Nikola Tesla: Age 40 to Death at Age 87
by Ron Kurtus (revised 19 January 2022)
Nikola Tesla had become rich and relatively well-known as the creator of a system to produce AC electricity to industry and the public.
He now started to develop some of his more bizarre inventions. After age 40 his world would start to unravel as he lost his money and the credit for his inventions.
Tesla still was able to invent and experiment with electrical devices after he turned 40, but it became more difficult to get investors for his projects.
Questions you may have include:
- What happened to Tesla's life after age 40?
- Why did he have his misfortunes?
- What lessons can we learn from his life, achievements and disappointments?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Ages 40 to 49: 1896-1905
Tesla continued to work in his new laboratory in Colorado Springs. At age 40, Tesla devised experiments using a huge Tesla coil he had constructed. With it, he was supposedly was able to generate man-made lightning bolts. People started to consider him eccentriclike a mad scientist.
Invention of radio
The next year Tesla filed a patent for the electronics required for the radio, but he was not given credit for the actual invention of radio. Two years later, in 1899, the Italian scientist Marconi provided a practical means for transmitting radio, broadcasting a signal across the English Channel, and thus was credited with the invention.
As with many inventions and scientific breakthroughs, the people who laid the groundwork seldom get the credit that the person who demonstrates a practical application. Thus, Tesla received nothing for his work and patent concerning radio electronics, although he is credited with being a contributor to the invention.
Tesla moved back to New York, set up a laboratory and began experimenting with sonic vibrations. He invented the Tesla Oscillator, which could take very little input energy to set the device in motion and build that motion to tremendous levels of usable energy.
In one experiment, he tuned his machine to vibration of the building, when suddenly it went into resonance and started to shake the whole building. People outside called the police and ambulances. When they arrived, Tesla and his assistants told them it must have been an earthquake.
Others chipping away
Meanwhile, others were chipping away at the credit for the work and inventions that Tesla had created.
Although Tesla was the inventor of the method of delivering AC electricity and had patents filed in his name, other scientists with clever lawyers claimed credit for the invention, saying that they had laid the groundwork for Tesla. Soon his name was lost in the shuffle, and the public came to associate the invention of AC electricity with Westinghouse and his company.
It makes you wonder why Tesla seemed to be robbed of the credit due him for his work. Was it some weakness in his personality that allowed others to take advantage, or was it the highly competitive nature of the business of science when so much money and fame are at stake?
Moved back to New York
He then began the construction of a lab with a huge tower on Long Island, N.Y., from which he could shoot artificial lightning bolts he could generate. The lab was never completed, and the tower was eventually knocked down.
Ages 50 to 59: 1906-15
In 1907, when Tesla was 51, the Westinghouse Co. was weakened in the financial panic of that year. Westinghouse had to back out of the royalty contract he had signed with Tesla. He explained that his company would not survive if it had to pay Tesla his full royalties, so he persuaded Tesla to accept a buyout of his patents for $216,000.
This was much less than the $12 million the patents were worth at the time.
Supposed to get Nobel Prize
When Tesla was 59, he was informed that he was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics along with Thomas Edison, for their work in electricity. Unbeknownst to Tesla, Edison refused to share the award with Tesla. So, the award was then given to another scientist, completely surprising and disappointing Tesla. (Was Edison a nasty character or what?)
Ages 60 to Death at 87: 1916-43
By the time he was 61, Tesla was almost living in poverty. He was then told he was to receive the Edison Medal of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. He turned the medal down.
Tesla wrote them: "You propose to honor me with a medal, which I could pin upon my coat and strut for a vain hour before the members of your Institute. You would decorate my body and continue to let starve, for failure to supply recognition, my mind and its creative products, which have supplied the foundation upon which the major portion of your Institute exists."
Reveals cause of NY earthquake
In 1935, when he was 79 years old, Nikola Tesla revealed to the newspapers that an earthquake in the region of his New York laboratory in 1898 was the result of an "earth vibrating machine" he had been experimenting with. A reporter asked if he could use it to destroy the Empire State Building, to which Tesla said it was possible. The newspaper article reinforced the opinion that Tesla was a crackpot.
On the other hand, the U.S. Army classified many of Tesla's electrical inventions as Secret, thus preventing the public to know of his genius.
Destitute for last years
Tesla was destitute for the last years of his life and was forced to move from one hotel to another when he got behind in his bills. He died at age 87 in 1943.
Summary of his life
Nikola Tesla was one of the great scientists of all time, although his name is not as nearly as famous as others in his era. Tesla had many inventions in his lifetime and had about 700 patents awarded to him.
Unfortunately, Tesla seemed to be short-changed in his quest for fame and fortune in science. This was due in part by the fact that others took advantage of him, but it was also because he was naive in the ways of business and promoting his inventions.
Had misconceptions about competition
Many harbor the illusion that science, dealing with facts as it does, is beyond the petty rivalries that trouble the rest of the world. Nikola Tesla was one of those. He believed science had nothing to do with politics, and claimed not to care for fame and riches.
As he grew older, though, this attitude ruined his scientific work. Not associated with any particular discovery, he could attract no investors to his many ideas. While he pondered great inventions for the future, others stole the patents he had already developed and got the glory for themselves.
He wanted to do everything on his own, but merely exhausted and impoverished himself in the process. Edison was a businessman and Tesla's polar opposite. Edison's name is much better known than Tesla's and is associated with more inventions.
Nikola Tesla had a truly inventive mind and created devices that helped modernize the world. But he also was not wise in dealing with other people, and was taken advantage of many times.
Consider failures simply as obstacles from which you will learn
Resources and references
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Nikola Tesla: Age 40 to Death at Age 87