The ONE secret that Nikola Tesla wrested from nature on that fateful day in a Budapest park was the design for his most famous and important invention: the Alternating Current Induction Motor. Before Tesla’s breakthrough, all electricity and motors used a direct current system, like the Gramme dynamo Professor Poeschl was demonstrating at Tesla’s Polytechnic School in Graz. Direct current motors were prone to wear and tear and sparking due to the number of moving parts brushing up against each other. Much to the disgust of his Professor, Tesla thought he could do away with the inefficiencies and sparking (in particular caused by a part known as a commutator). The genius of Tesla’s AC motor was it’s simplicity. There was no need for a commutator because the rotor moved due to a rotating electric field. This meant that the motor was more efficient, reliable, quieter and cheaper. In the ‘War of the Currents’ between Thomas Edison’s DC power and the AC system, Tesla’s alternating current prevailed and today is the basis of all modern power generation and distribution. Suck it, Professor Poeschl.

Tesla’s creative process was quite different to other engineers and scientists. He didn’t write things down, sketch out ideas or refine on the page. Instead he relied solely on visualisation – creating, developing, fixing and testing all his inventions completely in his mind. In my Einstein comic, I covered Albert’s use of thought experiments to generate the initial spark of an idea. But once he got that first inspiration, Einstein still had to figure out all the complex physics and equations down on paper. Tesla didn’t waste his time like that:

“My method is different. I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever, the results are the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything. When I have gone so far as to embody in the invention every possible improvement I can think of and see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form this final product of my brain. Invariably my device works as I conceived that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In twenty years there has not been a single exception.”

For his induction motor, after Tesla’s epiphany in the park, he kept playing around with different configurations of the design in his head:

“For a while I gave myself up entirely to the intense enjoyment of picturing machines and devising new forms. It was a mental state of happiness about as complete as I have ever known in life. Ideas came in an uninterrupted stream and the only difficulty I had was to hold them fast. The pieces of apparatus I conceived were to me absolutely real and tangible in every detail, even to the minute marks and signs of wear. I delighted in imagining the motors constantly running, for in this way they presented to mind’s eye a more fascinating sight. When natural inclination develops into a passionate desire, one advances towards his goal in seven-league boots.”

Yes, we’re dealing with a super genius here, so granted, his method might be out of reach for mere mortals like the rest of us. I’m sure Tesla’s photographic memory helped a bit too. I mean c’mon, it’s not fair that someone can recite freakin’ Goethe while creating one of the most important inventions in history.

Albert Einstein Life is a Mystery
Marie Curie Our Happy Place
Phil Plait Welcome to Science

– The quotes used in the comic and above are from “My Inventions”, a short autobiography by Tesla originally published in Electrical Experimenter magazine in 1919. You can read it online for free.
– Further reading: How did Nikola Tesla change the way we use energy? (How Stuff Works) Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived (The Oatmeal)