Maker Hacker

Lessons From Tesla

Enduring insights from the 20th century’s mad scientist extraordinaire.

Nikola Tesla was a scientist and engineer whose experiments changed the technological landscape of the 20th century. Some call him brilliant, others call him bat-shit crazy. But he was dedicated to pushing the limits of technology, and his incredible innovations endure. After all these decades, Tesla still has things to teach aspiring innovators, makers, and dreamers.

Born in 1856 in what is now Croatia, Nikola Tesla was a gifted child with a photographic memory and an intuitive predisposition for math and mechanics. It was in his first year of college that he began working on one of his greatest inventions: the alternating current induction motor. Now one of the most common electrical motors in existence, this innovation uses magnets to turn electricity into the mechanical movement necessary in modern machinery. It’s in factory equipment, desk fans, and washing machines. But the reigning electrical experts in Tesla’s day were convinced that such a motor would never work. One of Tesla’s professors even dedicated an entire class to demonstrating the impossibility of creating a functional induction motor. But this budding genius trusted his vision.

The Lesson: When someone tells you it can’t be done, do it anyway.

After dropping out of college and working as a teacher and a chief electrician at a telephone company, Tesla moved to New York City with little more than the change in his pocket and his aspirations for the AC motor. The tall and boastful 28 year old was almost immediately hired by Thomas Edison and soon tackled some of the most challenging mechanical and electrical problems in the Edison Machine Works. After Edison remarked that he’d give Tesla $50,000 to redesigned the company’s standard motor and generators, Tesla worked for months until all was accomplished. When Edison refused to pay up, Tesla quit.

The Lesson: Take risks. They always make you stronger.

The years that followed were some of the most difficult of his career. Tesla founded an electric light company only to be ousted by investors. For several months, he worked as a ditch digger, practically penniless and without any great accomplishments to his name. But rather than giving in to failure, the great engineer learned from it. With the support of new investors, he formed a new company, built his induction motor, and licensed it to a man who was already developing a commercial AC electrical system. It was Tesla’s big break.

The Lesson: Learn from failure. Success will follow.

He used his success as a platform to bigger things. By 1893, Tesla’s designs electrified the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where the inventor himself demonstrated wirelessly energized lighting. He experimented with early fluorescents and accidentally captured what may be the first X-ray image when trying to take a picture of his good friend Mark Twain. Tesla created what many consider to be the first robot, a small wirelessly controlled boat that he maneuvered around a pool in Madison Square Garden. The inventor experimented with high-voltage, high-frequency, and atmospheric electricity. He even conceptualized the possibility of radio and patented a “system of transmitting electrical energy” that challenged Gugliemo Marconi’s claim to the patents on radio transmission.

The Lesson: Don’t stop. Use past achievement to propel future progress.

As Tesla aged, he made increasingly bizarre claims. He wrote a public letter claiming to have received an alien transmission from Mars. He claimed to have invented a “death ray” so powerful that its possessor would control the world. He professed his love for a pigeon. He also told reporters that he once nearly destroyed 5th Avenue with a pocket-sized earthquake-making oscillator. Sure, Tesla may have been off his rocker, and he wasn’t always right. But by the time of his death in 1943, Tesla had obtained around 300 patents from 26 countries and made dozens of remarkably accurate predictions about the future of communications and technology. Many of Tesla’s innovations are still used today and his insight contributed to the creation of even more noteworthy developments by subsequent inventors. The funny thing is that some of Tesla’s most insane-sounding ideas (like drones and pocket-sized wireless video communicators) are ones that we use today.

The Lesson: Time can always turn crazy ideas into genius innovations.

Got you hooked? Here’s more:


Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived
The iconic (and comic) re-examination of Tesla’s life from The Oatmeal


Studio360’s podcast series on Nikola Tesla
The man, the myth, and his great creations


Your own Tesla coil
Learn how to make a small Tesla coil from Instructables

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