When I was a kid in Singapore, my elementary school teacher asked me who came up with electricity, expecting me to answer, “Edison”, but I said it was Nikola Tesla. I had just read a short biography of him, so I knew of his contributions. My teacher didn’t know who Tesla was, but he accepted that I had done some reading on this.
My teacher was not unusual. Even today, not many people know of the great inventor, and yet he was one of the defining scientists and inventors of the 19th and 20th centuries. His gadgets and ideas helped define the last century and even this one. He was a genius, and, like many geniuses, he had quirks. These include his fastidiousness, his obsession with the number three, and his fondness for pigeons. But what is truly surprising is his will and disciplining in overcoming his problems – his penchant for gambling. Like alcoholism, this addiction could have destroyed him, but he refused to let that happen, and he summoned his will to banishing it from his system forever. He would later say that this discipline is what led him to becoming so successful.
I knew of him, of course, but not with great detail. So, when I saw his biography, written by Margaret Cheney, in a bookstore, I bought it. The book is well written, and, as far as I can see, well researched, and, as I went through it, I noticed certain themes in Tesla’s life. I’ll go through some of them.
His paranormal experiences.
I believe in the paranormal, and the author seems to do so. Tesla, however, did not, and yet he seemed to have psychic gifts. When his relatives were hurt, he seemed to feel some kind of pain; when he was at a party and some of the guests were about to leave and catch the train, he had a powerful urge to stop them – and thankfully so, because that train crashed; when his sister was ill, he had a premonition of his sister “arising and disappearing”.
He tried to explain them away, but never could, except to say he was a sensitive receiver. And that would make him a psychic.
His business interests.
Building a better mousetrap is one thing; making money from it is another. Tesla built many mousetraps, and the world beat a path to his door time and again, but he didn’t make the money that he should have.
George Westinghouse agreed to give him a royalty for each unit of electricity sold, but his company, Westinghouse Electric, soon got into financial trouble, and he needed help from bankers and other businessmen to merge his company with another and continue operating. But they refused to help him, unless he tore up that agreement with Tesla. Westinghouse then met Tesla, and advised him that, unless that was done, the company was finished. Tesla then agreed to do so, and he got $216,000.00 instead of his royalties – still a princely sum, especially in those days.
If Tesla had hung on to his patents, he could have monopolized the electric industry and become the first Bill Gates. But that’s easier said than done. Anyone can come up with a business scheme, but, somehow, lack the ability to put it through. Tesla just wasn’t a businessman, but his gifts helped generate enormous wealth for the world.
The theme of his life is that he continued to lose out on his inventions. He was cheated by Edison, the Europeans, and some others, but he continued to work and create. But, to be on both sides of the coin, if he had monopolized the electrical industry with his patents and gotten mega rich, he would have been vilified like Bill Gates today.
Tesla was a loner, and he never married nor, as far as we know, had children. But he was a lion of society, especially with his flamboyent experiments with electricity, and he did have help. One of the more important was his assistant, George Sherff. Sherff would be more than the hunchback Igor who got the equipment for his experiments; Sherff would be Tesla’s ad hoc accountant, manager, supplier, and, when the times really called for it, banker. In doing so, Sherff had to get a second job, if only to provide his master with money. Such loyalty is hard to find.
This also underscored the fact that Tesla could not have done it by himself, and, indeed, he would have gone much further if only he had financial backing. This he got at various times from JP Morgan, Westinhouse, and others, but, in the end, he never got the funding he deserved. Which set mankind back a hundred years.
The big theme of his adult life is that he made many experiments, some of which still haven’t been replicated, or explained. For example, in one famous demonstration, he snapped his fingers and created a fireball; a little later in that demonstration, he lit up the room, without any light bulbs or, as any observor could see, any other source of the illumination. Even now, there is no theory to explain what he did.
From his experiments came his patents, and the breadth is fully astonishing. Way before anyone else, he patented logic circuits with 0 and 1, which is now the binary foundation for computer circuitry; he came up with robotics and applied them to remotely-piloted vehicles, showing his inventions in a scientific fair; he came up with superconductors that would operate when supercooled – not done again until the 1980’s; the Supreme Court of the United States has also ruled that he came up with radio first, not Marconi; and he, of course, came up with alternating current.
Some things cannot be patented – for example, if he tried to patent the discovery that the world was round, not flat, he would have failed; if he tried to patent the idea that the earth revolved around the sun, he would also have failed. But, if he did discover both, and he told them to the world, he would nonetheless have done the world a great service.
One important finding was his idea that radio waves did not have to go in a straight line. In those days, scientists thought that, because radio waves did travel in a straight line, transmissions would be limited by the curvature of the Earth. Tesla on the other hand, thought that the atmosphere and even the Earth could be a good conductor of radio waves. I’m not up on this, but, in the 1950’s, scientist have confirmed that, at least as far as very low and very high electromagnetic waves are concerned, Tesla was right.
No one’s perfect
Like everyone else, he had misconceptions. He thought that atomic power would either be a dud or impossible to control; he thought Mars was harboring an advanced civilization that was in communication with him; he thought Einstein’s theory of relativity was wrong; and he came out with a process for refining copper that any expert in the industry knew would not work – and it didn’t.
His mistakes didn’t just go to science. Like many geniuses, he had strange political ideas, particularly in eugenics. He was a bachelor, but he supported the idea of breeding a master race. Just a few decades later, that idea would prove horribly wrong.
His papers after his death
When he passed away, there was a fight over who would own his papers. That is a story in itself, but, suffice to say, some were given to one of his relatives in Europe, some of which was eventually put in the Tesla Museum in Belgrade, but there was substantial interest and involvement by the US governmental agencies.
The author states that some of Tesla’s papers have been sealed by a prominent American defence agency, but she declines to name that agency for reasons of national security. If it’s prominent, then it’s obviously the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and it’s no secret that many of Tesla’s papers have been classified, and it’s definitely no secret that the American military has been interested in his works for decades.
Tesla was always short of money and died penniless, and I can only think of one person that could compare to him – Mozart. Both were geniuses, both never made the money they should have, and both died penniless. The other similarity is that both had a major rival – Mozart had Salieri, and Tesla had Edison. But the rivalry between the composers was apparently not as intense as that between the inventors, if only because a world and many fortunes were at stake for the inventors.
Tesla was a visionary, but not ALL his ideas can be considered visionary – he invented the radio, but Marconi had the same idea; he apparently devised a death ray and thought Mars had an advanced civilization, but so did his contemporary, the science fiction writer, H. G. Wells. He is a visionary not because he was always right or because his ideas were always ahead of their time, but because he was often more right than others, and his ideas were often more advanced than others.
In the end, Tesla was the perfect mad scientist – no other person comes close, not Fritz Haber, not Marie Curie, not Edward Teller. Unlike them, he had the secrets of electricity; unlike them, he had scientific discoveries that are not even understood today; unlike them, he invented devices a lifetime ahead of anyone else. And he even hadan Eastern European background, and an Igor – Sherff – to boot.
One last thing – Cheney’s book is a good read and well worth the money, but no book can give you a complete picture of anything or anyone, so I’m tempted to read up on him. PBS apparently had a good episode, so maybe I’ll buy the DVD. In the meantime, for anyone who’s interested in the life of an almost forgotten genius, I highly recommend this book.