In June 1884, a fateful meeting took place in an office in a brownstone on Manhattan’s lower Fifth Avenue. The office belonged to that greatest of American inventors, Thomas Alva Edison, who already was a celebrity for creating the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb. His guest was an unknown Serbian immigrant named Nikola Tesla, who had just stepped off the boat the previous day with four cents in his pocket and a dream of easing the world’s toil through the new science of electricity.
It would have been difficult to imagine two more dissimilar figures. Edison, at 37, slouching about in a frayed Prince Albert coat, shabby shirt and bright neckerchief, was a folksy genius, a native of small-town Ohio who liked to play the unschooled hick. He was as American as the apple pie he practically lived on—“a completely lionized figure,” observed the historian Jill Jonnes, “the disheveled genius who minced no words, and embodied everything big and bold and can-do about a self-confident young nation.”
Tesla was eight years younger and a head taller. He stood slim and ramrod straight, well over 6 feet tall, with a neatly trimmed mustache, coal black hair and deep-set blue eyes of burning intensity. He was dressed fastidiously in the only outfit he had left after much of his luggage had been stolen on the journey—bowler hat, striped trousers and cutaway coat. He was a European cosmopolitan who spoke formal, heavily accented English and was fluent as well in French, German, Italian and his native Serbian. Obsessive in his avoidance of germs, Tesla did not offer to shake hands with Edison. But he politely spoke up, knowing his host had hearing problems.
This eccentric visitor was a scientific genius who had a vivid visual imagination. “In some instances I have seen the air around me filled with tongues of living flame,” he later recalled. Two years before, while working as an electrical engineer for the telephone company in Budapest, he worked out a puzzle plaguing him to almost nervous collapse: how to design a motor to operate efficiently on alternating current. During a walk with a colleague, he suddenly grabbed a stick and drew diagrams in the sand of dual circuits 90 degrees out of phase with each other that caused a magnet to rotate in space and thereby continually attract a steady stream of electrons. “No more will men be slaves to hard tasks,” he told his friend. “My motor will set them free. It will do the work of the world.”
Of late, Tesla had been working as a junior engineer for Edison’s European operation based in Paris, and he was “thrilled to the marrow,” he later wrote, to meet the man. He hoped to interest his illustrious host in his vision of how to generate and distribute electricity on a large scale through alternating current. But Edison was a firm believer in direct current and—as Tesla recalled it—said “very bluntly that he was not interested in alternating current; anyone who dabbled in that field was wasting his time.”
The meeting marked the beginning of a fierce rivalry between these two men—the one a pragmatist, the other a visionary—and an epic struggle between their competing technologies. The outcome would shape the very future of the industrial world. It is invisibly manifested today every time a switch is flipped to turn on the lights, television, computer, electric motors and countless other amenities of modern life.
The day they met, Edison gave Tesla a practical test. He dispatched him to the East River docks to repair the electrical system on the steamship Oregon, the first ship to be outfitted with lighting. Tesla worked all night fixing the ship’s dynamos, and Edison was so impressed he hired the young immigrant he referred to as “our Parisian.” Tesla’s main assignment was to upgrade the efficiency of the dynamos at the Pearl Street generating station. This was the hub of Edison’s recently created system of direct current that lit up Wall Street and the financial district. Here, coal-fired steam engines powered the generators, producing alternating current in which the electrons reverse direction at regular intervals. Before transmission over copper wires, the alternating current was converted into direct current—in which the electrons flow in only one direction—by an array of brushes and devices known as commutators.
Tesla spotted the system’s shortcomings. The conversion from AC to DC involved the cumbersome sparking process that he was convinced would be eliminated once the AC motor he envisioned was developed. He also observed firsthand the severe limitations of direct current in an electrical grid. There was no way to step up the voltage, and the amount of electricity could be increased only by using thick and highly expensive copper wire. Alternating current, by contrast, could theoretically be stepped up by a transformer into high voltages suitable for transmission over great distances and then stepped down for distribution along the way.
Tesla worked hard for Edison but he lasted only a few months. He believed that Edison had promised him $50,000 if he succeeded in improving the station’s dynamos. But Edison insisted that he had only been joking. When Edison refused even to raise his $18 a week salary to $25, Tesla quit.
His fierce pride wounded, Tesla set out to make a name for himself. He selected a project that he considered doable, though not particularly challenging. New Jersey businessmen agreed to back his plan to improve the primitive public illumination in the city of Rahway, which used an early system called arc lighting. Tesla succeeded in installing a better system, but his partners cheated him out of patents he had obtained and forced him out of the company. He was once again penniless and now forced into manual labor, including what he considered a most ignoble task: digging ditches to bury the electric lines for Edison’s direct current grid.
Early in 1887, Tesla bounced back. With the backing of investors he had impressed with bit of electrical sleight of hand—making a copper egg stand on end—he established a laboratory in lower Manhattan and set about building a working prototype of the AC motor he had sketched in the sand in Budapest. Until then, an important shortcoming of the early alternating current systems was the lack of a workable motor that AC could power. Tesla had never committed a line of his revolutionary concept to paper but in his new lab “merely reproduced the pictures as they appeared to my vision and the operation was always as I expected.”
The following year, he demonstrated his AC motor at a meeting of the prestigious American Institute of Electrical Engineers. His lecture attracted the attention of George Westinghouse, whose Pittsburgh-based company had developed the air brake and other safety devices for rail transportation, and was now interested in the transmission of electricity. He had financed a modest system using alternating current but it was limited to downtown Buffalo, N.Y., and he realized that Tesla’s work might be the key to transmitting power over great distances.
Westinghouse, who was both a shrewd businessman and a clever engineer, sought out inventors, bought their patents and then collaborated with them to create better practical versions. Hard driving and ambitious, he was an imposing presence, tall with a huge walrus handlebar mustache, and such a pleasing conversationalist, noted a biographer, that “he could charm a bird out of a tree.”
Tesla had the patents. He had filed a few months before for seven patents that covered a complete AC system. This included his motor and generators, transformers and transmission lines for three complete AC versions. One version was single phase; the others were polyphase—two phase and three phase. Polyphase systems were entirely new and reflected Tesla’s remarkable ability to visualize the forces simultaneously at work in circuits.
Westinghouse bought all of this for $70,000 (including $20,000 in cash) and an agreement to pay a $2.50 royalty for every horsepower of developed electrical capacity. He also agreed to minimum royalties of $30,000 to be paid over the next three years. Tesla paid off his investors with part of the proceeds and saved enough to finance a new laboratory. He then went off to Pittsburgh to serve as a Westinghouse consultant to help adapt his patents for commercial use.
The Westinghouse engineers didn’t get along well with the newcomer. For one thing, they differed over the most efficient frequency for the motor’s operation. Tesla’s preference of 60 cycles per second eventually prevailed.
Another sticking point was the lack of proper blueprints. The Westinghouse men had never met a fellow engineer who expected them to work without blueprints. To guide them in the development of his AC motor, all they had were the sketches Tesla made in a notebook no larger than the palm of his hand. “Without ever having drawn a sketch,” Tesla wrote, “I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made the actual drawings.”
Tesla and his new ally Westinghouse were now pitted against Edison in what became known as the War of the Currents. It was a struggle to establish the standard for the future of electricity. Would it be the new and experimental alternating current or the tried-and-true direct current?
By 1888 Edison had a head start. He had 125 stations operating in cities across the United States, while Westinghouse had only 98 stations running. But the technology seemed to favor AC for long-distance transmission. AC required only one-third of the costly copper required for DC wires. And unlike DC, it could be stepped up to high voltages, dispatched over wires from city to city and then stepped down for distribution to users.
Edison’s adamant opposition to AC was rooted in part in his legendary stubbornness. That trait, which enabled him to push on with his inventions when others would have given up, brought him much success. But it also prevented Edison from incorporating new technology that he himself had not invented or developed—unlike Westinghouse, who scooped up ideas wherever he found them.
Edison also opposed AC because he considered it dangerous. His DC might cause a small shock, but AC could actually kill at high voltages. He and his associates launched a public campaign to ban what they called the “damnable current.” To dramatize the dangers of AC, Harold Brown, a New York engineer on Edison’s payroll, staged widely publicized electrocutions of dogs, a horse and other animals. The campaign culminated in Brown’s introduction of an electric chair built with secondhand Westinghouse AC devices. The first electrocution took place at the state prison at Auburn, N.Y., in 1890. The victim, a murderer named William Kemmler, suffered a prolonged and horrible death, and electrocution was thereafter referred to in the press as “Westinghousing.”
The turning point in the War of the Currents came during the next two years. Westinghouse survived Edison’s propaganda campaign and a financial crisis so severe that, desperate to save the company, he persuaded Tesla to sacrifice his future royalties. Edison was not so fortunate: He lost control of his own company to a new business combine that soon became General Electric.
Westinghouse then underbid Edison’s successors to illuminate the Columbian Exposition—the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The fair became the glittering showcase for the new age of electricity—and Tesla’s brand of alternating current. Until now, the largest AC station was capable of powering no more than 10,000 lights. At Chicago, Tesla’s polyphase system lit up some 180,000 bulbs and powered hundreds of exhibits. The huge Ferris wheel, the moving sidewalk, towering water fountains—all were driven by AC electricity. A guidebook marveled that “everything pulsates with quickening influence of the subtle and vivifying current.” Tesla (wearing thick cork-soled shoes for protection) mesmerized the crowds by passing sufficient voltage through his slim frame to engulf himself in dazzling streams of light. It was his way, he said, of demonstrating that “voltage has nothing to do with the size and power of the current.”
The success at Chicago set the stage for the realization of Tesla’s boyhood dream—harnessing the power of the mighty Niagara Falls. To achieve this leap forward in the generation and transmission of alternating current, Westinghouse had to overcome criminal and financial chicanery. First, an operative from General Electric purchased the AC blueprints for the World’s Fair and Niagara Falls from a turncoat Westinghouse draftsman. Then Wall Street backers of GE tried and failed to simply take over Westinghouse Electric.
Turbines embedded in channels beneath the falls turned three 85-ton dynamos five times more powerful than those installed at the fair. Here was manifested for the first time Tesla’s concept of a complete polyphase system of alternating current. The two-phase current generated by the dynamos was stepped up by transformers into three-phase current, which was more efficient for transmission. This invisible river of enormous voltages flashed 26 miles over wires to the city of Buffalo where it lit thousands of bulbs, drove industry and ran the streetcars. “It was,” the Buffalo Enquirer rhapsodized at the first dramatic transmission in November 1896, “the journey of God’s own lightning to the employ of man.”
In a few years, 20 percent of all the electricity in the U.S. flowed from Niagara Falls. Tesla and Westinghouse had won the War of the Currents.
In the years that followed, Tesla became a darling of high society, a bon vivant much in demand at dinners and salons graced by the likes of J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, the Astors and the Vanderbilts, and he hosted many of the elite at his Manhattan laboratory for after-hours entertainment. One of his favorite guests was Mark Twain, who claimed he was temporarily cured of constipation by a session on a vibrating platform mounted on an electrical oscillator. Considered a highly eligible bachelor, Tesla was linked to several heiresses—even the noted French actress Sarah Bernhardt—but remained unattached. “I do not believe an inventor should marry,” he explained, “because he has so intense a nature, with so much in it of wild, passionate quality, that in giving himself to a woman he might love, he would give everything and so take everything from his chosen field.”
It was also true that Tesla’s phobias discouraged intimacy. He could not stand to touch a person’s hair. He admitted to having “a violent aversion against the earrings of women”—pearls most of all—because the sight of smooth round surfaces distressed him. “The mere sight of a peach brought on a fever,” he said. He also had strange numerical fixations. The number of his hotel room, for example, always had to be divisible by three.
The destruction of Tesla’s Manhattan laboratory in a March 1895 fire left him temporarily grief-stricken at the loss of “all my mechanical instruments and scientific apparatus that it has taken years to perfect.” That included a small portable wireless transmission station and receiver he tested by sending signals from the roof of his lab to his 10-story-high luxury hotel 30 blocks uptown, where an aerial held aloft by a balloon was tethered to the roof. But with the support of his numerous rich friends and admirers he continued to forge ahead with his research into the wireless transmission of electrical signals, for which he filed two patents in 1897.
Tesla, it turned out, had invented radio. But unlike Guglielmo Marconi, who stunned the world by sending a signal across the Atlantic Ocean in 1901, he failed to commercialize his wireless innovations. Marconi not only got the public credit for inventing radio, he also received the Nobel Prize for it in 1909. Not until nearly four decades later did the truth become clear. In 1943, a few months after Tesla’s death, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that his patents—not those of Marconi—came first.
In his later years, Tesla saw himself more as a discoverer of great concepts rather than the developer of useful devices (see “Our Original Mad Scientist”). Dreaming ever-grander schemes, he made sure he was not forgotten. Every year on his birthday, he staged an elaborate press conference where reporters flocked to hear of his latest idea. On his 75th birthday in 1931—the year Edison died—old colleagues and young scientists inspired by his work honored him with a Festschrift, a memorial book, and Time magazine put him on the cover.
But he had little money and was lonely during his last days. Former Westinghouse colleagues paid $125 a month for his room and board at the Hotel New Yorker, where he occupied room 3327 (divisible by three, of course) and conducted various electrical experiments until the end. He found companionship among pigeons, feeding them where they congregated outside the New York Public Library and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He took ill or injured birds to his room where he nursed them back to health in custom-built cages.
His favorite was a particularly elegant, pure white bird. “I loved that pigeon,” he told John O’Neill, a newspaper science writer he sometimes confided in during his last years. “Yes, I loved her as a man loves a woman. When that pigeon died, something went out of my life. Up to that time I knew with a certainty that I would complete my work, but when that something went out of my life, I knew my life’s work was finished.”
Ronald H. Bailey, author of several World War II and Civil War books, was an editor for the original Life magazine.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.