Nikola Tesla: Inside the Mind of an Entrepreneur by Melissa Kay Mee, Fenton History Center Volunteer
Nikola Tesla was the true definition of an entrepreneur. Arriving in America in 1884 at age 26, Tesla quickly flourished. He worked diligently to prove his loyalty, capabilities, and introduced significant breakthroughs in technology during his time period. Tesla is the man responsible for the electrical system (alternate current) used world-wide today, hydraulic power, x-rays, radio, and wireless devices. In most cases he elegantly surrendered most of the credit and recognition he deserved, and proved his capabilities with his actions, innovations, and inventions. Tesla was a respectable gentleman that often mingled with New York City’s elite. He was often found at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City with some of the most influential individuals of his time period; John Jacob Aster, William Vanderbilt, Mark Twain, and Robert Underwood Johnson.
Although Tesla possessed all of the characteristics of an entrepreneur, his most significant characteristics relevant to entrepreneurship were: creativity and innovativeness, internal locus of control, persistence in problem-solving, opportunity orientation, high energy level, passion, and vision. His accomplishments may have matched the overwhelming challenges that he faced. Tesla was no stranger to the risks associated with entrepreneurship. He readily and vigorously took family and social, financial, career and psychic risks to achieve his goals. For him it truly was all or nothing.
Creativity and Innovativeness
In Nikola Tesla’s case, his creativity could have been learned as modern theories suggest, or it could have been inherited as Tesla devoutly believed. He shared on more than one occasion that his mother’s genetics played the most important role in his ability to design and develop his inventions. Born in Smilijan in what is now modern day Croatia in 1856, Tesla was the son of an Orthodox Priest. His mother was self-educated and extremely innovative. She created intricate devices for weaving fine tapestries, fabrics, and silk, as well as appliances to simplify daily tasks in her home. Although his mother never received a formal education, she easily memorized Serbian Poetry and Literature. Her ability to embrace her elaborate ideas, and her ability to manipulate those ideas into working machinery inspired Tesla immensely. Tesla also credited his mother with his eidetic memory.
Internal Locus of Control
From the time Tesla was a child, his father did not support making a career as an engineer or an inventor. It was unheard of for a young man to not follow his father’s footsteps. With the only two plausible career choices being a clergyman or obtaining a career in the military, Tesla received and ordinary education and was forced to conform to prepare for the future that was chosen for him. He was a remarkable student and excelled in integral calculus. After graduating a year early and returning home, he contracted cholera after arriving home. It was at this time that Tesla explored foreign literature and developed a fondness for the American writer Mark Twain, who he would become close friends with later in life. In fear of losing his son, Tesla’s father agreed to send him to the best engineering school if he was to recover. Tesla sprung to life immediately came to life.
Nikola studied at Austrian Polytechnic, but never obtained his degree. He squandered away his tuition and allowance gambling instead of allocating time to his studies. Out of shame and humiliation of his foolishness, he isolated himself from his family after securing the money to repay his family in full. Tesla vowed to never act so irresponsibly again, gave up gambling, and fell into a severe depression.
He was forced to return home after suffering a psychotic break. It was in that year that he taught a class at the school he received his education from and lost his father. After his father’s death, his uncle sent him to Prague in hopes that he would complete his education.
Nikola was denied enrollment at Charles Ferdinand University for arriving late, but was able to sit in on the classes as an auditor. This set back combined with his unconventional education did not affect him as his other short comings did in the past. In fact, it was at this time of his life that Tesla became determined and resilient. Tesla set forth with a vision and uncertainty to seek employment that would give him the freedom to invent and improve existing electrical systems, build credible references, and to lead in him the direction of his own aspired destiny. He quickly learned that he, alone, controlled his destiny.
Tesla found employment as a draftsman in the Budapest Phone Exchange in 1881. He was quickly promoted to Chief Electrician and was accredited for improvements to the central station equipment, as well as perfecting the telephone repeater and amplifier. After Tesla was satisfied with his contributions to the company, he moved to France and secured employment with the Continental Edison Company where he France designed new and improved existing electrical equipment in 1882. After demonstrating his abilities, he was hired directly by Thomas Edison as an Electrical Engineer at Edison Machine Works in New York City.
Edison Machine Works in NYC, hired by Thomas Edison as an electrical engineer. His employment with Thomas Edison ended on a sour note after he was misled to believe that he would be compensated $50,000 for redesigning the Edison Company’s direct current generators. Tesla successfully improved Edison’s faulty motor and generator design on such a scale that it improved the service and the economy as Edison had desired. Despite Tesla’s extraordinary achievement, Edison merely offered a $10 weekly raise for Nikola’s achievement. This raise would have brought Tesla’s salary to $18 a week.
Edison claimed that agreeing to compensate him such a large sum of money was a joke and that Nikola did not understand American humor. Nikola immediately left Edison Machine Works and was utterly outraged. Theorists have later come to the assumption that Edison was intimidated by Tesla’s ability. Edison had little time for Tesla’s innovations, especially after his own designs proved to be defective and costly. Tesla knew his worth and valued working with individuals who he could invest his loyalty in.
Tesla enjoyed simplifying complicated procedures just as much as he enjoyed simplifying daily tasks. Tesla was a genius when it came to allocating funds for new ventures in most cases. He exhibited excellent team building skills and had the charisma to form strong and beneficial alliances throughout his lifetime.
Tesla’s patent and development of a working AC motor, staked his place securely amongst those who supported the “AC” side of the War of the Currents. The war was waged out of retaliation to, and to discredit the new competition to Thomas Edison’s DC (Direct Current) electrical system. George Westinghouse stood behind, licensed, and held patents developed by Tesla as well as other patents that helped the two develop a more efficient AC (Alternating Current) electrical system. The War of the Currents was widely publicized and was a choice topic of discussion during this time period. George Westinghouse became Thomas Edison’s nemesis, fueling Thomas Edison’s distaste for Tesla on a much deeper level. Edison Machine Works conducted demonstrations in front of mass audiences to deter the public from embracing advancements in technology, in particular AC power. Tesla took advantage of this opportunity and his newly formed alliance to prove the efficiency and effectiveness of his designs to the world.
Subsequently, Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing’s ability to successfully supply electric to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 proved to the world that Edison’s DC system was in fact obsolete. General Electric, backed by Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan, lost the bid to Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing, leaving 26 million in attendance from locations all around the world and across the nation in attendance to witness a breath taking electrical display. The world had never seen technology at this level.
General Electric estimated the cost to provide electricity for the exposition to be 1.8 million, but quickly lowered their bid to $554,000 after the bid was denied. Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing secured the bid at $399,000. Without question, this may have been one of the greatest moments in Tesla’s life. He proudly demonstrated the safety of AC power at the exposition. Nothing could have given Tesla more satisfaction than to claim world-wide recognition as he witnessed Edison’s defeat. Tesla interacted directly with guests of the exposition, and quickly became a favorite of the people.
When night fell at the exposition United States President Grover Cleveland was given the honor of pressing the button that lit the exposition in its entirety at once. Double stopper light bulbs were developed specifically for the exposition and were combined with Tesla’s phosphorescent lamps. The two new variations of lighting devices replaced Edison bulbs, as Edison refused to market bulbs for the exposition, adding to the experience of those in attendance. Phosphorescent lamps had the effect of florescent lighting has today. Guests in attendance were amazed and quickly took notice to Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing, as well as the newly introduced light bulbs and phosphorescent lighting fixtures.
High Energy Level
Tesla was described as a force by those who knew him. His dedication, commitment, and the amount of time he allocated toward all he set out to do was astounding. It was said that he never slept for more than two hours at a time. He typically worked 80-90 hours a week in his laboratory, and still managed to find time to meet with existing investors and business partners and network with new alliances.
In 1891, Tesla gained American citizenship at age 35. Since he was a small child he dreamed of coming to America to harness the power of Niagara Falls. Growing up in what is now modern day Croatia, it is likely that he had visited waterfalls as a child and understood the magnitude of the force of the water. Seeing the photograph of Niagara Falls, one of the great wonders of the world, he envisioned a large wheel powered by the vast force of the waterfalls and envisioned an electricity emulating brightly from the falls.
Tesla’s dream became reality when he and his alliance Westinghouse developed the first Hydraulic Power plant in the world in Niagara Falls. Although, the Columbian World’s Exposition was an amazing feat, his achievement at Niagara Falls in 1895 may have been the achievement he took the most pride in within his lifetime. The poly phase alternating current electricity is used worldwide to this day.
Family and Social Risk
Tesla had no problem sacrificing relationships with family from the time he embarked on his journey to achieve his dreams. After leaving home to attend Charles Ferdinand University, there is little evidence to support he ever returned or saw his family again. His dedication to his inventions and business ventures consumed his life. Avoiding romance and companionship entirely, Tesla never married and gave up his sexuality at age 40 entirely. At one time he was considered one of the most eligible bachelor’s in New York City’s elite circle.
Financial and Career Risks
Determined and backed by investors Robert Lane and Benjamin Vale, Tesla developed Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. His inability to convince his investors to back new types of motors and electrical transmission equipment resulted in Tesla being exalted from the very company he designed. His investors were uncomfortable moving on to unfamiliar exploits and preferred to stick the company’s original venture: to arc light based illuminators.
Tesla was literally reduced to digging ditches at this point of his life. He obtained electrical odd jobs whenever possible, but assumed the back breaking responsibility of clearing ditches as his primary source of pay. He characterized the winter of 1886/1887 a time of “terrible headaches and bitter tears,” and it was. Tesla made it a point to continue to plan and develop new inventions, make important appearances, and sought out important connections and potential investors during this time.
Late in his career, he lost his credibility after becoming obsessed with developing devices that his colleagues and associates did not understand. Tesla’s once celebrated concepts and ideas had become considered eccentric. He spent his final years isolated and estranged from everyone. It was during the late part of his life that he admitted regretting denying himself a family of his own. The man who once said “I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success…such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything,” only found solace in feeding pigeons as he had always had done since he moved to New York. Feeling abandoned and estranged, in the end, he considered the pigeons to be his only friends.
Tesla died alone at age 86 in the winter of 1943. He was found by a maid that ignored his usual request to not be disturbed. His remaining legacies include a multitude of literary publications (including journal articles, educational books, biographies, and an autobiography), museums and memorials in Croatia, France, and the United States, recent documentaries, as well as the many companies and devices derived from the use of Tesla’s many additions to technology.
It was Tesla’s dream to make life easier for the working class. It gave him great pleasure to literally shed light on the meticulous tasks that were once done with natural lighting or by candlelight. Just as, he found pride in improving communication, contributing to medical treatment, and simplifying the daily tasks of laborers and ordinary individuals alike.
Tesla had no problem answering to his shortcomings and failures with complete honesty; giving insight into the conflictions and risks associated with his life. His story gives great evidence of the things that need to be considered by an aspiring entrepreneur. As Tesla once stated, “All that was great in the past was ridiculed, condemned, combated, suppressed – only to emerge all the more powerfully, all the more triumphantly from the struggle,” he is celebrated for the inspiration he emulated during the height of his career, his works, and through his innovations that continue to improve the lives of mankind as a whole.
Cheney, Margaret. (1981). Tesla, Man Out of Time. Barns & Noble Inc.
Carlson, Bernard W. (2013). Tesla, Inventor of the Electrical Age. Princeton University Press.
Nikola Tesla Photography. (2014) Tesla Universe.com Retrieved from http://www.teslauniverse.com/nikola-tesla-photo-22
Nikola Tesla Quotes. (2014). Good Reads Author Quotes.com. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/278.Nikola_Tesla
Einstien Quote: http://teslaconspiracy.tripod.com/id45.html
Niagra Falls: http://teslaresearch.jimdo.com/niagara-falls-power-project-1888/
Tesla with Dinner Party: http://merlinthegrey.deviantart.com/art/Nikola-Tesla-14-245639956