Nikola Tesla (1856-1943)

Our Man Tesla

It was a hot and stormy summer’s night 160 years ago when Nikola Tesla drew his first breath. If the world had known what wonders he would bring, it might have paid more attention.

Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century. His many inventions and theories ushered in the age of electricity and revolutionised the world we live in. You can pretty well draw a straight line from Tesla’s brain to the iPhone.

Tesla had this to say about the future of communication:

“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole.  We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance.  Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone.  A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”

For a long time only really geeky geeks knew who Tesla was but he has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity lately. In part, this is due to Elon Musk, who is such a fan that he named his company Tesla Motors. A lot of credit can also go to The Oatmeal. If you’re a regular Oatmeal reader you’ve probably not only heard of Tesla, you probably also think Edison was a real jerk.

Tesla had a fairly normal upbringing for a Serbian boy languishing in the edges of the Austrian Empire at the end of the 19th century. He went to school in Croatia and Austria where he excelled, until he became addicted to gambling. A series of personal disasters meant that he never graduated from University.

Despite not having a formal qualification, Tesla went on to work as an electrical engineer in Budapest and Paris. He eventually moved to the US where he remained for the rest of his life.

It’s hard to boil down exactly how rad Tesla was. I can tell you that he contributed to the systems of alternating-current power distribution and motors, and you might say ‘huh?’ Tesla solved the AC motor problem while out on a walk with a friend, and he understood that this breakthrough was so massive that it would change the world. “No more will men be slaves to hard tasks. My motor will set them free, it will do the work of the world.” And he was pretty much right. Vaccuum cleaners, washing machines, power tools, hairdryers, fans, clocks, blenders – you couldn’t be making your Friday afternoon margarita without Tesla!

Tesla did not have an easy life. His tale is littered with chronic illness, stolen patents, incomplete projects, and periods of pennilessness. He was not savvy enough to stop himself from being frequently cheated, but he was also quite eccentric and rubbed people the wrong way. He had strange intense phobias – he was terrified of smooth round surfaces, earrings, hair and germs – and avoided shaking hands with people. In short, Tesla had the unfortunate habit of being a genius.

One of his annoying gifts was that he didn’t need to sketch his designs, which made his relationship with other engineers a little testy.

“Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made the actual drawings.”

Tesla claimed that he was frequently struck by visions, and that this is how he was able to ‘see’ and develop his inventions. In later years he developed the conviction that he was psychic. Perhaps in some sense he was. He foresaw a time when the whole world would be connected through the air, long distance communication happening in real time.

Tesla teamed up with Westinghouse to build the first hydro-electric plant in the world at Niagara Falls. Following its stunning success, he had a period of high life, entertaining such guests as Mark Twain and the Vanderbilts.

Tesla spent the last few decades of his life cultivating his crazy professor identity, by doing minor things like inventing the radio and remote control, attempting to set up a worldwide system of interconnected towers which would communicate stock exchange information, and developing a death ray. It’s hard to say which he went through faster: ideas or money.

He was also inordinately fond of pigeons.

Tesla ended up living in a New York hotel paid for by his former colleagues at Westinghouse. He had a regular habit of feeding pigeons and taking care of any sick or injured birds. One bird stole his heart, and he said that he loved that pigeon “as a man loves a woman”.

Tesla drew his last breath on a frosty New York day on 7 January 1943. In his 86 years he was awarded around 300 patents and greatly advanced the use and distribution of electricity. He was an all-round crazy genius. So this Friday, whether you’re hoovering the floor, or sitting on the balcony reading a book with the fan blowing, remember to say a little thank you to our man Tesla.