“Even though the light that he shed was as bright as the sun,
the world failed to recognise such a genius soul!”
Nikola Tesla, the father of alternating current, a vastly controversial figure and a certifiably mad genius. We all know Nikola Tesla to some extent, or at least we think we do.
The Nikola Tesla that the majority of us know of, is merely the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. Popular media typically portrays Tesla in a vastly underwhelming fashion- equating this incredibly complex individual to nothing more than his inventions.
Nikola Tesla’s representations in media (much like the representations of most historical figures) have been dehumanised and devoid of his larger than life personality. Through this article, I venture to rectify this misrepresentation, and give you a true essence of who Nikola Tesla really was.
To begin this journey in re-education, let’s travel all the way back to the 10th of July 1856, to the village of Smiljan in present day Croatia. The night was a particularly stormy one, lightning tore through the sky and the raindrops fell in sheets. Amidst this chaos, a child was brought into the world- a boy. The midwife examined the child and registered the raging storm outside, she believed the child’s birth during the storm to be an ill-omen. “He will be a child of darkness”, she said to the mother. The mother didn’t subscribe to the midwife’s superstitions and hence asserted, “no. He will be a child of light”.
Fast forward a few years, and the baby was now a toddler.
A young Tesla was sat on the floor beside his cat, and was petting it vigorously. Noticing the sparks that flew between his hands and the cat’s fur, an alarmed Tesla asked his father what was happening. His father replied, “that is called electricity. Now stop petting the cat or you will electrify him!”. This simple incident sparked an obsession that Tesla would carry with him for a lifetime.
Electricity however, was not the only thing that tickled the boy’s fancy. He was a child driven by curiosity and one who constantly thirsted for knowledge. Tesla was an avid reader and a lover of poetry. He was quite obsessive in his reading habits, in the sense that- if he read a book he liked, he would proceed to acquire and read every single tome ever written by that same author. Tesla’s favourite book was Goethe’s Faust, which he read as a student and learned by heart in German. He also studied the Bible in accordance to his mother’s wishes, and later on in life stated, “The gift of mental power comes from God, Divine Being, and if we concentrate our minds on that truth, we become in tune with this great power”. Tesla also read all of Mark Twain’s books as a child, and went on to become fast friends with the author in his adulthood. Tesla once described an incident where he brought Twain to tears when he told him that his books had healed him as a child.
Perhaps Tesla’s obsessive and quirky personality, was resultant of his extra-ordinary mind. As a child he would experience vivid “visions” that were so intense, they often impaired his ability to distinguish between reality and a product of his imagination. He however, managed to develop techniques to curb these visions from appearing when they weren’t wanted, and eventually used them as the medium through which all his inventions were conceived and practiced. He also possessed an eidetic memory, which enabled him to remember and recall things in exceptional detail. Tesla also claimed to have used his potent imagination, to neutralise the vivid nightmares he suffered in his childhood.
To add to this list of his exceptionality, Tesla even spoke 8 languages fluently!
So to say that Tesla was merely an inventor, is a gross understatement when you consider all the other things he’d been capable of.
Tesla had always looked up to Thomas Edison and his invention of direct current. He aspired to put the theoretical ‘alternative current’ into practice, thereby doing away with the shortcomings of direct current and presenting the invention that achieved this, to his idol Edison.
Tesla’s professor in college however, told him that though Tesla might be capable of a great many things in the future, alternating current was merely a dream that even the likes of him would not be able to realise.
Determined to prove his professor wrong, Tesla grew increasingly obsessed with creating a mechanism that would successfully demonstrate alternating current. He dropped out of school, rarely ate, barely slept and according to his own words- came close to dying during this period.
He eventually had an epiphany while taking a walk by a lake, and conceived a fully functional device, that successfully generated an alternating current.
Determined to show his creation to his idol Edison- certain that he would be thrilled at replacing his flawed direct current producing apparatus with a better alternative, Tesla sought employment at a branch of Edison’s company- The Continental Edison Company, in Paris.
Tesla managed to get himself a transfer to Edison’s main office in Manhattan, and was sent there with the Paris branch’s highest recommendation.
Tesla was hired by Edison in Manhattan, but was put to task at helping to maintain his direct current machines, before he had the opportunity to display his own creation. He worked hard, often working over 20 hours a day and having his work ethic praised highly by Edison, who called him a “damned good man!”. However, when he was finally able to tell Edison of his accomplishments in making alternative current a feasible reality, Edison told him it wasn’t practical and would never be brought to fruition.
Disillusioned and heart broken, Tesla quit working at Edison’s company on January of 1885.
Determined to bring his idea to life but with no means to do so, Tesla faced multiple rejections and was also cheated out of multiple patents by investors. He eventually had to dig ditches to earn enough money to get by on, he wrote in his diary, that he never knew where his next meal would come from during this period of his life.
Finally we reach the part of our story which many are already well aware of. The part where George Westinghouse of Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, invests money and faith in Tesla’s designs of an alternating current generator, but runs into financial deficits whilst beginning to produce it in a large scale. The company convinces Tesla to denounce receiving any royalties in order to fund the project successfully. Originally, Tesla was to receive $2.50 for every alternating current horsepower produced by each motor (a generous offer- considering that was he to have actually received this amount, he’d have been the richest American alive at the time).
The success of AC motors made Tesla a sensation. He went from being dirt poor, to the darling of the Manhattan social scene. His acquaintances were the who’s who of American society, and Tesla’s exploits and quirky habits, often painted the American tabloids on the regular.
With his newfound acclaim, Tesla was able to convince many an investor to put faith in his inventing prowess. He proposed and created several patented devices and dedicated so much of his time to inventing, that he chose not to marry or start a family.
Tesla’s fame unfortunately, very quickly turned to infamy post his exploits in his laboratory in Colorado Springs.
Tesla’s new dream was to provide electricity for free throughout the world, accessible to anyone with merely an antenna. He convinced investors to fund his new project, by lying that there would be a huge payoff for them in the future, when his plans actually bode no financial profit for anyone. Tesla was convinced that his idea would come to fruition, and carried out tedious tests in his isolated laboratory.
The downfall of Tesla in the public consciousness was also due to his claims that he’d been contacted by aliens from Mars, whilst in Colorado Springs. He remained adamant about this encounter throughout his life.
Eventually, Tesla’s long drawn experimentation and suspicions about his sanity, made investors cease their funding of his projects.
Tesla had to sell land he owned- where he carried out his experiments, to pay off his debts to the hotels he stayed at and he saw much of the progress he’d made there, demolished to make the land more attractive for selling.
Tesla’s later years were bleak. Marconi, an Italian inventor, used 7 of his patents to create the radio telegraph, and Tesla didn’t live to see himself being credited for the use of his patents.
Tesla continued to reside in hotels alone. According to him, his only companions during these times were the pigeons he fed daily in a park (he’d always been a lover of animals and a vegetarian).
When he drew his last breath, he was 86 years old, and could only afford Nabisco crackers and water, in the stead of an actual meal. He never gave up on his dream to power homes worldwide with a renewable source of energy, (he’d also been an environmentalist) always searching for funding despite all the odds stacked against him.
Tesla posthumously found justice, in being credited for his contributions in the creation of the telegraph.
He spent decades largely unknown and in obscurity, until our modern era recognised him for having predicted the television and the internet well before its time.
Perhaps this was Tesla’s main downfall. He was born into a time of largely commercially motivated technological development. Had Tesla been born in the 21st century, where a lot of technology is motivated by the goal to conserve energy, perhaps he’d have seen his device realised, and perhaps he’d have been hailed and viewed as the hero that he truly deserved to be known as.