Let There Be Light: An Exploration of the Life of Nikola Tesla

By Kendra A. Palmer
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/4 |

Early Life

A great deal is known about Nikola Tesla’s origins—namely, his country and people, to which and of whom he attributed so great a deal. The inventor recognized that he came from an extremely conflicted area in the Balkans, full of strife, struggling for identity— a state which remains to this day. He once said, “hardly is there a nation which has met with a sadder fate than the Serbians. Europe can never repay the great debt it owes to the Serbians for checking, by the sacrifice of its own liberty, that barbarian influx” (Seifer 1). He was exceedingly passionate about his heritage; the basis for his pride lies in Serbia’s long and moving history. Tesla knew where he came from: a constant battleground. As one author said of the Serbs, “[our history] follows us always” (Seifer 3). Serbian history and the Battle of Kosovo is as indispensable to the Serb as the Exodus to the Jew or the Crucifixion to the Christian (Seifer 4). Tesla was somewhat of an enigma since he was of Serbian heritage, but grew up in Croatia (which in many ways conflicted with his ethnicity). This history shaped Tesla’s childhood, his family’s relocation, and influenced his life tremendously.

It is said that Tesla was born during a thunderstorm in a small hamlet called Smiljan in the province of Lika, Croatia on July 10, 1856. He was descended from a well-established frontier zadruga of the original family name Draganic; by the mid-1700s, this clan migrated to Croatia and within it, the Tesla name arose. His lineage was part of the “educated aristocracy” of the Serbian community (Seifer 7).

It is curious that even though his family was Serbian, they resided in this part of mountainous Croatia since, as previously mentioned, there are and were major distinctions and even animosity between the Croats and Serbs. According to Marc Seifer, author of Wizard, in Croatia in 1843, Emperor Ferdinand of Austria issued a proclamation forbidding any discussion about Illyrianism, thereby helping keep the Serbs and Croats separate peoples (Seifer 4). Croats practiced Catholicism and used the Latin alphabet, diverging strongly from some of the cultural practices of Serbs long ago. As discussed, Croatia had a somewhat distinct history independent to that of Serbia; it was more involved in the Austro-Hungarian empire, which further influenced Tesla’s background.

“As a Serb growing up in Croatia,” Seifer writes, “Tesla inherited a rich mix of tribal rituals, egalitarian rule, a modified form of Greek Orthodox… and myriad superstitions. Women cloaked their bodies in black garb, and men packed a cross in one pocket and a weapon in the other. Serbs saw themselves as protectors of Europe from the Asian hordes. They bore that responsibility with their blood for many centuries” (4). All of this war and would continue to have a palpable effect on Tesla’s life in later years.

Growing up in Smiljan, however, seemed to be a bit more peaceful; Tesla played with his sisters and brother and the animals on the farm, and demonstrated his knack for inventing early. Among these early childhood inventions were a cornstalk popgun and a propeller operated by May bugs sewn to the blades (Seifer 8). Tesla’s father, Milutin, was politically active, a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church, a fluent speaker of several languages, and a poet. He trained his son with exercises developing memory and intuitive capabilities. But it was his mother, Djouka, who truly stirred Tesla’s inclination to invent: she envisioned and worked on many household tools and appliances. The young Tesla became fascinated with the gap between need and solution as his mother was.

In 1863, a horse threw Tesla’s brother, Dane, from his back, killing him. The loss deeply affected his family, and Tesla recounted that, for a long time, “the recollection of [Dane’s] attainments made every effort of mine dull in comparison” (Seifer 10). Soon after, Milutin was promoted and the family moved to Gospić.

The Making of a Genius

In Gospić, by the age of fourteen (1869), Tesla became known as a scholar due to his obsession with school and studies. He started experimenting with water turbines and motors that used power acquired from differentials in air pressure. His objective was a perpetual-motion machine that would work by maintaining a steady-state vacuum and, like a windmill, harnessing the rush of incoming air (Seifer 13). His father hoped that Tesla would begin work in the Church, but Tesla would respond with, “It is not humans that I love, but humanity.” His parents were “greatly pleased [with their] son’s brilliant accomplishments in almost every activity in which he engaged, but recognized as a danger to Tesla’s health the great intensity with which he tackled projects” (O’Neill 38). Indeed, because of his knowledge, the trustees of the public library asked him to make a catalogue that classified all the books they had in their possession.

Later, Tesla moved to Karlovac to attend the Higher Real Gymnasium, near Zagreb. For this time, he lived with his aunt and her husband, who fed the growing boy sparingly. He studied languages and mathematics, and studied physics under Martin Sekulic, who demonstrated some of his inventions for his pupils. When he graduated, Tesla received notice from his father that he should not return to Gospić as there was an epidemic, but Tesla returned anyway. The streets “were stacked with corpses, the atmosphere thick with smoke, [and] the people mistakenly thought that cholera was being transmitted through the air” (Seifer 14). Tesla quickly fell ill. Doctors confined the boy to his bed for weeks, then months, then nearly a year. In fact, it reached a critical point where physicians thought he was going to die (O’Neill 38). Milutin was terrified of losing another son. Tesla recounted, during one of his spells that “my father rushed into the room… ‘Perhaps,’ I said, ‘I may get well if you will let me study engineering’” (Seifer 14). The Teslas decided on the Polytechnic School in Graz, Austria within a few days; Tesla slowly began to show improvement in his condition, taking nourishment and sitting up within a week, which seemed “almost miraculous” (O’Neill 42).

But there was a major war breaking out against the Turks. Tesla received an Army summons which required three years’ military service. Failure to respond would be met with jail— in addition to the three years. Milutin instructed his son to pack his gear and books and go into the hills to avoid the draft. There, he could recover more fully and maintain a low profile. During this period, out in nature, Tesla read and touched on the concept of hidden trigger mechanisms capable of unleashing great reservoirs of energy. On occasion, ravages of the war were unavoidable and the young man chanced upon them: he wrote later, “I have seen men hung, beaten to death, shot, quartered, heads chopped off… and children on a bayonette like quails” (Seifer 14). In 1875, having avoided capture, Tesla returned to Gospić and then began school in Austria the following semester. Around age 19, “Tesla entered manhood with a definite knowledge that nameless forces were shaping for him an unrevealed destiny” (O’Neill 45).

Further Education

Tesla changed his major to engineering and extended his curriculum to study other languages (he could speak nine of them). He knew the works of writers like Goethe, Spencer, and by heart. He undertook his work with great passion; usually, he studied about nineteen hours a day. “I had a veritable mania for finishing whatever I began,” he wrote of his college years. The young man worked on a mechanical flying machine. By his third year, Tesla had “surpassed his classmates in his studies [and] became bored and frustrated” by his quandary with alternate current (Seifer 17). He began gambling heavily and then was unprepared for exams in his final semester. He did not receive any grades for his last semester there and therefore never graduated from the Austrian Polytechnic School. Tesla’s cousins, who had been sending him money, withdrew their aid. For a time, he feared his parents would find out, so he simply disappeared. He traveled south into Slovenia and stayed with some distant family members. Finally, Milutin located him and offered a solution: his son would make a fresh start another university. Tesla returned home with him.

By the time Tesla left the Polytechnic University, he had made considerable strides in electrical engineering (Seifer 20). He was still very interested in alternating current (AC). He understood that the other system, a use of direct current (DC), was inefficient, needing continuous and direct flow of electrons on a wire from negative to positive poles. They would have to “move to the work, do the work, and then come all the way back to the generator… the problem with this is that the electrons encounter resistance [and] it’s difficult for the electrons to travel these great distances… most of the energy in this system is lost in the wire” (“Mad Electricity”). Tesla took a lucrative job and lived modestly for a year; he saved most of his earnings so that he could continue schooling at the University of Prague, from which he graduated. 


This period of Tesla’s life also marked the death of his father, Milutin. He needed to make a living, so he decided to move to Hungary, where he had friends. The American telephone exchange opened in Budapest soon after Tesla arrived, and he gained employment there. It was here that Tesla was introduced to the work of Thomas Edison, whose improvements on the telephone were changing communications. Here, Tesla was a mathematician and an inspector of equipment (Seifer 21). He studied induction, where a mass with an electric or electromagnetic charge can supply a similar charge or force in a second mass without contact. One day while walking through a park with a friend, Tesla suddenly visualized a new electric motor, and drew it out on the ground with a stick. This became patented as the induction motor, which energizes coils of wire placed around a stationary frame. The coils on a rotor inside have alternating currents, and the north-south magnetic field pole changes produce the force that makes the rotor spin. This innovative solution is used for “everything—from tools and appliances to hybrid cars to industrial plants” (“Mad Electricity”).

Soon the telephone company was sold. Tesla was recommended for a job that was highly varied but “largely that of a junior engineer” at the Continental Edison Company in Paris (O’Neill 60). It was here that he began to meticulously examine Edison’s inventions: in his curious nature, he took various machines and instruments apart, noting how they could be improved. One example would be his of the new induction-triggered carbon disk speaker— the flat, circular, transferable device which is still found in the mouthpiece of every telephone, and the supplementary amplifier, which enhanced transmission signals. Tesla “had invented a precursor of the loudspeaker… [and] never bothered to obtain a patent on it” (Seifer 21).

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