equipment) to the tune of $50,000.

After the work for Edison fell through, the Tesla Electric Company was eventually formed with financial help from (among others) Western Union Telegraph Company and went on to convert the world to the 60 Hz AC standard with the help of the first practical AC motor. [2]

George Westinghouse bought rights to use the Tesla Electric Company patents to fuel the Westinghouse Electric Company’s pioneer efforts in AC distribution. AC was believed by both Tesla and Westinghouse to be the energy of the future.

After winning a bidding contest with General Electric who proposed the Edison DC system, the Tesla/Westinghouse AC system lit the nighttime World’s Fair (also referred to as the Columbian Exposition) in Chicago in 1893. This feat showed the world that AC power was the power of the future. [3]

Beyond AC

Although the commercial success by others of Tesla’s work is usually related to AC electricity [2], his research touched almost every facet of the ever broadening field of electrical engineering.

More specifically relevant to potential spacecraft design, Tesla’s contributions include:

Wireless Systems for Power and Communications. Tesla went to his death believing in the ability to power vehicles by transmitting power to them wirelessly through various mediums including the earth and the air. Demonstrated by Tesla on a small scale, this could solve many problems of loading aboard spacecraft if the power supply were located off-ship. Posthumously, the US Supreme Court upheld Tesla’s claim of inventing the first practical radio communications system [6], unfortunately, many histories still list Marconi with that credit.

What Tesla dubbed “teleautomatics” we would refer to today as remote control. Tesla successfully demonstrated remote controlled boats [4] at Madison Square Gardens in New York at the end of the 19th century [5]. Decades before the US Navy began to dabble in the possibilities of wartime robots.

Although the term “cryogenics” was not in use at the turn of the 20th century, Tesla nevertheless recognized how lowering the temperature of the environment in which his high voltage conductors were in, dramatically increased their efficiency[7]. In spacecraft, environmental control, especially that of extreme temperatures, greatly affects the ability of the electrical circuits to perform properly, if at all.


Many of Tesla’s peers enjoyed his company and his accomplishments. Among those he dealt with on regular basis either professionally, personally or sometimes both included Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, and George Westinghouse [2,8].

However not everyone was enamored with Tesla. Among those were his initial American employer, Thomas Edison with whom Westinghouse (using Tesla’s work) raged the battle of currents which produced the electric chair as an attempt to sway public opinion in favor of Edison’s previously established DC system [2].

With support from various individuals seeking to topple Tesla’s track record, Guglielmo Marconi [2,9] was funded and politically supported in the media as the inventor of practical radio.


Tesla has lent his name, (knowingly or not) on various items raging from popular culture to scientific units. Among these are “Tesla Coils”, high-voltage, high-frequency inductors used by hobbyists everywhere to generate fantastic lightning displays [3].

In the world of hard-rock and heavy-metal, the band Tesla is a fan favorite. Tipping their hat to the scientist, they have acknowledged his work with an album (“The Great Radio Controversy”) and specific songs (“Edison’s Medicine”) [10].

In 2006, a new car company, the Tesla Motor Company, debuted with a 100% all-electric supercar. This car is capable of doing 0-60 MPH in under 4 seconds, yet has a range of 250 miles and takes less than 4 hours to recharge its batteries [11].

The scientific unit of Magnetic Flux Density is now called the Tesla and honored on a banknote in Tesla’s home country of Serbia [1].


[1] Wikipedia, “Nikola Tesla,” [Online Document] 2007 Jan. 15, [2007 Jan. 15], Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikola_Tesla.
[2] M. Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1981.
[3] PBS, “Tesla – Master of Lightning” [Online Documents], [2007 Jan. 15], Available at http://www.pbs.org/tesla/
[4] Nikola Tesla Museum, “The remote control system, recognitions“ [Online Tour], [2007 Jan. 15], Available at http://www.yurope.com/org/tesla/7e.htm
[5] N. Tesla, “U.S. Patent 613,809 Method of and Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles” [Online Documents], 1898 Nov. 8, [2007 Jan. 15], Available at http://www.uspto.gov
[6] N. Tesla, “U.S. Patent 723,188 Method of Signaling” [Online Documents], 1903 Mar. 17, [2007 Jan. 15], Available at http://www.uspto.gov
[7] N. Tesla, “U.S. Patent RE11,865 Method of Insulating Electric Conductors” [Online Documents], 1900 Oct. 23, [2007 Jan. 15], Available at http://www.uspto.gov
[8] Wikipedia, “George Westinghouse,” [Online Document] 2007 Jan. 8, [2007 Jan. 15], Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Westinghouse
[9] Wikipedia, “Guglielmo Marconi,” [Online Document] 2007 Jan. 13, [2007 Jan. 15], Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guglielmo_Marconi
[10] Wikipedia, “Tesla (Band),” [Online Document] 2007 Jan. 7, [2007 Jan. 15], Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tesla_%28band%29
[11] Tesla Motor Company, “Tesla Motors,” [Online Document] 2006, [2007 Jan. 15], Available at http://www.teslamotors.com