January 7, 1943: Nikola Tesla, physicist, inventor and electrical engineer, dies

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in the Croatian town of Smiljan, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into a family of Serbian origin. His mother’s talent for building mechanical devices would soon pique his curiosity. As a child, his fascination with electricity began when he stroked his cat and sparks flew and his father explained that it was the same phenomenon that occurred in trees during a storm.

His formative years were spent between Graz (Austria) and Prague, where he studied mechanical engineering and physics and became familiar with electromagnetism. In 1882 he moved to Paris to work in a lighting company owned by the well-known inventor of the light bulb, Thomas Alva Edison, and two years later he emigrated to New York to work under him. After a life dedicated to studying electricity and inventions of all kinds, Tesla would die in 1943 at the age of 86.

The war of the currents

Nikola Tesla worked for a year at an Edison company improving his direct current motor. His bosses promised him a milestone bonus of $50,000, but when they refused to pay him, he decided to leave and strike out alone.

From that moment, Tesla dedicated himself to giving shape to the ideas he had conceived in Graz. The main one was the alternating current motor, which he considered more useful and efficient than direct current, in clear opposition to Edison. With this, the “war of the currents” was unleashed between the two. In 1888, the Tesla motor caught the attention of businessman George Westinghouse, who acquired the patent to apply it to the transmission of electricity. The main advantage of alternating current was the ease of transforming voltage, which allowed electricity to be transported over long distances without loss of energy along the way. In addition, maintaining the motors was simpler and cheaper, and they facilitated conversion into direct current.

In an attempt to instill distrust in alternating current, Edison launched a campaign denouncing the dangers posed by its use. Tesla, however, prevailed, relying on his charismatic character and the shows he put on to demonstrate the safety of alternating current. Already in 1893, the Chicago International Fair accepted Westinghouse’s proposal to use Tesla’s system to illuminate the event. But confirmation of his achievements would come in 1895 when he won the competition to build the Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant. As a consequence, alternating current became popular and would end up spreading to most of the world’s electrical systems.

Inventions to change the world

Beyond alternating current, Tesla revolutionized other fields. In 1895 he developed a system for radio transmission, but the credit would go to the Italian Guillermo Marconi, who created the radio with Tesla’s patents and would win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909. Tesla also made progress in creating the first fluorescent lamps. , which would replace Edison’s incandescent light bulb, and in the study of X-rays. Furthermore, inclined towards spectacle, he demonstrated in 1899 that he could pilot a remote-controlled boat.

Likewise, he conceived an electrical transformer known as a Tesla coil, which allowed high voltage loads to be transmitted without the need for cables. Tesla would try to take this principle to its maximum expression with the Wardenclyffe Tower, a telecommunications station that used the earth as a wireless transmission system. To do this, he convinced the American investor JP Morgan to finance it, but the lack of results would turn off the tap.

However, Tesla’s inventions laid the foundations for 20th century technology and, in honor of his work, he curiously received the Edison Medal in 1916, the highest distinction awarded by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Towards the end of his life, Tesla would end up consumed by debt and by his eccentric predictions and inventions – he claimed that he had built a death ray, for example – until he died on January 7, 1943 in his room at the New York Hotel. Yorker, where he had resided during his last years.

From oblivion to Tesla Motors

After his death, Tesla fell into oblivion. Unlike Marconi or Edison, he did not seek to create a business that produced his inventions, and the Cold War did not play in his favor either, since he did not embody American values, as Edison did. His eccentric character, however, attracted New Age circles in the 1970s or conspiracy theories such as the free energy movement, which claimed that his inventions could generate clean, free energy, but power groups did so. they hid Already in the 21st century, Tesla’s legacy was rescued by inspiring films about his life and by giving its name to the electric car company run by magnate Elon Musk: Tesla Motors.