Nikola Tesla was born on 28 June (N.S. 10 July) 1856 to Serbian parents in the village of Smiljan, Austrian Empire near the town of Gospić, in the territory of modern-day Croatia. His father, Milutin Tesla, was a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church. Tesla's mother, Đuka Tesla (née Mandić), whose father was also a Serbian Orthodox priest, had a talent for making home craft tools and was able to memorize many Serbian epic poems, although she never learned to read. According to Tesla biographer, John O'Neill, "the Tesla and Mandić families originally came from the western part of Serbia near Montenegro."
Tesla was the fourth of five children, having an older brother, Danilo, who was killed in a horse-riding accident when Tesla was five, and three sisters, Milka, Angelina and Marica. His family moved to Gospić in 1862.
Tesla attended school at the Higher Real Gymnasium in Karlovac. He was able to perform integral calculus in his head, leading his teachers to think that he was cheating. He finished a four-year term in just three years.
In 1875, Tesla went on to study electrical engineering at the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz. While there, he studied the uses of alternating current. Some sources claim that he received baccalaureate degrees in math, physics, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering from the university,; however, according to the university, he did not receive any degree and did not continue beyond the first semester of his third year, during which he stopped attending lectures.
In December 1878, Tesla left Graz and severed all relations with his family. His friends thought that he had drowned in the Mur River. Tesla went to Marburg, (now inSlovenia), where he was employed as an assistant engineer for a year. He suffered a nervous breakdown during this time. Tesla was later persuaded by his father to attend the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague. Here, he was influenced by Ernst Mach. However, after his father had died, he left the university, having completed only one term during the summer of 1880.
Tesla read many works, memorizing complete books and supposedly possessing a photographic memory. Tesla related in his autobiography that he experienced detailed moments of inspiration. During his early life, Tesla was stricken with illness time and time again. He suffered a peculiar affliction in which blinding flashes of light would appear before his eyes, often accompanied by visions. Often, the visions were linked to a word or idea he might have come across; at other times they would provide the solution to a particular problem he had encountered. Just by hearing the name of an item, he would be able to envision it in realistic detail. Modern-day synesthetes report similar symptoms. Tesla would visualize an invention in his mind with extreme precision, including all dimensions, before moving to the construction stage; a technique sometimes known as picture thinking. He typically did not make drawings by hand but worked from memory. Beginning in his childhood, Tesla had frequent flashbacks to events that had happened previously in his life.
In 1880, Tesla moved to Budapest to work under Tivadar Puskás at a telegraph company, the National Telephone Company. There, he met Nebojša Petrović, a young Serbian inventor who lived in Austria. Although their encounter was brief, they did work on a project together using twin turbines to create continual power. In 1881, on the opening of the telephone exchange in Budapest, Tesla became the chief electrician for the company, and was later engineer for the country's first telephone system. He developed a device that, according to some, was a telephone repeater or amplifier, but according to others, could have been the first loudspeaker.