The year is 1887. Three years ago, you emigrated from Europe to America to seek your fortune. Though you are still young and though your academic career did not end well, you are well aware of your own genius, and you are driven to do whatever it takes to realize your dreams.
You were born in 1856 in a small town in what was then the Austrian Empire, now part of Croatia. Because your ancestors came from Western Serbia, near Montenegro, you are a proud Serbian. Your father was an Orthodox priest and hoped you would follow in his footsteps, but you were not interested in that. In addition to having a photographic memory, you had an extreme talent for mathematics and were able to perform integral calculus in your head. You finished high school a year early and went back to your village, but there you caught cholera; you were sick for many months and nearly died. Your father promised that if you recovered you would be given the best possible engineering education.
Who are you?
In 1875 you enrolled at Austrian Polytechnic in Graz. You studied electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and physics, working from 3:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. seven days a week, and found time to start a Serbian culture club. You argued with your professors and in your third year you lost your scholarship. You had one vice, gambling, and you lost your tuition money. You were able to make it back but you never completed your final exams and were never awarded a degree. Ashamed, you left your home town and severed ties with your family.
In 1881 you moved to Budapest to work at the Budapest Telephone Exchange, then a startup. You were appointed chief electrician there. The following year you went to France to work for the Continental Edison Company, and in 1884 you relocated to New York City to work for Thomas Edison there, arriving with four cents and a letter of recommendation in your pocket. Edison hired you to do electrical engineering projects, which of course you excelled at. In 1885, you told Edison that you could redesign his inefficient motor and generators, and Edison remarked, “There’s $50,000 in it for you if you can do it.” You worked on the problem for months and you accomplished the task. Edison then told you he was joking about the money and offered you a $10-per-week raise instead. Though this was a sizeable increase over your $18 weekly salary, you immediately resigned.
Your own company
In 1886 you formed your own company, but your investors did not agree with your project list and fired you. You spent the ensuing winter in misery, working as a ditch-digger and questioning the value of your education. After this existential crisis, you are more determined than ever to succeed.
In 1887 you start a new company with two new investors, one a New York–based attorney and the other the director of Western Union. They are to underwrite your efforts in exchange for 50% of your venture’s profits. They set up a lab for you in Manhattan and you are on your way.
You are Nikola Tesla, founder of the Tesla Electric Company. You will go on to patent a brushless alternating current induction motor based on a rotating magnetic field principle. The invention will attract the attention of the Westinghouse company, and your investors will sell it to them for $60,000 in cash and stock and generous royalties. Westinghouse will also hire you as an independent consultant at their Pittsburgh laboratories.
The year 1891 will be a banner year for you. You will demonstrate wireless energy transmission, which will become known as “the Tesla Effect”; you will patent the Tesla Coil; and you will become a naturalized citizen of the United States shortly after your 35th birthday. You will establish two more New York laboratories (one on Houston Street and the other on Fifth Avenue) and light them both with wireless electric lamps.
Two years later, you will electrify the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and will give riveting talks and sensational demonstrations at the building devoted to electrical energy. You will go on to research harvesting energy in space, Roentgen rays (x-rays), radio waves and radio transmissions. In 1898 you will, with much fanfare, demonstrate a radio-controlled boat at Madison Square Garden. (Efforts to interest the military in this technology will prove premature.)
You will go on to do groundbreaking work on atmospheric electricity, telegraphy and new types of engines including a steam-powered device dubbed “Tesla’s oscillator.” In 1905 you will complete a huge transmitting tower intended to power a worldwide network for the transmission of information and energy. In 1917 you will develop the first primitive radar unit and in 1928 you will patent a design for a biplane that could take off vertically. Some of your wilder theories, coupled with your personal behaviors, will lead to your being categorized as a “mad scientist,” but in 1931 you will appear on the cover of Time Magazine.
Unlike other prototypical mad scientists, you maintain your fastidious appearance all your life, and your personal habits are regular to a fault. You probably suffer from what we would now call an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Though you are 6'2" and quite dashing, you lead a secluded life, are celibate and will never marry. You will live to the age of 86; after your death, your ashes will be placed in a gilded sphere and displayed at the Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.
In 2003, sixty years after your death, a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs will set out to prove that “electric vehicles can be awesome.” They will name their company Tesla Motors in your honor. The Tesla Roadster will arrive in 2008.