Tesla's father was an Orthodox priest who wanted his son, born in 1856, to be the same. Ethnic Serbs, the Tesla family lived in Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Nikola's mother invented household appliances like an eggbeater, and the boy felt that he took after her. When he became ill as a teenager, he made his father promise to send him to technical school if he recovered. Hoping to become an engineer, he studied mechanics and electricity at Austrian Polytechnic School in Graz, Austria [source: Vujovic].
As a boy, Nikola had seen a picture of Niagara Falls. He instantly envisioned a giant millwheel that would harness the power of the cataract. Such visions pointed to the unique nature of Tesla's mind. The young man could solve calculus problems in his head and possessed a photographic memory. But it was his powers of visualization that were most remarkable: Ideas appeared to him fully formed, almost as hallucinations.
But his brilliance had a down side. In his 20s, the tall, rail-thin Tesla endured a nervous breakdown that made him hypersensitive -- the sound of a ticking watch tormented him and he found sunlight oppressive. Throughout his life, he suffered from phobias and compulsions.
Tesla took an early interest in alternating current (AC). At the time, experiments with motors and lighting used direct current (DC), like the current that flows from a battery. DC motors were inefficient, but no one could imagine how an AC motor would work. One day, while walking in a park discussing poetry, Tesla had a sudden insight about how to make an AC motor a reality.
His idea for using alternating current baffled experts in Europe. In 1884, the 28-year-old Tesla decided to travel to New York and present his ideas to Thomas Edison. He described his notions about AC to the great inventor, but Edison wasn't interested. Instead, he hired Tesla to work on his direct current equipment. The two men didn't hit it off -- Tesla quit after Edison failed to pay him for completing a job.
With no money, Tesla went to work digging ditches to earn a living. But his fortunes were about to turn.