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Nikola Tesla was born a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1856 in a mountainous area of the Balkan Peninsula known as Lika. His father Milutin, and his mother Djuka, were both Serbian by origin. Tesla's father was a stern but loving Orthodox priest, who was also a gifted writer and poet. At a young age, Tesla immersed himself in his father's library. Tesla's mother was a hard working woman of many talents who created appliances to help with home and farm responsibilities. One of these was a mechanical eggbeater. Tesla attributed all of his inventive instincts to his mother.

Tesla began his education at home and later attended gymnasium in Carlstadt, Croatia excelling in his studies along the way. An early sign of his genius, he was able to perform integral calculus in his mind, prompting his teachers to think he was cheating. During this period young "Niko" saw a steel engraving of Niagara Falls. In his imagination there appeared a huge water wheel being turned by the powerful cataract. He said to an uncle that he would go to America one day and capture energy in this way. Thirty years later he did exactly that. Despite his early creativity, Tesla did not begin to think of himself as an inventor until he was a young adult.

Passionate about mathematics and sciences, Tesla had his heart set on becoming an engineer but was "constantly oppressed" by his father's insistence that he enter the priesthood. At age seventeen, Tesla contracted cholera and craftily exacted an important concession from his father: the older Tesla promised his son that if he survived, he would be allowed to attend the renowned Austrian Polytechnic School at Graz to study engineering. Tesla's wish became a reality.

At the Polytechnic school Tesla began his studies in mechanical and electrical engineering. One day a physics teacher showed Tesla's class a new Gramme dynamo that—by employing direct current—could be used as both a motor and a generator. After watching it for a time, Tesla suggested it might be possible to do away with a set of inefficient sparking connections known as commutators. This, his amused professor said, would be like building a perpetual motion machine! Not even Tesla could hope to achieve such a feat. For the next several years the challenge obsessed Tesla, who instinctively knew that the solution lay in electric currents that alternated.

It wasn't until age twenty-four, when Tesla was living in Budapest and working for the Central Telephone Exchange, that the answer came to him:

One afternoon, which is ever present in my recollection, I was enjoying a walk with my friend in the city park and reciting poetry. At that age I knew entire books by heart, word for word. One of these was Goethe's Faust. The sun was just setting and reminded me of a 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!
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 diagram shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

This was the invention of the induction motor, a technological advance that would soon change the world.

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Tesla's father blank Tesla at age 23
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Left: Tesla's father
Right: Tesla at age 23

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Niagara Falls, from Goat Island, circa 1867
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Niagara Falls, from Goat Island, circa 1867 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

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In 1939, Tesla wrote the story of his first childhood encounter with electricity. Share this online, illustrated version of A Story of Youth Told By Age with another curious, young mind.

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Gramme dynamo, 1877

Gramme dynamo, 1877 (Courtesy Smithsonian Institution)

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