Google founder Larry Page, tech billionaire Elon Musk, terraplanists, ufologists. Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla doesn’t have an eclectic fan base by accident. The same scientist who changed the way people use and distribute electricity had pigeons as pets, was a germaphobe, and believed he was receiving signals from Mars.
His eccentric personality and a story full of ups and downs – he frequented New York high society in the late 19th century, lived in luxury hotels like the New Yorker and the Waldorf Astoria, died poor, and spent years in obscurity – are so special that one of his best-known biographers is psychologist Marc Seifer. Tesla was his doctoral thesis. “I wanted to understand how his head worked”.
Inventions came in visions
Tesla was born in 1856 in Smiljan, in present-day Croatia, to ethnic Serbian parents.
Did Nikola Tesla have a degree? Yes, he studied electrical engineering at the University of Graz, in Austria (then still Austro-Hungarian Empire), and, at the age of 26, he moved to Paris to work at the American Thomas Edison’s company, Continental Edison Company.
Two years later he was transferred to the company’s headquarters in New York, with the function of “redesigning Edison’s machines”, as he tells in his autobiography, written when Tesla was 63 years old and published by the American magazine Electrical Experimenter.
In the book, he tells how, as a child, he had hallucinations, images accompanied by strong flashes of light, which were replaced by the very well-defined outlines of his inventions after he turned 17.
“I change the design, make improvements, and operate the equipment in my head. It makes no difference to me whether I test my turbine in my head or in the laboratory. When I visualize it, I can even tell if it is out of balance.
In one year, he perfected all 24 machines that the manager of the Edison Machine Works had presented to him and for which he had promised a $50,000 bonus if they were improved.
During this period, the young man worked 18.5 hours daily – from 10:30 to 5:00 the next day – only to discover, according to his autobiography, that the manager’s comment was a joke, which he had taken literally. Tesla resigned.
What is Nikola Tesla famous for?
One of his main discoveries, alternating current earned him a years-long dispute with Edison, who patented direct current.
Its operation and applications – Tesla’s turbine, the induction motor, and the high-voltage transformer – he conceived when he was still living in Paris. He tried to convince Edison to bet on the idea, but only after leaving the company was he able to put into practice what he had kept in his head for years.
To this end, he allied himself in the second half of the 1880s with George Westinghouse, owner of the Westinghouse Electric Company, which financed the project.
Direct current is the current that circulates, for example, in batteries, which flows constantly between the negative and positive poles. In alternating current, the poles are reversed all the time, and electricity flows in a zigzag pattern.
It sounds inefficient, but just the opposite, says Bernard Carlson, professor of the history of technology at the University of Virginia and author of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age.
The innovation changed the concept of electricity and created the notion of power. “Until then, electricity was only used to light a lamp. The induction motor allowed buildings to have elevators, and houses to have electrical appliances,” he explains.
Tesla’s patented power distribution system, which used high-voltage transformers, made it possible for electricity to travel long distances, adds the biographer.
It was with this technology that, in 1895, Tesla and Westinghouse built the first modern hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls – the technology we use to this day.
“Before, generation sites needed to be close to consumer centers. Niagara changed that. It distributed to Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia… places hundreds of miles away,” points out Seifer, author of Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla.
The inauguration of the power plant is one of the chapters in the “war of the currents”, the dispute that lasted for years between Tesla and Edison – who did not believe in alternating currents and even campaigned against it.
In one such episode, in 1890, the businessman used his influence to use alternating current in the first-ever human execution in an electric chair. “He used to say that it was dangerous and wanted to use that situation to prove it,” says José Roberto Cardoso, professor of the department of electrical engineering at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (USP).
The shot backfired. The executioners at Auburn prison in New York didn’t know how to manipulate the current and the voltage constantly dropped. After two minutes of an unpleasant spectacle, the room smelled of burning flesh and William Kemmler, the condemned man, was not yet dead. Some witnesses, however, were already passed out.
The showman of high society
Despite the controversies, the two inventors had a cordial rivalry, says Seifer. “Contrary to what many people think, they were not enemies. They exchanged letters for years.”
Tesla became eternalized as a scientist full of quirks. He himself recounts in his autobiography that he had an “aversion” to women’s earrings, disliked touching other people’s hair, counted his own steps, and calculated the volume of his soup plates and coffee cups.
For the psychologist, the weirdness masks his main characteristic. “Tesla was a ‘bon vivant’.
He circulated among the parties and dinners of New York’s high society and was close to personalities such as writer Mark Twain and billionaire John Jacob Astor, who allowed him to live for years in his luxurious Waldorf Astoria.
He had no girlfriends – he never married or had children – but he gathered a legion of friends with whom he exchanged letters, among them Katherine Johnson, wife of writer Robert Underwood Johnson, and Corinne Roosevelt, sister of President Roosevelt.
“A lot of people speculate whether Tesla was homosexual, but he exchanged gallant letters with these women,” Seifer says.
The scientist became a celebrity with pyrotechnic demonstrations of his inventions, Carlson adds. “He even ran 200,000 volts through his own body to show how his coil worked,” he points out, referring to one of the scenes he recounts in the book, an 1893 performance in a St. Louis theater in front of 4,000 people.
“He was a showman.
What is the problem with Nikola Tesla?
In 1901, Tesla began his most ambitious project, which he never achieved. With a $150,000 loan from banker John Pierpont Morgan, he bought a large plot of land on Long Island, built a laboratory, and erected a tower, named Wardenclyffe.
He wanted to discover a way to transmit electrical power wirelessly. His goal was that the whole world should have access to power, preferably free of charge. Tesla’s experiments in this area – which gave rise to the remote control, which he presented at Madison Square Garden controlling a small boat from a distance – were the first step in the creation of the technology that would give rise to wi-fi.
“The problem is that it is only possible to transmit low powers. The transmission of a higher power would produce high-intensity magnetic fields, dangerous for humans,” explains Cardoso, a professor at USP.
Tesla didn’t give up. He spent everything he had, and four years later, faced with failure, he had a nervous breakdown from which he never recovered.
“I have analyzed 40 years of Tesla’s handwriting. His writings from 1906 onwards clearly show that something happened,” says Seifer, who is also a graphologist.
The inventor died on January 7, 1943, in-suite 3327 of the New Yorker hotel on the 33rd floor – he had an obsession with the number 3 and its multiples. Poor, he spent his last years living in the hotel suite thanks to Westinghouse. “He had made a fortune from Tesla’s patents, who threatened to sue him if he didn’t help him.”
Wardenclyffe spent years abandoned until, in the early 1990s, a woman named Jane Alcorn found it when she was looking for a new space for the science club she coordinated at an area school.
“I lived a block away from the place and had never heard of Tesla. Little by little I discovered that he was one of those people who dreamed big,” she says. The inspiration made her spend the next 20 years trying to convince politicians and the local community that it was necessary to buy the space, to reclaim it.
In 2012, the Americans launched the first campaign to raise funds to launch the Tesla Science Center. In one year, crowdfunding received 33,000 contributions from 108 countries and raised $1.37 million.
Now, the president of the organization, Alcorn hopes that the space will be open for visitors as early as next year. The iconic tower no longer exists, but the outside of Tesla’s old laboratory is intact.
Elon Musk is also an Edison fan
Elon Musk donated $1 million to the initiative in 2014. He and his company, Tesla, are partly responsible for bringing the inventor back into the 21st century. “He had literally been erased from the history books,” says Seifer.
The curious thing is that Musk did not name the company. It was named in 2003 by its two founders – whom he joined shortly afterward -, who wanted to develop an electric car at more affordable prices from the induction motor created by Tesla.
The businessman has even said in interviews that although he admired the scientist, he considered Thomas Edison as one of his personal heroes, alongside Winston Churchill.
In addition to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Tesla attracts sympathy from more “esoteric” groups, in Seifer’s definition – fans of conspiracy theories, terraplaning organizations (those who defend that the Earth is flat), and ufologists.
For the biographer, the explanation for this comes from Tesla’s forays into the field of astrophysics. “He believed in extraterrestrials and that he received messages from Mars,” he says.
Tesla’s popularization, in general, has to do with the moment in which we live, Carlson assesses. “As a scholar of the history of technology I realize that in times of prosperity the heroes tend to be the realistic, practical entrepreneurs, the Henry Ford’s, the Thomas Edison’s. When things are harder people look to inventors, to visionaries, for inspiration.”