Nikola Tesla was an electrical engineer, inventor and one of the most outstanding physicists in the history of science. But beyond his brilliant work, some aspects of his life remain unspoken in the pages of history.
Tesla registered more than 300 patents and became famous for developing AC (alternating current), while his work became the basis of developments in wireless communications, radar, laser X rays, lighting, robotics, and many other areas.
Here is a list of interesting facts you probably never knew about the guy. The information below comes from interviews with W. Bernard Carlson, author of “Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age,” and Marc Seifer, author of “Wizard: Life and Times of Nicola Tesla.”
1. He Was Born During a Lightning Storm
Nikola Tesla was born approximately at midnight, between July 9 and July 10, 1856, during a lightning storm. During Tesla birth, and according to the story told by his family, the midwife wrung her hands and declared the lightning a bad omen. “This child will be a child of darkness”, she reportedly said, to which Tesla’s mother replied: “No. He will be a child of light.”
2. He Was Amusing Person
Most people have no idea that Tesla had an extraordinary sense of humor, Seifer said. For example, after dining with writer and poet Rudyard Kipling, he wrote this in a correspondence to a close friend:
April 1, 1901
My dear Mrs. Johnson,
What is the matter with inkspiller Kipling? He actually dared to invite me to dine in an obscure hotel where I would be sure to get hair and cockroaches in the soup.
3. The Tesla Museum was funded by a cartoon
In May, the Wardenclyffe was purchased by the Tesla Science Center for $ 1,370,000 donated by the websiteIndieGoGo. The campaign was started by Matthew Inman, creator of the popular comic Oatmeal.
4. Some of Tesla’s inventions are classified
When Tesla died in the year of 1943, the Office of Alien Property took his stuff. Most of his things were given to his family, and many were taken to the Tesla Museum in Belgrade. However, some documents still remain classified by the U.S. Government.
5. He and Edison were rivals, but not sworn enemies
Many have pictured Tesla and inventor Thomas Edison as enemies (see it shows in Nikola Tesla vs Thomas Edison: Epic Rap Battles and 10 Ways Edison Treated Tesla Like a Jerk,) but Carlson says this relationship has been misrepresented. Early in his career, Tesla worked for Edison, designing direct current generators, but famously quit to pursue his own project: the alternating current induction motor. Sure, they were on different sides of the so-called “Current Wars,” with Edison pushing for direct current and Tesla for alternating current. But Carlson considers them the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of their time: one the brilliant marketer and businessman, and the other a visionary and “tech guy.”
6. Tesla was an environmentalist
As Alcorn said, Tesla was “worried about the fact that people consume the Earth’s resources too fast, so he wanted to make sure that these resources were renewable“. Thus he studied the ways to gather the natural energy from the ground and air. He created artificial lightning in his lab and detected differences in electrical potential on Earth and on high objects.
7. He had the Idea for Smartphone Technology in 1901
Tesla may have had a brilliant mind, but he was not as good at reducing his ideas to practice, Carlson said. In the race to develop transatlantic radio, Tesla described to his funder and business partner, J.P. Morgan, a new means of instant communication that involved gathering stock quotes and telegram messages, funneling them to his laboratory, where he would encode them and assign them each a new frequency. That frequency would be broadcast to a device that would fit in your hand, he explained. In other words, Tesla had envisioned the smart phone and wireless internet, Carlson said, adding that of all of his ideas, that was the one that stopped him in his tracks.
This Tesla coil snuffed out the power in Colorado Springs when this photo was taken. Photo by Dickenson V. Alley, photographer at the Century Magazines via Wikimedia Commons.
“He was the first to be thinking about the information revolution in the sense of delivering information for each individual user,” Carlson said.
He also conceived of, but never developed technology for radar, X-rays, a particle beam “death ray” and radio astronomy.
8. Tesla died living as a very poor humanist
In addition to being an environmentalist, the famous inventor was also a humanist. According to Alcorn, “he did what he did for the sake of the betterment of mankind and wanted to give people an opportunity to have a better quality of life. Thus, he never seemed to care about monetary gain and never had enough money for his research.”
Although he had famous friends such as Mark Twain and French actress Sarah Bernhardt, he was never a wealthy man, unlike Edison and Westinghouse who proved much more successful entrepreneurs.
He was an accomplished pool player who liked to hustle, even for tiny amounts of money. At the height of his fame, when he was dining at Delmonico’s every night, he regularly bilked players out of a few quarters each—about $15 in today’s money.
9. He scared the sh*t out of Mark Twain’
One famous legend surrounding the eccentric Tesla was that he had an earthquake machine in his Manhattan laboratory that shook his building and nearly brought down the neighborhood during experiments.
Tesla’s device wasn’t actually an earthquake machine, Carlson said, but a high frequency oscillator. A piston set underneath a platform in the laboratory shook violently as it moved another experiment in more efficient electricity.
It didn’t bring the block to ruins, Carlson said, but it did “shake the poop out of Mark Twain.” Twain was known for having digestive problems. One day Tesla, who knew Twain through their gentlemen’s club, invited him over. He instructed Twain to stand on the platform while he flipped on the oscillator. After about 90 seconds, Twain jumped off the platform and ran for the facilities.
10. He had famous friends
People aren’t aware that he was close friends with conservationist John Muir, Seifer said. Muir, one of the founders of the Sierra Club, loved that Tesla’s hydroelectric power system was a clean energy system. It runs on waterfalls, which Tesla referred to as “running on the wheelwork of nature.” Also among his friends: financiers Henry Clay Frick and Thomas Fortune Ryan. “He lived in the Waldorf Astoria, at the height of the gilded age,” Seifer said, adding that his fame later in life lessened.
11. Tesla suffered from insomnia and obsessive compulsive behaviors (OCD)
He claimed that he needed only two hours of sleep a night, although he occasionally took an afternoon nap. Tesla hated round objects and jewelry, and could not bear to touch hair. Also he was obsessed with the number 3 and had a habit of polishing each point of the dining room before dining, using precisely 18 napkins.
12. Pearls drove him crazy
Tesla could not stand the sight of pearls, to the extent that he refused to speak to women wearing them. When his secretary wore pearl jewelry, he sent her home for the day. No one knows why he had such an aversion, but Tesla had a very particular sense of style and aesthetics, Carlson said, and believed that in order to be successful, one needed to look successful. He wore white gloves to dinner every night and prided himself on being a “dapper dresser.”
Every photograph of Tesla, he said, is very carefully constructed to capture his “good side.”
13. He had a photographic memory and a fear of germs
Tesla had what’s known as a photographic memory. He was known to memorize books and images and stockpile visions for inventions in his head. He also had a powerful imagination and the ability to visualize in three dimensions, which he reportedly used to control the terrifying vivid nightmares from which he suffered from as a child. It’s in part what makes him such a mystical and eccentric character in popular culture, Carlson said. He was also known for having excessive hygiene habits, born out of a near-fatal bout of cholera as a teenager.
14. Tesla built a tower intending to suck electricity out of the air
He built a 185-foot tower on Long Island, planning to suck electricity out of the air and send it through the earth. Sadly for humanity: it did not work. In 1917, the tower was torn down. Somebody blamed the government, who allegedly blamed the Germans who were supposedly using it as a spy tower. This all appears to have been a cover: Tesla was broke and his debtors wanted to salvage what they could from the wreckage.