Five Professional Lessons from Tesla’s Inventive Career

IN THE YEAR 1905, a few construction workers gathered in a small New York village to erect a particularly lofty structure, a 187 feet tall tower. Atop this tower was perched a fifty-five ton dome of conductive metals, and beneath it stretched an iron root system that penetrated more than 300 feet deep into the earth. The structure was named “power tower” and its intended purpose was to bring about a global energy revolution.

The idea in the mind of the tower’s inventor was fairly eccentric – he proposed to conduct electricity through the earth and the sky, enabling a wireless transmission of electric power across large areas of land. Lamentably, the tower was never completed as envisioned by its inventor due to shortage of funds. Eventually, the tower was unceremoniously demolished in 1917 for salvage of the debts that accrued through the project.

The name of the inventor was Nikola Tesla – a generally under appreciated genius to whom we owe a myriad of modern day conveniences. So let us pay a brief homage to Tesla by recounting his illustrious career and learning a few lessons from his professional life.

Born and bred in Croatia, Nikola Tesla possessed a photographic memory and a surprisingly vivid imagination as a child. Despite being a brilliant student, he could not finish his university degree as he got addicted to gambling. Following his father’s demise, he spent next few years bouncing back and forth across several European cities for work and study. But his career took a significant turn as he immigrated to New York City in June 1884 and joined Edison Machine Works.

Though Thomas Edison – a great inventor in his own right – was fairly impressed with Tesla’s diligence and problem solving abilities, the professional relationship between the two was sour from day one. A famous episode goes like this: 

Edison offered Tesla an amount of $50,000 to improve the design of his DC (direct current) power generation plants. Tesla worked day and night on the said improvements and when he demanded the payment, Edison laughed off saying,  

“ When you become a full-fledged American, you will learn to appreciate American humor”. 

Instead, Edison offered a $10 a week raise in Tesla’s salary. Having felt cheated, Tesla immediately quit his job with Edison and left.

Lesson One: Always document your business deals. We have no way to delve into the accuracy of Tesla’s claim about Edison’s mis-commitment however such situations are not uncommon in business dealings. Never ever rely on verbal agreements in professional matters, always get contracts signed and stamped. 

As his time with Edison came to an end, Tesla had many ideas for new motors and electric transmission equipment – ideas that never appealed to Edison. Soon afterwards, having tried and failed with a brief partnership named Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing, Tesla found him digging ditches for $2 per day. He felt miserable and depressed about his chances in this new country. However, it proved to be a temporary trial. 

Before long, Tesla and his promising ideas caught the attention of the right people. In 1887, he joined hands with A.K. Brown, a manager for the Western Union Telegraph Company; together they founded the Tesla Electric Company with the specific intention of developing Tesla’s AC induction motor. By 1891, Tesla had obtained a total of 40 patents related to his induction motor. 

Meanwhile George Westinghouse, a powerful businessman,  who was looking to compete with Edison’s DC motors realized that future belonged to Tesla’s superior AC motors. The partnership between Tesla and Westinghouse marked the beginning of what came to be known as “War of Currents” i.e. to establish the commercial viability of Tesla and Westinghouse’s Alternating Current over Edison’s Direct Current.

In 1893, when George Westinghouse was awarded a contract for the electrification of world’s fair to be held in Chicago, he selected Tesla as the lead engineer for the project. Being an unconventional inventor, Tesla wanted to demonstrate the practicality and superiority of his AC technology over Edison’s rival DC electric power. 

On the day of the event, the fairgoers were amazed to see wireless lamps connected to an AC power electric field. Tesla had not only eradicated the publicized safety concerns about his wired AC electricity, he had also demonstrated the possibility of wireless electricity. Subsequent installation and success of electric generators at the Niagara Falls by Tesla and Westinghouse proved to be the decisive victory over Edison’s DC systems; Tesla had won the Battle of Currents over Edison. 

Lesson Two: Keep your aims high; give a positive direction to your anger and frustration. Rather than fighting trivial battles, strive to contest and win bigger wars. Despite his negative experiences with Edison, Tesla chose to battle in the field rather than blaming Edison for his miseries. 

Tesla’s triumphs with AC induction motors and Niagara Falls project were still fresh when a tragedy befell: on the inauspicious morning of March 13, 1895, Tesla learnt that his laboratory located on West Broadway had burnt to ground over night. Within a span of few hours, he had lost his years of research and hard work. 

It is thought that experiments involving production of liquid oxygen could have caused the disaster. However, the consequences were much more fateful than the causes. Not only had Tesla never prepared for such a situation, he had not bothered to take insurance for the building and the equipment. Consequently, the calamity caused him a major intellectual as well as financial loss. 

Lesson Three: Never underestimate the vulnerability of your business. Always keep a disaster management plan in place. Tesla was so busy in imagining and experimenting with his ideas that he didn’t think the unthinkable and eventually got a major blow.

Subsequent to his lab’s destruction, Tesla found him struggling to cope with the aftermath; on the other hand, his partnership with Westinghouse was about to run its course. He had no choice but to find new investors. The trouble was that most of his ideas, despite being brilliant, were so grandiose that investors were often skeptical about spending huge amounts of money.

Tesla’s power tower mentioned in the beginning was not the only project that failed due to lack of funding. In 1898, at the first Electrical Exhibition in Madison Square Garden, Tesla demonstrated the first remote-controlled boat and advocated for its numerous applications including military potential but there were no takers. 

Many of Tesla’s ideas were so far ahead of his time that no one was able to grasp their limitless potential. Thus they remained limited to his imagination and could never be materialized. 

Lesson Four: Try to turn your ideas into commercially viable projects or they will remain nonsensical sparks of brilliance just like many of Tesla’s ideas. It is better to start small and gradually upgrade than starting big and failing due to lack of resources.

In 1897, Tesla filed his fundamental radio patent. But when Guglielmo Marconi sent the first transatlantic radio communication in December 1901, it started off a series of legal battles that would last decades. Tesla responded to the situation by saying:

“ Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using 17 of my patents.”

While the legal battles continued for next forty years, Marconi reaped plenty of financial gains; on the contrary, Tesla spent the better part of his remaining life struggling to make ends meet. It wasn’t until 1943, eight months after Tesla’s death, that the United States Supreme Court finally ruled that Tesla’s fundamental radio patent was to be upheld.

Lesson Five: Don’t expect to win all the battles in your career; be ready to loose some of them, fairly or unfairly.  The posthumous acknowledgement of Tesla’s radio invention meant nothing to his financial struggles. The world may treat you unfairly as it happened to Tesla; that is the way it has always been, and always will be. Keep a plan B ready. 

Though he could not gain the appreciation he deserved, Nikola Tesla was granted more than 250 patents across 24 countries. Apart from his contributions to electricity, he was the inventor of car sparkplugs, remote controls, wireless communication systems and numerous other devices. However, his dream of wireless electricity remains elusive till date.

19 thoughts on “Five Professional Lessons from Tesla’s Inventive Career

  1. Pingback: Five Professional Lessons from Edison’s Inventive Career | Professional Lessons

  2. Pingback: Five Professional Lessons from Watt’s Inventive Career | Professional Lessons

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