A hundred years before Elon Musk sent a Tesla car into outer space and then took the electric-vehicle company and its stock on a roller-coaster ride, that name was made famous for a time by another larger-than-life tech visionary—Nikola Tesla himself, arguably his era’s greatest inventor and most ill-fated entrepreneur.
The original Tesla was in some ways a strange choice to be a namesake for a company looking to overcome obstacles and achieve groundbreaking business success. True, he pioneered many of technologies that still power and light the world (alternating current, the electric induction motor, fluorescent and neon bulbs), and he was awarded more than 300 patents.
But Tesla died virtually penniless in a New York hotel room in 1943, after failing to capitalize on his major innovations while others won fortunes and Nobel Prizes by building on his work. Until the revival of Tesla’s name in recent years, it had sunk into near-obscurity except among electrical engineers.
Where did this patron saint of innovation go wrong? The disappointing career of the Serbian-born engineer is a cautionary tale, highlighting destructive habits and tendencies that kept him from realizing his most ambitious projects.
‘By his own admission, Tesla “suffered a complete collapse” when he ran out of resources.’
Lone-wolf behavior: Tesla frequently left jobs over disputes and didn’t build a lasting, loyal team around him. After starting his career as chief electrician for the Budapest telephone exchange in 1881, he got his big break by being asked to fix power plants in Paris for Thomas Edison’s company. The firm brought him to New York City, but he soon quit because of a disagreement about his bonus.
While trying to interest American investors in his idea of an alternating-current (AC) motor, he started a Tesla company of his own, making arc lamps, which were already nearly obsolete predecessors to the incandescent bulb. The older technology didn’t hold his interest and his investors forced him out, with only worthless stock certificates in hand.
Lack of follow-up: Early on, Tesla tended to flit among projects. He never stuck around long enough to reap rewards, leaving credit and opportunities to others. Around 1890, he designed the basic circuits for a radio apparatus, which he called an oscillator. He applied for patents and demonstrated a radio-controlled boat in Madison Square Garden, but he failed to commercialize these innovations. Guglielmo Marconi would be recognized for inventing radio and won the 1909 Nobel Prize for related research. The Supreme Court eventually awarded the foundational patents to Tesla, vindicating his work, but only after his death.
In 1894, Tesla also experimented with X-rays and produced what he called “shadowgraphs.” But he took that work no further and instead sent his images to the German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen, who was also working on the technology. Roentgen published his own findings the next year and eventually won the first Nobel Prize for physics.
Financial naiveté: The industrialist George Westinghouse financed the building of Tesla’s motor and alternating current system, buying Tesla’s patents in exchange for a lucrative royalty agreement. Tesla showcased the technology at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and again at the power station he designed at Niagara Falls, the world’s first major hydroelectric plant. But when the enormous cost of the wiring threatened to bankrupt Westinghouse, Tesla tore up the royalty contract, which would have made him one of the richest men in the world. He was never able to replace it and lacked the capital to sustain his later projects.
Increasing tunnel vision: Tesla ultimately devoted most of his efforts to a wireless transmitting project that never proved out. He bought land in 1901 and began building a lab and a nearly 200-foot tower near Shoreham, N.Y. But in a few years he burned through his investors’ initial funds and his own. By his own admission, writing in 1919, he “suffered a complete collapse” when he ran out of resources for the project. Eventually, his tower was torn down and sold for scrap to help pay his outstanding hotel bill at the Waldorf Astoria.
—Mr. Wasik is the author of “Lightning Strikes: Timeless Lessons in Creativity from the Life and Work of Nikola Tesla” (2016).