Nikola Tesla, an American immigrant and one of the most important inventors ever


“Nikola Tesla” by Napoleon Sarony. Public domain.

It is no understatement to say that Nikola Tesla is one of the most important inventors of all time. The discoveries made by this European-born innovator during the 86 years of his life permeate our modern world and include important advances in electricity and radio development. Concepts which Tesla first dreamed of more than a century ago are still being pursued today, including wireless energy transmissions and data networking.

We’ve been taking a close look at the contributions of foreign immigrants to the American spirit of innovation in recent days here on IPWatchdog. Nikola Tesla was perhaps the greatest immigrant inventor, earning patents and contributing to major foundational work in many technological fields. Born in 1856 to Serbian parents in the Austia-Hungary village of Smiljan, part of modern-day Croatia, Tesla had a precocious interest in science from a young age according to multiple biographies. His father was a priest and his mother had a knack for inventing home appliances, including a mechanical eggbeater by one account. Tesla attended an engineering school in Graz, Austria, and conceived of the induction motor while living in Budapest, but it wouldn’t be until after he immigrated to America that his sense of invention would truly flourish. Tesla would receive his American citizenship in 1891, a few years after he already started making an impact in the world of innovation.

Tesla’s polyphase induction motor, which he originally designed in 1883, involves a rotor and a stator having multiple windings which create an electromagnetic field. Torque is produced when the polarity of the magnetic field created by the electromagnets constantly switch back and forth. Prior to Tesla, motors utilized direct current, which required components called commutators to ride against the motor’s shaft as it spins, causing energy to be lost through friction. The use of alternating current (AC), a type of electric charge which reverses its flow periodically, in a motor with multiple windings specifically tuned to create a reversing polarity without the mechanical aid of a commutator.

Nikola Tesla would come to America in 1884, arriving in New York City with a letter of introduction from Charles Batchelor to Batchelor’s colleague, famed American inventor Thomas Alva Edison. Tesla worked with Edison, although Edison saw Tesla’s use of alternating current as a direct competitor to the direct current (DC) electrical infrastructure Edison had been working to develop. Edison tasked Tesla with improving Edison’s DC electricity system, which was being drained in New York City and throughout the country by the increased energy demands of Edison’s light bulb. There’s an oft-repeated anecdote in which Edison offered Tesla $50,000 to design an improved DC system. When Tesla returned with the improved design, Edison dismissed it and played off his financial offer as a joke. Shortly thereafter, Tesla stopped working with Edison.

electrical transmissionNikola Tesla supported himself through manual labor after leaving Edison’s employ, digging ditches for $2 per day by one account before his intellect earned him notoriety and financial capital from backers. By the end of 1887, Tesla had filed for a number of patents to protect innovations related to AC electricity transmission. One of these was U.S. Patent No. 382281, which is titled Electrical Transmission of Power, which protected a method of transmitting power by electromagnetic motors which consists of continuously and progressively shifting the poles of one element of the motor by alternating currents and magnetizing the other element by a direct or continuous current.

Edison had good reason to be leery about Tesla’s development of alternating current: direct current has significant limitations when compared to its counterpart, especially when considering implementing electrical grids over long distances. DC electricity can only travel about a mile, imposing a costly limitation on how far a single DC power plant can transmit electricity. AC, on the other hand, can be transmitted over long distances, the voltage easily stepped up or down through a transformer. AC also travels more efficiently at higher voltages, a characteristic not shared by DC electricity. Although Edison was operating 121 DC power stations by 1887, his position was an unsustainable one if AC power generation was to take hold.

Tesla’s patents caught the attention of George Westinghouse, himself the famed inventor of the railroad air brake, who licensed the AC electrical grid technologies and inevitably starting the War of the Currents, a business and publicity skirmish pitting Westinghouse and Tesla against Tesla’s former employer Edison. It’s a war that Edison would lose, but it wouldn’t make Tesla rich. Edison tried to paint alternating current as a force to dangerous to use, even going so far as to electrocute an elephant from a Coney Island zoo in 1903. Tesla responded by shooting 250,000 volts of AC through his body in public to show that AC electricity is not inherently unsafe. AC would continue to dig into DC’s lead as the lead form of electrical transmission by winning the bid to provide electricity to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which took place in 1893.

Another big victory for Tesla’s alternating current technologies came in November 1896, when a five-year project to build an alternating current electricity generation plant on Niagara Falls finally came to fruition. Once completed and turned on, it quickly sent one thousand horsepower of electricity to the nearby city of Buffalo, NY, which was at that time one of the largest metropolitan centers in America. This wasn’t the world’s first hydroelectric power plant, but it was the first using alternating current and it was much more successful than previous attempts. The easy access to electricity, along with the use of electric lighting in the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, helped Buffalo to earn the nickname “City of Light,” although it’s not the only American locale with this designation and the term is most commonly associated with the French capital of Paris. From the 1890s on, more than 80 percent of electrical devices ordered in the U.S. used alternating current.

Yet, despite the success, the legal challenges posed by Edison during the War of the Currents bled Westinghouse’s company of financial resources. When Westinghouse had first licensed Tesla’s technologies, he offered Tesla a royalty of $2.50 per horsepower of electricity transmitted to customers. As AC electricity continued to become the standard, the costs of paying Tesla were becoming onerous. By multiple accounts, Westinghouse wrote to Tesla, pleading with him to rethink the royalty agreement to save the Westinghouse company. Incredibly, Tesla forgave Westinghouse all of the royalties he was owed on the belief that he had more discoveries to make. Even more incredibly, he was right.

After alternating current, Nikola Tesla’s new area of interest involved the phenomena caused by high-frequency electricity generation. By the end of the 19th century, multiple discoveries in this field by Scottish scientist James Clark Maxwell and German physicist Heinrich Hertz led Tesla to believe that the technical advantages of high-frequency electricity, including highly efficient transmissions and brighter lamps, were worth exploration. He tried to investigate the phenomenon with his AC generators but the machines would break down as they reached 20,000 cycles per second.

Enter the Tesla coil. The Serbian inventor had to create a special type of transformer in order to reach the high frequencies necessary for further exploration into that field of electricity. In order to free up the secondary coil found in iron-coil AC generators, Tesla removed the iron core to create an air-core resonating transformer capable of taking a typical household electrical load of sixty cycles per second and stepping it up to hundreds of thousands of cycles per second. The high frequencies and voltages produced by the Tesla coil started the inventor on a path towards exploring wireless electricity generation. By some accounts, Tesla was able to wirelessly transmit electricity generated by a Tesla coil over 26 miles to power devices at a remote site.

coilIn January 1894, Nikola Tesla was issued U.S. Patent No. 512340, titled Coil for Electro Magnets. It protected a coil for electric apparatus, the adjacent convolutions of which form parts of the circuit between which there exists a potential difference sufficient to secure in the coil a capacity capable of neutralizing its self-induction. The patent describes the purpose of the invention as a means to eliminate cumbersome condensers which are difficult to maintain.

The wireless transmission of electric signals became a new focus for Tesla. A fire in Tesla’s lab in 1895, however, proved to be very costly as it provided an opening for a new rival, Italian electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi. In 1896, Marconi filed his first patent in England for a system of wireless telegraphy. Tesla beat him to the punch in America, filing his first patent applications in this country for the precursor to radio technologies in 1897, three years before Marconi attempted to file patent applications in this country.

system of transmissionPerhaps the earliest patent filed by Tesla for radio was U.S. Patent No. 645576, entitled System of Transmission of Electrical Energy. It claimed a method of transmitting electrical energy through the natural media by producing a very high electrical pressure at a generating station, causing a conductive flow of electrical energy through the earth and the air strata, and collecting the electrical energy at a distant point.

Initially, Tesla had a strong position in the developing field of radio broadcast transmissions because of his patents and was supported by the U.S. Patent Office, who at first upheld Tesla’s patents and wouldn’t issue one to Marconi. What Marconi lacked in intellectual property, however, he made up for in powerful connections. An Italian nobleman by birth, he had ties to the English aristocracy and some accounts surmise that backing from English and American financiers led to the U.S. Patent Office’s decision in 1904 to issue a patent to Marconi for the invention of radio; up to that point, Tesla felt that, although Marconi had been developing the telegraph, his intellectual property would eventually shift the market in his favor. Again, issues in licensing would prove to be ruinous to Tesla financially. Tesla was further enraged when Marconi was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909 for contributions to wireless telegraphy. The Supreme Court would overturn Marconi’s patents in 1943, less than a year after Tesla’s death.

This would not be the final chapter in the story of Nikola Tesla’s inventing career, a tale which had yet to reach its climactic moment of Shakespearean tragedy. There would still be successes, such as the creation of remote control which followed quite naturally from Tesla’s interest in wireless energy transfer. In 1898, Tesla would demonstrate a wirelessly-controlled toy boat at Madison Square Garden. It didn’t take off as a commercial product, but this was an important event for a few reasons. Not only was it the first public demonstration of remote controls, but technically that boat was the world’s first unmanned vehicle, or drone. It’s also heralded as controlling mechanismperhaps the earliest discovery in robotics. Tesla’s remote controlled boat is reflected in U.S. Patent No. 613809, entitled Method of and Apparatus for Controlling the Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles. It protected an improvement in the art of controlling the movements and operation of a vessel by producing waves or disturbances which are conveyed to the vessel by the natural media, effecting control of the propelling engine.

Tesla’s next project was to create nothing less than the earliest version of the Internet. He wouldn’t succeed, but he did receive $150,000 in financial capital from famed American capitalist J. P. Morgan to build Tesla’s vision of a global system of wireless communication, broadcasting news, stock quotes, music and more. Construction on Wardenclyffe Tower, the 187-foot tall facility from which wireless transmissions would be broadcast, began in 1901. Morgan would sour on the idea, however, when it became clear that Tesla was more interested in wireless energy transmissions to power homes; there are accounts indicating that Morgan told Tesla that he wouldn’t commercialize something that everybody could draw on without paying, essentially asking the inventor, “Where do we put the meter?” Tesla would soon succumb to a nervous breakdown, not the first of his life, and would live out the remainder of his life in New York City with a growing list of behavioral peculiarities.

Nikola Tesla never amassed personal wealth but he enriched our world in many ways. The mythic parts of his story are at times blown out of proportion; for example, there’s evidence to suggest that Edison developed a respect of Tesla and was not his lifelong competitor, as he is sometimes portrayed. But from electricity to radio broadcasts to wireless transmissions, there was no aspect of the technological world during the late 19th century that weren’t somehow touched by Tesla. During his life, Tesla earned 111 U.S. patents and held about 300 patents from countries across the globe. Drones, robotics and wireless power transmission, things that Nikola Tesla envisioned, are still being developed today. Without the important contributions of this immigrant inventor, there’s no question that American innovation would have lagged significantly in the early 1900s.


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Join the Discussion

16 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Max]
    June 6, 2016 01:38 pm

    Nikola Tesla was a Serbian, and then American immigrant….

  • [Avatar for Elizabeth Ward]
    Elizabeth Ward
    March 29, 2016 05:19 am

    Great article – the UK has benefited from and continues to benefit from creative minds who were born overseas.

  • [Avatar for angry dude]
    angry dude
    March 25, 2016 11:43 pm

    Anon @13

    Follow the money, as usual
    Patents are supposed to be “exclusive” rights, where an exclusive licensee of the patent for better mousetrap can beat the crap out of the rest of mousetrap manufacturers for the duration of a patent (provided there aren;t any other blocking patents)
    Anti-trust and anti-monopoly laws don’t apply because they are superseded by patent rights – I’m not a lawyer, but this is how I understand it, forgive me if i’m wrong

    In reality quite the opposite happens – patent owners are not just unable to exclusively license (or even manufacture) their patent – they are ignored altogether
    Meanwhile a bunch of giant tech corps monopolize whole sectors of (tech) economy while government helps them all the way
    And the rest of us are just free lunch to them…

    P.S. I was talking to MS Research and other big tech corp engineers 10-15 years ago and they were all saying that they were banned by their lawyers from reading any outside patents and they also agreed that the primary purpose of incessant patent filings by their corporate employers was to water down the US patent system to the point of effectively destroying it… making it the sport of kings

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    March 25, 2016 10:32 pm

    before the current mess started…

    I sense a different version of “the blame game” might be in order 😉

    Tell me, angry dude, who is most at fault for this “current mess”…? Here is a great big hint: who benefits most from a patent system in shambles, where the clarity of obtaining enforceable rights has dwindled so precipitously, and endless grousing about “quality” is ever afoot – while not one single package of “reform” submitted to or considered by Congress dealt with examination in the first instance?

    Can you see the “false flag” efforts to wreck patents (while coincidentally not providing ANY help to the examiners?).

    The plain matter that needs to be pursued is strengthening patent rights – not making them weaker, more uncertain in enforcement, and more difficult and costly to obtain (all of which leads NOT in-coincidentally to the Big Corp desire of ‘efficient infringement’ as an “end game” appeasement).

  • [Avatar for angry dude]
    angry dude
    March 25, 2016 09:48 pm

    Ternary @11

    Campana died of lung cancer during patent litigation

    So he wasn’t lucky at all… I hope his extended family were … but certainly his patent litigation counsel did well

    Of the lucky ones I can only remember Brent Townshend of the 56K modem hall of fame who managed to squeeze some dollars from big telecom manufacturing corps in the early days of internet
    But that was in late 90s – early 2000s – before the current mess started…

  • [Avatar for Ternary]
    March 25, 2016 07:03 pm

    angry dude @6

    I agree to the sad truth that small independent inventors in general do not get the recognition let alone the money that they deserve. The basic point is the importance of independent inventors/scientists for the advancement of science and technology.

    Campana and Carlson are actually happy exceptions to the no-money-for-independent-inventor rule. Campana’s patents were asserted by NTP, which collected over $600M from RIM (Blackberry). Haloid was a photographic paper company that obtained the rights of Carlson’s patents for a significant amount of its shares. Haloid changed its name to Xerox. Unfortunately, for every Carlson and Campana, there are 100s or 1000s of Armstrongs and Heavisides.

  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    March 25, 2016 03:43 pm

    Night Writer-

    Yes, I know you weren’t saying that, just pointing out how sad it really is. Cheers.


  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    March 25, 2016 03:40 pm

    What is interesting is that what Google has been doing is very similar to what Goldman Sachs did. The analogy between the giant banks with no regulation and the giant tech companies with no patents is a very good one. In both cases, the goal is a near monopoly to insure huge profits.

  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    March 25, 2016 03:38 pm

    Gene @2: I wasn’t serious. I was stating what Google is pushing.

  • [Avatar for angry dude]
    angry dude
    March 25, 2016 02:56 pm

    Ternary @6

    Campana was actually a small company trying to get in some kind of manufacturing contract with big corporation – AT@T or something, contract did not materialize and another big company came over and implemented technology ignoring patents as usual..
    Same with Bob Kearns who was trying to start manufacturing of his wipers before the thing was stolen by all big automakers
    Carlson was probably the only lucky one – he found Haloid – a small company not a huge corporation
    Moral is this: “When dealing with large companies there is no free lunch, unless you are that lunch”… regardless of patents

  • [Avatar for Ternary]
    March 25, 2016 01:45 pm

    Steve-Like always, a nice article about technology, which continues to serve as a reminder that patent law is about inventions and inventors and not a cause by itself. Please continue your articles.

    Tesla is an example of an independent inventor who worked largely outside institutions and often was in conflict with the establishment. I am often told that the time of important inventions by independent inventors has come and gone. Major inventions are presumably to be made by researchers at corporations and institutions. But this is a denial of inventions as a human activity. History shows that many important inventions and developments were done by independent thinkers and inventors. Einstein did his discoveries as a private and independent researcher. Chester Carlson inventor of the Xerox process made his first image on a plate over his kitchen sink.

    Thomas Campana invented aspects of wireless email. In fact Campana is a recent example of an institutional outsider whose assertion of his patents upset many people and started the current anti-patent movement. It was the gall by vested interests about a small independent inventor to assert his patents against an established company that created havoc.

    Unfortunately, most people have drawn the wrong conclusion from this: the wish to suppress patents for independent inventors to protect vested interests, rather than companies having to pay their dues when they apply inventions from others. One conclusion that I favor, is that we should support independent inventors who are able to think outside the box or even within the box. I am not against corporate or institutional research. But history shows that “established thinking” is often confined and limited to corporate and institutional interests and we all know it.

    America needs more independent thinkers to solve issues or at least propose possible solutions and we should stimulate independent inventors, not suppress them to cater to institutional interests as is happening right now.

    Tesla, Einstein, Carlson, Campana all show us that important inventions and discoveries are not the exclusive domain of established organizations. This seems to be a lesson that we have to learn over and over again. Steve’s article is again a reminder of that.

  • [Avatar for Tom]
    March 25, 2016 12:48 pm

    Steve –
    Nice read!

  • [Avatar for Steve]
    March 24, 2016 07:57 pm

    Steve — thanks for a great, quick-read bio. Learned much.

  • [Avatar for angry dude]
    angry dude
    March 24, 2016 12:28 pm

    Gene @2

    You implicitly assume that inventors are supposed to patent their inventions, as opposed to keeping them trade secrets

    While patenting is necessary in many fields to prevent outright theft, there are many fields where patenting true inventions is an act of goodwill from inventor

    I say “fool me once – shame on you, fool me twice – shame on me”

  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    March 24, 2016 11:52 am

    Night Writer-

    You say: “we are in an age when we don’t need people like Tesla.”

    That is certainly the perception of many. It is hard to believe that an educated person with any knowledge of the innovation industry could hold such a view, but there are many that think inventors and invention are unnecessary. All you need are the people to copy and put products/services into the marketplace. I wonder what they will copy once there are no inventors left?


  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    March 24, 2016 06:48 am

    I think Tesla ended up with no money because he never followed through on a licensing deal with Westinghouse for the generators that would have made him rich. By modern standards as defined by the anti-patent judicial activists Tesla was a patent troll without a good attorney.

    Please remember that we are in an age when we don’t need people like Tesla. Google will handle all the “innovation” that is needed (it is just that they need those extra tax breaks and the new trade secret law to make sure it happens.)