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Nikola Tesla (1856–1943)

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Born the son of a Serbian Orthodox priest in the village of Smiljan, just outside Gospić, Nikola Tesla went on to become the Leonardo da Vinci of the electronic age. He studied in Graz and Prague before working for telephone companies in Budapest and Paris, and in 1884 emigrated to the US where he found work with Thomas Edison – the pair allegedly fell out when Edison promised to reward Tesla with a US$50,000 bonus for improving his electricity generators, then failed to pay up.

After working for a time as a manual labourer, Tesla set up his own company and dedicated himself to generating and distributing electricity in the form of alternating current – a system which is now standard throughout the world. With financial support from American company Westinghouse, Tesla demonstrated his innovations at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, becoming an international celebrity in the process. In 1899 Tesla moved to Colorado Springs, where he built an enormous high-frequency current generator (the “Tesla Coil”), with which he hoped to transmit electric energy in huge waves around the earth. Photographs of Tesla’s tall, wiry figure using the coil to produce vast electronic discharges helped turn the inventor into one of the iconic figures of modern science.

Tesla also pioneered the development of long-range radio-wave transmissions, but failed to demonstrate his innovations publicly and was scooped by Giuglielmo Marconi, who successfully sent wireless messages across the Atlantic in 1902. The US patent office credited Marconi as the inventor of radio – a decision overturned in Tesla’s favour in 1943.

Official recognition was something that eluded Tesla throughout his career. In 1915 the Nobel committee considered awarding their science prize jointly to Tesla and Thomas Edison, but abruptly changed their minds on discovering that the pair were too vain to share it. Tesla’s failure to capitalize on his inventions owed a lot to his secretive nature. His habit of announcing discoveries without providing any supporting evidence led many to see him as a crank. During his period at Colorado Springs, he claimed to have received signals from outer space, and in later life, he claimed at various times to be working on a death ray and an “egeodynamic oscillator”, whose vibrations would be enough to destroy large buildings. On Tesla’s death in 1943, the FBI confiscated some of the scientist’s papers, prompting all kinds of speculation about the secret weapons that Tesla may or may not have been working on.

Tesla remains the subject of fascination for Croats and Serbs alike (indeed he is one of the few historical figures whose legacy they share), and Tesla-related museum displays in Zagreb, Belgrade and his home village of Smiljan are becoming ever more popular.

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