Boil a kettle, switch on a lamp and then turn on the TV, as we make our first cup of tea in the morning we take the ease at which we can do these tasks for granted. However they all rely on one of the fundamental concepts of electrical engineering - an alternating current. 

Nikola Tesla was the pioneer of this technology and his countless inventions still shape the world we live in over 70 years after his death. Unfortunately due to his extraordinary and unconventional life, he is often not recognised in the same way as his fellow inventors and leading scientists of the time. Our Figureheads of Science range pays tribute to Tesla’s remarkable contributions and would make a great gift for the physics teacher or maths student in your life! 

Tesla was born in present day Croatia, then part of the Austrian Empire, in the mid 1800s to his father Miultin, an Orthodox Priest, and his mother Duka. Despite never receiving a formal education Duka was extremely intelligent, possessing both an eidetic memory and creative abilities in making home craft tools and appliances, Nikola credited his own similar abilities to his mothers influence and genetics.

Unlike his mother, Nikola was lucky enough to be educated. His academic talents were clear at school where he was so quick at mental arithmetic and calculus his teachers often accused him of cheating. Aged 19 he enrolled to study engineering at the Technical University in Graz Austria where he was first exposed to the ‘Gramme Dynamo generator’, the machine that would ultimately inspire his harnessing of the alternating current. Initially Tesla studied intensely but an addiction to gambling in his final years meant he never graduated and so instead left to find a new life and work elsewhere in Europe. In Paris he found work with the Continental Edison company where his natural ability and creativity for invention (most notably the creation of his first induction motor) was praised and ultimately led to a job offer in the United States.

Arriving in New York with just 4 cents to his name and a few poems in his pocket, Tesla began work with fellow inventor Thomas Edison. The two clashed over the merits of Direct Current versus Alternating and Tesla left the company soon after. He began to patent his own inventions, such as the polyphase system of alternating current dynamos, transformers and motors. Nikola came into fortune when these rights were bought out by the Westinghouse Electric Company and used his new found wealth to establish his own laboratory. There he could finally experiment as he pleased, discovering X-Rays, the power of electrical resonance and inventing the Tesla coil.

Meanwhile the electric company using his AC patent was growing, at the end of the 1800s they opened the first power machinery at Niagara falls, a project that provided power to all of buffalo. Despite initial success the company would eventually become massively in debt but thanks to Tesla’s generosity survived when he gave up his royalties, almost $300 million in today's money. This decision meant Tesla finished life with very little and sadly without much of the respect and recognition his work deserved.

Tesla’s life was truly extraordinary and we think should be remembered and celebrated. If you share this passion then why not show it with a physics tee, treat the engineering student in your life with one of our scientific gifts or encourage your physics teacher to change that old sweater for a Tesla Hoodie

- Lucy Chats Maths