Overcoming Hardship

Overcoming Hardship
young Nikola Tesla
This image of Tesla dates from about 1879 when he was approximately 23 years old.

The years from 1879 to 1882 were challenging ones for Nikola. After dropping out of college and cutting off communications with family, he moves to Maribor, Slovenia, where he works as a draughtsman and spends his spare time gambling. In March of 1879, police escort him from Maribor to Gospic for not having a residence permit. Although he returns to his childhood home in disgrace, it is in Gospic with his family that Nikola finally overcomes his gambling addiction.

“At a certain age I contracted a mania for gambling which greatly worried my parents. To sit down to a game of cards was for me the quintessence of pleasure. My father led an exemplary life and could not excuse the senseless waste of time and money in which I indulged… On frequent occasions he gave vent to his anger and contempt but my mother was different. She understood the character of men and knew that one’s salvation could only be brought about through his own efforts. One afternoon, I remember, when I had lost all my money and was craving for a game, she came to me with a roll of bills and said, ‘Go and enjoy yourself. The sooner you lose all we possess the better it will be. I know that you will get over it.’ She was right. I conquered my passion then and there and only regretted that it had not been a hundred times as strong. I not only vanquished but tore it from my heart so as not to leave even a trace of desire.”

In April 1879, a month after Tesla’s return to Gospic, his father dies unexpectedly. Milutin Tesla was a well-known priest, educator, lecturer, and writer, and his funeral was a notable event that signified his high standing in the community. Nikola decides to remain with his grieving family, and takes a post as a teacher at his former childhood school in Gospic.  However, Nikola’s family are concerned that he won’t reach his full potential as an elementary schoolteacher.

In 1880, Nikola’s uncles Petar and Pavle arrange for him to go to Czechoslovakia to attend the Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague. Although he arrives too late for acceptance in the University, Nikola attends lectures and studies and reads extensively on his own, determined to develop his idea for generating electricity through rotating magnetic fields.  He wrote:  “In 1880 I went to Prague, Bohemia, carrying out my father’s wish to complete my education at the University there. It was in that city that I made a decided advance, which consisted in detaching the commutator from the machine and studying the phenomena in this new aspect, but still without result. In the year following there was a sudden change in my views of life. I realized that my parents had been making too great sacrifices on my account and resolved to relieve them of the burden. The wave of the American telephone had just reached the European continent and the system was to be installed in Budapest, Hungary. It appeared an ideal opportunity, all the more as a friend of our family was at the head of the enterprise.”

In 1881, Nikola leaves Prague for his new job at the Budapest telephone exchange, which he describes in his autobiography:  “I came to Budapest prompted by a premature report concerning the telephone enterprise and, as irony of fate willed it, I had to accept a position as draftsman in the Central Telegraph Office of the Hungarian
Government at a salary which I deem it my privilege not to disclose! Fortunately, I soon won the interest of the Inspector-in-Chief and was thereafter employed on calculations, designs and estimates in connection with new installations, until the Telephone Exchange was started, when I took charge of the same. The knowledge and practical experience I gained in the course of this work was most valuable and the employment gave me ample opportunities for the exercise of my inventive faculties. I made several improvements in the Central Station apparatus and perfected a telephone repeater or amplifier which was never patented or publicly described but would be creditable to me even today. ”

While in Budapest, Nikola continues to expend great effort on solving the puzzle of generating electricity through alternating currents. He suffers a physical and mental breakdown from exhaustion, stress, and overwork.


Pivotal Moments in Nikola Tesla’s Life

Explore the inventor's most influential moments and discoveries using our interactive Tesla Timeline.