Summary of Tesla by Margaret Cheney

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Tesla by Margaret Cheney

Nikola Tesla was a remarkably gifted inventor. However, unlike other bright minds at the time, Tesla did not make as much money. In fact, when he died, he was living alone in relative poverty. So, how did he go from his massive ideas about wireless communication, solar technology and alternating current to the eccentric man that everyone ignored?

Tesla’s story is a fascinating one. He was a man who rubbed shoulders with Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Mark Twain; yet at the end of his life, his best friend was a white pigeon. It may paint a bleak picture, but Tesla’s ideas built the foundation for much of the modern world’s technology. Want to know more about this brilliant man?

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • Nikola Tesla’s early life in Croatia 
  • Tesla’s arrival in America and meeting Thoma Edison
  • The lab that Tesla built
  • The problem with big ideas and gaining investors
  • Tesla’s final years

Key lesson one: Nikola Tesla’s early life in Croatia 

Nikola Tesla was born at exactly midnight on July 9 1856 in Croatia. The region he was born into was known for raising Church ministers and Army officers but Tesla would not be either. From an early age, it was pretty clear that Tesla possessed a photographic memory. This was something that he got from his mother, who was also known for her excellent memory and tool-making skills.

When Tesla was five years old, his older brother passed away in an accident. He was deeply saddened by the loss and Tesla threw himself into his studies. He wanted to be the best student he could be in order to make his parents happy again. Just three years later at age eight, he was already showing an interest in physics and engineering. However, Tesla contracted cholera in his teens which interrupted his studies. Whilst gravely ill and stuck in bed, he begged his father to let him continue his studies and not follow in his footsteps and join the clergy. Tesla received his father’s blessings and gained a newfound will to recover.

It was during this period that Tesla started developing strange visions and phobias. He already had a vivid imagination, but it seems to have led to what he described as bright flashes of light and hallucinations. He still became an excellent student despite his constant debates with his teachers. In 1879, after the death of his father, Tesla had to leave school to find a job. He began working at a telegram office when he experienced a nervous breakdown. Although at the time, the term nervous breakdown was unheard of, instead Tesla described it as ‘being overwhelmed by his acute senses’. 

When he recovered, Tesla was walking through the park when he had a vision of an induction motor. At the time, single circuit, direct current motors were being used around the world. The motor he envisioned could use two or more alternating currents to generate electricity. He realised that this system had the potential of generating more power and distributing it much further than the current one. Tesla had the idea, he now had to bring it to fruition. This led him to seek better employment and he ended up at the Continental Edison Company in Paris. Here, he proved his abilities and fixed power plants in France and Germany. His manager was so impressed with his work, he gave him a letter of recommendation to take to Thomas Edison. Tesla did not think twice and headed off to America.

Key lesson two: Tesla’s arrival in America and meeting Thomas Edison

Tesla arrived in America with one place on his mind, the Edison Electric Company. He knew that the company supplied most of New York City with electricity and he also knew how unstable and problematic the direct current generators were. So, when Tesla got into Edison’s office, he handed him his letter of recommendation and then tried to convince him that alternating current motors would be better.

Edison was not swayed by Tesla’s presentation. He was adamant that direct current would suffice and that it was all he would work with. Edison did, however, offer Tesla a job to fix a lighting plant on a steamship. Tesla finished the job so quickly, he impressed Edison. Edison offered Tesla a deal, he would give Tesla $50 000 if he could improve the design of his generators. Tesla was never one to shy away from a challenge and over time he improved 24 electrical generators for Edison. However, when Tesla went to claim his reward, Edison claimed he did not understand his American humour and instead offered to give him a $10 increase in his weekly wages. As could be expected, Tesla felt cheated and resigned from Edison Electric with hopes of forging his own path.

Key lesson three: The lab that Tesla built

In 1887, Tesla a manager from the Western Union Telegraph Company, A.K. Brown, was convinced that Tesla’s idea about alternating current generators was the way ahead. Brown and Tesla formed the Tesla Electric Company to produce Tesla’s alternating current induction motor. Only a year later, Tesla received his first patent for his motor and by 1891 he had 40 patents associated with it. His first big idea was slowly becoming a reality.

His work caught the eye of a businessman looking to take on Edison, George Westinghouse. It didn’t take long before Westinghouse and Tesla were in business and the War of the currents began. In Tesla’s original contract with Westinghouse, it was agreed that Tesla would receive $60 000 for patent licensing and $2.50 in royalties for every unit of alternating current horsepower produced by hs motors. If this deal went through Tesla would have been extremely wealthy. However, Westinghouse’s advisors said that the royalty deal was not a good move and Tesla decided to drop it from the contract to keep the partnership with Westinghouse.

The biggest opportunity that Tesla had to exhibit his alternating current distribution system came at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Tesla used it to power the entire World’s fair and proved its stability and effectiveness to the twenty-five million people who visited the fair. After the success of the World’s Fair, Tesla’s future looks bright. He moved on to his next project of harnessing the power of Niagara Falls. Westinghouse secured a deal that allowed them to build the first electrical generators at Niagara Falls. It took three years but Tesla successfully supervised the installation which saw them supply electricity to the city of Buffalo 26 miles away. This brought attention to Tesla like never before. Everyone was talking about his brilliance, he even received a medal of honour from The American Institute of Electrical Engineers. 

After his success at Niagara Falls, Tesla went back to his New York lab to continue work on his other ideas. Many of his experiments were centred around providing wireless electricity around the world. He believed that the Earth itself could be a conductor. It was through these experiments that he put forth the ideas of radio and remote control technology. He even had a live demonstration of radio communication. All this was cut short in 1895 when Tesla’s lab was destroyed in a fire. What made it infinitely worse was that Tesla did not have any insurance for his building or the equipment. In one night, he lost almost everything.

Key lesson four: The problem with big ideas and gaining investors

After Tesla lost his lab, he licked his wounds and sought to build a new lab with a help of a few connections he made whilst working on the project at Niagara Falls. He started off with his remote control experiments thinking that he could make some money from it. He filed patents and introduced the public to the remote-controlled boat in 1898. He believed that the technology could be used for many purposes including in the military where remote-controlled robots could fight wars. However, at the time, no one could see the potential. They doubted that it would work and that it was secure from outside interference.

It was also around this time that Tesla started investigating how to harness solar energy and how to send messages using vibrations through the earth. These ideas were far ahead of their time and no matter how many requests for funding Tesla put forward, he was declined. 

Key lesson five: Tesla’s final years

Tesla continued with his idea for wireless electricity for much of the years that followed. He secured a remote location in Colorado Springs when his experiments got too risky for the city. His works there included sending electrical shocks through the ground to wirelessly activate light bulbs. These experiments scared the locals and horses before culminating in a blackout in Colorado Springs when his transmitter overloaded the town’s generator. Tesla saw these experiments as a success and led him to return to New York City to build a facility that would produce electricity wirelessly. He would spend almost two decades trying to get the facility off the ground. 

Whilst this was happening, Tesla’s life became somewhat of a spectacle. First, Guglielmo Marconi sent the first transatlantic radio communication in 1901. Tesla had filed his patent in 1897. The legal implications of this were not cleared up until 40 years later. In all that time, Marconi made millions while Tesla was struggling financially. He could not pay his taxes, was living at the Waldorf-Astoria on credit and had to hand over the very facility he was trying to build. Tesla continued to work well into his 70s and was still cranking out futuristic ideas. He theorised the modern mobile phone and said that newspapers could be printed wirelessly at home. Tesla eventually died alone, in his hotel room aged 86. 

The key takeaway from Tesla is:

Nikola Tesla was a brilliant man. His intelligence in childhood was incomparable and the fact that he had to drop out of school did not stop him from achieving greatness. His life was a rollercoaster of discoveries and failures that saw him proving his theories but failing to reap the benefits of them. His ideas over the years were way ahead of their time but laid the foundation for the modern technology we are so familiar with today.

How can I implement the lessons learned in Tesla:

The biggest lesson Tesla has shown is that in pursuit of your goals, be sure to have everything in order. Tesla ensured that his patents were filed before he demonstrated new technologies. Furthermore, don’t be quick to make deals without the proper documentation as Tesla did with Edison. As much as achieving your goals is more important than money, you should not sell yourself short.

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