Student: Ricky Stinnett
Professor: James Ackerman
COM 105, Fall 2012 118
The Ups and Downs of Nikola Tesla
Specific Purpose: To inform my audience of the highlights and low points of the life of Nikola Tesla.
Central Idea: Nikola Tesla’s career had many successes, but was also fraught with disappointments and betrayals.
Everyone has high and low points in their life, but if not for some gargantuan betrayals, the history of electricity in America and the world might be quite different. The very fact that I can stand here in this way and deliver this speech in this illuminated environment is a testimony to Nikola Tesla. I have been interested in Nikola Tesla for much of my life, but the research I have put into this project has furthered my understanding of Tesla as a person who needed but did not always want, alliances. So that you might better understand his life and life’s work, we will examine three of these high profile alliances and their successes and eventual downfalls.
(Internal preview: So let’s look at some of the major ups and downs in the career of Nikola Tesla.)
According to Inez Whitaker Hunt’s 2012 biography in the Britannica Biographies, Tesla was born in Smiljan, Austria/Hungary or what is today known as Croatia (Hunt, Para 1). Nikola’s father was a priest and wanted his son’s to follow him into the priesthood, but when Nikola contracted cholera and almost died, he convinced his father to allow him to study physics abroad. After studying and working his way around Europe, he began his high profile collaboration with Thomas Edison in 1882 (Hunt, Para 3).
A 2005 web biography called Nikola Tesla & The Taming of Electricity tells us that two years before Tesla met Edison, he began working for the Continental Edison Company in Europe (Taming, Para 68). Tesla was assigned to an Edison project in Strasbourg, France to correct the lighting at the German Railway Company. In a foreshadowing of his career, when the project was completed, Tesla received no compensation. Tesla had grand ideas and could visualize his inventions in his mind, but he was terrible with money. It was rumored that he often told his employers, “The last 29 days of the month are the hardest” (Taming, Para 62). Knowing the complexity of his inventions, Tesla thought that only one man would be able to help him bring his dreams to reality, Thomas Edison.
Upon arriving in America in 1884, Tesla, who had 4 cents and a letter of recommendation for his earthly possessions, was introduced to Edison. Edison was familiar with Tesla and his expertise with alternating current. Not wanting his direct current (DC) system to have to compete with alternating current (AC), Edison figured the best way to keep from competing with Tesla was to keep him on the payroll, and perhaps working on the DC machinery would convince him to give up his dreams of AC. Edison offered Tesla $50,000 to improve the performance of his DC motors and dynamos (Taming, 60-82). This was the big break Tesla needed.
Tesla worked long hours, often with as little as five hours a day away from Edison’s machines. When he was done, everyone was pleased beyond their expectations. When Tesla asked Edison for payment on the $50,000 contract, Edison laughed. Nikola Tesla & The Taming of Electricity quoted Edison as saying that he was, “only joking” and that Tesla “Didn’t understand our American humor” (Taming, Para 82-85).
Tesla walked out on Edison adding fuel to what would become a fierce rivalry. Without the payment from Edison, Tesla was forced to work for over a year as a ditch digger for $2.00 per day.
(Transition: After his up and down relationship with Edison had fallen apart, Tesla was destined to a similar experience with another electrical pioneer.)
The PBS documentary Tesla: Master of Lightning informs us that in the 5 years after he left the employ of Edison, Nikola Tesla was awarded over 20 patents in the US for alternating current motors, generators, transformers and transmission lines (Master, 17:37). The value of these patents alone should have made Tesla a rich man for life. Having heard of the genius of Tesla, George Westinghouse visited Tesla at his lab. By the end of their visit, Westinghouse had made Tesla an incredible offer: $1 million in cash and stock and $2.50 per horsepower generated from a Tesla invention. Tesla had hit the jackpot with his inventions. Keep in mind this was 1888, when a million dollars was a lot of money.
Edison and Westinghouse competed ferociously during this time period in what was called “The War of the Currents” (Master, 18:51). The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was to be the first lit by electricity and Edison and Westinghouse were the only bidders. The Westinghouse offer was reported to be about half of the offer from Edison, and they were awarded the contract. When the switch was flipped on the World’s Fair, Westinghouse was the hit of the industry and the War of the Currents shifted dramatically toward AC (Master, 20:28). AC was the way of the future, and as Tesla and Westinghouse succeeded, Edison’s fortunes sank. He was even forced out of his own company. With a fragile economy and using some money market manipulations along with nasty rumors among investors, Edison put pressure on Westinghouse and tried to cause trouble for the company financially. Westinghouse was in a situation where he needed to partner with other smaller firms to survive, and Tesla’s royalty was a stumbling block in any negotiation. Westinghouse asked Tesla to void his royalty contract, on which he already owed around $12 million, and which if it were still in effect would have been worth billions. But Tesla wanted AC to survive more than he wanted the money, and he felt that when success came, that George Westinghouse would take care of him, so he tore up the contracts (Master, 26:49). Westinghouse completed their mergers and topped Edison and his backers once again.
Fresh from the success of the Chicago World’s Fair, Westinghouse was awarded a prize contract to harness the power of Niagara Falls. This had been a boyhood dream of Tesla’s and suddenly his monetary sacrifice seemed more worthwhile. As Westinghouse succeeded at Niagara, and eventually powered both Buffalo, New York and New York City, Edison faded from the scene. AC had again won the War of the Currents and Westinghouse held all of the patents. Tesla’s work at Niagara and Westinghouse was complete. Tesla never asked George Westinghouse to compensate him for saving the company, and Westinghouse never did.
(Transition: When Westinghouse did not live up to his expectations, Tesla was again looking for financial backing for a new project.)
Tesla had proved all he wanted to about AC electricity and now, armed with plans and early studies, was enamored with wireless communication. Two public demonstrations by Tesla garnered much publicity, His teleautomatic boat was the first wirelessly remote controlled device and is considered the first robot as well (Master, Para 210). According to Tesla’s Biography on the Tesla Memorial Society of New York Website, his second demonstration was the lighting of a field full of light bulbs from 25 miles away with no wires(Biography, Para 26). These demonstrations got the attention of his next financier, J. P. Morgan. Morgan saw a potential to benefit from the electricity business and had been looking for and entry. Tesla had impressed Morgan with his designs for the World-Wide Wireless System, a network of transmitters and receivers around the world that would facilitate the broadcast of information, music and voice messages. Morgan was ready to invest, but as was his way, he did so by buying 51% stake in all of Tesla’s current or future patents related to telephony and telegraphy. Tesla had hoped for $1million for the project, but Morgan offered only $150,000. Tesla felt confident that Morgan would see the potential in his invention and continue investing as needed (Hunt, Para 10). Tesla began construction on Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island, New York. This was to be the 187 foot centerpiece of his worldwide network of towers. Between 1900 and 1905, Morgan did continue his financial backing for the tower project, but in 1906, soon after he learned that the tower would be capable of transmitting free electricity to anyone with the means to receive it, he ended his backing for the project and his association with Tesla. According to Tesla’s biography on the Tesla Memorial Society of New York Website, it is reported that Morgan said, “If anyone can draw on the power, where do we put the meter? (Biography, Para 30)” In the end, Morgan was only concerned with profit and not progress.
In 1943, Tesla, who had received approximately 700 US and foreign patents (Biography, Para 14), died penniless (Master, 1:13:10). His inability to retain financial support was a common theme in his life.
(Internal Summary: So let’s review what we have discussed.)
In his long career, Tesla allied with industry and financial giants only to provide benefit to and in the end be forsaken by them. Edison, seeing Tesla as a probable competitor reneged on his deal to pay Tesla for updating his equipment. Westinghouse begged out of his contract with Tesla that would have set even the free spending Tesla for life. When Westinghouse’s fortune was renewed, he still did not compensate Tesla for his gracious sacrifice. J.P. Morgan withdrew his backing for Tessa’s Wardenclyffe project when he couldn’t envision how he would profit from the investment. Since history is written by the winners, J.P. Morgan, George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison all bask in a glow they owe in no small part to Nikola Tesla, a man that David L. Godstein, Professor of Physics at the California Institute of Technology calls, “a genius of the first magnitude” (Master, 2:24).
Hunt, Inez Whitaker. “Tesla, Nikola.” Britannica Biographies (2012): 1. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
“Nikola Tesla & The Taming Of Electricity.” Nikola Tesla & The Taming Of Electricity (2005): 8. Science Reference Center. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.
“Nikola Tesla: Master of Lightning.” Prod. Robert Uth. Life and Legacy Inside the Lab. Public Broadcasting System. PBS, Dec. 2000. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.
“Tesla’s Biography.” Tesla’s Biography. Tesla Memorial Society of New York, 10 July 1998. Web. 25 Oct. 2012.