Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

The Forgotten Scientist Of The 19th Century

Nikola Tesla invented the power grid that lights the world. Yet the inventor died penniless.


In 1884, 28-year-old Nikola Tesla arrived in America with a bag of clothes on his back and four cents in his pocket.

The reason for his visit? A job from the most famous inventor of the time, Thomas Edison.

Edison had invented the first commercial light bulb before there was an electrical grid. Every home in America was still powerless.

To deliver power to the masses, Edison built small power plants on every couple of blocks. 

But Edison soon ran into trouble.

The generators he envisioned produced direct current (also known as DC). And as Edison soon found out, those DC generators have a tendency to break down. 

By the time Tesla arrived, all the dynamos Edison installed were busted.

And if Tesla could fix the generators and upgrade them to last, Edison would pay him $50.000 dollars. About 1.3 million of today’s dollars.

After months of hard deliberation and work, Tesla finished his job.

But when he asked Edison for his money, all Tesla got was a punchline. “When you become a full-fledged American, you’ll appreciate an American joke,” said the trickster.

Tesla quit and took a job as a ditch digger to make ends meet.

Seeing the issues with Edison’s direct current, motivated Tesla to come up with a better solution: alternating current (or AC for short). An idea he was toying with for years.

The problem with direct current was that it couldn’t vary its voltage, nor travel further than a mile.

AC had no such limitations. And because AC could run at higher voltages, it could run through hundreds of miles of cable without losing its strength.

Tesla’s vision was considered impossible by his scientific peers. Which meant that investors didn’t want to fund his cockamamy ideas. 

Still, spurred on by his dreams of an AC-powered America, Tesla pressed on.

And after years of work, Tesla’s ideas caught the attention of a wealthy engineer and entrepreneur, George Westinghouse. 

Backed by the financial might of Westinghouse, Tesla’s AC might actually beat Edison’s DC in the race for lighting America. And win endless riches.

Edison’s AC suffered a fatal blow when the World’s fair hired Tesla to power the international exhibition with his alternating current. For many, the fair would be the first time they saw a lit lightbulb, let alone hundreds of them at the same time.

Edison had lost.

Soon after, however, Westinghouse claimed he was almost bankrupt and begged Tesla to give up his royalty rights to his new invention. Grateful for his support, Tesla tore up the contract and missed out on millions.

Years later Tesla would suffer another financial setback, when an Italian businessman stole his idea for the radio. Tesla sued but unfairly lost the case.

That loss and his increasing signs of OCD and autism drove Tesla to solitude. 

He would then spend the last 30 years of his life living on the 33rd floor of the New Yorker Hotel, in a room that Westinghouse rented. Tesla died at age 84 with 700 patents to his name and only pennies in his pocket.

P.S. Other honorary mentions for most overlooked scientist are: Rosalind Franklin, the discoverer of DNA’s double helix, Lise Meitner, the person who first split the atom, and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of rocketry. My apologies to all the other forgotten scientists who didn’t make the cut, but who did propel mankind to where we are today. My heart goes out to you.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach