Sunday, July 10, 2016

Today in History

Nikola Tesla, Prodigal Genius

Today in 1856, Nikola Tesla was born in the small village of Smiljan, Croatia. He was the fourth of five children. His father, Milutin Tesla, was a priest (Eastern Orthodox Church), and his mother Đuka Mandić, was the daughter of an Orthodox priest. Nikola described his mother as having a phenomenal memory and a knack for inventing tools for the home.

Tesla grew up in Croatia, although their family moved towns a few times. His father wanted him to enter the priesthood. Tesla wanted to be an engineer. At age 19 he fell ill to cholera and nearly died. In an effort to help him find the strength the fight the illness, his father promised him he could go to the best engineering school in the country if he recovered.

Tesla did recover, but he was now old enough to be drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army. He hid near the mountains of Gračac in southern Croatia to avoid conscription. After a year he enrolled at the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, Austria on a scholarship. His first year at university was fantastic - he worked hard, got highest grades, earned a letter of commendation from the dean. But he was disappointed in his father's lack of appreciation for his achievements. In his second year he lost focus and fell into gambling, eventually losing his scholarship. He left the university in 1878 without graduating.

Ashamed of his failure, Tesla moved to Maribor (a city in what is now Slovenia), without letting his family that he had not graduated. He worked as a draftsman. His father found out and begged him to come home, to no avail. But soon after he was basically deported anyway, for lack of residence papers, and he returned to his fathers home. A month later his father died. After a year of teaching at his old high school his two uncles lent him enough money to move to Prague in hopes of continuing his studies. For a year he audited courses, then he moved to Budapest to work for the Central Telegraph Office, initially as a draftsman, late promoted to chief electrician.

In 1882 Tesla moved to France and started working as an electrician for the Continental Edison Company. After two years he immigrated to America, and was hired by the Edison Machine Works in NYC. He worked for Thomas Edison, and the rest, is electrifying history.

There are so so many biographies of Tesla, many of them, unfortunately, a mish-mash of urban legend and conspiracy theory. Probably the best biography is still the one written in 1944 by his contemporary, Pulitzer Prize winning science writer John Joseph O'Neill: Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla.

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