Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American scientist and inventor, is a figure of awe and admiration in the world of scientific-technological development. His incredible inventions have revolutionized the modern world, from the rotating magnetic motors to wireless communication, electrotherapy, and beyond. Tesla’s brilliant mind and ingenuity have left an indelible mark on history.

Yet, Tesla’s path to success was anything but a smooth ride. As an immigrant to the United States in 1884, he confronted numerous adversities and obstacles on his way to the top. Despite all the setbacks, he remained unrelenting in his pursuit of excellence, determined to prove his mettle.

In 1938, Tesla’s unflagging spirit and achievements were recognized with a distinguished honor from the esteemed Institute of Immigrant Welfare. During his acceptance speech, he recounted his own experiences as an immigrant, and his fateful encounter with Edison, the man who would later become his great rival. Through his own journey, Tesla embodied the virtues of resilience, grit, and determination that defined the immigrant experience.

Thus, we meet Tesla, the immigrant, in his own words.

Nikola Tesla
Tesla sits in front of the spiral coil with the book of Rudjer Boskovic/ Theoria Philosophiae Naturalis

Nikola Tesla against prejudice and money power

I cannot find words to express adequately my keen regret for being unable to receive, in person, the high distinction which the Institute of Immigrant Welfare has conferred upon me. Although my recovery from injuries sustained in an automobile accident six months ago is almost complete, I do not feel equal to the task of appearing in public and meeting the obligations which this would impose upon me.

My coming to this country was a great adventure – every detail of which is still vivid in my memory. Early in 1884, while employed by a French company in Paris, France, I made important improvements in dynamos and motors and was engaged by the Edison interests in New York to design and construct similar machines for them. It had been height of my ambition and my most ardent wish to come in contact with Edison and see America.

TIME Magazine cover, 20 July 1931, Time magazine archive. 

Accordingly, I undertook voyage and after losing my money and tickets and passing through a series of mishaps, including a mutiny in which I nearly lost my life, I landed on these blessed shores with four cents in my pockets.

My first intention was to look up a close American friend before going to the Edison establishment. On my way to uptown I came to a small machine shop in which foreman was trying to repair an electric machine of European make. He had just given up the task as hopeless and I undertook to put it in order without a thought of any compensation. It was not easy but I finally had it in perfect running condition. I was astonished when he gave me twenty dollars and wished that I had come to America years before. The next day I was thrilled to the marrow by meeting Edison who began my American education right then and there. I wanted to have my shoes shined, something I considered below my dignity. Edison said: ‘You will shine the shoes yourself and like it.’ He impressed me tremendously. I shined my shoes and liked it. 

Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla

I began the work for which I was engaged immediately and after nine months of strenuous effort I fulfilled my contract rigorously. The manager had promised me fifty thousand dollars but when I demanded payment, he merely laughed. ‘You are still Parisian,’ remarked Edison, ‘when you become a full-pledged American you will appreciate American joke.’ I felt deeply hurt as I had expected to use the money in the development of my alternating system and when some people proposed to form a company under my name, I accepted eagerly. Here as the opportunity I had vainly sought for years but my new friends were adamant in their resolve not to have anything to do with the worthless alternating currents which Edison condemned as deadly. They desired an arclight system and I had to comply with their request though the delay of my cherished plans was agonizing.

Nikola Tesla (Credit: Napoleon Sarony, 1898)

In one year of day and night application, I managed to perfect the system which was adopted for lighting the city and some factories in the neighborhood. Then came the hardest blow I ever received. Through some local influences, I was forced out of the company losing not only all my interest but also my reputation as engineer and inventor. After that I lived through a year of terrible heartaches and bitter tears, my suffering being intensified by material want. Very often I was compelled to work as a laborer and my high education in various branches of science, mechanics and literature seemed to me like a mockery. Finally, I had the good fortune of meeting two capable and honest men who listen to me and came to my assistance. They organized a company, provided a laboratory and gave me a modest but sure financial support. I perfected my motors quickly having nothing else to do except to carry out plans I had formed year before.

My inventions proved a success and attracted the attention of George Westinghouse. He was, in my opinion, the only man on this globe who could take my alternating system under the circumstances then existing and win the battle against prejudice and money power. He was a pioneer of imposing stature, one of the world’s true noblemen of whom America may well be proud and to whom humanity owes an immense debt of gratitude. 

I have to add that in all my troubles I did not neglect to declare my intention of becoming a citizen of this glorious country and in due course I secured my papers making me a proud and happy man.

Nikola Tesla

Milos Rastovic

Milos Rastovic is the Cultural Editor at the Balkan Voice. He served as the Cultural Outreach Coordinator for the Serb National Federation (2011 – 2023), one of the oldest Serbian-American Fraternal...

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1 Comment

  1. EXCELLENT….good article and I learned more about Mr. Tesla and his great contributions to America.

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