The Latest | Southern California breaking news and trends
Environment & Science

Happy birthday, Nikola Tesla! See a video of a working Tesla coil

Nikola Tesla (center) and Mark Twain (left)
Nikola Tesla (center) and Mark Twain (left)
The Tesla Collection

Eccentric physicist and inventor Nikola Tesla would have turned 158 years old Thursday, and though he might've lived long ago, he's just coming into his prime as a household name and scientific celebrity.

The technology Tesla pioneered has become the stuff of our everyday lives — our smart phones, cars and cutting-edge advanced technological systems.

On July 20, KPCC will honor him by throwing the prescient genius a party— complete with a working Tesla coil made by KPCC’s own Chief Engineer Lance Harper, which you can check out here.

Video: KPCC's Tesla Coil

There's no more room at the Crawford Family Forum event, but you can watch the live stream (and get notified beforehand) here.

Tesla’s ability to foresee technological developments was almost spooky, especially since he claimed to do all the planning, drawing and early testing in his head. For instance, he wrote this in January 1905, in “The Transmission of Electrical Energy Without Wires as a Means for Furthering Peace”:

“Within a few years a simple and inexpensive device, readily carried about, will enable one to receive on land or sea the principal news, to hear a speech, a lecture, a song or play of a musical instrument, conveyed from any other region of the globe.”   

Volumes have been written about Tesla’s inventions and background. The inventor himself left an autobiography (easily accessible online) and multiple other essays and letters that give us a clear and sometimes puzzling perspective on his extraordinary life.

We'll leave you with a few excerpts about his early life from “My Inventions,” first published in Electrical Experimenter magazine in 1919.

Tesla was born in 1856 to Serbian parents in the village of Smiljan, now in modern-day Croatia. His mother was a skilled but uneducated weaver and seamstress who invented many hand tools to aid her work. “I must trace to my mother's influence whatever inventiveness I possess,” he wrote.

His father was a Serbian Orthodox priest who expected his son to follow his profession, despite his desire to be an engineer. He only relented after Tesla became ill with cholera and nearly died in 1873.

“In one of the sinking spells which was thought to be the last, my father rushed into the room. I still see his pallid face as he tried to cheer me in tones belying his assurance. 'Perhaps,' I said, 'I may get well if you will let me study engineering.' 'You will go to the best technical institution in the world,' he solemnly replied, and I knew that he meant it. A heavy weight was lifted from my mind, but the relief would have come too late had it not been for a marvelous cure brought about thru a bitter decoction of a peculiar bean. I came to life like another Lazarus to the utter amazement of everybody.”

From an early age, Tesla began experiencing flashes of light and very detailed visions: "pictures of things and scenes which I had really seen, never of those I imagined.” These visions tormented him, he said, and sometimes confused him about what was real, until he was able to find a way to control them.

“To free myself of these tormenting appearances, I tried to concentrate my mind on something else I had seen, and in this way I would often obtain temporary relief; but in order to get it I had to conjure continuously new images. It was not long before I found that I had exhausted all of those at my command; my 'reel' had run out, as it were, because I had seen little of the world — only objects in my home and the immediate surroundings. As I performed these mental operations for the second or third time, in order to chase the appearances from my vision, the remedy gradually lost all its force. Then I instinctively commenced to make excursions beyond the limits of the small world of which I had knowledge, and I saw new scenes. These were at first very blurred and indistinct, and would flit away when I tried to concentrate my attention upon them, but by and by I succeeded in fixing them; they gained in strength and distinctness and finally assumed the concreteness of real things. I soon discovered that my best comfort was attained if I simply went on in my vision farther and farther, getting new impressions all the time, and so I began to travel — of course, in my mind. Every night (and sometimes during the day), when alone, I would start on my journeys — see new places, cities and countries —live there, meet people and make friendships and acquaintances and, however unbelievable, it is a fact that they were just as dear to me as those in actual life and not a bit less intense in their manifestations.”

These mental excursions lasted until he was about 17, he said, until he began thinking seriously about inventing.

“Then I observed to my delight that I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind. Thus I have been led unconsciously to evolve what I consider a new method of materializing inventive concepts and ideas, which is radically opposite to the purely experimental and is in my opinion ever so much more expeditious and efficient.

"The moment one constructs a device to carry into practise a crude idea he finds himself unavoidably engrost [engrossed] with the details and defects of the apparatus. As he goes on improving and reconstructing, his force of concentration diminishes and he loses sight of the great underlying principle. Results may be obtained but always at the sacrifice of quality.

"My method is different. I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever, the results are the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything. When I have gone so far as to embody in the invention every possible improvement I can think of and see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form this final product of my brain. Invariably my device works as I conceived that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In twenty years there has not been a single exception.”

Tesla says he did do some inventing as a boy. His first device had terrible consequences for the local frogs:

"One of my playmates had come into the possession of a hook and fishing-tackle which created quite an excitement in the village, and the next morning all started out to catch frogs. I was left alone and deserted owing to a quarrel with this boy. I had never seen a real hook and pictured it as something wonderful, endowed with peculiar qualities, and was despairing not to be one of the party. Urged by necessity, I somehow got hold of a piece of soft iron wire, hammered the end to a sharp point between two stones, bent it into shape, and fastened it to a strong string. I then cut a rod, gathered some bait, and went down to the brook where there were frogs in abundance. But I could not catch any and was almost discouraged when it occurred to me to dangle the empty hook in front of a frog sitting on a stump. At first he collapsed but by and by his eyes bulged out and became bloodshot, he swelled to twice his normal size and made a vicious snap at the hook. Immediately I pulled him up. I tried the same thing again and again and the method proved infallible. When my comrades, who in spite of their fine outfit had caught nothing, came to me they were green with envy. For a long time I kept my secret and enjoyed the monopoly but finally yielded to the spirit of Christmas. Every boy could then do the same and the following summer brought disaster to the frogs.

Who knows what new energy source could have come from his next “invention” if a certain hungry boy hadn’t come along.

“In my next attempt, I seem to have acted under the first instinctive impulse which later dominated me—to harness the energies of nature to the service of man. I did this through the medium of May bugs, or June bugs as they are called in America, which were a veritable pest in that country and sometimes broke the branches of trees by the sheer weight of their bodies. The bushes were black with them. I would attach as many as four of them to a cross-piece, rotably (Tesla’s word) arranged on a thin spindle, and transmit the motion of the same to a large disc and so derive considerable 'power.' These creatures were remarkably efficient, for once they were started, they had no sense to stop and continued whirling for hours and hours and the hotter it was, the harder they worked. All went well until a strange boy came to the place. He was the son of a retired officer in the Austrian army. That urchin ate May-bugs alive and enjoyed them as though they were the finest blue-point oysters. That disgusting sight terminated my endeavours in this promising field and I have never since been able to touch a May-bug or any other insect for that matter.

Tesla had many serious illnesses when he was young, starting when he about 13. The man he credits with saving his life then was an American author who would later become his friend:

“I had hardly completed my course at the Real Gymnasium when I was prostrated with a dangerous illness or rather, a score of them, and my condition became so desperate that I was given up by physicians. During this period I was permitted to read constantly, obtaining books from the Public Library which had been neglected and entrusted to me for classification of the works and preparation of the catalogues. One day I was handed a few volumes of new literature unlike anything I had ever read before and so captivating as to make me utterly forget my hopeless state. They were the earlier works of Mark Twain and to them might have been due the miraculous recovery which followed. Twenty-five years later, when I met Mr. Clemens and we formed a friendship between us, I told him of the experience and was amazed to see that great man of laughter burst into tears.”

Tesla wrote about his inventions the way poets write about love. For instance, he spent many tortured months trying to discover a way to create the rotary magnetic field—a project his professors dismissed as impossible—and even suffered what he termed a nervous breakdown. He said he knew the solution was somewhere in his brain, and sure enough, the answer suddenly came to him as he was on walk with a friend, reciting Goethe’s “Faust,” which he knew by heart.

“The sun was just setting and reminded me of the glorious passage:

'The glow retreats, done is the day of toil;/ It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring;/ Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil/ Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!/ A glorious dream! though now the glories fade./ Alas! the wings that lift the mind no aid/ Of wings to lift the body can bequeath me.'

As I uttered these inspiring words the idea came like a flash of lightning and in an instant the truth was revealed. I drew with a stick on the sand the diagrams shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and my companion understood them perfectly. The images I saw were wonderfully sharp and clear and had the solidity of metal and stone, so much so that I told him: ‘See my motor here; watch me reverse it.’ I cannot begin to describe my emotions. Pygmalion seeing his statue come to life could not have been more deeply moved. A thousand secrets of nature which I might have stumbled upon accidentally I would have given for that one which I had wrested from her against all odds and at the peril of my existence.”

Happy Birthday, Nikola!