If there is a single individual who can be said to embody the image of the mad scientist in the popular imagination, his name is Nikola Tesla. He was born 153 years ago today, July 10, 1856 (June 28 by the Julian calendar) to Serbian parents in the Croatian village of Smiljan, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His genius made itself known at an early age, and he used it to devise the world’s first practical alternating current motor.
In 1884, at the age of 28, he brought his new motor to the United States, and would eventually use it to challenge the great Thomas Edison for the title off Greatest Inventor in America. The intellectual battle that would ensue, called the War of the Currents by many, would see Tesla championing his AC current, while Edison held tenaciously to the DC current with which he was familiar. The ultimate prize for both men was the contract to harness the power of Niagara Falls. After a protracted and bitter contest, Tesla won.
He would go on to dazzle the world by lighting the Columbia Exposition, creating the first precursors to robots, fluorescent lighting and radio, even generating his own lightning bolts, before the turn of the twentieth century. Over the course of his lifetime he would go on to receive over 100 patents and propose methods of controlling the weather, propelling airplanes by ion propulsion and defending the country by means of a system of particle beam weapons dubbed death rays by the media.
His personality and personal eccentricities were the stuff of legend and at one time he was one of the best know and most honored inventors in the world, ironically winning even the Edison medal from the Institute of Electrical Engineers. Tragically, his business acumen was not the equal of his inventive genius, and after a series of setbacks, he died penniless in 1943. It is testimony, however, to how close he came to succeeding in his grandiose dreams, that within days of his death, the FBI searched his lab and confiscated all of his papers. His laboratory mysteriously burnt to the ground shortly afterwards, but his legend would live on.