By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan,
Tesla first greeted me as my plane landed on the soil of the Serbian capital: the Belgrade airport is named Nikola Tesla Airport. A coin carrying the image of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was also presented to me in Belgrade, where I was posted. A Serbian American, Tesla was one of the most notable inventors and visionaries of his time.
Most people have heard his name, but few know about his origins and his place in modern science and technology. In 1856, Nikola Tesla was born an ethnic Serb in the village of Smiljan, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in Croatia. His father, Milutin Tesla, was a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church. His mother, Georgina-Djuka Tesla, was, as described by him, “a truly great woman, of rare skill, courage, and fortitude.” She invented and constructed all kinds of tools and devices, and he inherited her ingenuity and aptitude. It is claimed that Nikola was born during a lightning storm which made his mother say prophetically that he will be a child of the light. A saying goes, one day as a boy when he was petting his cat, a spark of electricity flew which became the abiding interest of his life.
In school, Nikola Tesla was a child prodigy with remarkable talent in solving mathematical problems. As a teenager, he fell seriously ill and recovered after his father agreed to let him study engineering instead of making him a priest! During the 1870s, he studied at the Technical University of Graz, Austria and the University of Prague, whereafter he worked as a telegraph drafter and electrician. He moved to the US in 1884 at the age of 28, to work for Thomas Edison. Edison’s DC-based electrical works were fast becoming the standard in the US. Tesla was hired by Edison only to part several months later due to a conflicting business-scientific relationship.
Nikola Tesla was an engineer and scientist known for designing the alternating current (AC) system, which is the predominant electrical system used across the world today. He also created the Tesla coil, which is still used in radio technology. Tesla invented, predicted, or contributed to the development of hundreds of technologies that play big parts in our daily lives- like the remote control for TV, neon and fluorescent lights, wireless transmission, computers, smartphones, laser beams, x-ray, robotics, and, of course, our present-day AC electric system.
The oft described ‘war of currents’ broke out between Tesla and Edison in the late 1800s. At stake was the very basis of the entire United States’, and later the entire world’s, electrical system and the standard for the industry’s power transmission. Edison claimed AC was dangerous and could kill people; Tesla publicly demonstrated its safety by taking the shock of 250,000 volts on his body. AC won the fight. In a sense, we live in the age of Tesla. It is not an exaggeration that he changed the world.
Nikola Tesla designed the first hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls, harnessing the power of the waterfalls; power so generated first flowed to the homes in Buffalo on November 16, 1896. A statue of Tesla on Goat Island overlooks the falls today.
Writing for the Electrical review of Jan 27, 1897, he said, “electrical science has revealed to us the true nature of light, has provided us with innumerable appliances and instruments of precision, and has thereby vastly added to the exactness of our knowledge”. Tesla sold several of his patent rights, including those of his AC machinery, to George Westinghouse. The Engineer’s Club ironically awarded Tesla the Edison Medal in 1917.
Thanks to Tesla’s early work, wireless transfer of energy is being realized today-from wireless chargers for electric toothbrushes and smartphones, to wireless electric vehicle charging. Magnetic field strength, for equipment such as MRI scanners, is also measured in the unit Teslas, in his honor. He had more than 300 patents by the time he died in 1943 at 86. He led a rags to riches to rags life. He had little business acumen.
Tesla enjoyed a reputation not only as a great engineer and inventor but also a philosopher, poet and connoisseur. Tesla met Swami Vivekanand (1863-1902) who had introduced Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the western world, for example through his famous speech in Chicago at the Parliament of Religions. Both were hoping for a mutual confirmation of Vedanta and physics. Under Vivekanand’s influence, Tesla is said to have turned vegetarian and began using Sanskrit words like ‘akasha’ and ‘prana’ to describe the force and matter that exists all around us. I was only too happy to promote a graphic novel, titled “The inventor”, on Tesla and Vivekanand created by Rave Mehta, an Indo-American. Eventually, in 1905 Einstein proved the oneness of matter and energy.
On his 75th birthday, Tesla received a congratulatory letter from Einstein and was featured on the cover of the Time magazine. Tesla scaled great heights to bring lightning down to earth.
Today, the world’s best known electric car manufacturer, Tesla Motors, bears his name. Tesla Motors has registered its brand in India and is hiring talent. It is expected that 4 upcoming Tesla cars will be officially launched in India in 2021-23. These include Model 3, Model S, Model X, and Model Y. Model 3 is due for launch in December 2021. Tesla Motors co-founder and Chief Executive Elon Musk has said he will set up a factory in India only if his imported vehicles get a good response here. Among the Indians who already own Tesla cars are Mukesh Ambani, Prashant Ruia, etc. Other premium electric vehicle manufacturers like Mercedes Benz and Audi have already launched in India.
The ashes of Tesla are buried in Serbia, as desired by his close relatives. I had the privilege of visiting the state-of-the-art Nikola Tesla Museum in Central Belgrade on several occasions. It is a science museum dedicated to his life and work as well as his final resting place. Certain items for the museum were shipped from New York City to Belgrade in 1951, as a result of efforts of his nephew Sava Kosanovic. It houses the Tesla archive with several thousand of plans, drawings, books and journals, including 3D interactive presentations, which have been inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme.
Even in death, Tesla remains mired in controversy for reasons that have nothing to do with his work. The Serbian Orthodox church wanted to rebury his ashes in St Sava Church in Belgrade, the largest orthodox church in the world, alongside other Serbian national heroes including the 14th century Prince Lazar who fought the Ottomans. The local scientific community opposed the move. Now, Croatia wants to put Tesla’s face on its euro coins when it plans to join the currency in 2023. Serbia, a non-EU country, is bitterly opposed on the grounds that would mean usurping Serbian heritage.
(The author is a former Indian Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).