Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American inventor, engineer and designer who created, among other things, the X-ray, the modern alternating current electrical supply system and the technology that would make wireless communication possible.
John Wasik, author of Lightning Strikes: Timeless Lessons in Creativity from the Life & Work of Nikola Tesla, joined Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia to discuss Tesla’s ingenuity, including his daring sales pitch at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Tony Sarabia: A lot of people, including yourself, have called Tesla a visionary genius … he was really a visionary in a different sense. Could you talk about that?
John Wasik: He could literally see what he wanted to do. So when, just before he came over to the (United States) in 1884, he had visualized what alternating current looked like. He could draw it in the sand and then he could do all the formulas and make all the equipment that made this whole thing possible … He had this ability to take this vision and convert it into something very real in the world.
Sarabia: He moves to New York City eventually in the mid-1880s with four cents in his pocket. What brought him to New York?
Wasik: He was working for Continental Edison, which was Thomas Edison’s company in Paris, basically fixing up Edison’s power plants. One of Edison’s assistants said, “Here’s a great man. You have to meet him. Let’s bring him over.” So he gets robbed on the ship across the Atlantic. He’s penniless. He has to walk to Edison’s office in downtown Manhattan and meets the great man. Here’s his idol sitting right in front of him. And Edison really wants to put him to work right away. He’s got this DC power plant — direct current power plant — that’s constantly blowing up. So he says to Tesla, “Young man, if you can fix this power plant and get it running, I will give you $50,000.” …
So Tesla does fix the plant. He gets it running really well. And it’s a horrible little plant. So he’s waiting for his check from Edison, and Edison just looks him over and he says, “Young man, it seems that you don’t appreciate our American sense of humor.” Well, after that he’s humiliated. He can’t work for this man anymore … So he goes and he digs ditches for a while. He’s offered a job with Western Union, but that’s so 19th century he doesn’t want to do it. So he moves on. He finally connects with George Westinghouse. Westinghouse meets with him and says, “Alright Tesla, let’s see this alternating current thing.” And they build the system.
Sarabia: What was the main drawback for direct current when it came to lighting up big cities?
Wasik: With direct current you can only transport a few blocks. It consumes a great deal of energy. It produces a lot of heat. The electrical wires have to be huge. So it’s not an efficient way of transporting electricity. Alternating current, since it goes in two directions, is. So you can step it up, step it down, send it hundreds of miles, high current, low current … It’s much easier to work with in an engineering sense.
Sarabia: This ‘War of Currents’ came to a head here in Chicago in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition. What happened there?
Wasik: It was marvelous because Tesla and Westinghouse had their own building — not coincidentally just literally around the corner from where they’re going to build the Obama library right at Jackson Park. So he gets his own building and he’s a showman. He’s got to show the world what alternating current looks like and he has to prove that it’s safe. So he gets up on stage — he’s got these big rubber boots so he doesn’t get electrocuted, lots of voltage flowing — and there’s literally sparks flowing from his fingertips. It’s the most amazing thing anybody’s ever seen. He manages to sell alternating current. And then, just following the fair because they had been so successful, they wired Niagara Falls. That was it. That cemented AC’s role in building the 20th century, the second industrial revolution, its motors, the whole schmear.
Sarabia: Everybody in grade school is familiar with Thomas Edison. Why doesn’t (Tesla) get the credit? Was part of this that he was just so creative that he didn’t take into consideration the business aspect of these things that he was doing?
There were a couple of twists and turns in his story … Keep in mind this was before the days of going public and IPOs and crowd-funding. There were just a handful of men that controlled most of the capital that was going into technology. So he ran out of money. History saw this as, “Oh, he bet everything on this big project. And after that, what did he do?” He’s not like Edison who had his name on all these power plants and companies.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Hit play above to listen to the entire segment.