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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American inventor who was born on the 10th July 1856 and raised in Austria. In 1861, Tesla attended primary school in Smiljan where he studied German, arithmetic, and religion. In 1873, Tesla returned to Smiljan. Shortly after he arrived, he contracted cholera, was bedridden for nine months and was near death multiple times. Tesla's father, in a moment of despair, (who had originally wanted him to enter the priesthood) promised to send him to the best engineering school if he recovered from the illness. In 1875, Tesla enrolled at Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, Austria, on a Military Frontier scholarship.

During his first year, Tesla never missed a lecture, earned the highest grades possible, passed nine exams (nearly twice as many as required), and even received a letter of commendation from the dean of the technical faculty to his father, which stated, "Your son is a star of first rank." Tesla claimed that he worked from 3 a.m. to 11 p.m., no Sundays or holidays excepted. After his father died in 1879, Tesla found a package of letters from his professors to his father, warning that unless he were removed from the school, Tesla would die through overwork. At the end of his second year, Tesla lost his scholarship and became addicted to gambling.

During his third year, Tesla gambled away his allowance and his tuition money, later gambling back his initial losses and returning the balance to his family. When examination time came, Tesla was unprepared and asked for an extension to study, but was denied. He did not receive grades for the last semester of the third year and he never graduated from the university. In December 1878, Tesla left Graz and severed all relations with his family to hide the fact that he dropped out of school.

Tesla moved to Maribor, where he worked as a draftsman for 60 florins per month. He spent his spare time playing cards with local men on the streets. In 1881, Tesla moved to Budapest, Hungary, to work under Tivadar Puskás at a telegraph company, the Budapest Telephone Exchange.  During his employment, Tesla made many improvements to the Central Station equipment and claimed to have perfected a telephone. In 1882, Tivadar Puskás got Tesla another job in Paris with the Continental Edison Company. Tesla began working in what was then a brand-new industry, installing indoor incandescent lighting citywide in the form of an electric power utility. There he gained a great deal of practical experience in electrical engineering. Management took notice of his advanced knowledge in engineering and physics and soon had him designing and building improved versions of generating dynamos and motors.

In June 1884, Tesla emigrated to the United States. He began working almost immediately at the Machine Works on Manhattan's Lower East Side, an overcrowded shop with a workforce of several hundred machinists, laborers, managing staff, and 20 "field engineers" struggling with the task of building the large electric utility in that city. One of the projects given to Tesla was to develop an arc lamp–based street lighting system. Arc lighting was the most popular type of street lighting, but it required high voltages and was incompatible with the Edison low voltage incandescent system, causing the company to lose contracts in cities that wanted street lighting as well.

Tesla had been working at the Machine Works for a total of six months when he quit. Why he quit was never found out. It could have been a bonus that he did not receive. Tesla had previous run-ins with the Edison company over unpaid bonuses he believed he had earned.  In his own biography, Tesla stated the manager of the Edison Machine Works offered a $50,000 bonus to design twenty-four different types of standard machines, but it turned out to be a practical joke.  Later versions of this story have Thomas Edison himself offering and then failed to carry out the deal, stating, “Tesla, you don't understand our American humour.”  The size of the bonus in either story has been noted as odd since Machine Works manager Batchelor was harsh with pay and the company did not have that amount of cash (equivalent to $12 million today) in their hands.  Tesla's diary contains just one comment on what happened at the end of his employment, a note he scrawled across the two pages covering December 7, 1884, to January 4, 1885, saying "Good bye to the Edison Machine Works".

Soon after leaving the Edison company, Tesla was working on patenting an arc lighting system, possibly the same one he had developed at Edison. In 1886, after the utility was up and running, they decided that the manufacturing side of the business was too competitive and opted to simply run an electric utility.  They formed a new utility company, abandoning Tesla's company and leaving the inventor penniless.

In late 1886, Tesla met Alfred S. Brown, a Western Union superintendent, and New York attorney Charles F. Peck. The two men were experienced in setting up companies and promoting inventions. Based on Tesla's new ideas for electrical equipment, they agreed to back the inventor financially. They formed the Tesla Electric Company together in April 1887, with an agreement that profits would go 1/3 to Tesla, 1/3 to Peck and Brown, and 1/3 to the development fund. They set up a laboratory for Tesla at 89 Liberty Street in Manhattan, where he worked on improving and developing new types of electric motors, generators, and other devices.

In 1887, Tesla developed an induction motor that ran on alternating current (AC), a power system format that was rapidly expanding in Europe and the United States because of its advantages in long-distance, high-voltage transmission. Thomas Commerford Martin arranged for Tesla to demonstrate his AC motor on 16 May 1888 at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Engineers working for the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company reported to George Westinghouse that Tesla had a viable AC motor and related power system – something Westinghouse needed for the alternating current system he was already marketing. In July 1888, Brown and Peck negotiated a licensing deal with George Westinghouse.

Starting in 1894, Tesla began investigating what he referred to as radiant energy of "invisible" kinds after he had noticed damaged film in his laboratory in previous experiments (later identified as "Roentgen rays" or "X-Rays").  Tesla may have inadvertently captured an X-ray image, predating, by a few weeks, Wilhelm Röntgen's December 1895 announcement of the discovery of x-rays. Tesla noted the hazards of working with x-ray. In his notes, he attributed the skin damage to x-rays.

On his 50th birthday, in 1906, Tesla demonstrated a 200 horsepower (150 kilowatts) 16,000 rpm bladeless turbine. He spent a lot of time before his birthday trying to perfect the device and turn it into a useful machine, but engineering difficulties meant it was never made into a practical device.

On 6 November 1915, there were news reports that the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla; however, on 15 November, story from Stockholm stated the prize that year was being awarded to Sir William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg. There were other rumours at the time that either Tesla or Edison had refused the prize.

On 7 January 1943, at the age of 86, Tesla died alone in Room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel. His body was later found by maid Alice Monaghan after she had entered Tesla's room, ignoring the "do not disturb" sign that Tesla had placed on his door two days earlier. Assistant medical examiner H.W. Wembley examined the body and ruled that the cause of death had been coronary thrombosis.

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