Great Serbs: Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856 (June 28 Old Style) in Smiljan, Lika – then part of the Austrian Military Frontier, currently in the Republic of Croatia. His father Milutin was a Serbian Orthodox priest. His mother Georgina had a remarkable memory for epic poetry. Nikola’s older brother, Dane, died in a horse-riding accident in 1861. He had three sisters: Milka, Angelina and Marica.

15.07.2014. reiss-institute.org-Nebojsa Malic, by Biljana Dikovic


Following his high-school graduation in 1873, Tesla returned home and caught cholera. He almost died several times, but somehow pulled through; his father – who had wanted Nikola to enter the priesthood – promised at one moment to send him to the best engineering school if only he would live. So Tesla lived, and enrolled in the Graz University of Technology on a Military Frontier scholarship.

Nikola Tesla (via Meet the Serbs)

Nikola started out as a star student and workaholic overachiever – until he clashed with one professor over a dynamo. By the end of the second year, he lost his scholarship and fell into gambling debt. Amazingly enough, he earned enough money through gambling to make good on his losses – but had to drop out of school. After spending the next couple years working as a draftsman and playing cards, he returned to his family a month before his father’s death, in 1879.

In 1880, he tried to study at the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague, but could not enroll as he knew neither Greek nor Czech. The following year, he moved to Budapest and became chief electrician at the Budapest Telephone Exchange. That led to a job for Continental Edison in France, and the move to New York City in 1884.

History remembers Tesla as a pioneer of Alternating Current (AC) electricity supply, wireless transmission, radio and X-ray research. But his first job in America ended in bitter disappointment: Edison reneged on the promise to pay him after Tesla had toiled for nine months to redesign Edison’s motors and generators. Tesla tried to set up his own company, but it went under, reducing him to digging ditches to afford food.

He was more successful with his second foray into the corporate world, with the help of Alfred Brown and Charles Peck, who helped him set up Tesla Electric Company. In 1887, Nikola created an induction motor that he successfully licensed to Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing. In 1891, the same year he became a US citizen, Nikola patented the Tesla Coil.

Unlike Edison, who always kept an eye on marketable inventions, Tesla’s head was in the clouds – he kept experimenting, researching and seeking the limits of knowledge, while the commercial applications of his work were but a source of income to support the research.

Tesla’s last patent was registered in 1928 – for a prototype vertical-takeoff airplane, forerunner of the tilt-rotor aircraft developed built in the 1960s. From 1934 to his death nine years later, he lived at Hotel New Yorker, his expenses paid by Westinghouse. He never married.

He died on January 7, 1943 – Christmas by the Old Style calendar used in the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Tesla’s home village was destroyed in August 1941, by the Croatian Nazis (Ustaše), and again during the war in 1991-95. Though Croatia has restored Tesla’s home and his father’s church, as part of a museum opened in 2006, there are no Serbs in Smiljan any more.

(With thanks to the Tesla Science Foundation of Philadelphia)