Nikola Tesla was a visionary who, in addition to inventing alternating current—the basis for modern day electricity—also imagined robots, radio, radar, remote control, transmitting messages and images wirelessly and much more. But he died alone at the New Yorker Hotel, in debt after missed opportunities, trying to fund his expensive Long Island laboratory and increasingly outlandish ideas. Tomorrow night, PBS's American Experience is examining Tesla's legacy today with Tesla.
Tesla arrived in NYC from Serbia in 1884, and went to meet his hero, Thomas Edison. As a press release for the one-hour documentary explains:
Tesla was convinced that he had solved the problem that had plagued Edison’s plans to electrify the world, not just the tip of lower Manhattan. Edison relied on direct current (DC) to transmit electricity, which was severely limiting. Tesla had found a way to do what had so far stumped everyone: invent a motor that could run on alternating current (AC), making the distribution of electricity across long distances possible.
Edison immediately hired Tesla, who abruptly quit just six months later, frustrated by Edison’s refusal to adopt his idea. After a grim winter of digging ditches, his luck turned. The wealthy inventor and entrepreneur George Westinghouse knew that the future — and immense profits — would be found in electricity and he quickly bought the young inventor’s patents, making Tesla a rich man. But when Westinghouse became overextended, he revised Tesla’s deal, stripping him of a royalty that would have made him one of the wealthiest men in the world. Nevertheless, Westinghouse’s gamble on Tesla’s ideas paid off; the company beat Edison for the contracts to wire the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and to harness Niagara Falls to generate AC current, ending once and for all Edison’s hopes for his now antiquated DC technology.
Tesla was now a celebrity, the new Edison. He moved into the luxurious Astor House, dined at Delmonico’s, and became a friend to the rich and famous, including Mark Twain, John Jacob Astor and J.P. Morgan. But he was plagued with a plethora of odd phobias that had followed him since childhood, when he often suffered from inexplicable visions and a difficulty in separating reality from his imagination. Everything he did had to be divisible by three, he had a manic fear of germs, and couldn’t bear the sight of earrings or the touch of human hair.
In an exclusive clip from Tesla, this part of the documentary describes how Tesla moved back to NYC after a stint in Colorado. He was living at the Waldorf-Astoria and working in a Houston Street laboratory as he managed to fund his 200-acre Long Island laboratory, Wardenclyffe, with the help of a famous financier:
"Many people may have heard of Tesla, but have no idea who this fascinating genius was or how influential he continues to be," said Mark Samels, executive producer of Tesla. "While researching a previous American Experience film about Thomas Edison [Tesla's former employer], it was Nikola Tesla who kept drawing our interest. He had an uncanny ability to imagine the world we live in today and his work continues to spur innovation."