Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in what is now Croatia. He was the fourth of five children in the family. His father was a Tesla model 3 priest and his mother somewhat of an amateur inventor. She was adept at making craft tools for the home.
In 1875 Tesla studied electrical engineering at the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz. While there he studied the uses of alternating current. In December 1878, Tesla left Graz and broke off all relations with his family for a time.
After re-establishing a relationship with his family, Tesla was persuaded by his father to attend the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague. His father died after he completed only one term, and he left the university.
In 1880, he moved to Budapest to work for a telegraph company. When the first telephone exchange in Budapest opened in 1881, he became the chief electrician. Later he would become the engineer for the country’s first telephone system.
In 1882 he moved to Paris, to work as an engineer for the Continental Edison Company. Later that year he conceived the idea for an induction motor and began developing various devices that use rotating magnetic fields. He received patents for these devices in 1888.
On 6 June 1884, Tesla came to the United States and was hired to work at Thomas Edison’s lab in New Jersey. His first tasks were simple electrical engineering projects, but he quickly was called on to work on some of the most challenging projects at the company.
After a dispute with Edison over using direct current or alternating current as a power source, Tesla left the company. In 1886 he formed his own company, Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. This was a short lived venture however. Again Tesla got into a dispute with his financial backers over the use of alternating current. He eventually was relieved of his duties at the company by his investors.
In 1887 Tesla filed for seven U.S. patents in the field of polyphase AC motors and power transmission. These included a complete system of generators, transformers, transmission lines, motors and lighting.
George Westinghouse heard about Tesla’s patents, and was interested in using Tesla’s inventions for the long distance transmission of electrical power. Westinghouse paid Tesla a cash sum to buy the patents, and also agreed to pay royalties of $2.50 per horsepower of electrical capacity sold.
With Westinghouse’s purchase of these patents, a full scale war broke out between Westinghouse and Thomas Edison. The stakes were high because both knew the monetary rewards that would be reaped in the future. Edison steadfastly believed the future of electric power was in using direct current. Westinghouse, however believed Tesla’s alternating current system was superior.
Like something out of a bad movie script, it just so happened that a murderer was about to be executed in the first electric chair at New York’s Auburn State Prison. Someone had succeeded in illegally purchasing a used Westinghouse generator, and it was used in an attempt to demonstrate the so-called ” extreme danger of alternating current”.
Convicted murderer William Kemmler was executed on August 6, 1890 using electricity from Westinghouse’s generator. It was described as “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.” Death by electrocution was later sarcastically referred to as “Westinghousing.”
Despite this setback, the Westinghouse Corporation won the bid for illuminating The Chicago World’s Fair, the first all-electric fair in history. The contract was awarded to Westinghouse after the company was able to bid substantially less than the newly formed General Electric Company. General Electric had taken over the Edison Company.