November 21, 2019
The Present Is Theirs; The Future, For Which I Really Worked, Is Mine
Every so often, an individual graces our species with a life so accomplished that it simply escapes comprehension. In modern times, individuals like Elon Musk are admittedly approaching this cultural status — however, only time will tell as he/they likely have decades of progress left. The previous torch-bearers though? There’s an undeniable one: Nikola Tesla. A man of engineering, science & invention with a life so prolific that he carried with him an aura of mystical appeal, Nikola Tesla is one of the very select individuals in history that defies explanation. With an inexplicably-high raw intelligence & a uniquely-hardcore work ethic, Tesla’s legacy & allure since his death has only continued to increase.
The ninth in our Masters of Many series, Nikola Tesla, always burned the candle at both ends, working past social norms & deep into old-age. A man of perpetual mystery, he’s well-deserving of his place among this group of polymaths. Maintaining the same focus as previous submissions, we ask again — what was he like in his twenties?
— Won the famous Current War & established Alternating Current (AC) design as the modern electrical standard
— Patented the AC induction motor which converts electromagnetic to mechanical energy (one of the most useful inventions of all time)
— Modernized a branch of renewable energy by building the first large-scale hydro-electric plant at Niagara Falls
— Shocked an audience with the introduction of wireless remote control by demonstrating it on a radio-controlled boat
Like Thomas Young, Tesla demonstrated a clear penchant for numbers early on. His father & uncle, both employees at Nikola’s elementary school, were alerted numerous times that perhaps the “boy was cheating;” referring to Tesla’s habit of mentally completing all tasks, a feat teachers couldn’t believe.
In his late teens, Tesla suffered a major health setback. Contracting cholera, he was bedridden for nine months & brushed near death multiple times. His dad, clearly desperate, prayed & agreed to send him to an engineering school if he recovered from the illness. Despite his frailness, he was still likely to be drafted to armed services.
In 1874, still in recovery, Tesla evaded entering the Austro-Hungarian army by running away to Gračac, Crotia. Living in the rural mountains, Tesla claims that this contact with nature made him stronger, both physically & mentally — making a full recovery from his once-fatal cholera.
In 1875, Tesla enrolled at Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, Austria, on a Military Frontier scholarship. During this first year, Tesla remarkably never missed a lecture, earned the highest grades possible, passed twice the amount of required courses, & started a Serb cultural club. As a result, his father received a letter of commendation from the dean of the technical faculty to his father, which stated, “Your son is a star of first rank.”
The second year, however, twenty year-old Tesla showed the first of many ferocious bouts with mental health issues. One day while attending a class taught by the highly respected Professor Poeschl who was demonstrating the Gramme dynamo prototype direct current system, Tesla raised his hand to suggest to the class that the commutator was not necessary. Professor Poeschl ridiculed Tesla in front of the class, causing him great distress; knowing he was right in his assessment, Tesla immediately withdrew socially & displayed classic symptoms of OCD (such as opening the door or washing his hands, in multiples of three). By the end of his third year, 1877, twenty-one year-old Tesla was spending more time playing pool (for up to 36 hours at a time) than attending lectures — he promptly dropped out.
In shame & in an attempt to hide the fact that he had dropped out, Tesla again ran from his problem — this time, landing in Maribor, Slovenia. Here, twenty-two year-old dropout, Tesla, took his first job as a draftsman for a local engineering firm. It’s noted that he spent his spare time in a pub called Happy Peasant where he played chess and cards.
March of the following year, Tesla’s father came to Maribor to plead with him to return home, he refused. Tragically, Tesla’s father died unexpectedly shortly-after. For a reason unknown, twenty-three Tesla was reported to Maribor police as an illegal immigrant (he did not have a residence permit). Administrative proceedings were started immediately & Tesla was forcibly returned to Gospić under police guard.
The year 1880, twenty-four year-old Tesla mainly spend it recovering. Early on in the year, he is admitted to a mental hospital in Budapest due to a full-on mental breakdown; he experienced severe OCD, flashes of light & uncontrollable mental images (or visions, as he claimed). His mental sensitivity was so strong that he could supposedly hear a clock ticking three rooms away; his bouts of OCD so severe that every action, such as opening a door is done three times. Fortunately, two of Tesla’s uncles, Petar &Pavle, came to his rescue by helping him recover & check-out. With his latter uncle employed at the Karl-Ferdinand University, the plan was for Tesla to re-enroll to complete his studies. Unfortunately, Tesla both arrived too late & was ill-prepared as he had never taken Greek nor did he speak or write Czech. Withdrawing himself socially to a life of self-study, Tesla lived at 13 Smeckach St. & spent most of his time at the Klementinum Library & Narodni Kavarna (People’s Cafe) on Vodickova St. A voracious learner, it’s clear that Tesla didn’t require GPA-motivation or a scholastic infrastructure to continue learning.
In 1881, twenty-five year-old Tesla moved to Budapest, Hungary & promptly found work at a telegraph company by the name Budapest Telephone Exchange. The company infrastructure basically in shambles, Tesla dazzled colleagues by piecing it together himself — as a result, shortly thereafter, he was awarded the position of chief electrical engineer.
At twenty-six, just a few short years after his first incident, Tesla once again suffers a mental severe mental breakdown. A few weeks later, Tesla begins to recover & experiences what he claims as a near-religious moment of enlightenment. During a walk in the Varosliget city park of Budapest with friend Anthony Szigety, Tesla has a vision of exactly how he could use A.C current to convert electrical energy to mechanical energy (a.k.a the induction motor); in his recollection of the event, Tesla states that he looked at the setting sun & began to recite a passage from Goethe’s Faust. At that very moment, the idea came to him in a flash & he drew a diagram of the motor in the sand with a stick. Once again electrified with a breath of life, Tesla moves on the beauty of Paris & quickly finds occupation with the Continental Edison Company installing indoor lighting resources.
In 1883, on assignment by Continental Edison Company, twenty-seven year-old Tesla is sent to Strasbourg, France to repair a new D.C. lighting system installed at the German Railway company. The government approved the job after the repairs, but Tesla never received the compensation he was promised for the work — the first time of many times he’d feel slighted by a colleague. Near the end of the year, Tesla demonstrates his newly completed A.C. induction motor before Mr. Bauzin, the former mayor of Strasbourg, & several potential investors. They all watched with interest, yet it was apparent that none of them understood the significance of the invention.
Steadily growing into himself & increasingly more confident, twenty-eight year-old Tesla decided it was time to cross the great pond. He had two goals in mind, in no necessary order. First, to work alongside the world-famous & revered inventor Thomas Edison. Second, to fulfill one of his childhood dreams of harnessing power from Niagara Falls. Despite a terrible trip (he was both robbed & almost thrown overboard), Tesla first arrived in New York City on June 6th 1884; he had nothing in his pockets but a terse letter of recommendation (intended for Thomas Edison) from his previous employer, Charles Batchelor:
I know two great men & you are one of them. This young man is the other.
Edison immediately hired Tesla to work for his Edison Machine Works. Tesla’s work for Edison began with simple electrical engineering & quickly progressed to solving some of the company’s most difficult problems. He was dispatched to work on the SS Oregon ocean-liner; brushing into Edison multiple times, Tesla is elated with the idea of partnering up with his hero on his many original inventions. Edison, for whatever reason (likely egotistical), cared little for what his young assistant had to say.
A topic much contested among historians, world-renowned Edison & twenty-nine year-old Tesla had a major falling out in early 1885. Tesla claims he was offered US$50,000 (~ US$1.1 million in 2007, adjusted for inflation) if he redesigned Edison’s inefficient motor, improving in both service & margins. Several months after the proposal, Tesla announced that his work was completed. When Tesla asked to be paid, however, Edison seemed astonished. He explained that the offer of $50,000 had been made in jest: “when you become a full-fledged American you will appreciate an American joke,” Edison said. Outright shocked & disgusted, Tesla immediately resigns after a short, few six months of what should’ve been his dream job. Out on his own, Tesla then developed a relationship with two businessmen (Benjamin Vail & Robert Lane) that led to the founding of Tesla Electric Light Y & Manufacturing. He filed several patents, which he assigned to the company.
Unfortunately, these partners decided that they wanted to focus strictly on supplying electricity, so they took the company’s intellectual property & founded another firm, leaving Tesla with nothing. Whip-lashed from these two back-to-back personal betrayals, thirty year-old Tesla enter another period of emotion & mental turmoil. He then worked as a ditch digger for $2 a day, tortured by the sense that his great talent & education were going to waste. Betrayed now multiple times by men he trusted, Tesla considered the winter of 1886/1887 a time of “terrible headaches & bitter tears.”
No portrait of an individual is complete without an analysis that contains a full range of perspectives, covering the “good” to “bad” alike. Despite an insurmountable level of accomplishment, no one escapes one or many brushes with their darker side: absolute morality does not exist. So, here, we uncover the more controversial characteristics of the enigmatic Nikola Tesla.
From this concise bio, it’s clear that like Bertrand Russell, Nikola Tesla repeatedly dealt with serious mental health issues. Just within these ten years he: ran away from University (22), checked into a mental hospital twice (24 & 26), & suffered an additional, severe episode of depression (30). That’s a surprising amount of instability & turbulence for one of the most productive inventors in history — which should give us hope. I wish people spoke about his perseverance throughout these periods more often, as it’s nothing short of current & inspirational.
On a social note, in contrast, to say a gregarious Franklin or a communicative Da Vinci, Tesla was fiercely independent; he chose to work in isolation:
Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.
In hindsight, it’s impossible to settle whether his mental health oddities led to him being socially withdrawn, or whether he was innately introverted, which only compounded his conditions. Regardless, while the stereotype of the “lone inventor” is almost always just that, a fabled stereotype, it’s incontrovertible that Nikolas Tesla really was the lone genius.
As a follow-up, it’s reasonable to expect that his romantic life was pretty much non-existent. Rumors range from asexuality, to homosexuality, to simply extremely picky & introverted. In fact, it’s reported that he remained celibate his entire life & died a virgin; the following reflects the notion that he considered his productivity & his sexual urges at odds:
I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of his brain unfolding to success, as he watches some crucial experiment prove that through months of waiting and hoping he has been in the right. Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.
In his own words, as seen above, Nikola Tesla is best described as a man married to his calling. However, to end this reflection on his relationships with a quirky note, it’s confirmed that in his late, deteriorating years, Tesla claimed to fall in love with a pigeon.
Last but not least, it’s noted that Tesla spoke positively on the highly-controversial topics of eugenics. In particular, he’s quoted as saying:
The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.
Who Was Nikola Tesla In His 20s? A nervous-wreck with a prodigious command over numbers & engineering concepts.
Was He Accomplished In His 20s? A lukewarm, yes. Except for his break-through concept on the induction motor, which wouldn’t be completed for a few years, Tesla hadn’t quite yet experienced a serious break-through — despite his clearly advanced engineering intellect. It must be noted, however, that attaining a reputation worthy of a referral to the greatest inventor of his time certainly deserves praise.
Touched by both an angel & a demon, young Nikola Tesla spent this twenties oscillating between prolific, productive states of mania, & near-fatal periods of emotional & psychological breakdowns. Like Young, Tesla was markedly intellectually advanced; yet unlike the versatile Young, Tesla’s breakthroughs were more narrowly focused (electric/mechanical engineer) — as a result, Tesla’s inventions affected more deep, lasting changes. Among his peers, Tesla was the inventor, not the theorist. While Einstein & Von Neumann floated concepts aiming to explain the physical & mathematical underpinnings of our world, Tesla produced all the concrete concepts & designs that created the modern world. His mental capacity, powered with an insane work ethic, propelled Tesla to history as one of the great polymaths in recent times. Weathering storms only shapes you to ride out the next storm — so push on through. Brushing death & psychosis multiple times, Tesla boldly stands for persistence & perversity just as much as he stands as an icon of electricity.