Nikola Tesla’s Birthplace – Where It All Began

Or How Small Places Make for Big Dreams of Exceptional People

Deep in the vastness of the green fields of Lika, where green pastures are interlaced with the occasional sign of karst terrain of limestone rocks, lays the bucolic Smiljan, where Nikola Tesla was born. Smiljan is a tiny village situated just a few kilometres away from the impoverished, but still standing small town of Gospić. The scenery surrounding it is as serene as plain and untouched nature can be, the smell of pureness creates space for awe and one can not help but wonder how this place gifted us with one of the biggest minds of our times, without whom it would have been impossible to live life as we know it today.

NIkola Tesla Memorial Center
The statue of Nikola Tesla in front on Tesla’s birth house and the small church

The Memorial Centre of Nikola Tesla is an hour away from the UNESCO acknowledged national park of Plitvice, and it’s worth visiting. It is both puzzling and humbling, to be in this unassuming place that gave birth to something as elaborate, lavish and lush as Tesla’s mind. Visitors to the centre may witness the traditional house in which Nikola Tesla was born on the night between the 9th and 10th of July in 1856, the small Serbian Orthodox church in which his father was a priest, a traditional agricultural house nearby, and the museum building. The tiny stream Vaganac seems small and modest, and stands in striking contrast to the Niagara Falls where Tesla had built the world’s first major hydroelectric power plant in the world in 1895. Perhaps playing in the Vaganac stream inspired the young boy NIkola’s curious mind to build a radio-controlled boat which he invented and patented in 1898, and thus opened the doors to robotics.

The church in which Nikola Tesla’s father, Milutin Tesla, served as a priest

When Tesla was born, the area of Lika, and other parts of Croatia, belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and Lika was a part of the Military Frontier (Krajina, 1553-1881), a special territorial area neighbouring with the Turkish territory, imagined by the Habsburg monarchy and designed to hold the Turkish powers away. There was a rule that if one was born as a male within the Military Frontier, they were obliged to serve in the military from the ages of 16 until they were 66. Nikola Tesla’s father Milutin was a priest, so he was exempt from this rule, as was Nikola Tesla because he was an outstanding student who had earned the scholarship of the Krajina, thanks to which Tesla enrolled into a University in Graz. His professors at the Austrian Polytechnic School were amazed at Tesla’s computational abilities. However, as the military frontier dissolved, so did his scholarship end, and Tesla did not manage to continue his studies. Thankfully, that did not stop him in his tracks to become one of the biggest inventors of the 20th century.

19th ct agricultural house in Smiljan
A 19th ct agricultural house in Smiljan

However, not finishing university caused Tesla a massive amount of shame, as during that time, he severed all connection to his family. For a while, he worked with legal documents in Maribor when his father found out he was there, and travelled to Maribor to beg him to come home, but Nikola Tesla didn’t want to. For a few years, Tesla spent working as an assistant engineer in Maribor and as a teacher in Gospić for a while, and then, with the help of his uncles, he studied natural philosophy while he lived in Prague, and kept himself updated with the developments in the world of polytechnics. Eventually, he got a job as an electrical engineer at a telephone company in Budapest.

Nikola Tesla sculpture by Milo Blažević

Already in Budapest, Tesla is discovering the principle of rotating magnetic field. Soon enough, Tesla moved on to a job in Paris where he worked in Edison’s company, and in 1884, at 28 years old, Tesla went to New York, with a book of poetry, a letter of recommendation for Edison, and 4 cents in his pocket. After only a year of working for Edison, he opened his own company and started registering patents. Tesla registered more than 300 patents in the US, some of them under Tesla Electric & Manufacturing Company, and some under the Tesla Electric Company. Tesla’s first company went bankrupt due to the economic crisis in 1886 after which Tesla had to resort to difficult physical labour for a while, earning as little as 2 dollars per day. Thankfully, Tesla’s resilience helped him rise again and he opened up his second company, Tesla Electric Company.

The grave of Tesla's parents
The grave where Tesla’s parents rest in peace

Some of the most important Tesla’s patents are: Tesla coil, modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system, polyphase alternating current induction motor (1887), radio – a battle which he sadly lost, undeservingly so and the patent was transferred to the more affluent Marconi. In many inventions, Tesla played a pivotal role in the development of x rays, wireless control and transmission, electric power, radio-controlled vessels, systems of electric lightning (also neon and fluorescent lightning), coreless transformers and so on.

Tesla’s travels: the cities and distances

Mr. Tesla was a genius visionary, a scientist, a futurist and an inventor, who believed his work will serve the entire civilisation and help abolish poverty and violence and bring about a safer and more comfortable living even in remote areas. He was aware of the magnitude of his inventions and their effect on modern lives, especially in regard to the alternating current.  Curiously, Mr. Tesla had foreseen that humanity will be able to carry telephones in their pocket as we do today. He also knew that electricity will be used to power cars (it is therefore, not a surprise that Elon Musk’s company is named after Tesla) and that in the 21st century, robots will replace tedious labour. Tesla could have been the world’s first billionaire for the royalties on his many inventions, but he wasn’t a businessman by nature and people around him took advantage. Had there not been any bruised egos nor war of currents, Tesla probably wouldn’t have to die lonely and bankrupt in a New York hotel, with pigeons being his most loyal companions.

Vaganac stream
Vaganac stream in which Nikola Tesla played as a young boy

The difference between Tesla and many other contemporary inventors was that some were more and some were less acknowledged. Tesla struggled with acknowledgement despite reporting more than 700 inventions. He also struggled with funding and finding investors who could follow up to his vision, and his eccentricity didn’t exactly help him win the trust of people he needed as backers. He was not one of those privileged inventors who could use their network, money and influence to assert himself and many times, he was not given the acclaim he was due. Because of that, Tesla simply had to be more resilient and work harder than the others. In Tesla’s words : “I don’t regret that others stole my ideas. I am sorry they don’t have their own”.

Author: Ravijojla Novaković

If you were curious, this is me in the Memorial Center “Nikola Tesla”

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