July 10 is the birthday of Nikola Tesla, one of the most famous, yet underappreciated, electrical engineering minds of all time. He died in 1943 alone, broke, and quite possibly insane in New York City. Today a Google search for 'Tesla' brings up a bunch of car dealerships before the Wikipedia entry for the great inventor himself. But for many electrical engineers like me who chose to go into power engineering, Tesla is a hero.
Tesla did not innovate for money or fame. He never made a fortune. Instead, this Serb genius was hell bent on discovery. He obtained nearly 300 patents, and his work varied from AC power to vertical takeoff aircraft, and everything in between. He did make some money along the way but put it right back into his work.
Did Tesla fit in socially? Well, he was different for sure. He mastered more than eight languages. His skills in language, food, and poetry won him friends ranging from Francis Marion Crawford to Mark Twain. In the engineering world, having 300 patents and hanging out with the guy who wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" makes you a real rock star!
As years go by, the world is becoming more aware, more understanding, and more fascinated with the life of Nikola Tesla. Companies are now named after him — and one of my favorite conference rooms at the APPA office bears the apt moniker. He even played a supporting role — as played by David Bowie — in the major Hollywood film The Prestige. Engineering greats like Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi have seen their pasts re-written as the evidence has allowed the history books to catch up with Tesla's genius.
The next time you turn on a light switch, fly a radio-controlled airplane, or get an X-ray, think about the man who had a lot to do with the inventions to make all this possible —— Nikola Tesla.
Happy birthday to the patron saint of power engineers. May his spirit of innovation continue to inspire us as we define a new era of electricity and public power."