July 10: Nikola Tesla

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The march of human technological progress over the past centuries has been remarkable. From where we stand today, it’s hard even to imagine a world without the iPhone, let alone the internet, let alone the personal computer; yet all of these technologies are younger than some of the people listening to this podcast. Such rapid advancements are never the work solely of a single individual, and history proves that truth over and over; many of the most famous discoveries of scientific and technological history turn out to have been simultaneously or nearly simultaneously developed by multiple people around the same time, as part of broader sweeping trends. Alexander Graham Bell was only one of at least three individuals who came up with similar technologies around the same time, for example; Galileo’s development of the telescope was in large part due to his having heard about similar devices already being made by several Dutchmen, and you may remember hearing in math class that both Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz independently developed calculus within a few years of one another. 

Nonetheless, even if great technological advancements are rarely the work of a single unique genius, we must acknowledge that such geniuses certainly do exist and have existed throughout human history. When I say genius, I mean more than simply a person of great intelligence; intelligence alone, in my estimation, is insufficient to truly set a person apart from their peers. What distinguishes the true genius is a combination of intellect and vision; an ability to see problems from a unique angle, and thus create unique solutions. Oftentimes, this remarkable vision comes at a cost–and the lives of the innovators may sometimes remind us of the words of Seneca in the De Tranquillitate Animi: “there has never been a great genius without a little bit of madness.”

Today, July 10th, is a day associated with one such innovator, whose story reminds us of both the value and the cost of genius. So let’s turn back the clock.

July 10, 1856

At the stroke of midnight, in the midst of a severe thunderstorm in the small village of Smiljan, in a region which will someday be known as Croatia but is now part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a baby boy is born. His father, Milutin, is an Eastern Orthodox priest, and his mother Georgina, commonly known by her nickname Djuka, is a housewife with a remarkable intelligence and wit in spite of her lack of formal education. They decide to name the boy Nikola, a good strong name, likely after Saint Nicholas of Myra (a man whom Milutin and his wife would remember as a famous miracle worker and vigorous defender of the faith, not the jolly man in the red suit he will gradually become by our present day). Many years later, they will look back on the circumstances of his birth and see in them a remarkable coincidence, or even an omen of the future of the man who is still sometimes called today “The Father of Electricity”: Nikola Tesla.

But of course, at this particular moment in Smiljan, Nikola is just a tiny baby, with no hint of his future accomplishments to distinguish him from any other. So let’s turn the clock forward.

July 10, 1937

In the Grand Ballroom of the New Yorker Hotel, where he has lived for the past 4 years, Nikola Tesla is celebrating his 81st birthday. This is not some small family affair; first of all, Tesla has no local family, having never married; he determined early in life that relationships with women would be a terrible distraction from his work, and so chose never to pursue them. He admitted in a magazine interview recently that at times he has regretted this choice, but he will remain celibate and single until his death in 1943. No, Tesla’s birthday celebration is not a family affair, nor is it small. Since 1931, Tesla has been celebrating each birthday party with a massive public celebration, to which he invites members of the press and of New York high society, to tell them all about his latest inventions and seek investors to further his plans to transform the world through technological innovation.

The past 81 years have been full of remarkable stories about the Serbian engineer and inventor. He began distinguishing himself very early; in high school, he stunned teachers with his ability to perform integral calculus in his head, a feat which they found so unbelievable that for some time they were convinced that he must somehow be cheating. It turned out, however, that Tesla had inherited from his mother Djuka a truly remarkable mind; she, according to Tesla’s own account, had never been taught to read, but could memorize full works of literature in their entirety by listening to them, and then recall them at her leisure; he also described her as an inventor, constantly creating ingenious devices to assist her in her beadwork and the sewing of clothing for the family. Tesla followed suit, apparently possessing eidetic memory (what is often called photographic memory, the ability to recall in entirety images or text that one has only encountered once, even briefly) as well as an ability to visualize complex ideas and objects in 3 dimensional space. In fact, Tesla famously did not keep notes or diagrams for any of his more sensitive or potentially dangerous inventions, preferring to keep them safely locked in his own mind.

This prodigious mental capacity set Tesla in good stead for his schooling, but nonetheless, some serious cracks began showing even early on in Tesla’s life. When he was only 7 years old, he witnessed his older brother Dane take a disastrous fall from a horse; some accounts suggest that young Nikola believed himself responsible, as it may have been his actions that spooked the horse. Dane died of his injuries, and shortly thereafter, Nikola began experiencing strange mental breaks that would become a permanent part of his life; he would have white flashes across his vision, followed by intense visual and sometimes auditory hallucinations.

He graduated from high school a year early, and his first year of higher education at Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, Austria, was by outward appearances an tremendous success; he earned the highest possible grades even while taking nearly double the number of classes required. But this success carried a terrible cost. Several of Tesla’s professors wrote letters home to his family begging them to intervene, suggesting that Nikola was on a path to actually killing himself with overwork. It was likely at this time that Tesla first began the schedule he would keep for the rest of his life; he never slept more than 2 hours a night, choosing to only doze here and there for a few minutes throughout the remainder of the day.

During his second year, Tesla seems to have burned out disastrously. By the end of the year, he had lost his scholarship, and would only be able to continue his studies if he found some other way to pay tuition. Desperate, he decided to take up gambling, perhaps believing that his eidetic memory and general intelligence would help him to succeed. Instead, he became horribly addicted–an addiction he would eventually manage to control, but would remain with him to some degree for the rest of his life. 

His parents sent money both for allowance and to help with tuition for his third year, and he lost nearly all of it in a series of unlucky games. Horrified, he redoubled his efforts to win it back. Somewhat miraculously, by the end of the semester he had managed to gain back enough money to repay his parents what he had lost. But he had not been attending to his studies, and it was examination time. He begged the examiners for an extension in which he could study further, but they refused. Knowing he would fail, Tesla simply left. He told no one either that he was leaving or where to–neither his family, nor his friends, nor anyone from the university. His university friends initially believed that he was dead, and speculated that he might have drowned himself in the nearby river after the examination fiasco.

Instead, Tesla had fled to the city of Maribor in Slovenia, and took up a low level job as a draftsman for an engineering firm. After several months his father eventually managed to find out where he was, and came and begged him to return home, but he refused. Days later Maribor police learned, almost certainly on a tip from Tesla’s father, that Nikola was living in the area without any residence permit; as a result, he was arrested and forcibly returned to his parent’s home. It’s easy to imagine Tesla’s whirlwind of emotions; shame at having let down his family and dropped out of school, fury at Milutin for the underhanded means by which he had been forced to return home. Several sources record that the young Tesla suffered a severe nervous breakdown, not for the first time in his life. Things could not have been much helped by his father’s sudden death by illness less than a month after his return home. It is unknown whether they reconciled prior to his passing.

Tesla’s next years were spent doing a variety of work ranging from teaching classes at his old high school to working for a telegraph and telephone company in Budapest. In 1882, after long puzzling over the possibility of creating a more reliable form of alternating current generator, he experienced one of his mental breaks and visions; he claimed that he was watching a sunset and reciting a selection from the classic poem Faust, by German author Goethe, when his vision went white and he saw in total clarity the design for the induction motor. He immediately sketched it out in the sand of the path in front of him, solidifying his ideas. He would not be able to build a prototype until several years later, however.

Tesla found employment in Paris, at the Continental Edison Company, repairing the direct current power plants that Thomas Edison had already become famous for. He so impressed his manager, Charles Batchelor, that when Batchelor was recalled to manage the Edison Machine Works in New York City, he suggested that Tesla should come too, and gave him a letter of recommendation to present to Edison; apparently it read “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.” Nikola boarded a ship to the United States in 1884. It was a harrowing voyage, in which Tesla first lost his baggage and passport, and then got caught in the crossfire of a mutiny on board. When he finally arrived in New York, he had 4 cents in his pockets, a few poems written on scrap paper, some calculations for a flying machine he hoped to build someday, and the letter of recommendation. He went to meet Edison immediately, and was quickly hired.

Tesla worked for Edison a little over a year. Each respected the other; Edison had been one of Tesla’s personal heroes for years, and Edison was impressed by the young Serbian’s intellect and work ethic, referring to him as “a damn good man.” However, their relationship unfortunately soured quickly. Tesla wasted no time in trying to convince Edison that alternating current, rather than direct current, was the best path forward for electricity generation. Edison, who had been making himself rich for 10 years now setting up direct current plants around America and Europe, wrote Tesla’s ideas off as absurd. 

Having been rebuffed about alternating current, Tesla proposed that he could at least massively improve the efficiency of the direct current generators that Edison was building by redesigning certain key elements. Edison laughed, and told Tesla that he’d pay him $50,000 if he could prove it. And so Tesla did. After the best part of a year of hard work, Tesla presented a new design for direct current generators that indeed were a vast improvement over Edison’s existing model, in terms of both efficiency and durability. Edison was thrilled. But then Tesla asked him to pay the $50,000 he had promised. Edison’s famous response, claiming that Tesla simply hadn’t understood his American sense of humor, and that he had been making a joke along the lines of “if you do that I’ll eat my hat,” and his offer instead of a raise of Tesla’s hourly salary from $18 to $28 dollars, was viewed by Nikola as an immense insult. He resigned immediately.

Much has been made of Edison and Tesla’s feud over the years which followed; some is legitimate, and some less so. Certainly it must be stated Tesla retained a great deal of respect for Edison even much later in life; once Edison came to watch one of Tesla’s presentations, sneaking in at the back and attempting to remain incognito, and Tesla spotted him, called attention to his presence, and led the crowd in giving him a standing ovation for his contributions to the science of electricity. Edison, similarly, had tremendous respect for Tesla, and would later in life look back on his refusal to pay Tesla the $50,000 he had offered, joke or not, as his greatest mistake.

Still, when Tesla began working with Westinghouse Electric Company and presenting alternating current as an improvement over Edison’s designs, Edison was at times ruthless in his attempt to maintain his monopoly over American electric power. The resulting “war of the currents” is the stuff of legends; Edison and other direct current advocates used demonstrations including the electrocution of animals, from stray dogs and cats to calves and even a horse, to show that AC’s higher voltages were far deadlier than the lower voltages used by direct current power. When electric chairs were first used as a form of execution device, Edison and his associates suggested that the form of execution should be referred to as “being Westinghoused,” a reference to the company with which Tesla had been partnered. 

That said, events transpired that showed alternating current in a bad light without any need for Edison to intervene; as electricity spread across the nation, cities often ended up with an absolute rats nest of wires which needed maintenance, and terrible accidents occurred. In 1889, John Feeks, an electric line maintenance man, grabbed an electric line that he assumed was a low voltage line, but had in fact made accidental contact with an alternating current line a few blocks away and was now tied into that circuit. He was killed instantly, and his body fell into the tangle of wires, remaining suspended well above the ground, sparking and burning for  hours before it could be retrieved, while a horrified crowd watched from below. Edison’s concerns about the dangers of higher voltage lines, therefore, were legitimate ones. Portraying him as an economically driven, stick-in-the-mud villain of the tale, with Tesla as the much wronged yet always right visionary, makes for a good story but is far from historical truth. Still, Tesla’s AC power won out in the end, not because Edison was wrong and it wasn’t dangerous, but simply because its efficiency and ability to output power over much greater distances eventually was seen to outweigh the dangers. High voltage lines were moved underground or better insulated, and the disasters of the early years became fewer and fewer.

As a delightful side note, Nikola Tesla was close friends with the famous American novelist Mark Twain. Tesla had first encountered Twain’s writing while he was a very young man suffering from cholera, and reading and enjoying the books had given him a new lease on life when doctors had believed he was likely to die. The two men met twenty five years later, and when Tesla told Twain that story, as Tesla put it in his autobiography, “I was amazed to see that great man of laughter burst into tears.” Despite their difference in age, Twain and Tesla became fast friends, and Twain regularly visited Tesla in his lab. Perhaps the most absurd and delightful story which comes out of their relationship is the following…

Tesla had developed a form of steam powered oscillator that he believed could replace the steam turbine as a means for generating electricity; the powerful vibrations that the machine created could be felt through the floor and in the bodies of anyone nearby, and Tesla once claimed that a large version of the oscillator caused a small earthquake before he hastily turned it off by smashing it with a sledgehammer, fearing it might shake his lab to the ground. Even the smaller versions, however, had a strange effect; Tesla had noted that in both himself and in others who visited, the rapid vibrations caused a sudden desire and need to defecate. Meanwhile, Tesla was aware that Twain had suffered for years from severe constipation and bowel distress. And so he decided to invite Twain over. Twain stood in the center of the room, and Tesla powered up the device. Twain first remarked on how pleasant the sensations were, and then moments later went slightly bugeyed and ran towards the facilities.

Tesla was much more than a pioneer in the field of electrical generators, though. He created a radio-controlled boat and piloted it around ponds in New York parks, delighting crowds and hoping to woo investors. He developed wireless electric transmission technology, and demonstrated it by turning on a lightbulb across the room that was connected to no wires; he was able to transmit power through the surface of the stage, and believed that with time, it would be possible to transmit electricity across the globe wirelessly through the ground or the air. He spent years developing these ideas, and believed he had figured out how to do it by 1901. He bought a property on Long Island and began building a massive edifice called Wardenclyffe Tower that he believed would be capable of transmitting both electricity and communication signals across the Atlantic. While he was in the process of building, however, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi successfully performed a wireless radio transmission from England to Canada. Tesla’s investors quickly lost interest in his Wardenclyffe Tower project, and he was left unable to finish the tower; this failure led to what seems to have been a significant nervous breakdown. In the end, he had to mortgage the property to try to get a handle on his mounting debts, and eventually  he lost the property to foreclosure. The unfinished tower was demolished.

In his latter years, Tesla continued to pitch projects to his former investors, including J.P. Morgan and, after the multimillionaire’s death, his son. However, he received little in return for his efforts. By the end of his life, Tesla was living in poverty. He lived out of hotels in New York City, and repeatedly ran up massive bills over years before departing and moving into a new hotel, leaving his bills unpaid and debt collectors trying to track him down. In spite of his financial woes, however, he had become something of an idol to a younger generation of engineers and science writers. It was one of these, Kenneth Swezey, who organized the massive celebration of Tesla’s 75th birthday in 1931.

Tesla was interviewed by a large number of newspapers, and was the front page of Time Magazine. It was the best opportunity he had had in years to try to gain new investors. And so he spent much of his time talking about amazing ideas and inventions he believed he could create, or even claimed he had already created. He decided to repeat the birthday celebrations every year afterwards. His continuing financial hardships, however, suggest that even though these gatherings garnered strong media attention, they did not lead to significant investments.

It was at one of these birthday celebrations, in 1934, that Tesla first attempted to market his famous “death ray.” He hated that term, incidentally, as it was completely inaccurate; his device was based upon the use of tiny concentrated particles fired in a stream over vast distances, and so he preferred to call it a beam, not a ray, and in fact referred to it as a teleforce weapon. He claimed to have discovered the means to create it when he was working with a vacuum tube, and when it malfunctioned it sent a tiny particle too small to be visible to the naked eye directly into him. He said that he felt an intense stinging pain where it entered and then exited his body. He immediately envisioned a weapons system which could fire a large number of such tiny, microscopic projectiles in a stream; he believed that such a weapon could destroy aircraft or obliterate armies at a distance of 200 miles. His belief was that such a weapon would bring about world peace; he discussed his intentions to present it to the League of Nations in order to prevent all future war. This year, 1937, he is asked about it by newspaper reporters once again at his birthday celebration, and once again he affirms his absolute certainty that the device is completely designed and only needs an investor–and he also makes clear that he has never created any physical blueprint for the device, preferring to keep it entirely in his own mind. Perhaps as a result of this last fact, despite occasional nibbles, no government nor the League of Nations will be willing to invest in the device. When Tesla dies, his plans for the Teleforce weapon will die with him.

Other devices Tesla will claim he is working on include a camera which will, by taking highly detailed picture of the human eye, be able to show what a person is thinking; a motor which would run on cosmic rays; and a form of long distance communication using vibrations sent through the earth. None of these will ever see the light of day.

The last years of Tesla’s life are spent in the New Yorker Hotel, once again racking up bills that he cannot pay. Every day, he walks from the hotel to the park to feed the pigeons, as he has enjoyed doing throughout his entire life. He also often leaves his window open and allows pigeons to enter his hotel room, and occasionally nurses injured birds back to health. Years ago now, there was one particular bird which, as he put it in his autobiography, was different. It was “a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings… I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.”

About six years from now, Nikola Tesla will die alone in his hotel room of a heart attack. His body will not be discovered until 2 days later, when a hotel maid will decide to ignore the “Do Not Disturb” sign in order to clean his room.

Tesla was extraordinarily brilliant, and accomplished in his lifetime what few people could have accomplished in five. But his genius carried a high price. I do not suggest, as some have, that his attachment to a pigeon means he was losing his mind, even though clearly Tesla did struggle with mental illness. Rather, I think it points to the fact that by the latter years of his life, Nikola Tesla was a deeply lonely man. He had never had many close relationships; Twain had passed on decades ago, and the younger generation of Kenneth Swezey and co. were too awestruck by him to ever truly be his friends.

Tesla’s name has become synonymous with extraordinary scientific achievement, and funnily enough, the tradition of grand celebrations of his birthday still continues into the modern day. But personally, I find myself wondering about Nikola Tesla’s final moments, in that hotel room, feeling the pain in his chest and knowing that he would die. I wonder if, as he looked back over his life and achievements, he felt that it was all worth it. I wonder if he was happy. He gave his life to the betterment of humanity, but it seems as though he participated so little in what most of us would likely think the best of humanity is all about; fellowship, family, relationships. Love.

To be extraordinary is, by definition, to be isolated. And so I find myself simultaneously grateful for the work and dedication of Nikola Tesla, and heartbroken for him. And, as sentimental and silly as it may seem, I hope that in those final moments a white pigeon may have fluttered in the window of his hotel room.

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